MANY people find the phrase “female president” annoying. But oddly enough, many others find “woman president” to be a problem, too. The problem is not that these expressions are ungrammatical, as Johnson explained in his past column. Yet both have their critics. Why?
The objections to “female” are fairly straightforward. Especially off-putting is the bare noun form of the word: many women report a loathing of being called “a female”. This is not a new thing. Jan Freeman, a language columnist, has found that women have disliked being described as female for more than a century. The word was relatively harmless (used uncontroversially by Jane Austen, for example) before becoming in the 19th century a journalistic affectation, to avoid having to choose between highborn “ladies” and plain “women”. By the early 20th century, usage-mavens were discouraging the term “female” to refer to humans. Today, many people feel that the word should be left to biology: BuzzFeed, offering “6 Reasons You Should Stop Referring To Women As ‘Females’ Right Now”, includes “reducing a woman to her biological abilities”.
“Woman president” raises fewer hackles. “Woman” is a word feminists have proudly attached to their goals for decades, from the “women’s lib” to “women’s health”. But some commentators can’t accept “woman president”. The AP is not alone in (inaccurately) describing it as somehow ungrammatical; the Guardian is against it too, for the same reasons. The Guardian adds a related reason: you would not write “a man president”, so a “woman president” is, by analogy, wrong.
As we have explained before, the AP’s point is bad grammatical analysis. The Guardian’s argument is closer to the target, but still wide of the mark. There are good and quite obvious reasons why you don’t refer to a “man president”, but they aren’t grammatical. Of the 43 people elected American president so far, 43 of them have been men, so their sex need not be mentioned. Barack Obama may be America’s “first black president”, but he is almost never referred to as “a male president” or “a man president”.
Linguists explain that the base form of a word—the default, as it were, that arouses no attention—is “unmarked”. The present tense (walks) or single number (tree) are unmarked. Extra or unexpected information is conveyed in “marked” forms, like the past (walked) or the plural (trees). If someone is white, his race is rarely mentioned (unless it is somehow relevant), whereas it is common to note if someone is non-white.
Similarly, in almost every language in the world, and in almost every context, male is the unmarked gender, while female is the marked one. In languages as different as Spanish and Arabic, a mixed-sex group will be referred to with the male pronoun (ellos or hum), while a special pronoun denotes a group of women (ellas or hunna). There are some cases (Maasai, Mohawk) when the default gender is feminine (and even then only in limited cases), but they are rare, and do not necessarily correlate with a culture’s respect for women. The Mohawk, for example, are matrilineal in family matters and accord women a role in selecting the chief, whereas the Maasai are more strictly patriarchal.
Gender can be deeply woven into a language’s grammar. In Spanish every noun and adjective has a gender, usually signified by an –o (masculine) or –a (feminine) at the end. English is not like that; only some pronouns have grammatical gender. But some words are indeed marked. An actor is a somewhat generic term, but actress specifies a woman. Such specification annoys many women, in part because these feminine forms (which often end with that more playful-sounding -ess or -ette) somehow evoke something both more sexy and less serious. Consider the difference between “master” and “mistress”, and it’s clear why many women performers today prefer the more neutral “actor”.
This is also why women’s choices often attract disproportionate attention in a world where maleness is the default, unmarked. Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist at Georgetown University, summed this up well, as she noticed herself sizing up the style choices of all of the women attending a conference, while hardly noticing the men’s near-identical clothes and hair. There is no default suit-and-tie option for women to use to avoid scrutiny. “There is no unmarked woman,” Ms Tannen concluded.
That was in June 1993. That same summer, it so happens, every word, deed and, indeed, style choice of a new first lady of the United States was analyzed in the press. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of her maiden name alongside her married one was endlessly talked about, as were her comments about not having come to Washington to bake cookies.
Now, as Mrs Clinton seeks to become the first president of the United States with two X chromosomes, she faces a new level of scrutiny. Just as there is no unmarked female president (hence “first woman president” or “first female president”), there is no unmarked woman, and there is no unmarked move for her to make. And for a press corps that wants to treat her just as it would a man, while also talking about the genuinely exciting possibility of the world’s most powerful person being a woman, there is no unmarked way to talk about her.