One of the only things I didn’t like about the Vancouver Art Gallery was its tendency to use the phrase “women artists” in the informational text. It’s something I see a lot, and it just drives me crazy.
Okay, grammar 101, people: “women” is a noun. So is “woman”! That means it needs to be the subject (or the object) of a verb. It can’t modify a noun. You can’t call someone a “woman artist” any more than you can call me a person tutor. This is the kind of grammar that lolcats use! It has no place in print.
Similarly, female is an adjective. That means it describes something. Adjectives modify nouns, they can’t be the subjects (or objects!) of verbs. So you can’t say talk about “females” any more than you can talk about “shinies.” It will invoke the question, female whats? Shiny whats?
Here, I can even give you some practice sentences.
“Females are flighty and irrational beings.” WRONG.
“It is about time for us to have a female president.” RIGHT!
“A woman politician would endanger us all with her moods.” WRONG.
“Feminism seeks to promote equality for women.” RIGHT!
You may have noticed a bit of, shall we say, snark in my example sentences. That’s because this isn’t about the grammar, not really. Rules can be broken for effect, and we talk about car seats and yummies all the time. What’s really important, here, is the dehumanization inherent in these word choices. It happens in two ways.
First, and more subtly, the non-traditional syntax highlights the aberration, that is, the woman (or should I say the female?). Perhaps less grammatically-minded people don’t feel it the same way, but I have a grammar-dar which makes any common mistakes stick out in my mind almost painfully. (Don’t get me started on the pluperfect subjunctive!) I often choose to be ungrammatical, like when I pointed out a cute “airplane fish” to a friend, but I do so to emphasize the word I’m using incorrectly. So, to me, to call some a “woman doctor” is really all about calling her a “WOMAN doctor (can you believe they let those become doctors now?!).” I should just be doctor, or, if her gender is somehow relevant, perhaps “female doctor,” which conveys the information without printing big red arrows to the fact that it’s a WOMAN doctor OMG!
Second and more importantly, this is the kind of vocabulary we use to discuss animals and plants. It’s literally dehumanizing to talk about “females” as if to say, “the females of the species display long plumage and have a fondness for shiny objects.” It lumps “females” and “women scientists” together as some sort of strange creatures which are incomprehensible to humans and totally uniform as a species. As if anything can be said to be true of all women. You’ll note that in my example sentences, the WRONG statements try to generalize about all women whereas the RIGHT statements re about other topics which just relate to women. It’s because I literally couldn’t think of a single sentence that began with “women” or “female ___s” as the subject, and yet wasn’t somehow sexist, and exclusionary. Women don’t all have breasts, or uteri. Women aren’t even always born with two X chromosomes. We’re certainly not all interested in having children, or fans of shopping, or anything else that might be said about women. The only thing we have in common is that we are all raised in a patriarchy– but so is everyone, and depending on our intersecting oppressions we won’t experience it the same way.
So to say that “women artists at the time were interested in exploring the relationship between the body and the male gaze” is a sexist way to frame things, starting with the first two words. It should have been phrased more like, “these works explore…” or something similar. The art itself was amazing, and the intention of the informational plaques was entirely correct, but even that is not enough to earn them a free pass. “Women” is a noun. “Female” is an adjective. And nothing is ever true of all of us at once.