A thing I see a lot is cis feminists, concerned with trans inclusion, get very troubled by the use of the words ‘female’ and ‘male’, as opposed to “man and “woman”.
They have reason. Female and male are dogwhistles – terms that transphobic feminists recognise and can signify in certain contexts that another transphobic feminist is talking. The meaning it communicates in these circumstances is in line with some well-meaning early third wave feminist texts, which proposed female as male as biological sex; man and woman as gender. Transphobic feminists thus use female to exclude trans women, and insist that one can “objectively” refer to trans women as male – As transphobe and science groupie Gia Milinovich insists, it’s biological sex, you can’t argue with that.
The first problem with this is that trans women certainly cannot be easily excluded from biological femaleness, and in this way, alongside the existence of intersex people, we see that the sex dimorphism such a use of male and female implies is bullshit.
In this case, the issue is not biological premises but the language we use, so I want to focus on the second problem: It’s linguistic bullshit. We live in an essentialist society that has no interest in separating sex and gender along these neat lines. In common English usage, man and woman suggest the presence of certain physical traits; male and female are very much gendered terms. Talk about, say, “a female doctor”, people will hear ”a doctor that is a woman” as much as they hear “a doctor with a vagina”.
Transphobic feminists work just the same – they’re as likely to talk about trans women as men as they are male. What’s more, their usage of female and male is certainly a deliberate aggression against trans women, knowing that they’re terms that undermine trans women’s genders. So to keep grasping at scientific objectivity, in the linked article Gia Milinovich goes on about animal biology, where seemingly male and female are used merely as biological terms – an animal can’t have a gender!
Wait, an animal totally can. Not only domesticated animals but wild animals we take a liking to (like Mr. and Mrs. Mókus in my parents’ back garden – Mókus is Hungarian for squirrel; the more you know) get gendered pronouns, she or he, to match their female or male status. Further, such animals are often affectionally prefixed “girl” or “boy”; I’ve been introduced to a fair few girl cats and boy cats. Again, there are no separable sex terms and gender terms in an essentialist world.
So what is the difference between woman/man and male/female? It’s not a hard rule, but the main one I can observe in common English usage is that woman/man sits more comfortable as a noun; female/male as an adjective. One might talk about wanting to see more women in medicine, translating to more female doctors and female scientists. I’d observe that the slight linguistic discomfort of using the terms the other way around is played upon by the derogatory language of misogyny; men’s rights activists talk about the pain inflicted upon them by “females”, and people talk in derogatory terms about “women drivers”. ”women MPs” and so on.
I’m comfortable with female as an adjective. I’m happy to use it to refer to myself. I’m a woman, so I get to do that. I refer to myself at times as a female urbanist, a female transport planner or a female cartographer (these being things I do, if not right now in a stable employment kind of way). The very last thing I want to do is to give transphobes power, or in any way legitimise the bullshit they say. I feel like that’s exactly what I’d be doing by allowing them to take ownership of that perfectly good adjective; removing it from my vocabulary and handing it to them for the sole purpose of prejudice against trans women.
In common usage both female/male and man/woman are tainted by the gender essentialism of the society around us. The meaning of neither is pure, despite the insistences of transphobes to the contrary. While there’s a reason for being uncomfortable with using terms that transphobes like to use, my preference for subverting these things is to use both female/male and woman/man to refer to women and men, trans and cis, without apology to anyone’s flawed biological essentialism.