Why Does the Phrase ‘Woman Scientist’ Even Exist?

A short while ago, NASA has been doing the job to erase all hints of gender bias lingering from former generations. The agency even transformed the phrase “manned mission” to “crewed mission,” and stood by the alter for the latest SpaceX launch, irrespective of the simple fact that equally associates of the crew possessed their really very own Y chromosomes. Casual English speech is riddled with gender-unique terms like “manned” that we now use with out deliberate bias or sexism but that sometimes have inadvertent shadows of past decades’ antiquated stereotypes. A lot of of them leave me scratching my head to determine out why we need to have to mention gender at all.

Unsurprisingly, the swap to the neutral “crewed” caused some petulant foot-stamping in internet remarks sections, for the reason that conventional male-unique phrases look to stick most insistently in fields that are nevertheless perceived as male-dominated. Nobody at any time protests that an elementary faculty ought to be explained as “manned” rather of “staffed,” but dare to propose a “men at work” indicator could just as very easily browse “workers present” and you may possibly spark a kerfuffle. Having said that, the developing variety of gals who fill these allegedly macho work are starting off to communicate up, and to force for gender neutrality in language. It is achievable the phrase “giant leap for mankind” would now reference “humanity” rather, for the reason that of socially knowledgeable modern-working day NASA industry experts.

But in quite a few situations gals are nevertheless subtly identified as outsiders. For fields stereotyped as male, like science, medicine or firefighting, we often generate unique two-noun phrases to describe the gals storming the ivory towers of manliness: woman scientist, woman doctor, woman firefighter. To commence with, these peculiar two-noun phrases are grammatically incorrect. The suitable way to modify the nouns scientist, doctor and firefighter is with an adjective, for case in point the phrase “female,” as in female doctor. Unless, of program, we suggest that a “woman scientist” is someway an totally distinct creature than a regular scientist. Some protest that the phrase “female” seems clinical, but notably the grammatical error in no way takes place in reverse, even for adult men in usually female roles we always manage properly to apply the adjective “male,” as in “a male nurse” rather than “a man nurse.”

A lookup of the online database Newspapers.com shows that prior to the transform of the century the phrase “woman scientist” was employed a sparse 40 instances in full, peppered all through multiple a long time. The highest focus was a gentle smattering of content articles about 1 Jennie A. Estes, who showed up and existed at a scientific assembly in 1897.

But then, enter Marie Curie. The trailblazing genius and her husband have been awarded the Nobel Prize, the to start with time the award had at any time been offered to a woman, and by 1906, when she turned a professor with a lab, she could no more time be disregarded. Straight away, the expression “woman scientist” exploded into the media, going from a bare trickle of gals talked about as curiosities to a unexpected flood of content articles, with almost a thousand utilizes over the next decade.

Some of the content articles have been supportive, describing Curie as an exotic but admirable specimen. The majority of journalists, on the other hand, puzzled if woman experts could possibly have “any manners” at all attributed their work to male associates or quipped that gals in science have been “as rare as the dodo,” which as you are going to recall is a bird popular for its extinction. A lot of content articles had cautionary titles seemingly designed to scare off gals influenced by Curie, these kinds of as “Intellectual Powers Could Not Compensate for Decline of Suitor.” To me, the subtext appears very clear: “woman scientists” are significantly less than, as equally gals and as experts.

Immediately after this, these kinds of phrases commenced to bloom in other conventionally masculine fields, with newspaper stories about the manner possibilities of “woman pilots” who dared to use trousers, and “woman firefighters” who someway would be bodily capable of functioning engines. The raising genesis of two-noun woman phrases correlated with a developing presence in the papers of an additional gender-shaking, environment-altering phrase: suffrage. Immediately after gals have been granted the suitable to vote in 1920, the woman phrases dipped in recognition prior to a resurgence with post–World War II feminism.

The area of aviation is exclusive in that the gals by themselves have embraced their two-noun term—to a degree. Pilot and historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck, writer of The Women with Silver Wings, a reserve about the Women Airforce Provider Pilots (WASPs) of WWII, says she belongs to the group Women Navy Aviators and employed to browse Lady Pilot journal. She doesn’t imagine the development traces specifically to the famous WASPs, though, who have been named in portion for the reason that co-founder Jackie Cochran preferred to be very clear the gals have been not hoping to swap the “normal” pilots. Rather, Landdeck thinks the expression “woman pilot” originated exterior the influence of the early female aviators by themselves, and is reflective of the more normal linguistic development of exterior observers implementing two-noun phrases to trailblazing gals. Having said that, she does take note that quite a few gals in aviation are willing to use the phrase as portion of an ongoing exertion to really encourage more equality in a environment wherever a mere seven percent of members are female.

And Landdeck has a level. As she says, “if you cannot see it, you cannot be it.” She’s in no way listened to a woman introduce herself as “a woman pilot,” just as I have in no way listened to a scientific colleague introduce herself as “a woman scientist,” but our really existence can make us stand out however. I have been called two-noun woman phrases also, by persons pointing out my rarity, as my doctorate in blast trauma often renders me a gender oddity in my job as perfectly as a social oddity at cocktail get-togethers. A short while ago the phrase “woman scientist” even eked by itself with out my permission into library catalog descriptions of my reserve In the Waves, which is about blast science and the Civil War submarine H. L. Hunley, and which includes not 1 dialogue of gender.

In fields wherever gals continue being the couple, the odd ducks, the anomalous outliers who consistently have to justify to others our passions for our “manly” fields, I will acknowledge there is sometimes benefit in pointing out our existence to young generations when it is appropriate to do so. Most likely it will enable 1 or two youthful gals feel more regular about their inherent love of math or airplanes. But maybe, as society gradually edges toward equality, we can at least start to be more equal in our language also, like NASA, and dispose of the grammatically incorrect two-noun woman phrases. Grammarian Mignon Fogarty suggests a easy exam: talk to you if you would phrase the sentence the exact same way if your matter have been a man. If you would use “male” rather of “man,” then use “female” rather of “woman.” If you would omit his gender entirely, then take into consideration whether or not mentioning her gender is essential. It certainly wouldn’t be a huge leap for mankind, but it may possibly be a tiny nudge for humanity.