January 12, 2013

Air Force Women

An NPR news story about an Article 32 hearing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland was part of the news summary today at the beginning of All Things Considered. The subject of the hearing is the behavior of Technical Sergeant Jaime Rodriguez, an Air Force recruiter accused of sex crimes  The item was reported by Eileen Pace of Texas Public Radio. (The report updates a story you can read or hear on the TPR Web site.)

I had just returned home after running a few errands and was rather casually listening to the radio, but my ears perked up when I heard this sentence from Pace: “In three days of testimony, four female airmen and the Navy enlistee nervously offered graphic details to the court about the former recruiter.”

Four female airmen? Really? I can’t decide if this locution is sexist or simply clumsy. It is assuredly jarring to someone unused to it. The obvious female equivalent of airmen is airwomen, of course, though this sounds strange to the American ear, and perhaps no one here uses the word. The U.S. Air Force seems to use the term airmen, but not airwomem. A search of the Air Force Web site finds instances of the first word but not the second. There are several references to female Airmen. (Airmen is always capitalized.)

Sometime in the past, female Airmen may have seemed devoid of irony, but not today. I wonder if females in our Air Force object to this term now (or will in the future). Interestingly, the Air Force in Australia (and perhaps in other countries) avoids oxymoronicity—if that isn’t a real word, it should be—by the use of the lowercased airwomen. (See an instance here.)

Do you think that female Airmen is acceptable in 2013 America? If not, what alternative would you like to see? Would Air Force women work?


  1. The junior rank structure in the Royal Canadian Navy includes the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Leading Seaman and Master Seaman and are used regardless the sex of the person being referenced. Although, ironically, when referring to members of the Candian Forces more generically, most people seem to say "soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel."

    1. We lack a really good word for military personnel generally. “Warriors” comes close, but it conjures up ancient Greeks or Zulus more than it does, for example, Air Force members. “Fighters” seems too general. (A gang member on the South Side of Chicago can be called a fighter.) One might also object that making war is not the only thing military people do, particularly modern ones. A new coinage might be useful here. Something like “militaries” has the right flavor, though that word already has a related meaning. How about “militarians”? Other idea, anyone?


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