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The hand mirror and comb of the Roman Goddess Venus is often used to represent the female sex

Female (♀) is the sex of an organism, or a part of an organism, which produces ova (egg cells). The ova are defined as the larger gametes in a heterogamous reproduction system, while the smaller, usually motile gamete, the spermatozoon is produced by the male. A female individual cannot reproduce sexually without access to the gametes of a male (an exception is parthenogenesis). Some organisms can reproduce both sexually and asexually.

There is no single genetic mechanism behind sex differences in different species and the existence of two sexes seems to have evolved multiple times independently in different evolutionary lineages. Other than the defining difference in the type of gamete produced, differences between males and females in one lineage cannot always be predicted by differences in another. The concept is not limited to animals; egg cells are produced by chytrids, diatoms, water molds and land plants, among others. In land plants, female and male designate not only the egg- and sperm-producing organisms and structures, but also the structures of the sporophytes that give rise to male and female plants.

Sex determination

The sex of a particular organism may be determined by a number of factors. These may be genetic or environmental, or may naturally change during the course of an organism's life. Although most species with male and female sexes have individuals that are either male or female, hermaphroditic animals have both male and female reproductive organs.

Genetic determination

Most mammals, including humans, are genetically determined as such by the XY sex-determination system where males have an XY (as opposed to XX) sex chromosome. During reproduction, a male can give either an X sperm or a Y sperm, while a female can only give an X egg. A Y sperm and an X egg produce a boy, while an X sperm and an X egg produce a girl. The ZW sex-determination system, where males have a ZZ (as opposed to ZW) sex chromosome may be found in birds and some insects and other organisms. Members of Hymenoptera, such as ants and bees, are determined by haplodiploidy, where most males are haploid and females and some sterile males are diploid.

Environmental determination

In some species of reptiles, including alligators, sex is determined by the temperature at which the egg is incubated. Other species, such as some snails, practice sex change: adults start out male, then become female. In tropical clown fish, the dominant individual in a group becomes female while the other ones are male.

In some arthropods, sex is determined by infection. Their sex is altered by bacteria of the genus Wolbachia; some species consist entirely of ZZ individuals, with sex determined by the presence of Wolbachia.

Mammalian female

The mammalian female is characterised by having two copies of the X chromosome as opposed to the male which carries only one X and one smaller Y chromosome. To compensate for the difference in size, one of the female's X chromosomes is randomly inactivated in each cell. Conversely in birds it is the female who is heterozygote and carries a Z and a W chromosome whilst the male carries two Z chromosomes.

The distinguishing characteristic of mammalian species is the presence of mammary glands on the female. The mammary glands are modified sweat glands that produce milk, which is used to feed the young during the period of time shortly after birth. Only mammals have the capacity to produce milk. The presence of mammary glands is most obvious on humans, due to the tendency of the female human body to store large amounts of fatty tissue near the nipples, resulting in prominent breasts. However, mammary glands are present in all mammals, although they are vestigial in male organisms.

Mammalian females are also unique in that they all bear live young (with the exception of monotremes, which lay eggs.) However, there are non-mammalian animals (such as sharks) whose eggs hatch inside their bodies, which gives the appearance that they bear live young.


A common symbol used to represent the female gender is ♀ (Unicode: U+2640 Alt codes: Alt+12), a circle with a small cross underneath. This symbol also represents the planet Venus and is a stylized representation of the goddess Venus' hand mirror.

Etymology and Usage

The word female comes from the Latin femella, the diminuative form of femina, meaning 'woman', which is not actually related to the word 'male.' The word was probably originally femella, meaning "young girl". In the late 14th century, the English spelling was altered so that the word paralleled the spelling of "male".

The word female is generally considered neutral when used as an adjective; when used as a noun, it is often regarded as derogatory. Female judge would be preferable to woman judge; "This judge is a woman" would be preferable to "This judge is a female." There are exceptions: League of Women Voters is a name chosen by the mostly-female members of the League. The American Heritage Dictionary and the Random House Dictionary are not completely clear on this point, which is a sensitive point: it is hard to find neutral terms for women performing jobs once reserved for men, because these women generally insist that they belong there; and many other people—including some women—insist that they do not.

The phrase the female, in the sense of the female sex or the class of all wowen, figures prominently in the first act of Henry V, in which Henry's bishops discuss with him the right of the French King to his throne—and Henry's right to usurp it. They conclude that the salic law cited by the French is not really French, but German, and that Henry can properly invade France, thus prolonging the Hundred Years' War.


Ayers, Donald M. English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. Second Edition. 1986. University of Arizona Press. United States.

See also

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