“Adject-ifying” Women

“Adject-ifying” Women child page title

Recently, I started my day, as I generally do, with a cup of Earl Grey and a quick browse around Google News. Now, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone use the crazy mashup of a Google News page as a usage guide, but this headline stood out as one I particularly disliked: “Stay true to yourself, advises previous woman winner of Nobel Peace Prize.”

I understand that in the story Jody Williams, a woman, is offering advice to recent female winners of the prize, so I suppose the fact that Williams is female is somewhat relevant. Nice as it would be if it were not news that the person winning the prize is female, there have been only 15 female recipients of the Peace Prize since its inception, of 101 total individual winners. But “previous woman winner”?  Yuck.

A quick Google search for “woman president” reveals plenty of news sources that seem to prefer this construction: CBS News, Forbes, MSNBC, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, The Guardian. And several Chicago Manual of Style forum posts vote for woman over female as a modifier.

I’m not an AP stickler, since I lean a bit more magazine-ish than some of AP’s newspaper-friendly guidelines, but I side firmly with the good ol’ Stylebook in this case: “Use female as an adjective, not woman. She is the first female governor of North Carolina.”

The late William Safire explored this topic back in 2007. “In modifying another noun,” he wrote, “woman is what the O.E.D. [Oxford English Dictionary] labels an apposite noun—explaining, even identifying, the noun it ‘stands next to’—but syntactically stronger than an adjective. Both words [woman and female] can be used as modifiers of nouns, but the noun woman has more weight.”

Hmmm. I get that “woman doctor” may cast more of a distinction than “female doctor”—or just plain old doctor—on the remarkable (gasp) fact of a woman being a doctor. But I don’t like it. To me, the distinction is emphasized precisely because the phrase sounds so off to my ear. How about “man doctor”? “Man astronaut”? “Man president”? Even the often-derogatory usage “male nurse” uses male instead of man.

“There’s nothing new about this,” Safire writes. “The use of woman as a modifier dates to 1300, with the poet John Dryden …” Um, yeah, the fact that the usage has a long history does not boost it in my esteem. There are a lot of historical usages that have fallen from favor today, with good reason.

Some feminists, Safire says, avoid female as an adjective because they feel it sounds disrespectful and could refer to any mammal, not just a human woman. Again, that’s just not doing it for me. Sure, let’s avoid “lady author,” but I’m with AP and the Grammar Girl on this one: “With a perfectly acceptable adjective like female available, I don’t see any reason to push woman into the role.”

What do you think? Let me know if you agree, or not.


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