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Woman Doctors, Woman Writers ... Is Using 'Woman' as an Adjective Demeaning?

Political-correctness 101 dictates that we should avoid gendered versions of job titles: We’re meant to use “server” instead of “waitress”, “actor” for women as well as men. (Thank God the nineteenth-century “doctoress” never caught on.) But sometimes, for valid and non-sexist reasons—like talking about the wage gap—writers need to identify a group of professionals by their gender. Writers who are keen not to offend face a conundrum. “Female” seems like a safe descriptor—“female boss,” “female lawyer,” etc.—but some complain it’s too “clinical.” “Lady” has made something of a come-back as a sort of retro descriptor—“Lady journo,” “lady blog”—but sounds condescending outside of a specific, ironic context. In The Guardian last week, sub-editor Maddie York points out that another word is catching on as an adjective: “woman.” According to York, “‘Woman’ and its plural seem to be taking over the role of modifier, so that now, there is no such thing, as far as much of the media is concerned, as a female doctor, a female MP or a female chef. Instead you hear or read about a woman doctor, a woman MP and so on.”

This is definitely an overstatement, but she has a point: When I started looking for it, I found that the opposite of “male boss” is often not “female boss” but “woman boss.” The BBC contrasts “women managers” with “male” ones.  And the Harvard Business Review says: “Only 16% of Republicans prefer a woman boss … young people (18 to 34) are more likely to want a male boss.”

York is on a mission to strip “woman” of its usage as a modifier. She doesn’t mind being referred to as a “female subeditor”—she identifies herself that way in her author bio—but she protests the use of “woman” as an adjective on the grounds that, unlike “female,” its masculine equivalent is almost never used in the same way. “There would be no real problem if we used both ‘woman’ and ‘man’ as modifiers, but we don’t,” she writes. She quotes a colleague: “The comparable male version sounds so ridiculous no one would ever run it outside a feminist standup comedy routine: ‘man cyclist,’ ‘man politician,’ ‘man writer.’” “Male cyclist” sounds less ridiculous.

Taking offense at the word “woman” seems like a bit of a stretch, but York raises an interesting point. So I asked a bunch of successful women: If you have to be identified by your gender and your job, would you rather be called “woman” or “female"? Their answers ran the gamut from pro-female to pro-woman to totally uninterested.  

Deborah Tannen, linguist

The problem, as York notes, is that the unadorned noun—linguist, boss, MP—is assumed to be a man. … To indicate that it's a woman, we need to add something (in linguistic terms, we "mark it for female").  As for whether one uses "female" or "woman"—that's interesting. I actually prefer "woman boss," "woman MP" etc. (I'm not going to say "woman linguist"—yuck).  In fact, in my own writing, I avoid using "female" because it feels more like describing an animal than a person. 

Ann Friedman, journalist

If forced to pick a preference, I'd rather be called a woman writer than a female writer, if only because "woman" implies gender identity rather than a biology, and strikes me as more trans inclusive.

Lynne Murphy, linguist

I think part of the reason people are avoiding "female" is that it sounds too biological, which in turn sounds less human. "The female of the species is more deadly than the male" and all that. With "woman" you're underscoring the person's humanity as well as their sex (and the fact that they're adult).

Amanda Hess, journalist

Terms like "female" and "women" and "lady" are moving targets. … I suspect that mostly people just get bored writing "female doctors" over and over again in a story about female doctors, so they want another option. We have gendered terms for men, too: "Dude writer" and "writer bro" are typically used as insults. "Woman writer" might come off as diminishing to the female writer in question, but a "dude writer" sounds like an entitled blowhard. …

I am more often called a "feminist writer," which I don't love either. I don't identify as a feminist activist or subscribe to a particular ideology. Plus, everyone means something different when they say "feminist," so when I'm called that I always wish the writer would define the term. Usually its application seems casually meaningless. Perhaps "feminist writer" is the new euphemism for "woman writer," the modern way to sneakily throw a gendered qualifier before "writer" or "journalist."

Martha Nussbaum, philosopher

I do not see "woman" as different from "female." I think you don't hear "man philosopher" perhaps because historically the term "man" meant "member of the human species," as in "the rights of man." It isn't used that way anymore. But probably that usage shaped the evolution of idioms.

Robin Lakoff, linguist; author of Language and Woman's Place (1975)

I find both "woman doctor" and "female doctor" equally old-fashioned but both better than "lady doctor," which fortunately seems to have dropped out of existence. In other words, in all these cases the problem is not the use of "woman" vs. "female," but the fact that reference to gender—female gender, that is—must be made even where it's irrelevant.  

Jessica Grose, journalist

Oh man. I honestly have no opinion on this. I feel like the two terms are interchangeable? And that they're just descriptors?

These responses have been condensed.