Using "woman" in place of "female"

I understand the backlash against using female as a noun when referring to women. It sounds dehumanizing and makes me cringe. For me, this is because the first time I heard it was on DS9 where Quark would occasionally sneer “females” in a highly derisive manner and since then, the types of people I’ve seen use it have also tended to be sexist assholes.

However, there seems to be a minor trend for the last decade or so to use woman and women in place female - including as an adjective which to my ear sounds super awkward and tortured.

Today for example, Solicitor General Verrilli in front of SCOTUS said:

If you’re a woman employee, you go to your regular doctor, you say you have a medical condition that puts me at risk of being pregnant, or I just want contraceptive coverage, or I need contraception to treat a medical condition … the doctor has to say, ‘I cannot help you with that.’

That just feels wrong. It certainly can be considered grammatically correct. We use nouns as adjectives all the time such as with news reporter or history teacher, but would anyone ever start off a sentence with, “If you’re a man employee”?

Is this just a case of not hearing this form enough for it to be normalized or is this something that deserves to be scorned?


It seems to be the PC version of the over use of “I” instead of “me”. I agree that if you wouldn’t use “man” in the same sentence you shouldn’t use “woman”.

Um, because in this particular case, it’s attempting to highlight that this is a problem specifically for women. Men can’t get pregnant. It might sound clunky, but I think she’s attempting clarity and to remind people that this impacts women.


“If you’re a female employee” would communicate that just fine, using normal grammar.

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I think her use of woman is fine. I’m unsure why it’s not.


Because “woman” is not an adjective, it’s a noun. You would never write “If you’re a man employee.” You would write “male employee.” “Woman employee” is just as grammatically incorrect.


I think her use of woman is fine. I’m unsure why it’s not.

Interesting. I would have an equally hard time with the sentence (ignoring the sentiment, I was just trying to come up with something on the same subject):

If you’re a man employee, you are paying your insurance company for contraceptive coverage you will likely never use.

Other examples that have stuck in my head just sound wrong to me as well. There has been talk about Hillary Clinton being the “first woman President,” but I would never in a million years say “Barack Obama was our last man President.”

It is interesting to hear it sounds fine to you. I think it might be lack of exposure which makes it sound awkward.

Language changes. I think you’re just going to have to deal with it. :wink:


Interesting. “first woman President” does not sound as awkward to me, either. Ultimately, all grammar is arbitrary. So, perhaps, “woman employee” will sound right to me in the future. At the moment is sounds all kind of wrong to me.

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Indeed it does. But that doesn’t mean it will change the way you think it will :wink:


I could see how it could sound awkward, but language changes and in active usage is rather dynamic, I’d argue. There was probably a more eloquent way of saying what she said, but if it was in a Q&A with SCOTUS (which I’m assuming it was) then it was probably off the top of her head, rather than a prepared remark. I’d expect she’d have put it in a different, less grammatically awkward way, in a written brief, or the like.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need to gender things like employee or president (or doctor, or lawyer, or football player, or ANY career, really). It would be nice if we get to the point where it’s just president, especially. Given the amount of BS sexism often thrown at Clinton (who I’m on the record of not being a fan of), highlighting the possibility of her being the first woman to be president is an important thing.


Well, I didn’t really indicate a future direction, just how it’s being used in this case. And as I said to @Aloisius, these seem like off the cuff remarks, so not something that she spent time writing up. When we speak, we’re less likely to use proper grammar and more likely to improvise to make our points.


Oddly enough, “woman doctor” sounds like an outtdated phrase but “female doctor” seems valid to me.

My pet peeve is when people use “women” like it’s a singular, as in “the doctor is a women.” That seems to happen way more than it should. I never see that happen with “men” though.


What puzzles me about this is that is man/woman male/female are polar terms, yet the problem appears to be asymmetrical, as I only ever hear of anybody complaining about the use of “female” but never “male”. Whenever I ask people about how their process of pejoration affects polar pairs, I never get an answer!

For example, I have had a few topics frost over briefly when I asked a person who complained about describing a person as “oriental” would be similarly offended if they themselves were referred to as “an occidental”. Apparently, it was easier to dismiss my question as the rhetorical device of an apologist rather than consider and answer it for what it is! The asymmetry weirds me out.

I can appreciate that various people prefer to use or avoid specific terms, but what seems at least as important to me is understanding how the process of pejoration works, and why people choose to use it


Well, so often male is assumed rather than stated explicitly. Few exceptions come to mind, notably “male nurse” (certainly not “man nurse” :astonished: ).


And of course the reason that “male nurse” was (and sometimes still is) used, is because men were not nurses until recently. It was a feminized profession for years…

I think some object to “female” because in general it feels less respectful.

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I’d say it still is. And I think some feminists (and perhaps some anti-feminists) might even claim that women have more empathy than men, and are more suitable. I, on the other hand, have a friend who’s an EMT who will knock you upside the head with an O2 bottle if you piss her off, so I have no position on that claim.

I’m not sure about that… Maybe some women, but I’d say in general feminists would steer away from stereotypes like women have more feels than men. I’m generally wary of blanket statements like that myself. There are far more men in the field than a few decades ago, that’s for sure, even if it’s still dominated by women.


And there we have a language trap foist upon us.


It was indeed in an argument. Actually the reason I brought it up now was because it came from the mouth of someone who I would never expect to use it. I was curious if using woman as an adjective has become more widespread than I thought. When I have seen it before in writing, it seemed an intentional statement.

FYI, this is Solicitor General Verrilli, the source of the statement: