When did "Women" become an Adjective?

The question’s in the title. I suppose this has probably been going on for a while, but over the last two days I’ve been reading things and paused at references to “women lawyers” and “women judges” (is this a legal style thing? I assume it’s happening elsewhere).

So, when did “women” become an adjective (“men” isn’t one is it? “Law firms have too high a number of men partners” is not a sentence that I’d expect to see. It’s even more jarring).

And what does it mean? Is it a product of the sex/gender thing? In the “ven diagram” of female lawyers and women lawyers, who’s on the margins?

It’s normal in English for any noun to be used as an adjective. The only thing odd about “women” being used that way is that you normally use the singular form of the noun, even if the noun as a noun is only used in the plural, e.g. “scissor blades” or “trouser pockets”. So I would expect “woman lawyers” rather than “women lawyers”.

“Womenfolk” has been around since 1729.

I guess you’re right. Except that I don’t believe that it is customary to use the noun as adjective when an adjective form exists. Indeed, the only two examples that immediately come to mind (“Jew” and “Democrat” as in “Jew banker” and “Democrat party”) are intended to be derogatory. I’m sure there are other examples that are more favorable (“wood” and “silk” come to mind).

Is my error in assuming that “female” is the appropriate adjective for “woman”? Have I been disrespectful in referring to my “male colleagues” instead of my “man colleagues”? The fact that “woman lawyer” jars my ears is irrelevant if there’s some reason it’s correct. But then I have to ask why is this only true for “woman”? (One argument is that we refer to “woman lawyers” or “woman judges” to recognize that the default lawyer or judge is a man. But, it’s still “male nurse.” So that doesn’t answer my question).

Apparently some feminists think it’s sexist to use the term ‘female’, as it objectifies them as animals, or something. Though it’s been going on since 1300. NY Times article.

Personally I can’t stand it.


Nouns are quite capable of being adjectives. Really, the more you look at language the harder it can be to draw these bright dividing lines about words. However, since we do have a perfectly functioning pair of adjectives: male/female, I’m not quite sure why people feel the need to then also use woman/women as an adjective. I used to get cranky about it and demand they use female, but now if I say anything at all, it’s to mention that stylistically, they might want to match male with female and woman with man. And to their credit, I do see people saying things like men teachers and so on.

No, it comes across as sexist when used in the form of “Look at that hot female over there,” “Let’s go to the bar to pick up some females,” etc. because those who use it that way would not use the term male the same way. (Not talking about military/police/etc.) **Not **when used as an adjective.

Yeah, it’s the more “airquotes” clinical usage of female that tends to get people’s dander up as it conjures up an image of a fedora’ed neckbeard who always complains about getting friendzoned and making sure people know he’s not a beta. I don’t know any feminists who have a problem with people saying things like female lawyers or female CEOs.

About 30 seconds after Eve had her first daughter? :stuck_out_tongue:

In some contexts it’s obviously sexist. But like Eyebrows 0f Doom says, that’s normally when female is used as a noun. If people are using women as an adjective to avoid saying female - which I haven’t seen myself - it sounds like they’re confused about what’s going on and what people are objecting to.

Oh, they do it. These posts are all from the last couple years but the trend is at least a decade old. I first noticed it in some low-rent textbooks in middle school and it’s only metastasized since.

Yup, those are solid examples and I’d guess those posters are trying to avoid the word female. The odd thing is that the phrasing ends up sounding like an old-fashioned grumble about “women drivers.” Whenever a word becomes controversial in a certain context some people wind up avoiding it entirely because they don’t know what the boundary is (and neither do some people who get offended).

William Safire of the NY Times “On Language” column had a series of columns on this very subject. It started when he referred to a “girl photographer” who was a grown up woman. The gist of it was that the adjective to use is “female” and it should only be used when it is relevant (The patient requested a female doctor) and/or ambiguous (The female doctor Chris Smith). Otherwise, referring to gender is redundant and/or unnessesary.

I loathe this usage very much. Women is a noun.

That means nothing. Noun adjuncts are a common and unremarkable part of english.

I’ve seen deeds and other recorded documents that identified the lady involved as a “spinster woman”. These were from the middle 1800’s, so I don’t think its that new.

That’s spinster modifying the noun woman, though.

Yeah, but they have problems with “woman,” since it contains the word

In most contexts, I find using “women” as an adjective to be the more offensive of the choices. It may be the quaintness or the fact that I’ve only heard it in a disparaging way. Heck, those two aspects may be related.

I had been under the impression that humans were animals.