Usage

Q. Is it correct now to use “woman” as an adjective? I know dictionaries list it as such, but dictionaries are reflectors of common usage, not arbiters of proper grammar. I have an author who insists on using “woman activist,” rather than “female activist,” because according to her that’s the common usage in her professional field. I hate the usage because I see it as both incorrect and undesirable—unless we’re going to start using “man activist” as well.

A. Any editorial objection to woman as an adjective must come up against the reasons that woman activist is more common than female activist. Many of these reasons probably have less to do with grammar and more to do with the history of American activism (Webster’s, for example, includes an entry for the phrase woman suffrage, dating it to 1863). In fact, there is no rule against using a noun attributively. Moreover, even the most descriptive (as opposed to proscriptive) dictionaries tend to flag bad grammar, and none that I’ve checked note any objections to using woman as a modifier. So the question is one of usage—why is woman used attributively so much more often than man?—and not one of grammar.