Usage and Grammar

Q. I keep hearing people say things like “She was a woman pilot” and “We have a woman speaker tonight.” In my mind, this is completely incorrect—shouldn’t it be female, not woman? Since when did woman become an adjective? Am I crazy?

A. You are merely perhaps a little behind the times. Woman has long been an accepted adjective. Please see CMOS 16, 5.226 (“Sex-Specific Labels as Adjectives”):

When gender is relevant, it’s acceptable to use the noun woman as a modifier {woman judge}. In recent decades, woman has been rapidly replacing lady in such constructions. The adjective female is also often used unobjectionably.

—Editor’s update:

A. This is absolutely the right question to ask, but there are actually plenty of occasions when it makes sense to specify the gender of a pilot. {How many women pilots asked to join the association this year?} {Are male pilots paid more than women pilots?} {When did the first female pilot make that trip?}. CMOS 16 addresses this issue explicitly at 5.230:

When it is important to mention a characteristic because it will help the reader develop a picture of the person you are writing about, use care. For instance, in the sentence Shirley Chisholm was probably the finest African American woman member of the House of Representatives that New York has ever had, the phrase African American woman may imply to some readers that Chisholm was a great representative “for a woman” but may be surpassed by many or all men, that she stands out only among African American members of Congress, or that it is unusual for a woman or an African American to hold high office. But in Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress and one of New York’s all-time best representatives, the purpose of the phrase African American woman is not likely to be misunderstood.