Woman Versus Female

Which is the proper adjective?

Mignon Fogarty,
September 23, 2008
Episode #137

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Today's show will cover the difference between the words woman and female.

First we had Nancy Pelosi taking over as Speaker of the House, then Hillary Clinton running for president, and now we have Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee. So the question is rising again—Is Sarah Palin the first female Republican vice presidential nominee or the first woman Republican vice presidential nominee?


Before I answer the question, I want to address a related issue, which is that sometimes it's sexist to point out someone's sex because doing so implies that they aren't in their proper role. For example, saying someone is a male nurse or a female doctor wrongly implies that it's so unusual for men to be nurses or women to be doctors that you have to make a big deal out of it. But, given that Sarah Palin actually is the first woman to ever be the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party and because it's a unique part of the story I don't think it's sexist to point out she's a woman. In some cases, it is the story.

“Woman” as an Adjective

femaleSo then, what is the best way to talk about Sarah Palin being a woman? The words woman and man are primarily nouns, and to say someone is a woman nominee is placing woman in an adjective position. I checked four different dictionaries, and two don't include woman as an adjective (1, 2), one does (3), and the fourth said that when woman is used in the adjective position it's actually an appositive noun (4), in other words, a noun acting as an adjective. So the dictionaries don't give us a clear, definitive answer.

Testing the validity of the sentence by seeing how it sounds to substitute the word man for woman seems like a good way to see if the sentence makes sense. To me it sounds terribly awkward to say someone is the first man nominee. I imagine most of you would say He's the first male nominee, if the need arose. So, even though some sources say it's grammatically correct to use woman as an adjective, my opinion is that you should say Sarah Palin is the first female Republican vice presidential nominee.

With a perfectly acceptable adjective like female available, I don't see any reason to push woman into the role. But what about female as a noun?


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