I Don’t Get Women

There is a hitch in the language that everyone seems to get (or simply accept) but me. Maybe someone can help me on this.

If I were to refer to a group of painters who were men, I would call them male painters. If they were women, I’d call them female painters. No problem there.

But I could also call the female group women painters. While it’s odd to me that no one uses the term men painters, I’m more interested in the plural nature of women: Why are the adjectival forms of female (singular) and women (plural) interchangeable?

Back when I worked at a business magazine, I would insist that we use the term woman business owners. It was only years later that I finally allowed overwhelming usage to wear me down. I knownow call them women business owners. But why? Why is this odd tic in usage acceptable? You wouldn’t call them females business owners.

Any thoughts?


Special thanks go to my Aunt Sarah, for catching “I know call them … .” Duly fixed.

7 Responses to “I Don’t Get Women”
  1. Eleanor says:

    You may remember that this has annoyed me for years; I put it in our old stylebook back in the day.

    I’m no help, other than commiserating. I think it’s a bogus and redundant usage.

  2. Shay says:

    I’m having trouble seeing why you’d ever want to use “women” as an adjective rather than “female.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t hear much difference between “women painters” and “men painters”; they sound about equally awkward to me. If you must use the noun form as an adjective, I suppose it should be singular, as in Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver,” right?

  3. EZ Dub says:

    Aren’t “women” and “men,” and “woman” and “man” nouns by definition? It seems corrupt to force them into an adjective position.

  4. Beth says:

    I have a gut reaction to the words “female” and “male.” It sounds to me like I’m talking about animals instead of people (Lost: gray dog, female, bull-terrier mix). I try not to specify gender unless I have to–my friend always got irritated when people called him a “male nurse”–but woman and man to me sound more human than the alternatives.

    • cbgaines says:

      Beginning with yesterday’s comments and ending with Beth’s comments, we’ve now just about fully encapsulated this issue: male and female are less awkward but too clinical for some; man just isn’t used as an adjective, woman is in the singular and plural, but both uses seem odd. And while I would love to avoid even using the distinction, you can’t get around it when you’re editing a package of stories about an event honoring notable business owners who are women. But I still don’t have a satisfactory answer.

  5. Patrick says:

    I once replied to an ad seeking “woman painters.” It wasn’t what I expected.

  6. BartE says:

    I wonder if the elasticity of the adjective “women” comes from a time when women were the exception to a profession, and writers felt obligated to note it. “Women firefighters”; “women engineers”; “women boxers.” The plural got traction because it was used so frequently, as opposed to the rarer converse for guys; e.g. “male nurse.” That distinction started to fade in the 1970s and, seems to me, has all but faded. So I’m with Eleanor when she calls it “bogus and redundant usage.” At least in all the examples I can think of at the moment.

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