In certain feminist circles, including major publications, it is politically correct to write "women characters" instead of "female characters". But why is the word "women" pluralized? Why is it apparently undesirable to write "woman characters"?

Yet, "child actors" is clearly preferred over "children actors" and people do not say "adults patients" instead of "adult patients", probably because it could get confused with "adult's patients".

  • Interestingly, the Oxford English dictionary does have a few citations that show adjectival "woman" followed by a plural noun, such as "woman Politicians" and "woman-teachers." But as you say, the norm is to use "women" in these contexts.
    – herisson
    Apr 10, 2016 at 17:54
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    Exactly why are you claiming that it is wrong to write "woman characters"? Apr 10, 2016 at 18:02
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    @CandiedOrange: the question doesn't make that claim. It says "apparently," and the reason why it appears to be wrong is that "women characters" is vastly more frequent than "woman characters": books.google.com/ngrams/… Even if you accept both as technically correct variants, the difference in frequency remains to be explained.
    – herisson
    Apr 10, 2016 at 18:10
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    Great question. It drives me nuts when I hear the occasional developer refer to the "children nodes" of a parent node, rather than referring to its "child nodes. I'm guessing this has to do with use of the word (e.g. "child") as an adjective versus as a noun. Certainly you would refer to the "adult patients" in a hospital, and not to the "adults patients". So why would we refer to "women actors" instead of "woman actors"? A guess here would be that the former is somehow an attorneys-general-like inversion of "actor women" (?).
    – Drew
    Apr 10, 2016 at 19:00
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    But "actor" isn't an adjective, and "general" (in this construction) isn't a noun. And "actors" certainly isn't an adjective.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 10, 2016 at 21:56

2 Answers 2


I am a Women's Studies graduate. The reasoning of feminist writers is simple: "women" are human beings who are gendered female. Non-human animals (e.g. sheep, cows, pigs) and some physical objects (e.g. ships, countries) can also be gendered female in the English language (e.g. "Titanic's maiden voyage began shortly after noon on 10 April 1912 when she left Southampton on the first leg of her journey to New York."--Wikipedia). For feminists, it is very important to treat women differently from animals and physical objects. Therefore, the term "women" is always preferred when referring to human females, rather than using the term "female," which could apply equally well to a sheep or a ship.

As far as I am aware, most feminist scholars would find it perfectly acceptable to refer to "female characters" in novels or plays. That is because a character is a literary device and not a living, breathing human being. However, if a feminist writer chooses to use the word "woman" in referring to characters in a novel or a play, the preference would likely be for the plural form ("women") for the same reason that it is now standard practice in the English language to refer to Americans and Germans in the plural, rather than writing treatises on "the American" and "the German" character. In the 21st century, we understand that there is no single typology that could stand in for an entire nation that has millions of citizens with different preferences, habits, and so on. Thus we speak of Americans rather than "the American". In the same way, there is no single typology of a woman or a woman character. Because there are different ways in which such characters can be portrayed, with different character traits, preferences, habits, and actions, it makes sense to feminists to use the plural form ("women")as an indicator that no one character can stand in for all that it means to be a woman.

  • This answer is incorrect. It is not standard practice in English to refer to "Americans characters" or "Germans actors".
    – user169702
    Apr 17, 2016 at 10:16

All the comments are trying to find a grammatical reason for "women characters". There is none. "women characters" comes from the same people who coined "herstory". (See Wikipedia, herstory) The difference is that herstory is witty and women characters is clunky.

The Wikipedia article on the Amazons refers to them as woman warriors.

In Greek mythology, the Amazons (Greek: Ἀμαζόνες, Amazónes, singular Ἀμαζών, Amazōn) were a race of woman warriors

However, search for woman politicians, and you get, for example:

10 Most Famous Women Political Leaders

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    But "women politicians" and "women warriors" are also much more commonly used than "woman politicians" and "woman warriors," according to the Google Ngram viewer: books.google.com/ngrams/… The use of "woman" or "women" with a plural noun doesn't seem to be based on the specific noun.
    – herisson
    Apr 10, 2016 at 22:48
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    It's not just women occupations. While male teachers is more common than men teachers, very very few people say man teachers. See Ngram. Apr 10, 2016 at 23:02

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