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In this recently uploaded video by CNN channel, it shows that it is not clear as to whether we should use the possessive apostrophe or not, though Sue Mendelsohn, Director of the Columbia Unv. Writing Center, took part in the video and said, "There is no correct answer, but the common usage would suggest that, similar to the race card, it would be the woman card."

However, Ngram shows that the only usage there is is "the woman's card." And shouldn't "the woman's card" be the only correct usage since we say "women's health"?

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I can't watch the video where I am now, but I can comment on the phrases in question.

Both "the woman's card" and "the woman card" are technically correct, but they mean different things.

In the first, the possessive indicates that we're referring to an object (a card) that belongs to a woman. We may use it in the following way:

The company's full name and address was written on the woman's card.

In this case, we're talking about a physical card, most probably a piece of cardstock or a business card, which belongs to a particular woman.

The second is a bit of a colloquialism or idiom, which follows the pattern "the x card", where x is a noun. It is used in the set phrase: "to play the x card." The most usual x used in this phrase is race, but I've seen gender and age used as well.

Here is an example usage:

I was getting nowhere with my complaint, so I decided to play the race card.

Alternatively:

I wasn't going to make my flight, so I decided to find a sympathetic-looking TSA agent and play the woman card.

In both of these scenarios, the speaker is deciding to emphasize a particular trait -- in one case race, and in the other case gender. In the first example, the speaker is trying to make a complaint, but nobody is listening to him or her. They decide that they're going to try to make the claim that this is happening due to their race. They may say something like: "You're not taking my complaint seriously. This is because I'm black, isn't it?"

The second example is similar. The speaker is trying to catch her flight and determines that she's probably not going to make it to the gate on time. She decides to find someone sympathetic, and to play up her gender traits, which usually ends up playing on stereotypes of women being weaker. As a woman, I've only done this once and not in this particular context, but it involved finding an older gentleman in a position that could assist me, and then a bit a crocodile tears and hand-wringing.

This set phrase is a metaphor for playing cards. In a card game, you may play a particular card to win a hand or a trick. For example, I may "play the ace of hearts." (In this example, the word "card" is understood because "ace of hearts" refers to a particular playing card.)

The metaphor here is that you're playing a "card" representing a particular trait that will win an argument or cause the situation to go in your favor.


This pattern does not hold true for other uses of the possessive. For example, "children's toys" and "men's clothing" do not have idioms "children toy" or "men clothing."

Similarly, the most common use of this idiom, "the race card," doesn't usually have a possessive equivalent "the race's card." (I'm sure we could come up with a convoluted example, but such a thing would not be in common usage, and its meaning would come from its use in context.)


Making the claim that one phrase is more popular than the other is irrelevant in this case, because they mean two very different things.

In case it matters, this answer is referring to common usage in American English. There may be different usages or meanings in other dialects.

  • Then why is "women's health" not used as colloquialism and hence without apostrophe? – Ghaith Alrestom May 3 '16 at 6:55
  • Because "women's health" refers to one of two concrete things: the health of particular women, or a global concept of health of women (eg. at a hospital there may be a "women's health" department for OB-GYN and other female-only specialties.) A colloquialism or an idiom just is; I can't really comment as to why something is not part of said colloquialism. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas May 3 '16 at 6:58
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    The set phrase is "playing the x card". It's a metaphor for playing cards. "Women's health" doesn't fit the pattern. It's just a plural possessive, like "children's toys" or "men's clothing." – Roddy of the Frozen Peas May 3 '16 at 7:00
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A "card" can refer to an imaginary membership card for some group.

What, you don't like Star Trek? You should hand in your nerd card.

You are no good at math? You should hand in your Asian card.

I think it should be woman card because that follows the common pattern. It's just a convention, however. There may be no deeper reason to it. If the convention didn't exist, woman's card could work because we say things like driver's license.

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