As a consciously feminist act so that women are not reduced to their reproductive capacities, the word 'woman', which is generally accepted and used chiefly as a noun, is used in place of the word 'female', and 'woman' is used as an adjective to refer to women who are artists, philosophers, etcetera --- for example in these two sentences:

'Yes, she was one of the very first women philosophers of her generation'.

'She helped womankind so much by employing her skills and talents as a titanic woman theologian as which we all know her today, and as which she will certainly be remembered forevermore'.

Whilst reading Plato's Republic, I noticed that Plato used the word 'man' and 'woman' as adjectives to modify the noun 'guard' when he was speaking of how women and men ought to be trained in the same things such as education so that they can become the greatest Guardians in the State which he is thinking up.

But whilst using 'woman' as an adjective doesn't irk me too much, using 'man' as an adjective sounds too... silly. However, I will not use 'woman' as an adjective if I am not going to use 'man' as an adjective because I want to use the words in a way that suggests equality between women and men. I think using 'woman' as an adjective and not using 'man' as an adjective would be very sexist towards men.

  • How about "man" used as a verb. Who do you expect to find "manning the reception desk"? A man or a woman? And is there anything wrong with calling a woman a "man", if the word forms part of a time-honoured title for something done by women as well as men - e.g. Madame Chairman, or in a women's cricket team - batsmen? And do women who are not feminist have the right to be thought of as different to men if they want to be? e.g. By preferring nursing duties to unblocking the sewers, "because one is a man's job and the other a woman's". There may be women who genuinely think that. Is that sinful?
    – WS2
    Feb 24, 2020 at 20:56

3 Answers 3


Sorry if this ends up as a rant.

You have realised what feminists call man as the default. In that if you don't say the word woman it is taken to be a man (unless you are discussing such things as cleaning or caring).

The man who has it all (twitter) is an excellent parody of this situation, it uses the word man in exactly the way you suggest, to show how stupid it feels in our society. here is a link of a pair of t-shirts, one saying programmer and one saying "man programmer" male programmer, wont work if you use an ad blocker

Now to the advice:

I would honestly only mention the sex of a person if it actually mattered, so in your philosopher example the fact she was a woman was notable as it made her a first. other wise I just wouldn't bother.

I think using 'woman' as an adjective and not using 'man' as an adjective would be very sexist towards men.

In fact it is very sexist toward women, as it is saying I don't need to tell you the sex of this person

"it is a man, it is always a man, unless we tell you otherwise"

I am going to give you a riddle, if you haven't heard it try to solve it first.

A father and son were in a car accident where the father was killed. The ambulance brought the son to the hospital. He needed immediate surgery. In the operating room, a doctor came in and looked at the little boy and said I can't operate on him he is my son.

Who is the doctor?

Spoiler below:

it is the MOTHER
When people are asked this riddle they often come up with a pair of gay fathers before coming up with the mother.

And this is why saying man doctor sounds silly because we ALL KNOW doctor means man unless it is adjusted.

Like the night is dark unless someone tells us the full moon made the night bright enough to travel by.

  • 7
    This doesn't address what I understood to be the main point of the Q., namely the use of man v. male as an adjective, compared with the use of woman v. female as an adjective. I do not agree that 'male doctor' "sounds silly": as indicated in my comment below the other answer, I think that man doctor sounds more unusual that male doctor, whereas woman doctor does not sound more unusual that female doctor.
    – TrevorD
    Apr 14, 2019 at 19:27
  • We’are getting used to “woman” as a substitute for female. But if a computer programmer programs computers and so does a woman programmer, what does a man programmer program?
    – Xanne
    Apr 15, 2019 at 5:51
  • The expression man midwife was used in the 18th century, meaning a doctor specialising in obstetrics as distinct from a traditional midwife without formal training. Apr 15, 2019 at 9:00
  • The first time I heard that riddle my initial thoughts were 1. "The mother". 2. How is that a "riddle", there's no trick because it's immediately obvious that the doctor is the other parent. The vast majority of people do not have two dads, so why would I base my answer on that? When it comes to things that we all "know" in the sense of having been conditioned to expect, I'd have thought the idea that "parents" means "mum and dad" would have much more influence than the idea that doctors are men.
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 10, 2020 at 13:40

Can one use 'man' like one can use 'woman' as an adjective?

Yes, according to the following passage taken from a dictionary that seems to address the question quite precisely:

When circumstances make it relevant to specify sex, woman [...] is used, the parallel term being man: Men doctors outnumber women doctors on the hospital staff by more than three to one.


  • I agree with the Questioner's dilemma in that, in your quotation, "Men doctors ..." sounds 'slightly unusual' (for want of a better expression) and I would have expected it to read "Male doctors ...", whereas "women doctors" does not sound 'unusual' in the same way, and I would not think either "women doctors" or "female doctors" to sound 'out of place.
    – TrevorD
    Apr 14, 2019 at 19:13
  • 2
    @TrevorD I find there to be awkwardness about both 'man' and 'women' before such nouns. It seems to borrow the construct from terms like 'philosopher king' (which I would write 'philosopher-king'). Consider the oddness of both 'man nurse' and 'woman nurse'. I think that, if sex is relevant, I would go for 'male' and 'female' in all such cases. But in my answer, I just stick to what a dictionary says.
    – Řídící
    Apr 15, 2019 at 5:08
  • 1
    I don't dispute that 'male' and 'female' are probably the best option if gender is relevant. Also, I do not disagree with anything in your answer. My previous comment was merely expressing my current thoughts. I'm British: I don't know where you're from, but I wonder whether different English-speaking countries have different preferences here.
    – TrevorD
    Apr 15, 2019 at 22:45

You can use man like you use woman, but be prepared for the resulting usage to be less common or recognizable.

As an example of the disparity between collocations for women [role] and men [role], I offer two examples of real-world situations where men and women might be used to form a noun phrase:

1. [gender-term] doctors Ngram of male doctors, men doctors, female doctors, and women doctors

2. [gender-term] teachers Ngram of male teachers, men teachers, female teachers, and women teachers

In both examples, women is a far more common collocation than men. Even when usage of male and female increases in the 1970s, women remains more common than either, whereas men becomes less common than either. Even though all of these uses are relatively rare compared to, say, doctors or teachers, the pattern in publication over time replicates what you're sensing: men [role] has always been odd, whereas women [role] has been in use and continues to be in use.

WendyG gives a valid answer for why that seems silly - in a context where most people in a given role are men, one only needs to specify gender to address the exception - women. I agree with that analysis, with one wrinkle: even in roles where women are assumed to be the default, women is used more. We can do a test with a role that throughout the 20th century has been associated with women: nurse.

ngram of male nurses, men nurses, female nurses, women nurses

Male nurses remains fairly close in usage to female nurses in the 20th century, modeling in part WendyG's point, but nonetheless men nurses remains lower than women nurses at all points of use. This is true even though a nurse by default is likely a woman and not a man.

So in addition to her answer, I suggest that men specifically has been more resistant to being used in collocations to describe gendered roles than women.

I don't have a firm answer for why; it may be that woman began to be paired with roles in a time (the 17th to the 19th century) before it was necessary to specify most male equivalents, and language usage has preserved that distinction. For instance, in the OED "woman, n." has first citations for the following:

  • woman physician (1533)
  • woman surgeon (1629)
  • woman actor (1633)
  • woman shoemaker (1704)

  • women singers (1382)

  • women officers (1493)
  • women ministers (1577)
  • women doctors (1622)
  • women presidents (1709)

Some man/men equivalents listed include man actor (also 1633), man singer (rare, 1611) and man-witch (1622), but overall the list is shorter, indicating the formation was less frequent. That pattern may continue to influence how generative the respective forms are; since we have more examples of women [role] in circulation, men [role] is used less often even when it might meaningfully distinguish a man from the presumptive default.

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