Chrome's home page tab link for Womens History Month caught my eye today:

Celebrating women history makers, pioneers and future leaders

Why does this work, if it actually does, and why doesn't the gender inverse work? "Celebrating men history makers" is plain odd to my ear. Is there an implied "who are" in there that's not obvious?

I recognize that using "female" as a noun to refer to a woman can sound disrespectful, but when used as a modifier it seems like a different situation. "Celebrating female history makers" sounds much more appropriate.

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  • 3
    Because it’s the default for a phrase like “history makers, pioneers and future leaders” to refer to a group of all men, maybe occasionally including a few women in addition? It doesn’t sound odd to use “men” in the same way with female-assumed expressions such as “nurse” or “midwife”. For examples see english.stackexchange.com/a/421783/191178
    – Laurel
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:16
  • 2
    Using your example, the parallel phrase would be "men nurses". That also strikes me as odd.
    – isherwood
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:23
  • There's also a nuance of plurality. A list of corresponding phrases would help with any answer: male nurse, man nurse, men nurses, women firefighters, woman firefighter female firefighter, etc etc
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:34
  • 1
    You're conflating two words of different types there. "Man" and "male" are not usually equivalent in the way they're applied here. Plurality is only peripherally relevant.
    – isherwood
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:35

1 Answer 1


Both are grammatically possible, but using woman and woman as an appositive is more common than using man and men in this way. It's hard to answer why this the case; it could be changing patterns of labor for women that brought them into more male-dominated professions, which isn't reciprocal. It could also be that you're more accommodated to hearing women used this way, whereas you aren't used to hearing men this way.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a fully-fleshed out explanation for woman and women used in this way. Note that the usage is common enough that the list of examples is not comprehensive:

C1. b. Appositive, passing into adj.: female.

(a) Prefixed to designations of occupation, employment, or status, esp. those traditionally applied to men, to indicate that the person referred to is a woman, as woman doctor, woman driver, woman friend, woman officer, woman teacher, etc.

It also has an entry for compounds with man, but it's more limited, with a list of examples including the unusual man-cook, man dancer, man friend, and man-nurse, along with several even more uncommon ones (man seal). That indicates the lexicographers didn't view this usage as particularly common:

C1 b. Appositive, passing into adj.: ‘male’. Occasionally with names of animals. See also man-child n., manservant n., man-midwife n.In plural, frequently with men.

Ngrams and other corpus searches can confirm that the versions with women are usually used more often than versions with men, e.g.:

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Note that women teachers and women leaders are both used much more, whereas women nurses is not. There may be more to dig into with individual collocations.

As for why woman and women are usually more common, that is possibly due to the shifting socioeconomic status of women in English-speaking places. As women have increasingly worked outside the home, pursued professions, and attained positions of status, woman and women have been used with professions and other nouns to specify the subset of women in those positions. There has been less social need to use men to specify subsets of people in these positions. Perhaps it would lead to a perceived redundancy (men leaders specifies most leaders, even today), or perhaps there is less impetus to understand and improve men's participation in professions dominated by women ("Men nurses").

So you technically can use men in this way, in the sense you can use the noun as an appositive. There are just fewer instances where that usage makes sense.

  • Did you mean to say women in the second instance of your opening sentence? You repeated woman, but that could've been intentional and I misunderstand your meaning.
    – isherwood
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 18:56

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