From first lady to first woman president?

Why ‘female president’ isn’t the best term, however this year’s election turns out. 

John Locher/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Sacramento City College on June 5, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.

If Hillary Clinton returns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will she be the first female president of the United States – or the first woman president? 

A traditional school of thought prefers female, since it is indisputably an adjective, whereas woman is – well, not quite. (More on that below.) “A woman can be anything – except an adjective” is how one headline captured this view last fall. 

Those espousing this view aren’t all curmudgeons. The influential Associated Press stylebook, for instance, generally moves with the times. But it says, “[U]se female as an adjective, not woman.”

A couple of years ago The Guardian railed against adjectival woman: “ ‘Woman’ is not an acceptable adjective, any more than ‘lady’ once was.” And the certifiably non-fogy Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, came down several years ago on the side of female rather than adjectival woman.

But female can refer to any species – even a tree – whereas only a human can be a woman. (The same case can be made for man over male, but it’s not 1789 anymore and the United States is not about to elect a man president for the first time.)

And female, as a noun, has more than a whiff of putdown: It’s “now regarded as a mildly contemptuous equivalent for woman,” to quote the dictionary the Monitor uses. During the 19th century, some writers used female as a noun to avoid making a judgment whether someone was a proper “lady” or merely a “woman.”

Woman is widely though not universally listed in dictionaries as an adjective. 

Macmillan (whose illustration of the plural noun form of the word, I can’t resist observing, is “We need more women in government”) notes that woman as an adjective can be used only before a noun. That is, you wouldn’t say, “The senior senator from Massachusetts is woman.” 

No native speaker needs to be told this. But it suggests another way to parse the “woman” in “woman senator”: as an attributive noun – a noun modifying another noun. That’s still preferable to “female senator,” to my mind.

Linguists refer to “marked” and “unmarked” forms. The “unmarked” form is the “default setting.” The unmarked nurse is presumed to be a woman; so a man in the job needs, or let’s say often gets, a gender marker: hence, male nurse.

The unmarked doctor is still, at some level, assumed to be male – ditto lawyer, senator, and yes, president, even as the professional demographics evolve. Careful writers consider whether adding modifiers helps their readers or merely advertises their own preconceptions about what a senator, for instance, ought to look like. When the Guardian writer complained about there being “too many ‘women bosses,’ ” she was complaining about the term, not the fact of women rising into leadership roles.

Man has its uses as an attributive noun, too – as in man bun or the Middle Eastern attire commonly referred to in English as a man dress. But the attributive woman is likely to continue to be used more often in the years ahead – as our default settings continue to change. 

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