An editor at this magazine recently observed that his writers had, in recent years, begun to file stories populated by woman doctors and woman CEOs and woman senators. This trend, reflected in the writing of both man and woman writers, runs afoul of Slate style, which holds that the adjective for woman is female. Saying woman lawyer when we would in other circumstances say male lawyer (not man lawyer) marks out the lady version as unnatural, in need of special linguistic doctoring. And yet it’s so easy to sound disrespectful when you point to a female anything. The term hails straight from biology, harsh with the smell of chloroform and oblivious to our human distinction between sex and gender. A woman athlete is a professional who identifies, wonderfully, as a member of my (yes amorphous, yes ever-changing, yes indefinable) club. I cannot with 100 percent certainty tell you whether a female swimmer is a person or a nematode.
Of course, the same concerns should apply to male; but somehow they just don’t. Part of this owes to cross-grammar contagion: Unlike male, female has a long and inglorious history as a derogatory noun—its record of disgrace pollutes even a benign phrase like female voter. It’s not simply that females (n.) exhibit maximal sexual swelling during the periovulatory period, according to science. In hip-hop, they twerk and crawl. On Twitter, they do dumb stuff like expect their romantic partners to be their friends, too. The designation “those females” belongs in the same cobwebby dustbin as “those Chinese” or “those blacks.” Pluralized, nounified, all three modifiers erase the human subjects of the sentence.
But is it fair to fault the adjective for the sins of the noun? Will the first woman president really command more authority and admiration than the first female president? In books and articles, we tend to privilege the former phrasing over the latter (and have for the past 100 years). Ditto woman doctor over female doctor and woman lawyer over female lawyer, though the pattern has reversed of late for author and athlete. As William Safire explained in a 2007 column, woman used adjectively “is what the O.E.D. labels an apposite noun—explaining, even identifying, the noun it ‘stands next to’—but syntactically stronger than an adjective.” In other words, an apposite noun does more than add color to its neighbor; it forms “part of the basis of meaning of a noun phrase.”
Ironically, the subtle argument of woman president—that the president’s gender is intrinsic to her identity, rather than a contingent modifier—may backfire on those who try to use the apposite woman respectfully. As Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, points out, accentuating femaleness in an artist or politician “suggests that a woman holding that position is marked—in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it.” Patriarchy, then, is what makes the sobriquet man senator sound so weird: What other kind of senator would there be? (Consider, too, the euphony of black president. That phrase defies expectations in a pleasing way, at least for most people.)
This leaves the politically conscious English speaker in a bind. There’s female, grammatically correct and yet sullied by an othering, clinical coldness (on one hand) or rank misogyny (on the other). There’s woman, which, in refusing to cede the floor to the noun it modifies, insists on its own irregularity.
And there’s lady. Lady which, à la lady blog or lady parts, seems winkingly demure or polite. Lady which is also an apposite noun, but one so self-aware that any friction comes off as witty and intentional. If a woman doctor tries and fails to disguise her gender under the white coat, a lady doctor rocks the coat with chalk-colored John Fluevog booties. She challenges our gendered narratives of inclusion and exclusion for the simple reason that, if there’s a joke, she is too knowing not to be in on it.
As a noun, lady is lovely: That Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility as “A Lady” tells you all you need to know about the word’s gentle irony, its blend of delicacy, power, and intelligence. Wrote Molly Fischer in n+1: “The word allows a certain decorous remove … it is a polite way to acknowledge the listener’s presumed squeamishness or embarrassment about anything particular to her sex.” To my ear, lady indicates not only charming, anachronistic tact and refinement, but also a kind of authority. Austen laid bare her society. Fischer is talking about how her mother, a doctor, used the word to soothe nervous patients “when discussing gynecological matters.” And with pop acts like Lady Gaga or Lady Antebellum, the term has only become more explicitly empowering, establishing and subverting expectations in the same stroke. Remember when Beyoncé incited “all the single ladies” to throw their hands up? Like lady itself, that gesture of ostensible surrender actually radiated agency.
Of course, lady sounds different in the mouth of a feminist woman than it does coming from a man. We mostly judge guys who say lady to be condescending dinosaurs. (Go ahead and imagine the warranted fury if a male newscaster referred to Hillary Clinton as a “lady politician.”) That’s another reason Queen Bey may have chosen the term—to play up a sense of sisterhood, to shut men out.
Writing about the ascent of lady, Ann Friedman reflects that the word “splits the difference between the infantilizing ‘girl’ and the stuffy, Census-bureau cold ‘woman’ … It’s a way to stylishly signal your gender-awareness, without the stone-faced trappings of the second-wave.”* Though Friedman is pro-lady, the subtext of her analysis is clear: For all its sassiness, lady remains a euphemism. It pulls punches. (Consider the stranger yelling “Move, lady” when he wants to say “Move, bitch.”) Compared with the elemental, almost mythic, solidity and capaciousness of woman, it’s a little too simple. “Lady,” states Fischer in her n+1 piece: “a child’s categorical noun for non-mother adults.”
Which, in a circuitous way, explains why I don’t love lady as an all-purpose female adjective. There are situations in which it works. But tonally, it feels too specific to do its job. Not every boss who is a woman wants to be a lady boss. If she does, she must resign herself to evoking, for anyone who hears her described that way, either a precise sort of droll, progressive feminist or an affirmative action sideshow. (As for #girlboss, the term perhaps does not work without the hashtag.) I wholeheartedly endorse Friedman’s ladyness as a Platonic essence, and I love addressing my girlfriends as ladies, yet I do not feel comfortable forcing all women to be ladies at all times, especially whilst “male” whatevers can disappear into the default.
And so: female or woman? Woman or female? I’ve got to go with grammatical consistency and the equality it implies. Jonathan Franzen is not a man novelist (he’s a novelist, man)—so Toni Morrison is not a woman novelist. Plus, why let the retro-sexist associations around female sully a perfectly serviceable adjective? Of course, all of this only applies to situations in which sex or gender must be specified. When discussing how the singer Sia just released a new album or which installation will finally prove designer Maya Lin’s most enduring artwork, the adjective you’re looking for is awesome.
*Correction, Feb. 18, 2016: This post originally misspelled Ann Friedman’s first name.