If you watched comedians during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, you know that a staple of the shtick was jokes about women drivers — you know, scatterbrained and prone to get into scrapes out of their darling incompetence with machinery.
We don’t go in for those jokes much anymore, and we have also tended to dump from the working language a number of terms now perceived as condescending and sexist: authoress and poetess, for example, which suggest second-class standing. Garner’s Modern American Usage suggests that the feminine suffix trix may also be on its way out even in the law, with executor, prosecutor and testator increasingly edging out executrix, prosecutrix and testatrix. (He does point out one hardy survival, dominatrix in sadomasochism.)
But woman and female continue to unsettle, the former when used as an adjective, the later when used as a noun.
A colleague has asked about “references to women journalists, women politicians, etc.,” saying “Even feminist writers like Ellen Goodman do this. Isn't it flat-out wrong? Last time I checked, women was a noun, just like men. On this issue am I the only one sane, while the rest of the world is crazy?”
Bryan Garner agrees that it is “jarring to hear phrases such as lady lawyer, woman doctor, female booksalesman, or the Air Force’s female airman. It sounds condescending, even if that wasn’t intended.” And he is largely right. Lady, like gentleman, appears as a marker of class distinctions to be on the way out.
But woman as an adjective seems to have staying power. In Anglican circles, for example, both in Britain and the United States, woman priest has been the common term for three decades or more, to all parties in the dispute over ordaining women. (Only the snarkiest opponents insist on using priestess.)
It is a mark of the plasticity of English that nouns can be used as adjectives and adjectives as nouns. In writing about “functional variation,” Garner points to phrases such as body weight, insurance policy, home repairs and witness protection program as examples of an unobjectionable semantic shift, though other combinations can be ambiguous. Similarly, no one is jarred by references to the poor, the rich and the homeless.
For my part, female doctor, though grammatically unexceptionable, sounds as bad as woman doctor when it is a gratuitous indication of sex. And female as a noun is far more troublesome than woman as an adjective. When applied to human beings, it evokes a sense of reducing women to the level of, say, insects or quadrupeds considered scientifically, as in Kipling’s famous line, “For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
So if you want to use woman as an adjective, you appear to be swimming with the current of the language. Just make sure that the distinction is one it is necessary to make.