Why Does the Phrase “Woman Scientist” Even Exist?

Recently, NASA has been working to erase all hints of gender bias lingering from previous generations. The agency even converted the phrase “manned mission” to “crewed mission,” and stood by the change for the recent SpaceX launch, despite the fact that both members of the crew possessed their very own Y chromosomes. Casual English speech is riddled with gender-specific terms like “manned” that we now use without deliberate bias or sexism but that sometimes carry inadvertent shadows of past decades’ antiquated stereotypes. Many of them leave me scratching my head to figure out why we need to mention gender at all.

Unsurprisingly, the swap to the neutral “crewed” caused some petulant foot-stamping in internet comments sections, because traditional male-specific phrases seem to stick most insistently in fields that are still perceived as male-dominated. Nobody ever protests that an elementary school should be described as “manned” instead of “staffed,” but dare to suggest a “men at work” sign could just as easily read “workers present” and you might spark a kerfuffle. However, the growing number of women who fill these allegedly macho jobs are starting to speak up, and to push for gender neutrality in language. It’s possible the phrase “giant leap for mankind” would now reference “humanity” instead, because of socially aware modern-day NASA professionals.

But in many cases women are still subtly identified as outsiders. For fields stereotyped as male, like science, medicine or firefighting, we often create special two-noun phrases to describe the women storming the ivory towers of manliness: woman scientist, woman doctor, woman firefighter. To begin with, these peculiar two-noun phrases are grammatically incorrect. The right way to modify the nouns scientist, doctor and firefighter is with an adjective, for example the word “female,” as in female doctor. Unless, of course, we mean that a “woman scientist” is somehow an entirely different creature than a normal scientist. Some protest that the word “female” sounds clinical, but notably the grammatical mistake never occurs in reverse, even for men in traditionally female roles; we always manage correctly to apply the adjective “male,” as in “a male nurse” rather than “a man nurse.”

A search of the online database shows that prior to the turn of the century the phrase “woman scientist” was used a sparse 40 times in total, peppered throughout multiple decades. The highest concentration was a light smattering of articles about one Jennie A. Estes, who showed up and existed at a scientific meeting in 1897.

But then, enter Marie Curie. The trailblazing genius and her husband were awarded the Nobel Prize, the first time the award had ever been given to a woman, and by 1906, when she became a professor with a lab, she could no longer be ignored. Immediately, the term “woman scientist” exploded into the media, going from a bare trickle of women discussed as curiosities to a sudden flood of articles, with nearly a thousand uses over the next decade.

Some of the articles were supportive, describing Curie as an exotic but admirable specimen. The majority of journalists, however, wondered if woman scientists could possibly have “any manners” at all; attributed their work to male partners; or quipped that women in science were “as rare as the dodo,” which as you’ll recall is a bird famous for its extinction. Many articles had cautionary titles seemingly designed to scare off women inspired by Curie, such as “Intellectual Powers Could Not Compensate for Loss of Suitor.” To me, the subtext seems clear: “woman scientists” are less than, as both women and as scientists.

After this, such phrases began to bloom in other conventionally masculine fields, with newspaper stories about the fashion choices of “woman pilots” who dared to wear pants, and “woman firefighters” who somehow would be physically capable of operating engines. The increasing genesis of two-noun woman phrases correlated with a growing presence in the papers of another gender-shaking, world-altering word: suffrage. After women were granted the right to vote in 1920, the woman phrases dipped in popularity before a resurgence with post–World War II feminism.

The field of aviation is unique in that the women themselves have embraced their two-noun term—to a degree. Pilot and historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck, author of The Women with Silver Wings, a book about the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of WWII, says she belongs to the group Women Military Aviators and used to read Woman Pilot magazine. She doesn’t think the trend traces directly to the legendary WASPs, though, who were named in part because co-founder Jackie Cochran wanted to be clear the women were not trying to replace the “normal” pilots. Rather, Landdeck thinks the term “woman pilot” originated outside the influence of the early female aviators themselves, and is reflective of the more general linguistic trend of outside observers applying two-noun phrases to trailblazing women. However, she does note that many women in aviation are willing to use the phrase as part of an ongoing effort to encourage more equality in a world where a mere 7 percent of participants are female.

And Landdeck has a point. As she says, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” She’s never heard a woman introduce herself as “a woman pilot,” just as I’ve never heard a scientific colleague introduce herself as “a woman scientist,” but our very existence makes us stand out nonetheless. I’ve been called two-noun woman phrases too, by people pointing out my rarity, as my doctorate in blast trauma often renders me a gender oddity in my profession as well as a social oddity at cocktail parties. Recently the phrase “woman scientist” even eked itself without my permission into library catalog descriptions of my book In the Waves, which is about blast science and the Civil War submarine H. L. Hunley, and which contains not one discussion of gender.

In fields where women remain the few, the odd ducks, the anomalous outliers who constantly have to justify to others our passions for our “manly” fields, I will admit there is sometimes value in pointing out our existence to younger generations when it is relevant to do so. Perhaps it will help one or two young women feel more normal about their inherent love of math or airplanes. But maybe, as society slowly edges toward equality, we can at least start to be more equal in our language too, like NASA, and dispose of the grammatically incorrect two-noun woman phrases. Grammarian Mignon Fogarty recommends a simple test: ask yourself if you would phrase the sentence the same way if your subject were a man. If you would use “male” instead of “man,” then use “female” instead of “woman.” If you would omit his gender altogether, then consider whether mentioning her gender is necessary. It certainly wouldn’t be a giant leap for mankind, but it might be a tiny nudge for humanity.

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