Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Lady," "girl" but never woman

In July, Republican congressman Allen West claimed Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was not a “Lady” because she criticized his position on debt ceiling legislation after he had left the House floor (click here).

Marilyn French, we need you.

I was 28 years old and had just returned to my apartment in the city after a long bike ride in the country. As I unloaded my bike from my car, which I had parked in the circular drive in front of my building, another car pulled up behind me and a middle-aged man and woman stepped out to assist an elderly woman out of that vehicle. As the man walked past me he muttered, "I'll ring that bike around your neck!" I was flabbergast. I have no idea why he was angry, but presumably because he had to park a few feet behind me instead of directly in front of the building entrance. I immediately retorted, "You’re a bastard." (Not very diplomatic, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.) The middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, then said, "Hey! Watch your language! You’re a lady!" I snapped, "He's no gentleman."

It’s interesting that he could insult me, but I had no right to respond in kind. A “lady” does not speak her mind or talk back, at least not so bluntly. Was it my age or my gender, or both, that made them think he could express his contempt so freely and expect no reaction? If I had been male, would he have dared say what he did?  But I, a female, had inconvenienced him so I was not worthy of his respect, nor had I acquiesced quietly – a double faux pas. I had not played my expected role. I was not a “lady.”

The behavior of a “lady” is predictable, which is a comfort to men. That’s why men, and apparently some women, assign women this role. A few years ago, I worked with two men five to ten years younger than me who when they swore in my presence apologized for their language. Prone to a few expletives myself now and then, I wondered why they did this. Did they think intemperate language would offend my delicate sensibilities and cause me to swoon? For that matter, if they really believed I was offended, why do it at all? In hindsight, I think they were unsure about how to behave in my presence – I didn’t fit their preconceptions of female colleagues – so they found it easier to categorize me as a “lady” than deal with me as a peer. The effect was to marginalize and exclude me from the group.

It’s also what happens when we refer to adult females as “girls.”

I’m not talking about a friendly “You go, girl!” between female pals. I’m talking about almost complete absence of the word “woman” in everyday conversation. Listen to people around you: they actively avoid the word, especially in the performing arts and the entertainment industry where all women are “girls.” In our age and youth-obsessed culture, young is good. But how young?  Girls, by definition, are legal minors and not allowed to make adult decisions. The word “girl” applied to women connotes youthfulness, but also immaturity. It’s a false compliment.

Some critics may scorn, “You’re just a bitter old feminist.” Well...yeah. They may claim we live in a post-feminist world, and that calling a woman “girl” means nothing. I’ll buy that argument when we commonly and casually call men “boys.”  Boys become men; why can't "girls" become women? It’s as if the gender wars of the 1960s and 1970s never happened.

When I watch TV and hear an adult female referred to as “girl,” I automatically say, “Woman.” This happens so often my daughters complain, “We get it, Mom! Enough already!” But I can’t help myself. I hope when they are 25-years-old they never have a (older, male) job interviewer ask if they have a boyfriend, and wonder if it’s worth hiring them because the boyfriend might “whisk [them] away.” (Think “girl.”) Too much is at stake. Like autonomy and self-determination.

I am neither a euphemism (lady) nor a diminutive (girl). I speak my mind and think for myself. I am an adult human being who happens to be female.

Woman. It’s a good word. Let’s use it.


  1. While we're on the subject, worth viewing:

  2. You go, girl !!!! :-)

  3. You go, girl ! ;-)


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