Around a decade ago, I was dating a staunch (male) feminist, who had the standard practice of referring to any female individual in his life as a “woman.” As we were both in our twenties, this came across as oddly formal or distancing. I’d find myself creating mental images that failed to match the reality of his anecdotes: when he’d refer to “this woman in my psych class,” for instance, I’d imagine a 50-year-old woman auditing a college course, rather than a 22-year-old graduate student.
Like many female adult millennials, I had the not-so-feminist habit of referring to myself and my female friends as “girls.” Unpacking this—mostly through standup bits—I blamed it on the fact that there are no good words for “women” in the way there are for men. As much as we don’t use the word “woman” in casual speech, we are equally averse to “man”—it’s extremely formal, remote, strange. The alienation effect of using the word “man” is similar: if I told you about “this man I saw at the gym” you’d conjure up images of a distant stranger, perhaps something vaguely foreboding, whereas “a guy from the gym” is non-threatening and relatively pleasant. Because of this formal feel, it’s extremely rare to speak of “men” or “women” in most daily speech. You’re unlikely to hear of “a 28-year-old man” or woman unless it’s on the news. (My joke was, “I think I’ll only really become a woman when I’m murdered. You’ll hear about me on news: a 30-year-old woman was found murdered in her East Hollywood apartment last night… Just kidding. [beat, dark look:] I’m 32.”)
Men get to be guys, bros, dudes. There’s no good “guy” equivalent for women. “Gal” has the old-timey prohibition-era musical connotation, and is still pretty puerile at that. “Lady” indicates a level of sophistication that absolutely does not suit me. “Sis” I can get down with, but it does sound a bit like I’m co-opting gay culture, and might get confused with “cis,” which maybe kinda works, but isn’t what I’m going for. And “woman”—the only people who refer to themselves as a woman are either engaging in some kind of female empowerment exercise or are drag queens. And if we’re calling someone a woman, it’s probably a stranger, or someone’s aunt. Or a dead body.
So most of the time, “girl” becomes our female version of “guy.” It’s friendly, approachable, and the mental image conjured is that of a peer, not someone removed from us. Yet when you really break it down, “girl” is a poor substitute for “guy”: its real equivalent is “boy.” Sub in “this boy in my psych class” and it immediately conjures up the idea of a child prodigy, not a peer. So why when we say “boy” do we think of a 12-year-old male, but a “girl” can still refer to someone upwards of 25?
As it’s Women’s History Month, I can’t help but look back on how the girl/woman dichotomy has manifested across time. Women used to be allowed to be women. In 1971, Helen Reddy’s anthem of feminist pride declared, “I am woman, hear me roar.” But forty years later, we got Queen Bey herself rhetorically asking and answering, “who runs the world? Girls.” If even Beyoncé—arguably the most womanest woman on God’s green Earth—is referring to her gender as “girls”… is there hope for any of us to be women?
Part of the issue might be with the very fact that it feels uncomfortable to really own your identity as a woman. Even fifty-year-old women gathering to gab while downing pinot grigio call it a “girl’s night.” Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got no problems with owning the fun of “girl.” “Ooo girl!” “Girl, please.” Or just a good old emotive “Guuuuuuuuuurl.” You won’t see my “girls” getting gone.
The problem is when this diminutive term becomes the default descriptor of an entire gender. As playful as this discussion has been, there is something more sinister that lies below the surface of the prevalent over usage of “girl.”
In her book, Framed By Gender, Cecilia Ridgeway explains that gender inequity persists despite our efforts to uproot it because of “gender status beliefs,” or “widely shared cultural beliefs about gender (i.e. gender stereotypes) that have embedded in them assumptions that men are higher status and effectively more competent at most things than women.” These are the beliefs that lie below our levels of awareness, remaining unanalyzed, and therefore continue to influence the way we behave in the world, reinforcing certain (hegemonic patriarchal) systems of power. “Girl” ties into these gender status beliefs. The indication behind calling grown women “girls” is that they are not full adults. They are still children to be instructed and guided. As such, they are less likely to be seen as leaders and knowers, and are therefore less likely to occupy positions of power, whether than be in academia, politics, business, or beyond. It’s also why when you say “doctor” or “president” you’re unlikely to imagine a female face for this unknown, unnamed person.
We can’t decry the lack of women in society’s upper echelons without first addressing why such gross misrepresentation persists in our modern age. Overwhelmingly, gender status beliefs aren’t just reinforced by misogynists hoping to force women back into the kitchen. Those people are sexist on a conscious level. The more insidious enactment of gender status beliefs occurs below where we perceive it, by most people in society. This includes women themselves, who tend to underestimate their own capacities, as well as those of other women. In fact, women often tend to scrutinize those of their own gender more harshly than they do men. (If you doubt this, just refer to the percentage of white women voters who chose “p*ssy-grabbing” Trump over Hillary Clinton– and again over Biden. Or just watch any episode of the Real Housewives franchise.)
To truly change things at a fundamental level, we need to get down to those fundamental building blocks of culture and society—language. And for those about to knee jerk complain how you “can’t say anything these days without the woke police coming to call,” I say: you can say whatever you like. Just be aware of the world you’re creating and take responsibility for it.
Tying into this, I must mention that we live in a nonbinary world, and there’s plenty of follks (folx) out there who are neither guys nor girls, nor men, nor women, and language is even more uninviting to them. So considering how you speak and what you reinforce—say, the gender binary with the classic “ladies and gentleman”—is very much applicable in this realm as well. (As a straight white woman, I’ve approached this article from my own perspective, so there are countless other nuances that could be picked apart—but you have to start somewhere.)
Never having felt extremely “womanly” myself, I’m super up for inclusive gender neutral terms (as well as clothes: I have very well-developed arms.) Unfortunately, this opens up yet another linguistic can of worms, as gender neutral terms are even more lacking. Again, our first option of “person” is quite distant. And other non-gendered options have their own history—I’d go with “comrade,” but I’m the daughter of an East German refugee and I stand with Ukraine, so that’s anathema to me. We need a gender neutral “guy”… maybe… gux? Maybe not. Consider it a work in progress. Afterall, we’ve been operating in a society oriented around white and male as ground zero: centering women and nonbinary folx in our language is going to take some time.
But we can try: and that’s really all it takes. Instead of flowing along that easy path of the way it’s always been done, push upstream. Be like my feminist ex. Say “all” instead of “you guys.” Say “woman” instead of “girl.” And maybe you’ll feel weird. But that’s the feeling of you SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY. And sure, it’s just language. But it seeps in. And when you’re fighting to include people in the way you speak, well, little by little, that can carry across into the world at large. At least that’s what Foucault told me.
My struggle to be a woman continues, and while it might be too late for my aged millennial self to reprogram, there may still be hope for our next generation. Gen Z is not only turning a critical eye on gender norms but all of gender itself. Pronouns are questioned and invented, individual identities are celebrated, and, dare I say it, we might be seeing a rise of “woman power”. (Admit it: the idea of a group of grown-ass women as the Spice Girls, when you really break it down, is low-key disturbing.) Last year, a full decade after Beyoncė was singing about girls running the world, Doja Cat—a 26-year-old woman—released Planet Her, an “album which explores thoughts, emotions and the woes of being a woman”. One of its hit singles, “Woman,” has been hailed as “an empowering, unabashed ode to womanhood and feminine diversity” and recently made it to the upper ranks of Billboard Hot 100. Now that’s a tune I can dance along with.