(In observation of Women’s History Month and today, March 8, International Women’s Day.)
I am grateful to have grown up in the 1960s, when the capitalistic post-war, consumptive era was challenged. Corporations, money, power and greed were eschewed and swapped out for a spiritual, back-to-the-land, anti-war stance that embraced all beings as equal. It was truly a revolution.
Women have struggled for equality since the beginning of time, but what we know now as The Women’s Movement has been sporadically active since the early 1800s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the focus was Women’s Suffrage, which birthed women’s right to vote.
The movement picked up steam and blossomed again in the 60s as part of the massive cultural changes of the times. It was called the Women’s Liberation Movement, and its focus was freedom from male dominance and oppression. Women wanted equality, not discrimination, socially, culturally and politically.
Business and politics were run by white, wealthy, educated males. Men were seen as more important and valuable, and their jobs were held in higher esteem than women’s jobs. Women were considered lesser beings, who existed to serve them, and it showed in the way men spoke to and about them, for instance, referring to them as ‘girls.’
My dad called his receptionist ‘my girl,’ even though she was in her late 20s and not his daughter. I worked in an office when I was 21, and we were ‘the girls in Larry’s office,’ even though my female supervisor had children about my age.
Men want to be considered men, but insist on considering us girls – lesser than them, not adults. A small change in terminology would give us more respect, put us on a more level playing field and bring us that much closer to equality. When men use the word ‘women,’ we feel respected, and men gain respect by recognizing our value. The word ‘girl’ connotes a prepubescent female still dependent, weak and needy, and I don’t know any woman who wants that projected onto her.
I posed this question of terminology to several friends last week and asked for their thoughts on men referring to grown women as ‘girls.’ I used these examples to make my point:
> A man comes home from a store, and says, ‘The girl behind the counter was very helpful,’ even though that woman may be 40 years old. A woman would never come home, and say, ‘That boy behind the counter was very helpful,’ when she was dealing with a 40 year old man. We never refer to men as boys, but they insist on calling us girls. This keeps us from being equal.
> In the workplace, when men consider women to be girls, the message is that we are lesser and unable to move up. This perpetuates the idea that men and their jobs are more valuable, and psychologically, it keeps capable women from feeling confident enough to advance. It takes a lot of work on a woman’s part to be recognized for her work. Even if she is, Gloria Steinem recently said that women are making ’70-some cents on the (male) dollar.’ If men thought of and treated us as valuable and productive women instead of little girls, I think this would change, and equality would be closer.
Here are some responses from my women friends:
“Continuing to call women, girls, is a way to keep women second class citizens and perpetuate the myth that we can’t take care of ourselves. It’s men that put language in the health care bill that will limit women’s rights to be in charge of their own health care, women’s right to privacy. Calling me a girl as standard is NOT ok. I am not a fifty-something girl. I have earned the right to be ‘woman’…..we all did! It’s called RESPECT!”
“I’m single, independent and do have men friends. If they ever referred to me as a ‘girl’ or ‘doll’ or ‘dear,’ I would find it degrading. I would question what they thought of me and would feel like I was a second rate citizen.”
“Don’t you hate it when they call us ‘ladies’ in a condescending tone of voice?”
“I used to be really pissy about being called a ‘girl’ but now I’m more relaxed. I certainly see that it demeans women, but I think the way it is used is important.”
“Here’s another thing to consider: why does girl necessarily imply weak and helpless? Why not associate the term with youthful vigor, potential, energetic innocence?”
“I’ve been employed in male-dominated industries for the bulk of my professional life. Succeeded in most. I let ‘girls’ roll off my back and let my work speak for me. …. Men value results. Produce. Do. Show. … It doesn’t mean that we need to conform to a ‘man’s world.’ What it does mean, I think, is that we need to look inward and validate our own worth, irrespective of externally applied labels. … You can call me bitch, girl, babe, hun, shug, c*nt ,…whatever. That’s not my concern – it’s the warped value system of the person labeling me that creates and assigns the label.”
Pretty powerful women! Those are certainly not the thoughts of girls!
I asked a few men if they used the word ‘girls’ to talk about women:
“Individually, I usually carefully refer to females after college as women. Generically, however, I often refer to females as girls and males as guys up to say 50. Then they become men and women.” I asked this friend if this is an issue with his partner, and he said yes and that she corrects him.
“I would say ‘the girl at the counter’ if she were a girl. I’m very conscious of NOT referring to someone that way if she’s old enough or mature enough, and I really can’t say how I determine that. But except for speaking ironically or as a term of endearment (to my wife), I don’t call women ‘girls.’ It sounds like something my father would have said. Like out of the ’40s or something.”
The men are making a conscious effort to realize the difference. I appreciate that.
I believe a simple change in terminology would begin to level the playing field. It’s so simple to change one word to affect major change in our society and ourselves. It is said that if you do something for three weeks, it becomes habit. It is also said that when you change a thought, your perspective changes. Changing ‘girl’ to ‘woman’ would, no doubt, be a positive change for everyone.
Please call us women, not girls.