By Jo Bartosch
About two weeks a drunk man started to follow me and my partner home. He felt it his civic duty to tell us why we didn’t need feminism. The opening remark of this public spirirted intellectual was ‘the girls at my work get paid the same.’ Setting aside the frustrations of trying to explain structural oppression to someone who is only capable of understanding the world in relation to his direct experience, what immediately struck me was the use of the word ‘girl.’ I have no doubt that this large, hairy cro magnon man would have been insulted or indeed confused if he were called a ‘boy.’ Naturally when I challenged this I was immediately reminded of what a sheltered and deluded middle-class bitch I am.
The use of the term ‘man’ by beatniks and then hippies in the US from the 1950s onward was originally an attempt to show solidarity with the Black struggle for civil rights. It was common for adult Black men to be called ‘boy’ by white people in the U.S. Calling one another ‘man’ was a political acknowledgement of common humanity and a rejection of racist hierarchies (at least in principle). Parallels between different forms of oppression are seldom clean, and whilst I’m not suggesting the situation is the same, the historic diminishment of the status of Black men through language and the use of ‘girls’ to describe adult women of all colours is hard to ignore. This isn’t to say the intent is always conscious; oppression often seems normal which makes it all the harder to spot.
There is nothing inherently rude about the word woman, and yet many people will say anything they can to avoid the word. If you’re reading this and ready to tell me that there are more important issues and that I’m privileged then rest assured, I agree. Nonetheless, language matters and the reluctance of people to change their speech is telling in itself. Psychologists have long understood that the process of learning to speak is intimately connected to the dawning of self awareness. The louder that people shout ‘PC Gone Mad’ the more I’m inclined to think the reasons for reluctance to change speech run deep. The power of language to both reflect and create the world around us should not be underestimated; it gives voice to our thoughts and guides our perceptions.
‘Pigs sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow.’
To begin with it sounded clunky and a bit rude. Standing at a checkout with my then five year old niece and instructing her to ‘hand the money to the woman’ felt disrespectful. Obviously the person at the till was a ‘lady’ because ‘woman’ just sounds a bit… gynaecological. Had a man been sitting on the checkout I wouldn’t have hesitated or hedged, and I wouldn’t have felt the need to describe him as a ‘gentleman’; ‘man’ you see, is the respectable norm. Both in etymology and society a ‘woman’ is a deviant man.
Why do women, in order to be respectable, have to be called ‘ladies?’
There is a shameful history of working class people being considered as bestial. As ever, BAME women bear the brunt of this embedded cultural prejudice. The connotations of the marked trope ‘working woman’ should provide whatever proof may be needed. ‘Lady’ is polite; the addition of class raises our wayward sex from our natural inclination to be voracious sexual animals. A lady wouldn’t do anything gross or visceral, ladies are chaste and respectable.
All words are weighted, but ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are not evenly balanced. Whether you’ve noticed or not, the disparity between the way the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are used is a direct reflection of the sexual double standard. Unless you happen to be in the House of Lords please try to refrain from casually referring to women as ‘ladies’ in situations where men are not called ‘gentlemen.’ It’s shit.
Weather Girls and Weathering Women
Every advert reminds us that we are valued on the basis of our youth and attractiveness to men. Even the coverage of women Olympians too frequently focuses on appearance over achievements. Defining adults as ‘girls’ lessens our sexual threat; language is never incidental, it echoes and voices deeply buried prejudice. Reluctance to use the word woman is a reflection of the fear we all hold of women. Whether apparently knowingly ‘reclaimed’ or carelessly dropped into conversation, describing adult women as ‘girls’ infantilises women and it matters. If it didn’t, our offices would be filled with boys who would enjoy boys’ nights out buying drinks from barboys.
Making a conscious choice to say ‘woman’ will not push the patriarchy to crisis, and it might sound clunky and seem rude, but by proudly using the word ‘woman’ we can take a tiny but important stand against sexism inside and outside our own minds.
‘A man’s sentence is unsuited to woman’s use’ Virginia Woolf