Women, put the word out

Sunday morning, February.   We lie in my bed as the light shines through the window.  He picks up my phone to absent mindedly play with it.  I panic and grab it from him. Phones are not to be shared.

Me (smiling): I’m a woman who is very protective of her phone!   

His face grimaces.  

Him: Ugh, I don’t like the word ‘woman’.  You’re not a woman, you’re a girl.”

I smile, bemused.

Me: Are you a boy?

Him: No! I’m a man. 

I laugh.  We’re in the flat I own (he rents), I earn three times his salary, and I have a Masters to his GSCE Levels.  If one of us is a child, it’s not me.


Four years later, Sunday 1 March 2015, I’m sitting in a café near a group of retired women.  The waiter approaches their table, “What can I get you girls”? These “girls” are in their seventies.

Sigh. The word “girl” continues to haunt me.

There are the office “girls”, the girl on reception, the bargirl, the girl at the gym.  Males work in the office, serve at bars etc. but are never called office boys, the barboy, the boy at the gym.

It’s an insult to call a man a boy.  It’s common place to call a woman a girl.   But women are not girls, because adults are not children.

Words.  Words are wonderful.  But they’re also weapons, and they’re powerful.  They subtly reflect and create the views of a culture.

  • Twice today I’ve heard the expression “he’s a family man”. I’ve never heard of a “family woman”.
  • I’m sometimes referred to as a “career woman”. I don’t know that I’ve heard of a “career man”.
  • There’s the word “emasculate” but what is the female equivalent? What’s the word that deprives a woman of her female role or identity?
  • News headlines scream about “murdered girls” who are in their twenties. I’ve not seen a male in his twenties referred to as a boy in the media.
  • Women occasionally talk about their “girlfriends” (e.g. “A few of my girlfriends met up at the weekend”). Why not just “friends”? I’ve never heard a heterosexual male say he’s “meeting his boyfriend for a few drinks”.

Words are important, they make us laugh, reflect, cry.  Without words, we’re grunting animals (too often we’re grunting animals even with words).     

Blurring the line of women (adults) and girls (children) through our words is dangerous.  It sends a subconscious message.  If we call women girls, then the sexualisation of actual girls becomes more acceptable because all females (adults/teenagers/children) are “girls” and since it’s okay to have sex with “girls” (adult women) it becomes mentally acceptable to think sexually about actual girls.  Those “she’s all grown up” media headlines are skin-crawling.

It’s argued that some women prefer to be called girls because it makes them feel younger.  The glorification of youth (particularly female youth) is another problem in itself, though it’s linked to the value of women.  It partners with society’s emphasis on female appearance.  Yes, women can now succeed in business … but they must look “hot” while doing it.

There’s nothing wrong with being a girl, if you are a girl.  Female children (girls) are loud, quiet, funny, serious, strong, vulnerable … they are young humans who encompass all the talents and frailties that humans (young and old) have.  The ad campaign “Run like a girl” poignantly illustrates the negative perception that many people have of girls and this must change.

However we are not girls.  We are women and we need to call ourselves what we are.

I look forward to International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.


Joss Whedon (noted writer/director/producer of feminist characters) gives a fantastic talk on equality for women and discusses the word feminist.  The speech is here as well as a good article about it.

Some great twitter accounts to follow for information about feminism are: @glosswitch @Jsoosty @FeministPics @EllieCumbo

10 responses to “Women, put the word out

  1. Phones are definitely not meant to be shared. They don’t call it an ‘i’Phone by chance.

  2. In the United States “Boy” was used by racists when speaking down to black men no matter what their age. Even now, no one would even consider calling a black man “Boy” for fear of a violent reaction both from the black man and those around them who understand the history of the use of that term. I think the term “girl” has never really had such a negative connotation attached to it and so you hear it a lot more here.

    • If you take that point back a step the question is “Why did the racists use the word ‘boy’ when speaking down to black men?” The answer is because to call an adult man a boy is an insult. They were seeking to talk down to, and demean the black men so they used the word “boy”. It was the same for my father growing up in a Maori environment. The word “boy” was used to keep them in check and to exert power.

      Calling a man a boy has always been an insult which is why it was used by racists towards black men. It has become particularly toxic because of its use by racists, however one needs to look at the reason why it was used in the first instance to understand that the term “boy” for a man has always been unacceptable.

      Calling a woman a girl is also an insult, because calling any adult a child is insulting. It’s become an acceptable term for women when it shouldn’t be. It sends a terrible message towards, and about, women. Your daughter is a child, a girl. Your wife is an adult, a woman, your equal.

  3. Simone,
    I am very guilty of using girl thinking I was ‘complementing’ the woman I was referring to. I have many young women I have mentored over many years and Merry used to refer to them as Geoffy’s Girls and I have taken pride in assisting them in starting their own business. Thank you for providing this counter point. Woman is now the word I will use. Kate and Jane are always going to my girls though and as I refer to and Michael is my boy and will continue to do even when he is married. I’m bursting with pride about them all.
    I do recall often using the word boys in referring to men. “A night out with the boys”, “big boy’s toys”, come on boys lets get this truck unloaded are common in the language of those I mix with. It is the right of the recipient to be referred to in the way they want.
    I hope all is well with you. I admire your ability to communicate and have always enjoyed your posts.

    • Thanks so much for the great, considered and lengthy reply Geoff! It was a pleasure to read such a reflective and thoughtful response.

      Kate and Jane are quite rightly your girls, as Michael is your boy! Nothing remotely wrong about that – in fact, it’s quite touching.

      The term “boys” tends to be used for manual workers, or “blue collar” workers. It doesn’t seem to be used for “white collar” workers. That’s why I use the example of “office girls” but not “office boys”. And I think “boys toys” has only come about because of it rhyming. I suspect if the word for toys was something like “kolamagers” (yes, I made that word up!) then we wouldn’t refer to “boys and their kolamagers”. 🙂

      “Boys” is used when frivolous activity is taking place (a night out drinking, or mucking around with technology or machinery). It’s generally not used for everyday reference to serious (or higher-level) employees.

      I don’t believe people use the word “girl” to deliberately categorise women as girls. It’s just an unfortunate side-effect that’s evolved with our language, and relatively recently too (as the glorification of female youthful beauty has increased via the media). A hundred years ago women weren’t called girls, “ladies” was more frequently used (and a host of other terms ranging in level of respect/disrespect).

      If anything, I’m most keen for women to stop referring to themselves as girls. They/we need to be aware of the message they/we give ourselves and present to the world. Especially as role models for children – the actual girls and boys.

      I’m well, thanks Geoff. Hope you are too. I’m pleased that you’re still enjoying my posts!

  4. I am SO with you on this one Simone. Until a few years ago I was still referring to other women as girls or ladies until some new friends made these same points and opened my eyes to these inequalities.
    It took a lot of mental effort to change, the habit was so ingrained.
    I find it all very fascinating – and so obvious once it’s pointed out!

    • It sets us up to be thought of (by us, by men, and by our own children) as less.

      Labelling us as children makes us less capable, thoroughly dependant, and invalidates our thoughts and opinions. (Why take seriously what a child says/thinks?). That’s the subconscious message being reinforced.

  5. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable using the word “woman” as it sounds like a base term. I am fully guilty of saying girl regularly, or lady.

    • It’s not a base term (think of songs like “I’m every woman” or “I am woman”. They don’t seem ‘base’ do they?). There’s zero wrong with being called a woman. Girl, on the other hand, condescending/patronising/insulting.

      But I forgive you 😉

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