Sunday, August 27, 2006

Women & Girls

I recently asked some of my female students, including 23-30+ year old grad students, why they referred to themselves and their friends as girls instead of women. I feared that their answer would involve the explanation that they didn't consider themselves feminists, but no, they just shrugged and said that the words "woman" and "women" sounded "old" to them. Their mothers are women, they are girls.

I told them that my college and grad school friends were quite insistent on being called women and not girls, in part because the male students were referred to as Men, and it was annoying to be considered a girl when our peers were considered Men. My students said they didn't think of their male peers as men, just as guys, dudes, boys, whatever. My most talented, independent, smart, energetic female students call themselves girls, and I know they see themselves as the equal (or better) than their male peers, so the girl/woman thing clearly doesn't have the baggage that it used to.

My generation drew the line at age 18 or so, but now I wonder where the boundary is for my grad students -- when they get their degrees? get married? get a job? have children? get some wrinkles? Or never? My aged aunt still refers to herself and her friends as "the girls", as did my grandmother. Perhaps there were a few decades in the late 20th century when "woman" was considered a positive term that was worth insisting on, but now that's over.

Even if the women/girl terminology is no longer an issue for some, I still correct my senior male colleagues when they refer to the women grad students (or undergrads, for that matter) as "girls", "gals", or even "ladies", since they do not refer to the male students as boys or guys or gentlemen. And I can't help it.

26 comments:

hypatia said...

I call my friends my age girls (I'm in my late 20's) and the males in our group are 'boys'. Neither is women and men. I don't know when I would cross that line. I don't refer to non-friends that way. And I wouldn't say that it affects my support of the feminist agenda (although if I had reflected on your post and found that I called the boys something other than boys I might have changed what I say).

Anonymous said...

So, at first the "girls" thing bothered me, too. When it started, there were lots of people spelling it as "grrls" and referring to "girl power" as well, and part of my problem with the phenomenon were the number of women using "girls" unconsciously and/or undeliberately. Now I don't mind the whole "girl" thing, except in instances which lack parallelism for males. A few years ago, it was common for me to hear "girls" used with "guys" or the like, but these days I more often hear it used with "boys." That is, that's what I hear from those who are college-age and younger---like you, that parallel doesn't happen so frequently with colleagues.

coturnix said...

"Man" and "woman" are stodgy, official terms, reserved for NYTimes articles and English As A Foreign Language classes. They sound archaic. It sounds weird to use them in casual conversation.

Jenn said...

I think most people don't feel they really have much of an adult identity until they at least finish college. When you are still living in your parents basement, living from paycheck to paycheck and the only thing you might own is a car... it's really hard to feel 'grown-up'. At least I know that's the case with most of my friends and peers.

mapletree7 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mapletree7 said...

I'd love to know the answer to the question you didn't ask. Do they consider themselves feminists?

ScienceWoman said...

It's interesting that you should bring this up. I'm in my 20s and have consciously chosen to call my self "woman" rather than "girl" even though a lot of my peers (married, grad students, mothers) call themselves girl. I think girl has a less formal connotation than woman and has lost some of its age identity. It sounds funny to write to my friends with the salutation "Hi women" whereas "Hi girls" doesn't. But when I chose the name for my blogger persona, I thought that the perspective I wanted to project was that of a woman (not a mother, because I wasn't, but not a girl, because I'm married, own a home, and have a professional career). So I guess what I am trying to say is that some women in the age group of your students have embraced the term "woman" even though we don't necessarily view "girl" as derivative when applied from one female to another.

Anonymous said...

I'm a male, mid-40s, former science professor. I ALWAYS called my college students "men" and "women." To me, it was a sign of respect. Once you have reached college age, you have earned the right to be called a "man" or a "woman."

I realize there's a puzzling period during college and perhaps for a little while afterwards when you don't quite feel like an adult yet. I always hoped that by calling my students "men" and "women," I might be helping them to define themselves as adults in their own minds.

But reading the other posts here, maybe I was wrong!

Louise said...

I love your blog, thank you for doing it.
English is not my first language so i may be wrong but for me, the difference between "girl" and "woman" is also acknowledging a sexual component. I definitively see myself as as good as the men in my scientific abilities and accomplishments but i clearly tone down the potential sexual being part in that environment. Even so, i had enough "awkward moments" in my twenties that i can't help (right or wrong) feeling unconfortable when some male professors (who enjoy exercising their charm on their female students) call their undergrad students "women".

Pam said...

The 'girls' trend makes me cringe. I've tried to lighten up about it - but I can't, and I have a few male colleagues that call their female doctoral students 'the girls' and I correct him all of the time - luckily, we have a positive relationship, and can talk about it - and every now and then I hear him slip a 'the women in the lab' in, and I feel a bit better. I'm pretty cynical about it all though - I can't help but think that referring to a female colleague as a 'girl' is degrading, and I'd also ask the question that Mapletree7 asks: Do they consider themselves feminists? Many of the female graduate students that I see that use 'girls' so freely probably would not consider themselves feminists - that's my guess. Now, the fact that I've been introduced as Ms. Pam professionally while the the person doing the introductions refers to my male colleagues as Dr. So-and-So, is another thing all together!

B said...

well I'm in my mid twenties and in general if I hear someone talking about men, they should talk about women. But if it is just a casual conversation then guys and girls is ok, as long as they aren't making the contrast men and girls I guess. I named my blog 'girl' just because it sounded better than neuroscience woman, and I lack creativity. Anyway I really appreciate your writing!

Keziah said...

I would say "women" rather than "girls" now, but I suppose that has been since I graduated a few years ago. That said, I don't object to hearing us being referred to as "ladies" - it's nice to see some chivalry!

Denise said...

I use either "girls and boys" or "women and men" when describing people, usually based on the formality of the situation. I'm a science graduate student in the physical sciences, myself. I am sure to make sure the people I'm dealing with understand that I am relating to them as competent adults, especially with my students.

Some of the references to "girls" really bother me though, like "college girls" and "coed". The context is very different coming from a younger male grad student as from my mother.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, this got a lot of comments.

I'll be brief. I'm with you on the 'women' vs. 'men' thing, at least my generation still seems to be. But the students coming up who are ~6+ years younger than me (that would be early 20s, if you're counting) refer to themselves as 'kids' and their gender sub-groups as 'boys' and 'girls.'

I'm particularly sensitive to age-ist names, and hated being called 'children' when I was 17. So I find it interesting that kids in their 20s don't want to be considered adults, or that anyone would equate adulthood with- of all things- owning something bigger than a car.

Holly said...

I prefer to use parallel terms (boys/girls; women/men) and would be offended if someone referred to me as a girl (it wouldn't be age appropriate - where is that line anyway?). I can see the argument that guys/girls is less formal but whereas the term guys isn't diminuitive or derogative in society, girls is. What informal term for women is neither diminuitive nor derogative in connotation? Gals doesn't do it for me, neither does chicks. Ladies is formal, like its pair gentlemen. What does that leave?

Laura said...

Hmm, I'm 26, when I'm dealing with friends, usually girls. In the lab, women. There is a usage of girls that truly irks me though: my professor, middle-aged man, refers to the men in the lab as girls when they are dickering or just generally irritating him. If I'm there, and glaring, there is usually an aside that he means this "in the best possible way". Um, yeah.

Pam said...

Laura - re: your professor, that's horrible! Great message that sends. "Best possible way" - ditto on the yeah right. You know what's interesting though? Sure, your professor is an ass, but do you think your fellow male students recognize how inappropriate that behavior is? Perhaps give up on your professor (for now - he sounds clueless) but see if you can at least get the other males in the lab to understand it's unfairness. It isn't just your responsibility to handle inequities - it's everyones.

pierdolapaciencia said...

English is not my mother tongue, but I remember being told by an English teacher that addressing a woman as "woman" sounds rude, however, it doesn't when you call a man with such a name.

In Spanish (which is my first language) I'd rather been called "Señora" instead of "Señorita", although I'm not married, nor do I have children. I'm in my late 20's but I've always felt inclined to the "señora" noun. The reason, because "señorita" sounds like very old fashion; like my spinster great aunts who felt proud with such an identification (remember the moral codes at those times).

Probably because English is not my first language is that I feel more at ease with the term "girl", although I regard myself as an adult, mature woman.

Timothy Takemoto said...

While a lot of males would like to "be a man" or even be called a "real man," it is a shame that so few females identify with the term "woman".

"Like a fish needs a bicycle," they say, but I have a sinking suspiscion that it is worse that just age. It may even be the differences between a female that has male approval, and a female that is independent.

It would be interesting to do a IAT test on the positivity and connotation of woman. The below tests the implicit assumptions regarding gender and choice of major (science or arts).

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/Study?tid=-1

Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps some adult female commentors here don't object to the word "girl" being applied to them but I think that they should listen to the inflection and tone of voice in all cases. For example, an associate of mine always refers to grown adult human females as "ladies" and "girls". He never refers to grown adult human males as "boys". In an office with both male and female workers he will deliberately call the women "girls" or refer to a particular one as that lady ot that girl but never, never referes to any male as a "boy". Never.

The "girl" at the front desk (she's 40 years old). The "girl" in the cubicle by the window (she's in her 30s and has two teenage children). He has never called any adult human female a woman. He refuses to. Has said so, in fact. The tone in his voice when he calls a woman a "girl" or "lady" tells a lot about how he really feels. Its his way of demeaning them. After all, as he tells it, women (or girls) have taken away jobs that belong to men. Also, he goes nuts if a woman contradicts him or in any way is in a position of authority. I guess he feels unmanned. Its truly pathetic.

So, are you girls (= children) or women (=adults).?

Signed, A Grown Adult Human Male

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I attended a women's college, and I was fascinated that my first year I was, all of a sudden, to everyone around me, a woman. At the start of a new year, a professor might call on a student by saying, "Yes, the woman in the green shirt. What is your question?" I remember being called on this way, and turning around to see who the woman in the green shirt was, only to realize with shock that it was me! Students referred to themselves and each other as women, (you might lean over to a friend and say, "who is that women sitting next to the door making the ridiculous comments?") and if you made the unfortunate mistake of referring to the college as a "girls' school" you would be corrected ("women's college") by anyone within earshot. After a while, it became second nature. I am now 27 and would now probably turn around to see who the "girl" in the green shirt might be (probably while wondering why a girl in a green shirt would be in my office!).

Christina said...

Christina:

I'm a 58 year old female. My life experience taught me that 'girls' were young people, maybe under 20...unless an older man in a restaurant was snapping his fingers and calling the waitress 'girl' or maybe something worse.

Now my 60+ female lawyer roommate refers to her office staff as 'girls'. I wonder how she would feel if the judge in her workplace had her recorded as a 'girl' in the court records.

I believe that the term 'girl' applied to women over 20, (while sometimes used affectionately), is a pejorative term, clearly used to diminish females, to deny them personal power and to keep them firmly in their place... at the back of the bus or the bottom of the totem pole.

The fact that this tradition is perpetuated by mature, professional 'girls' makes the term all the more ludicrous and classist.

If the term 'woman' only enjoyed brief popularity and is now passe, then I attribute its demise to the neo-conservative backlash which has also stripped away many other hard won efforts to humanize our power hungry society.

'Til my dying day, I am 'woman'.

Anonymous said...

I also have a problem with being referred to as a "girl", especially when the one calling me a girl is younger than me.
I also noticed in the early 2000's a come back with the "girl" versus "men" mentality. Even when the male in reference was 6 it was "little man" versus at 39 being called "little girl". The worst part of the whole thing was, with some it wasn't OK that I made a "big deal" about being called a "girl" or "little Girl", but it was OK for "them", mostly males to make a big deal about not being able to call me or refer to me as a "girl" or "little girl"?
Strange but true!

Anonymous said...

I think feminists and their agenda have had a deleterious effect on society as a whole...with its aiding and abetting the breakdown of traditional mores (e.g. putting off marriage and having families until much later in life) and especially the idea that careers and essentially doing things that are more masculine way are the right way. Just try to address women as girls in most any professional or social setting and you are most likely to get very quick (and annoyed) correction. As more women than men make up the work force (the majority of college degrees go to women) and supervisory positions, men should beware. However, I must say I find women referring to other females as "that young girl" and it can difficult to ascertain whether the "girl" is age 21 or age 6!

Justin Jones-Fosu said...

Would you be willing to be a guest on a radio show this Friday where we are discussing this very issue?

female Science Professor said...

Thank you for the invitation, but I will not be able to do this.