Girl Talk

Why have we devolved from 'women'?

Because we have tethered a dry erase marker to our bathroom mirror, it has come to function as a de facto white board. The notes we leave to each other—about an impending housing lottery, say, or about the necessity of replacing the hand soap—invariably begin with the same salutation: “Girls:”

This is also how refer to our peers: “Do you know that girl?” we’ll ask each other, or, “Do you see that girl over there?” Anecdotes about section or about extra-sectional cattiness almost always begin, “So there’s this girl—.” We are about as likely to call ourselves “women” as we are to call ourselves “crones.”

Although I noticed this linguistic phenomenon early in my Harvard career, it didn’t bother me very much. After all, the young men of our acquaintance weren’t “men”; they were “guys.” Weren’t “guys” and “girls” roughly equivalent in their slangy informality? And wasn’t calling ourselves “girls” and “guys” rather than “men” and “women” just a harmless sign of our prolonged adolescence? Why insist upon calling myself a “woman” when I was in no real hurry to grow up and assume the burdens of adulthood?

And then last week I read a newspaper story about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—the World War II-era women’s baseball league you’ll probably remember from “A League of Their Own.” In the article, a feisty ex-pitcher recalled her career as a pitcher for the Rockford Peaches. She said, without any real rancor, that her skirted uniform stopped four inches above her knee, and that the league, early in its history, ran a charm school for its players. Suddenly, the league’s title grated. “Girls” seemed as antique and demeaning as the skirts or the charm school. Wasn’t our use of “girls” equally suspect?

Concerned, I called a convenient authority on feminism—my mother, who as a young woman interned for Bella Abzug, and whom I suspect of having once been a radical. (I was once convinced that she was an ex-member of the Weather Underground very effectively disguised as a suburban matron, due to her liberal leanings and a suspicious lack of anecdotes about her past.) Anyway, she confirmed that replacing “girl” with “woman” had once been a central concern of feminists:

“We, the children of the sixties, were all radicalized during the anti-war movement. But it turned out that the radical left was quite sexist, relegating the ‘girls’ to traditional get-the-coffee, type the letters roles. This signaled to all of us that sexism runs deep and symbolized the subordinate role that males, whatever their political stripe, thought should be our lot. Look, Sandra Day O’Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law and the only job she could get out of law school was as one of the ‘girls’ in the secretarial pool at a law firm. So I guess that we rallied against the word ‘girls’ because it became shorthand for the refusal of the male chauvinist pigs to treat us as mature adults who could assume responsible roles in society rather than as their girl servants .”

For our post-feminist generation, these concerns about use of “girl” seem petty and dated. Girls born in the ’80s grew up enjoying the benefits of Title IX; this year, more women than men were admitted to Harvard. In many ways, we take our basic equality with young men for granted. But “girl” is not exactly analogous to “guy”; we do not call the men of our acquaintance “boys.” The infantalizing connotations of “girl” that so concerned women of my mother’s generation still cling to the word.

The trouble is, of course, that there is no obvious replacement for “girl” in our lexicon. Britney neatly summed up the problem when she moaned that she was not a girl, and not yet a woman: No term for the middle ground has gained common currency. Seeking to remedy this, I proposed some options to a focus group consisting of my roommate.

“’Lass?’” I asked her. “What if we called ourselves ‘lasses’?” My roommate chortled. I discontinued the experiment and resorted to reference books. Unfortunately, the copy of The Underground Dictionary (circa 1971) that I borrowed from the Winthrop House library does not offer any attractive options; I cannot imagine referring to myself or to young women of my acquaintance as “babes,” “birds” or “foxes.”

We ought not, though, to allow ourselves to be trapped in perpetual girlhood because of a poverty of language. After all, some of the aptest sociological terms in our language—“WASP,” say, or “Yuppie”—are of relatively recent coinage. We may not yet feel comfortable calling ourselves women—but we need not call ourselves girls by default. We might, for instance, begin refer to ourselves as “dolls”—a term both more precisely equivalent to “guys” and one that also suggests a certain ironical tough-broad panache. Dolls, are you in?

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.