This article is an excerpt from Jessica Bennett’s new book, Feminist Fight Club.
Here are a few words and phrases I wish I could avoid hearing about myself: “Aggressive,” for going after a promotion. “Controlling,” as said by an ex-boyfriend, when I made household decisions. “Crazy,” as I was called by a female editor who didn’t like my attitude. “Difficult,” when I asked for more money on a magazine assignment. “Bitchy,” when I turned down another writer’s pitch. I’ve been called “emotional” for raising my voice, “hysterical” for getting angry, and a “stalker” for being persistent. I had a (male) colleague who frequently told me “not to worry my pretty little head” and was recently asked by a (female) journalist about my marital status, for an article she was writing about combating gender bias.
Most of us don’t think much about the subtleties of language. It flows out of our mouths, sometimes we regret it, most of the time we move on. But when it comes to women, words matter more than we might think. Remember in 2008, when a John McCain supporter asked of Hillary Clinton, “How do we beat the bitch?” McCain laughed, quipping awkwardly that it was an “excellent question.” But research has shown that even subtly sexist words—not just “bitch,” but say, “shrill”—influence voters’ likelihood of supporting a candidate, and whether they support female politicians at all. There once was a guide for this kind of thing, and one I happen to have on my bookshelf, stolen from an old Newsweek library where it had been checked out exactly once. It’s called The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, by the feminist writers Casey Miller and Kate Swift, and it’s full of charming 1980s advice: they traced the evolution of “man,” advised on the propriety of “girl” versus “gal,” and poked at the question of whether “housewives” should be referred to as “working women” (“What are housewives if not working women?” they asked). There is no real handbook equivalent today—but there should be [Editor’s Note: A similar endeavor, The Responsible Communication Style Guide, is currently under development].
Here’s a crib sheet to get you started.
She’s called “aggressive,” while he’s called “assertive”—and yet they exhibit the exact same behaviors.
As in, brave. Why does bravery have to be associated with male anatomy?
Which actually means to exhibit boss-like qualities, which you’d think would be a good thing. Except that women are so fearful of being called this word that, according to a Girl Scouts study, young women will actually avoid leadership roles in order to dodge it.
Men disagreeing: strong in their convictions, admirable, simply doing business. Women disagreeing: catfight! Hair pulling! Potential for shirts to be torn open! Quick, come watch!
A catchall put-down for any woman you don’t like/who makes you uncomfortable/who doesn’t fit the mold.
Is she actually dramatic, or do you perceive her that way because she’s female?
Or: how women are perceived when they express anger or displeasure at work, while a man who does the same is simply viewed as “passionate.”
In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major party ticket, “was described as ‘feisty’ and ‘pushy but not threatening,’ and was asked if she knew how to bake blueberry muffins. When she stood before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, anchor Tom Brokaw announced: “Geraldine Ferraro … the first woman to be nominated for vice president … size six!’”
When Shonda Rhimes was sent a draft of a press release for an event she was set to headline—calling her “the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood”—she crossed out “female” and “black” and sent it back. When we can remove qualifiers from these superlative phrases—because nobody would ever call somebody the “most powerful white male showrunner”—then our work here will be done.
Great for talking about your girl gang. But if you are in a professional setting, and you’re speaking about a woman, and you’re not referencing the HBO series, please try to call us women.
“Having It All”
Can Wendy Davis have it all? Can Carly Fiorina? What about Shonda Rhimes? And while we’re at it, how do these women do it all? Tina Fey has declared this “the rudest question you can ask a woman,” and its answer is simple: we’re doing it the same way a dude would, except that he doesn’t have to answer questions.
Do you use “he” when really you mean “person”? Alternatives include “they,” “she or he,” and “one.”
An appropriate way to describe a brisk winter day, not the personality of a woman.
A word that you should never call a woman in a professional environment no matter how cute and youthful she is.
Or its younger sister: Girly. What makes somebody ladylike, anyway? If these terms don’t tell us something about a subject beyond the fact that she is female, it’s safe to assume they are sexist filler.
In the sense of chairman, spokesman, fireman when really this person could be male or female.
She’s a mistress, and he’s … what, a player who had an afair? Mrs. “Mr.” doesn’t communicate whether or not a man is “taken,” so how ’bout we try “Ms.” (or even “Mx.”)
A word reserved for a woman who asks twice. Nice It’s nice that you think she’s nice. But what about an adjective with more there there? “Te problem with nice,” says Robin Lakof, “is that women have to be it … or else.”
“You’re not perky enough for me,” the writer Gay Talese once told a female teaching assistant, after she declined to make him tea. Tea request aside, serious question: Have you ever met a man who was expected to be perky?
And other physical descriptions you should avoid using when actually trying to describe a woman’s qualifications. By which I mean cleavage, cankles, haircuts, pantsuits, whether she is blond, blue-eyed, or petite—all irrelevant to a woman’s abilities.
See crazy. Questions We’re talking here about mindboggling idiotic inquiries you’d never put to a man. Such as: Will spaceflight afect your reproductive organs? What do you wear to the gym? Will hormones affect your ability to do the job?
Or, she who dares to express an opinion.
Because works of great importance must come from a man’s crotch. (No, really, the linguistic origin of this word is semen.)
A word that—along with sisters “shrieking” and “screeching”—is used twice as often to refer to women than men. It is true that women naturally have higher-pitched voices than men.
She’s a slut, he’s a stud. Double-standard alert! Testy I’ve never heard a man called testy, have you? Uppity A word applied to women, and often black women, who speak their minds.
All hail the vagina!! A great word–—except when it’s sister P-word is used to refer to somebody who’s “weak.” If there is one thing that is the opposite of weak, it is the vagina. You try pushing a baby out of one.
Or a nonsense term based on some sort of archaic idea about what it means to compartmentalize your life into work and home. In short: impossible.
To talk at length in an annoying way. The stereotype: that it’s women who are doing most of the yapping. The truth: when women and men are together, it’s men who do most of the talking. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.