May 2, 2008

Random Acts of Feminism for May: The Difference Between Women and Girls

Posted in language politics, Random Acts of Feminism at 9:48 am by LB

This is a big pet peeve. I have many times written about language politics. Language matters-we think through language. In an earlier post, I wrote about how girlish is part of the definition of ‘female’ but boyish is not part of the definition of ‘male.’ We seems to see boys and men as different in kind whereas girls and women are the same…and women seem to be dull, old, boring girls.

Our culture has a word to describe males who are not children (boys) but also not in the context of responsible, mature, traditional behaviors of ‘men’ (i.e. 9 to 5 work and nuclear family): they are guys. Males over 18 who are not being spoken of as leaders, or family-men, or who are much older males are guys. Referring to themselves in the familiar are guys. ‘Men’ are either old, powerful, or traditionally ‘male’-burly, virile, etc. Guys have fun, joke around, go out to bars, ogle women…they’re ‘guys.’

We don’t have an analogous word for females in that same category. In earlier times, it was ‘gals.’ I know this isn’t news to probably any of you. Our only options to describe females are ‘girls’ and ‘women.’

Why is this a problem? After all, lots of females themselves use the word ‘girl.’ Well, given the options, it’s understandable why. But that doesn’t make its usage unobjectionable. Don’t forget, we internalize gender expectations too. Culturally, a ‘woman’ refers to an older female, or a female that is wifely or motherly. In usage, it seems to refer to a female who is no longer (or never was) sexually available. Your mom, your aunt, your friend’s mom are women. Moms in general are women. ‘Older’ females (which these days seems to be over 35) are women. Girl is, of course, supposed to be minor females ( under 18 ) or female teenagers. Girl refers to a not-yet mature female, with the requisite naivete, not fully autonomous, and not-yet independent.

But a woman over 35 posed nude in for porn is a girl. Anyone sexual or sexualized is a girl, as part of female sexuality is vulnerability and a certain innocence (who’s also oddly experienced). And other, non-sexual uses of ‘girl’ are completely unexplainable to me. Girl seems to be any female who isn’t an older mom or wife. The key term in a girl as a not-yet mature, independent, autonomous, intellectually developed woman is “yet.” Yet, we persist in defining females who are still sexually available (via age and/or status) as remaining in the “not” phase of young girlhood…females are only seen as mature, intelligent, strong, powerful autonomous females when they are too-old, unsexy, undesirable “women.” As seen recently in the case of Chancellor Merkel, sexuality and real power are incommensurable.

So critiquing the use of ‘girl’ is a political gesture. My suggestion for using it as a Random Act of Feminism? Nonthreatening, yet provocative. For example,”

Person: “I was out the other day, and I saw these three girls standing in a corner…”
Me: “Seriously? They let teenagers into the bar?”
Person: “What do you mean teenagers?”
Me: “Well, you said they were girls…”

Then you can remind them that girls are minor females, and thoughtfully explain the conceptual lack we have for a familiar term to refer to adult females.


  1. Arkhilokhus said,

    Great post.

    In addition to the example you give, I personally try to limit ‘girl’ to referring to minors, and use ‘woman’ for all adult females (unless I’m making a snarky point about an adult female’s lack of maturity). While not perfect for the reasons you mention, it strikes me as a workable solution.

  2. lindabeth said,


    And I forgot to mention that I slip into this too, using the term ‘girl.’ Growing up in it, it’s hard to grow out of it. It’s something we need to work at to unlearn.

  3. Arkhilokhus said,

    I agree about the unlearning – and that applies to so much else, as well. The quote on your page by Gloria Steinem is great. It also makes me think of a bit of Seneca: “You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.”

  4. Arkhilokhus said,

    One other point which I just thought of. Do you think there’s value in not using the term ‘guy’ at all? Maybe just using ‘boy and ‘man’ (for minor and adult males, respectively) could create a parity with the way we have to talk about females.

  5. feistyfingers said,

    all males are boys until they prove otherwise. i’ve met very few men. i’ve recently been tryin to not call myself a girl but feel a fraud when i call myself a woman, (i’m a month shy of 33). i ‘feel’ like a girl but then i think about the connotations such as you’ve marvelously pointed out, then i get annoyed and even more confused.

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