If you are female, which term do you prefer if you had to be labeled by one of these words: “Girl” or “Woman” or “Female” or doesn’t it matter?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I was educated, roughly and roundly, by certain forces in the English Department that one must never call a female a “girl” if she has had her period — how one determines if menstruation has happened or not was never explained — and the correct term for the rest of her life was “woman” but never “lady” because “lady” was an Olde Englishe synonym for “bitch.”

Ladies and gentlemen rightly translated to the modern ear, I was told, as Bitches and gentlemen and it was an unfortunate, but culturally accepted, put-down of women who fought to advance their self-worth beyond being seen merely as property.

Ever since my UNL days I have been careful to always try to get the girl/woman situation correctly sorted and if a young woman is in that grey area between childhood and adulthood, I choose the sterile route of “female” just to be emotionally safe. In New York City and in Washington, D.C. and in Lincoln, Nebraska the girl/woman rule is strongly enforced by females.

In New Jersey, however, I find it odd it doesn’t seem matter as much and I’m not sure why. Women refer to themselves, and to each other, with the “girl” moniker all the time with no ill-effect and men can call women “girls” without getting bashed. I found that so interesting I asked my Newark students one day what they call females and after lots of re-explaining my question and cutting through their “you really are crazy!” looks it was decided the issue I held so carefully within me for 20 years was not an issue for any of them.

I still abide the girl/woman female rule to this day and I always will just to be politically and humanly correct and appropriate and to make sure I never unwittingly insult anyone. I am interested to know how you choose to refer to females.

Do you try to use the first menstrual cycle as your Maginot Line between Girlhood and Womanhood or not?

UPDATE: We discuss “Boy or Man” here.

58 Comments

  1. Good lord, NO! And frankly, I never got those TV shows where a daughter gets her first period and the mother is all estatic saying, “You’re a woman now.” My mother certainly didn’t do that. She was almost apologetic! 😆
    These days, a girl does not become a woman when she gets her period (despite what many girls may think). A girl becomes a woman by developing her own sense of self, finding out who she is, creating a life for herself. A girl who has her first period is nowhere near doing those things.
    I do something rather weird. Women who are my age or younger I still refer to as “girls.” Women who are noticeably older than me I refer to as “women.” Perhaps it’s a desire of not wanting to grow up? 😀

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  2. Good lord, NO! And frankly, I never got those TV shows where a daughter gets her first period and the mother is all estatic saying, “You’re a woman now.” My mother certainly didn’t do that. She was almost apologetic! 😆
    These days, a girl does not become a woman when she gets her period (despite what many girls may think). A girl becomes a woman by developing her own sense of self, finding out who she is, creating a life for herself. A girl who has her first period is nowhere near doing those things.
    I do something rather weird. Women who are my age or younger I still refer to as “girls.” Women who are noticeably older than me I refer to as “women.” Perhaps it’s a desire of not wanting to grow up? 😀

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  3. Carla! — Hmmm… that’s an interesting response! So you use yourself as the Maginot Line between calling females “girl” or “woman” — very centric! But how does a man know when a “girl” has “developed her own sense of self” in order to then refer to her as a “woman?” WE NEED SOME HARD RULES HERE, CARLA!
    The Murdering Kidney! — Don’t get me started on women calling themselves “bitches” — especially on blogs — it is so self-denigrating it makes me bonkers. Those self-proclaimed “bitches” never are and never could be…

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  4. I’m trying to get a handle on this, Carla! Now that I re-read your previous comment I see you were making a joke about women changing their minds, not that “we’re ‘women,’ period, darn it.” Gee! I think it’s time to go back to Nebraska!
    :mrgreen:

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  5. Robin —
    I think women calling each other “bitches” as a term of endearment today turns the stomachs of the early feminists much in the same way young Blacks affectionately calling each other “nigger” turns the stomachs of the early civil rights fighters. It must break all their hearts to hear those terms being bandied about as if they have no cruel meaning today and no dark history.

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  6. Robin —
    I think women calling each other “bitches” as a term of endearment today turns the stomachs of the early feminists much in the same way young Blacks affectionately calling each other “nigger” turns the stomachs of the early civil rights fighters. It must break all their hearts to hear those terms being bandied about as if they have no cruel meaning today and no dark history.

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  7. Robin —
    Hmm… that’s interesting because “Feminism” has a very narrow and specific political meaning in the 19th and 20th Centuries and women fought for equality.
    Do you think re-defining Feminism to suit your own purview is disingenuous to the original intent of the movement?

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  8. Robin —
    Hmm… that’s interesting because “Feminism” has a very narrow and specific political meaning in the 19th and 20th Centuries and women fought for equality.
    Do you think re-defining Feminism to suit your own purview is disingenuous to the original intent of the movement?

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  9. Well…I believe that putting anyone in a category based on biology is somewhat small minded and definitely old fashioned. Being a Woman or being a Man is, unfortunately, a societal definition. I prefer being referred to as who I am in terms of what I have accomplished and what I believe in and being called by my name. What I am trying to say, somewhat unintelligibly, is: why need to refer to us as women or girls? are you stuck with the same conundrum with the difference between boys and men? When does a boy become a man?

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  10. Well…I believe that putting anyone in a category based on biology is somewhat small minded and definitely old fashioned. Being a Woman or being a Man is, unfortunately, a societal definition. I prefer being referred to as who I am in terms of what I have accomplished and what I believe in and being called by my name. What I am trying to say, somewhat unintelligibly, is: why need to refer to us as women or girls? are you stuck with the same conundrum with the difference between boys and men? When does a boy become a man?

    Like

  11. Well…I believe that putting anyone in a category based on biology is somewhat small minded and definitely old fashioned. Being a Woman or being a Man is, unfortunately, a societal definition. I prefer being referred to as who I am in terms of what I have accomplished and what I believe in and being called by my name. What I am trying to say, somewhat unintelligibly, is: why need to refer to us as women or girls? are you stuck with the same conundrum with the difference between boys and men? When does a boy become a man?

    Like

  12. Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’m a lady. I like being a lady. I’ve worked hard in my life to earn the respect of being a lady. It wasn’t always this way, but now I really feel like a lady. My husband treats me like one, and I’m very happy with that. I think all of those rules from U of N are confusing.

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  13. Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’m a lady. I like being a lady. I’ve worked hard in my life to earn the respect of being a lady. It wasn’t always this way, but now I really feel like a lady. My husband treats me like one, and I’m very happy with that. I think all of those rules from U of N are confusing.

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  14. Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’m a lady. I like being a lady. I’ve worked hard in my life to earn the respect of being a lady. It wasn’t always this way, but now I really feel like a lady. My husband treats me like one, and I’m very happy with that. I think all of those rules from U of N are confusing.

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  15. Hey Ro! — Boys and Men is tomorrow’s topic. 😀 The reason biology is used is because you either are or you are not and there is no grey area or third party judgment needed for the definition.
    suzanne! — Wowser! Don’t to back to Nebraska — ever! You’ll be whipped with an Olde Englishe dictionary!
    :mrgreen::!:

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  16. Hey Ro! — Boys and Men is tomorrow’s topic. 😀 The reason biology is used is because you either are or you are not and there is no grey area or third party judgment needed for the definition.
    suzanne! — Wowser! Don’t to back to Nebraska — ever! You’ll be whipped with an Olde Englishe dictionary!
    :mrgreen::!:

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  17. Hey Ro! — Boys and Men is tomorrow’s topic. 😀 The reason biology is used is because you either are or you are not and there is no grey area or third party judgment needed for the definition.
    suzanne! — Wowser! Don’t to back to Nebraska — ever! You’ll be whipped with an Olde Englishe dictionary!
    :mrgreen::!:

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  18. One of my undergrad degrees is in journalism, so I always use the AP Stylebook definition from the late ’80s as it was taught to me.
    A female 18 years of age and over is a woman.
    The same goes for usage of “man.”
    I never heard any of my classmates ever raise an issue or complain about the definition when I was in college in the late 80s. The majority of my fellow journalism classmates were women.
    I wonder if it had to do with the fact that it was in a spiral bound book. If it is in the book, it must be correct!
    I’m curious about the U of N “Maginot Line.”
    Is woman used for anyone “teen” and older, i.e. 13 and up? Is it shifting to a younger age as females have been observed maturing at younger ages?
    I like the idea of 18 and up as the cutoff line since that’s the age of majority.

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  19. One of my undergrad degrees is in journalism, so I always use the AP Stylebook definition from the late ’80s as it was taught to me.
    A female 18 years of age and over is a woman.
    The same goes for usage of “man.”
    I never heard any of my classmates ever raise an issue or complain about the definition when I was in college in the late 80s. The majority of my fellow journalism classmates were women.
    I wonder if it had to do with the fact that it was in a spiral bound book. If it is in the book, it must be correct!
    I’m curious about the U of N “Maginot Line.”
    Is woman used for anyone “teen” and older, i.e. 13 and up? Is it shifting to a younger age as females have been observed maturing at younger ages?
    I like the idea of 18 and up as the cutoff line since that’s the age of majority.

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  20. Hey Chris —
    The legalistic answer is always an solid imperative! It’s interesting how a 17 year old can give birth to a child but not legally sign a contract.
    I believe the biological theory of Maginot Lining… say… children into adults… or Boyz II Men or Grrls 2 Womyn… is if you can make a baby you are no longer a child: With reproduction rights comes the mark of the man or woman — but those ideals were forged when girls were getting their first periods at 14 and not 8 — the world changes but often the worldview remains static.
    I know there are also religious “Maginot Lines” of adulthood and I hope Gordon will join me in explaining that tomorrow.

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  21. I wouldn’t take the monikers so seriously, now-a-days anyway.
    A lot of people have no idea that lady meant bitch or the actual definition of a woman meant getting her period etc… So you can’t fault them for saying ‘ladies and gentlemen’ when they did not mean to insult.
    Definitions of words change throughout different societies and eras, so what might have been true 100 yrs ago, 50 yrs ago etc… might not be true today. I think it’s all in context… 🙂
    Beside I don’t think it’s true a female is made a “woman” by getting her period since a period only means she can reproduce. My definition of woman is complex and is not solely defined by my reprodutive abilities.
    Happy Holidays, and great post!

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  22. Robin — That’s an interesting question! It has to do with outdated and arbitrary conditions of physical age as the arbiter of maturity instead of mental viability or reproductive functionality.
    😀
    Malena — Yes, but just because someone doesn’t know something is historically insulting doesn’t excuse them off the ethical hook, does it? Is claiming ignorance of the law an appropriate defense in court? Unfortunately, ignorance of our shared past is too often used as an “oh, well” defense against insensitivity and cultural abrasion. The very complexity you mention about pinning down labels with universal meaning is precisely why arbitrary standards like age or biology have been historically used to give a social definition to the complicated idea of age and responsibility.

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  23. Robin — That’s an interesting question! It has to do with outdated and arbitrary conditions of physical age as the arbiter of maturity instead of mental viability or reproductive functionality.
    😀
    Malena — Yes, but just because someone doesn’t know something is historically insulting doesn’t excuse them off the ethical hook, does it? Is claiming ignorance of the law an appropriate defense in court? Unfortunately, ignorance of our shared past is too often used as an “oh, well” defense against insensitivity and cultural abrasion. The very complexity you mention about pinning down labels with universal meaning is precisely why arbitrary standards like age or biology have been historically used to give a social definition to the complicated idea of age and responsibility.

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  24. Ok well I’m probably going to screw everybody up now coming in on this but here goes…
    Firstly, a child getting her period is not a woman in my opinion. I call people younger than me like child/teenagers girl and people around my age I call them girls or chicks. Females older than me definitely a woman, they’ve earned that respect.

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  25. As long as I’m treated with respect, I’m okay with woman or lady, although lady sounds ‘old.’
    A girl getting her period does not make a woman, just like a boy getting a deeper voice, growing pubes, or sporting a notch on his bedpost does not make him a man.
    Being an adult is when you learn to take accountability for your actions, and I’m afraid even my own father has not yet become a man.

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  26. As long as I’m treated with respect, I’m okay with woman or lady, although lady sounds ‘old.’
    A girl getting her period does not make a woman, just like a boy getting a deeper voice, growing pubes, or sporting a notch on his bedpost does not make him a man.
    Being an adult is when you learn to take accountability for your actions, and I’m afraid even my own father has not yet become a man.

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  27. Hi.
    No I didn’t mean to argue for ignorance, but the meaning and context of words not only changes from society to society and culture to culture, but even within a community.
    So to call someone a lady in a place where it has never been known as a bad thing isn’t ignorance. A word and it’s meaning often evolves, and new generations use it with it’s new meaning.

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  28. Hi.
    No I didn’t mean to argue for ignorance, but the meaning and context of words not only changes from society to society and culture to culture, but even within a community.
    So to call someone a lady in a place where it has never been known as a bad thing isn’t ignorance. A word and it’s meaning often evolves, and new generations use it with it’s new meaning.

    Like

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