Woman Yes, Girl No

Equal Rights 1970 March (Public Domain)Although we were young, in our teens and twenties, we were not girls. We were women — young women who felt and understood the gross inequality between the sexes, with women required to perform the mind-numbing drudgery of cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and care-giving, practically from cradle to grave. And even when we were able to land jobs outside the home, we were paid half the wages men were and treated with condescension.

WLM-picture-of-logoDuring this, Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day approaching, it’s good to remember our struggle. We never asked for “girls’ liberation,” nor “ladies’ liberation,” either. Girls were adolescent females and their liberation would come when ours did, as a result of our struggles. Ladies were a fiction, some unreal ruling class standard of behavior that reduced women to their social manners. Ladies’ liberation would never arrive, because in a world where people have equality, nobody would choose to restrict his or her behavior to that of a helpless “lady.”

For a while, women’s liberation was in the news and in people’s consciousness. But without a fundamental change in society, backsliding is inevitable. Those with privileges wangle things so they can retain their privileges. And public consciousness, fueled by movies, television, and advertising, couldn’t let go of the notion that “girl” was the appropriate word for an adult female.

B465_DontCallMeGirlSome avoid “woman” because it’s too powerful a word. Others think that only “girl” connotes fun, adventure, youth, and sexiness. Some think they want to be called “lady” because that term implies respect. Others think that “lady” is something better than a woman.

Well, there’s nothing better than a woman. During this, Women’s History Month, it’s wise for every woman to think about what she is, especially in relationship to children, adolescents, and adults of the other sex. When I was teaching college, the question of sexual equality was a hot topic of the day. Looking back on those days, I recently wrote a poem about how my students responded to the issue.

        Equivalency Tests

        Writing boy on the blackboard
        I ask my students, thirty
        college freshmen, the female
        equivalent. Girl, they all
        reply, wondering where this
        might be going. Next I write
        gentleman and ask the same
        question. Slower responses,
        and fewer, but they call it
        right: lady. I write man and
        look at them.

        Total silence.

        Finally, a hesitant,
        questioning response — woman?

        Confused, unsure, they have come
        to immaturity in
        a world which has never taught
        there’s a female parallel
        of man.

        They are too staggered
        to even think the thought, too
        stunned to use the even word

(For more poems such as this one, see Crossing the Skyway.)