Am I One of the Girls?

A number of years ago, at our university’s annual faculty retreat, conversation turned toward the low number of female students in the engineering major, and the isolation that resulted for the few women enrolled in engineering classes.
“I just don’t know how to help the girls in my class fit in with the men,” one of the engineering professors lamented.

A new faculty member—one I hadn’t yet met—twisted in her chair to look over at the engineer. Without raising her hand as part of discussion’s decorum, she said “It might help if you stop referring to the students as girls and men.”

At that moment, I wanted to raise my fist in a kind of feminist salute. In the least, I knew I was going to really like the new faculty member, once I got to know her (and I do!). The engineer, clearly flummoxed, ultimately dismissed the comment as “unhelpful,” but I think my colleague had diagnosed a problem: how we refer to others can, and often does, influence how we see them.

Which is why I have a strongly entrenched peeve about calling women above about age 18 “girls.” My peeve turns toward more-than-mild irritation in cases as that described here, when college-aged females are called girls, and college-aged males are called men. Believe me, it happens quite often: as in, the girls’ basketball team practices before the men’s; the girls’ dorm is newer than the men’s; the girls will have Bible study, followed by the men.

This dichotomy drives me absolutely batty. Whether we recognize it or not, we are defining how people should see themselves: as full-grown autonomous adults, as “men”; or as children lacking maturity or independence, “girls” still needing the protection and guidance of adults. (And who better than to guide and protect than the men with whom they are attending college?)

So I’ve become really intentional (maybe even strident and bitchy) about the terms people use when talking about women and men. If I know someone well, and that someone says “girl” instead of “woman,” I provide correction, at least as I see it. (For what it’s worth, I also correct my husband when he calls a grown woman “gal,” as in “That older gal who works in the school cafeteria gave me a free smoothie today.” Really? A sixty-year-old woman is not a “gal.”)

But I sometimes wonder if I’ve become an insufferable twit by being so serious about this. After all, I hate it—hate it—when people correct others’ grammar, even though I’m an English teacher and should delight in such things. Why then do I feel it necessary to insert myself into conversation, providing some kind of feminist consciousness-raising about a term that’s been used since forever as a reference for females, young or old? I think I’ve become a blowhard, at least on this particular topic.

Thank goodness for friends who recognize my blowhardiness, and call me on it, but also engage in serious conversation about the ways language helps shape our reality. My friend Heidi has no such qualms about using “girls” to describe older women, but has done a great job of asking me about my own qualms, and teases me about this issue every now and then—saying “hey girls” to a group of women with whom I’m sitting, then giving me a knowing look—just to keep me humble. Heidi mentioned recently that another mutual friend is intentional about calling the females she teaches “women,” but is less concerned about doing so for older women. I appreciate that kind of intentionality, for sure.

In the last year, as Kendra and I have embarked on this project, I’ve been acutely aware of the way messages, both overt and covert, help shape who we believe ourselves to be as women and men created in God’s image. I worry about the unintended messages I send, to my boys, to my students, to my friends. But in this case, I wonder if I’m worrying too much, and if I should just let girls be girls, even if they are forty-year-old women, out on a night with their tribe.

So I also wonder, what do other people think? Should I soften my campaign to compel others toward using “women” to describe grown, well, women? Do I need to lighten up? Because I really do not want to become some crusty old gal, a dogmatic word-lady about the language people use to define themselves and others. But I also worry about becoming just one of the girls, knowing the language we use can be problematic, even when we don’t mean it to be so.