Guys and, erm, Dolls?

Ma’am Missus Miss Ms Woman Girl Lady Female Gal

Recently my attention was drawn to a book review where the reviewer shares this experience.

One night at a dinner table at a wedding, I got into an argument with a female guest about terminology I was using. She was asking about my dating escapades and I kept calling females “girls”. After a while, she took offense:

“We are not girls, we are women.”

I said: “No, I call most females girls. Women are different than girls.”

She asked me to explain my terminology for females*. I responded:

“Girls are girls until they have a baby. Then they become women.”

She asked: “And what do they become after they are moms?”

I said: “Well eventually they become ladies.”

Hrm. When you put it that way, some people will never be adults.

While this guy is obviously (to me) out of touch, I can understand people who refer to women, especially young women, as girls. Aging carries so much baggage and negative repercussions, (especially for women) that it is quite understandable for people to tread carefully. I fully understand feeling reluctant to call a woman “ma’am” or refer to her as a “woman” lest you are taken to be calling her, gasp, old.

At the same time, referring to adult women as girls fits right in with the trends set by advertisements that sexualize children, and infantilize women. A trend which is problematic for all sorts of reasons.

So what do you call female people? I tend to use “lady” a lot. I understand that for many people “lady” feels behaviorally proscriptive- which is to say you have to fit in a box in order to qualify as a lady. It doesn’t carry that baggage for me. I hear it as a respectful term, the feminine equivalent of “sir.” What do you think?

Also, I can’t have this conversation without hearing this in my head:

*Just in case you didn’t know, don’t use ‘female’ as a noun when talking about people. Just… don’t.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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26 Responses

  1. KLC says:

    If lady is the female equivalent of sir then it doesn’t work for me. How many times do you refer to men you interact with as sir? I’d wager never, same as me. The problem is that the word guy is a casual way to refer to men. A lot of people use girl as the female equivalent to guy. It’s not ideal but is there a female equivalent for guy that carries no baggage?

    • Corktree says:

      Once upon a time I wondered if it was weird to refer to a group of mixed company as “guys” in casual conversation. And then I noticed that a group of women could be referred to this way as well. I’m sure it’s what we’ve appropriated “guy” to mean in our culture, but I always take note of it. Correspondingly I’ve tried to purposely use the terms “gals” as equivalent. Though it never sounds quite right.

      In addressing women I use “ladies” a lot, but in reference I try to use “women”. I’m sure I’ve used “girl” here and there, but it sounds weird so I think I only do it lightly as in”Going out with the girls” type of comments.

  2. Macha says:

    The use of different words for women before and after giving birth seriously reminded me of how you refer to livestock – female bovine are “heifers” until they have a baby, then they’re “cows.”

    Just the same as how I don’t think I need to be referred to differently after I get married (I’m a Ms.), I think using different terminology for someone before or after they’ve had a baby demeans women who don’t want children, because they’ll always be girls, children, by that logic.

    My habit is to call people what they want to be called. So I might be saying women or girls (which I use almost interchangeably), but if someone says “please don’t call me/us that,” then I’ll respect their feelings.

  3. Whoa-man says:

    I always use women, woman, or some variant of that (Whoa-man he he). Sometimes I use young women/woman.

    To me it is ageless, powerful, and unifying. I remember being called a woman when I was a teenager and it made me feel so autonomous and capable.

    I started using this for others when I began teaching in Relief Society. At our first teacher training our RS president tried to emphasize the need to not refer to everyone mothers. We crunched the numbers and it became clear that only about 40% of the women in our RS were mothers with children in the home, but most of our lessons talked about how to apply that principle to mothering or child rearing. Also, we had a number of women in the ward struggling with infertility. What I took away from that experience was that the one thing we all had in common (besides the gospel) was being women. Since then I’ve tried to emphasize our womanhood, etc.

    I think it’s important because in most waves of feminism the discussion devolves into how we are different (i.e. race, nationality, socio-economic status, religion, SAHM, working mom, childless, etc.) instead of being firmly rooted in and celebrating how we are the same!

    As a side note, this hasn’t gone over very well in my ward. I have been told by the bishop that many ladies in the ward think I don’t talk about motherhood enough and when I do I “take it lightly.”

  4. Caroline says:

    Great post, Starfoxy.

    I almost invariably refer to adult females as “women.” I learned to do this at 18 when I went to a women’s college. Professors, administrators, and upper classwomen always referred to females as women. It sounded strange to my ears — the term was used to describe us first years — but I embraced it after a year or two. I learned that referring to adult females as girls was infantalizing, and the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with it.

    Though I realize that not all feminist women go along with this. I’m always a bit startled when I read something from Joanna Brooks’ “Ask Mormon Girl” column. I adore her stuff, but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around a 40ish feminist woman who refers to herself as a girl. (Don’t hate me if you see this, Joanna!)

    I don’t use the term “lady” because I think it has a class dimension to it and that it’s therefore on the divisive or circumscribed side. When I first heard that, my reaction was ‘huh?” I had never thought of it like that, but I see it now.

  5. CatherineWO says:

    I have to side with using “women” for all adult females, and I like “young women” for teenagers. “Girls” brings to mind the ten and under set, and “ladies” has always denoted a class distinction for me. I like the use of the term “sisters” for all ages in a church, or sometimes non-church, setting, but I seldom use Sister or Brother as a title, preferring to use first names, (but that’s another discussion, I suppose).

  6. Jessawhy says:

    When I was growing up, my uncle used to call all of his daughters and nieces “Ladies!” in a strained, nasaly voice when he wanted our attention. It has never sounded like a good word after that.

    I’m beginning to head towards using “women,” but I’m afraid I use girls more often now. The more I think about it, the more I think I don’t refer to an anonymous group of women very often. I’ll say, “My friends” or “The sisters in RS.” But maybe I do use woman more often.

    It’s just another word people need to get used to using, then it becomes normal.
    When I was growing up the word “babies” freaked me out. I didn’t mind “baby,” but for some reason the plural was too embarrassing or something. I hated hearing it and would never say it. Sometimes we just have things with words.

  7. I learned how to use “women” exclusively when I hit law school–I certainly didn’t learn it at BYU! (You don’t really realize how gendered our Mormon cultural language is until you leave it.) Now I teach my children (and this is reinforced at their schools) to use “woman” and “women,” so that it will come naturally to them in a way it didn’t to me when I was growing up.

    As for “guys,” I think that for Gen X (which includes me) and younger, it has become a non-gender-specific term in the plural. I do sometimes use “gals,” even though one of my friends totally *hates* that word. 🙂

  8. Rita says:

    Years back when I was YW pres, my counterpart in YM always referred to us as the ‘little gals’. I know he didn’t mean any harm by it but it always made me bristle. I prefer women, woman, young women and girls for children.

  9. Mark N. says:

    When I was growing up, my uncle used to call all of his daughters and nieces “Ladies!” in a strained, nasaly voice when he wanted our attention.

    A Jerry Lewis fan, possibly. That’s who I think of when I hear the word “lady”, especially if it’s followed by a verbal exclamation point.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Mark N.
      I wish he was a Jerry Lewis fan. The strained nasaly voice was just his regular speaking voice 🙁

  10. Stan Beale says:

    I Taught Sociology for a number of years. In one part of a lesson I would state, “Remember, girls gossip and men exchange information.” I would then add “OK I was sexist in two different ways, what were they?

    I originally thought the girl/man usage would be a might difficult. But I was suprised to find that I would have to repeat my first comment two or three times before someone caught it. It was very interesting to then get responses to my follow up questions.l Why do you think the men did not see the girl/man difficulty? Why did women not see it? What are the consequences of using such wording?

  11. Kmillecam says:

    I hadn’t known about the class dimension to using the word “ladies”. That helps me clear up my hesitation to use it. Thanks 🙂

  12. Duerma says:

    I tend to use “gals” with females about my age and “ladies” for those who are older. I think I use “girls” until said female is out of college, or of the age where she should be (ie 21-23ish). The terms “women” and “young women” feel kind of stilted to me, and so I don’t tend to use them except to refer to groups in general (ie, I’d never say “I saw a movie with several women last night” but I might talk about “the women of the Relief Society” or something).

    Honestly, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a “woman” because it still seems like a term for someone older than me… despite the fact that I’m 28 and I’m pregnant with my 4th child. :p

    • cherylanne says:

      Ask yourself why women have to have all these definitions put on us? Why does society have this need to qualify whether women are young, old, mothers or not, ma’ams or misses? Men are just men and they’re just sirs for the most part. To me, when women equivocate on being called women they are bowing to a sexist system that wants them to stay one down. I know language is very powerful in a culture and the fact that men are men and sirs and women a hundred other things says something.

  13. I feel so uncomfortable being called a woman. (For the record, I’ve never had a kid/been married.) I remember the first time I was called “lady.” It bugged me to no end. I had to assure myself that the mentally handicapped girl who said it (I guess you could insert “woman” there) didn’t really mean it that way. I had no assurances when I was called “ma’am.” I generally call people girls until about the same level as StarFoxy.

  14. alex w. says:

    I’m not sure what I prefer with this. I try to not use “girls” when I’m talking about grown women, but if I’m talking about me and my friends (most of us are 22-ish), we’re “us girls” or something of that variety. I think this is directly connected to my feeling that I’m still at that ambiguous young adulthood where I’m not a woman because I’m still semidependent on my parents, and I don’t feel like I’m old enough to have kids (although plenty of …girls…I went to high school with apparently have decided that they are old enough). If people my age refer to me as a girl, that’s okay, but if they’re older, I feel like they’re seeing me as a little kid, not a young adult.

    So yeah, it’s complicated with me. I’m transitioning, I guess.

    Oh, and I don’t go for “lady” or “ladies” because of Demetri Martin. Haha.

  15. Brittany says:

    Even though I’m almost thirty, I still feel 17, so it always catches me off guard when someone calls me a woman, although I still get asked which highschool I’m graduating from this spring (even though I’m getting my masters). Being called a woman makes me feel powerful and strong. I work with a lot of men, and I notice that when I challenge their thought processes they will often through in “young” titles such as “young lady” or “girl” so I’m very careful not to do the same to my gender regardless of the situation. Also, even though I’m married, I don’t like being “Mrs. so-and-so”, I prefer “Ms. so-and-so” I feel that if men get to be a Mr. their whole lives regardless of marital status, my marital status shouldn’t reflect my prefix either. So I’m always “Ms.” and am careful to always call other women Ms as well – I’m careful not to assume too much.

  16. Jessawhy says:

    I think this has been mentioned, but for me the biggest issue is that women want to stay young (think Rapunzel) while men want to be more experienced and wiser. The value we place on age is for a woman to be young and a man to be old. It clearly shows in the way we talk about men and women.

    • cherylanne says:

      Put it another way: men are to grow powerful and preserve that power. Women are to be forever in the weaker position and subservient. “Young” as in green and inexperienced. Certainly not powerful and definitely not equal.

  17. Jennie says:

    Two cents: As a woman who is struggling with infertility, if someone referred to me as a girl for the sole reason that I don’t have a baby yet, they wouldn’t be able to get a word in around all the ranting I would be doing.

  18. LovelyLauren says:

    I’m only 20, but I make a specific choice to refer to myself as a woman. When I was writing for the school newspaper, that’s how we were instructed to refer to students, as men and women and it got me to thinking that I really prefer being referred to as a woman than as a girl. I think being called a girl was fine until I was out of high school, but at the point that I’m away from home, trying to be my own person, I think I deserve to be called a woman without any sort of stigma.

  19. cherylanne says:

    I never heard such a stupid crock of smelly BS. A girl is someone who hasn’t given birth, a woman has, an old woman is called a lady? WTF.

    Any female 20 and older is a woman. Period. Unless she is doing “girls night out” or hanging out with the “girls” or being otherwise addressed with her women friends as in “how are you ladies tonight?” is she to be referred to as anything else but a woman.
    This patriarchal society wants women to remain girls and they scare and punish us with the fear of aging, invisibility, and the sting of sexual disqualification that lies behind these fears. F* that sh*t. I’m a WOMAN. I am not a vulnerable, immature, naive girl. I’m a grown a** woman in her thirites and I’ve earned my title.

    I find it weird that in some gambit to emphasize their youth or ward off ageing or something that some women prefer to be called girls. I hear you Lovely Lauren, you’re young, but you are a woman. Woman does not mean “old,” not that there is anything wrong with being old in my mind. It only means you are not young and you have lived quite a long time. Once upon a time, being old meant having wisdom, stature and honor. I don’t know how this society got off the rails to arrive at a place where old has a derogatory connotation.

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