Calling a woman a woman

The apparently vexed question of what men ‘should’ call women keeps resurfacing. It is not in fact a vexed question. It is a simple one.

If a woman states clearly that she would prefer not to be called a girl, then do not call her a girl. If a woman asks that you not refer to her as a lady, then do not call her a lady. If a woman says hey guys I know you are really confused and desperately oppressed so please, fill this conversation thread with your views on what women should or should not say or do, then go ahead. Derail the conversation, ignore women’s voices, and act as though men’s views on women-anger is the relevant issue.

Given the infinite variation of human opinion, it is not in the least surprising that women have different stances on how we refer to each other, or on how we are referred to by men. This is so whether we are talking about online conversations or the comfort of our own homes or those we love or in public by complete strangers. My own stance, and the reasoning behind it, are set out below.

But first, I mention the monotonous similarity of men’s voices on what to call women. I am referring to online comment threads when this simple question arises. Women take a variety of considered positions. By contrast, in most cases, men take reactive yet very similar positions (to each other) on the same question. Or those who stay in the conversation take very similar positions. Staying in the conversation in itself requires a stamina all of its own. A meaningless stamina, compared to (say) efforts for world peace, but there it is.

Remember, the answer is simple. If you actually do respect women and wish to assert that you respect women, here is what to do: listen to what the woman says she is OK with being called, and call her that. It is not difficult. It is easy. It is unlikely she is angry. It is likely she is tired of this shit. But for whatever reason, she has summoned the energy to have this tedious conversation again, and simply and clearly stated her preferred term for her womanhood. She probably paused before telling you, because she knows what will ensue. Either way, she has made an active and conscious decision to state what she thinks, knowing full well what the response is very likely to be.

The online conversation goes something like this:

Me: Mate, as a 44 year old mother-of-three, I am hardly a girl.

Him: Oh I just ran out of space/didn’t think/ got in trouble for saying ladies.

Me: All good, but saying women is fine.

Him: I know lots of women who call themselves girls.

Me: Do you think I don’t? We’re not talking about what women call women.

Him: Jeez I tells ya. Can’t get nothing right. I never say female, it sounds condescending.

Me: Yep. I prefer ‘woman’.

2nd Him: Impossible ain’t they? Can’t please none of ‘em.

Me: Just stating my preference.

1st him: I am done with this conversation. If I’ve offended anyone, I’m sorry.

Me: acknowledges comment, leaves conversation.

3rd Him: They’re all angry all the time.

2nd Him: You try and show respect and where does it get ya?

1st him (re-enters conversation despite previous sign-off): Hey, I respect women. I just ran out of room so I said girl.

2nd him, 3rd him, 4th and 5th hims, 1st him, more hims …. Endless comment thread about the onerous oppressive dilemmas encountered by good guys, men who respect women, who are just trying so hard to do the right thing.

…conversation becomes crude and includes references to masturbation.

This is a representation, but in my experience, it is a very typical one.

There is any number of problems with these threads, not least the dull and predictable repetition of the content; and the reliably reactionary trajectory of the narrative every time a woman states her preferred term of reference. Not once did the Hims in the above representation refer to women as women, or agree to refer to women as women, or complain that they have been corrected when they refer to women as women. This is because none of these things ever happen. Men who refer to women as women do not get asked ‘oh, please. Call me a girl’. Or ‘Hey mate, how many times have I asked you to say female’? Or ‘Dude, dude, dude, it’s not woman, it’s LADY’. These things never happen, because women prefer to be called women.

At the same time, women who state that we prefer to be called women are trivialised, and spoken over, and ignored, and sidelined, and above all, called ‘angry’. Not called women when we ask to be called women. But inevitably called difficult and angry when we ask to be called women.

It was probably at least twenty years ago that I decided that as a woman I would like to be referred to as a woman. Nothing has changed to change my mind. I am not particularly angry about this. I am angry about many things, but nomenclature is the least of it. And there is certainly nothing difficult about it. When men claim that such a simple stance is difficult and angry, they are usually finding feminism difficult, and are angry about it, and take the time-honoured stance of blaming women for the difficulties that feminism poses to their male lives, and the anger they feel about that.

Which is all a bit of shoulder-shrugging whatevs to those who do not struggle every day as a woman in a man’s world.

As an educated white woman, my struggle is usually invisible. My struggle is nothing like the struggle that Aboriginal people face in this sexist racist ablist sectarian homophobic country with its dark stain of dispossession that continues seemingly forever and has never been adequately examined, let alone remedied. My struggle is nothing like that of many migrant individuals and groups, or of those facing double and triple discrimination, abuse and hate due to their disability, sexuality, religion, or gender identity. My struggle is not the hardest struggle, or the most important struggle – the Aboriginal struggle is by far and away the most important for our national identity.

But in my jobs, empowering girls and using words well matter more than anything else. I have two jobs.

The first is that I am the only functioning parent in my children’s lives. By functioning, I mean I am the only provider and take full responsibility for not just their basic human needs but also their social and ethical relationships, their health and education and safety.

My second job is the paying job. I teach law to hundreds of future lawyers, and part of that role includes explaining, clearly, that our system asserts the use of words (over fists) to resolve disputes. The Rule of Law is the rule of words. Some take it down the back of the carpark to have it out. Some prowl the streets for vigilante justice when a paedophile is reportedly near. It happens, but it is not legal. The legal resolution to conflict is done with words.


Calling me a girl is inaccurate. I am not a girl. If, however, I am among a group of women who refer to us, collectively, as ‘the girls’, I do not protest. Why would I? We are together, having fun, in a space created by and for women. It is distinguishable from the rest of our lives on that exact basis. We spend most of the time in spaces created by and for men. And while we can and sometimes do have fun in these man-spaces, more often we are working and/or on our guard against tempers, criticism, put-downs and exclusion – various forms of sexism, misogyny, and abuse.

The number of women you have overheard referring to ourselves as girls is relevant in one way, and one way only. We are delineating a space for women. Please return to the man spaces you have created all around us.

Here is the tricky bit (except it is not difficult at all).

When we refer to ourselves as girls, it is not an invitation for men to refer to us as girls. In many cases, it is a message for you to leave. Back away slowly, make so-called jokes as so many men do, say Oops better not go in the kitchen, the girls are on fire. Blokes know this scenario. They have been there, done that. But hearing a feminist voice explaining it is somehow confronting. Even though they already know.

Remaining apparently jocular and completely unserious is a typical male approach to feminism. I mean, what can feminism really matter? Surely it is not that important right? There she goes again. Has she got a fucking point? Why check? The dominant man-narrative is so consistent, so ready-to-go, that feminism can be sidelined at the tweet of a wink. And with the side-lining of feminism, of course, comes the sidelining of women. No conspiracy required, just a common man mind-set that is so easy to join that those who out this bullshit are shouted down and often walk away, exhausted by the whole repetitive business.

It is not difficult to shut up and listen. Men do it around bosses and other dominant males all the time. Women are used to being told to shut up and listen (and obey). Most of us are – by our parents, for a start. These days, in the public realm, it even has a name: mansplaining.

And here is a tip to mansplainers and man-apologists everywhere. Whiny, needy, self-pitying and victim-role-hijacking men are not sexy. I mean, just not. Do not ever try to woo a feminist that way. Do not ever try to woo a woman that way and maintain self-respect. Self-pity may succeed with some younger and less experienced women, but this is no achievement. In fact it is a failure. And exploitative. And kind of gross.

My personal grounds for not wishing to be called a girl are that I am a 44 year old mother of three with a wealth of knowledge and experience. There is also a girl in the household, and we are not indistinguishable. She is beautiful and young and has her whole life ahead of her. I am none of these things. She is under 18, and as such especially vulnerable in our hyper-masculine world. I have long and practical experience in dealing with the patriarchy, and even spend some time as the leader in public spaces (the lecture hall) as well as private environments (head of household).

At the moment, it is school holidays. I have a friend sent straight by the goddess, another working mother and head of household. She came and collected my children so I could go about two days of lectures without worrying about the kids’ whereabouts or having to take them into work (they are at the age where this is no longer coercible). When we spoke on the phone the next night, my daughter said a group of mates – all teens – went to play Ultimate Frisbee (whatever that is) and she ended up on a team of all boys.

Did you show ‘em? I asked.

Yes, she said.

Did you win? I asked.

Yes, she said. At the end they made me Man of the Match.

Me: Haha, what did you say?
Daughter: I said “Ahem”.

Oh go you. That’s my girl.

I was raised by a feminist mother and traditional (but reasonably willing-to-learn) father, and can therfore safely say I have been a feminist all my life. As my mother before me, I do not especially discuss feminism. Sometimes I join an interesting seminar or online comment thread and express much of what I want to say about feminism. But for the most part I simply go about my days being a feminist, resisting sexism where possible. I also often ignore sexism where nothing I say or do will diminish its foreboding presence. But if an abusive, bordering on dangerous, response is likely, I put safety first, as every feminist knows to do. In those instances I remove myself, and my family if they are with me, as quickly and inconspicuously as possible.

My teenage daughter, what is more, has an experience that is completely foreign to me. My daughter is a talented and committed athlete. This requires a particular type of stamina and persistence and capacity to cope with disappointment, not least because the boys tend to get most of the glory. I have tried to develop some jokey, not-too-protective vocabulary to communicate around this phenomenon. But because I can barely catch a ball and am interested only in sport where one of my children is competing, it falls a bit flat. My daughter gets that I know nothing in this area. It is not an unusual parenting experience. Yet while we do not directly discuss feminism, my philosophy of life has, I hope, served her at some critical times, particularly when she is doing what she loves. She is smart enough to see that her mum knows next to nothing about sport, but quite a lot about surviving and thriving in the very many environments where the masculine paradigm dominates.

Raising a daughter who is remarkably good at sport focuses the mind in many ways. But moving on.

To all those white men who think I can be stopped, or shouted down, or ignored, erased, rubbed out, sidelined and otherwise silenced by their loud voices and supposedly superior expertise: here is breaking news. I have two sons. One is an adult white male. He pays his rent and he pays his taxes. Fancy that.

I raised this young man single-handedly. By single-handedly, I mean I had no financial – and very little in-kind – assistance, as well as massive hindrances, in multiple forms. I am responsible for the presence of a decent white man in the world. I watched him become a man. It was one of the hardest struggles I have ever seen. There was little I could do with and for him, because he was a boy learning to be a man in a man’s world. Seeing my boy negotiating the world we live in, the Australia that white men have created, and find his place in it was … a living nightmare.

Do not tell me I have no idea what it is to be a white man. I know worse: to be a mother watching my own flesh and blood learning to navigate a society dominated by white male behaviours – despicable abuses – that I do not condone, do not practice, and failed to prepare him for in many ways. He had to learn the hard way what a seriously terrible job white men do in the running of this country, and what compromises he will have to make in order to make his way in it. The sheer violence – verbal, emotional, physical and worse – is absolutely gut wrenching.

So I drop out of onanistic comment threads. I call some blokes out, and block others. I leave some arguments quietly, hoping no man ever follows it up. And I write, and raise children, and watch and learn and teach. And say: words matter. Being asked by a woman to call her a woman should be the least of any man’s problems, if the experience of becoming a man in a man’s world is anything to go by. It’s not a problem at all, in fact. It is just a simple request, easily met, with the simplest of tools: words. Words are the only way. The other way makes life worse.


3 thoughts on “Calling a woman a woman

  1. Wish I had seen this a lot earlier… could have just copied & pasted the link before I either blocked, walked away in frustration or wasted precious minutes of life trying to converse on a topic that was always going to be a lost cause 😉

  2. Expressive language is a manifestation of personality, so those who elevate themselves to the authoritative privilege of choosing others’ words for them deny those others agency to express their individual characteristics. Simultaneously, I agree that those who knowingly make others uncomfortable may be rude. Or, they may simply speak as is comfortable for them as individuals and won’t immediately mute their entire life’s compounded influences on verbiage — including influences from other women — instantaneously upon the command of a stranger or recent acquaintance endowed with no authority over them. This is why we develop social standards agreed upon for purposes of common courtesy, such as calling a judge, “Your honor,” or a police officer, “ma’am,” or “sir”. Men, too, are human beings and not machines obligated to retain contradictory programming from every woman they encounter.

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