My vocabulary book in high school was more than a little antiquated, but despite its age it introduced me to wonderful new word friends, such as “scintillating,” “obviate” and “ubiquitous.”
It also had a truly impressive number of unflattering words for women.
There were plenty of gender-neutral pejoratives, but when it came to gender-specific negativity, it seemed the lion’s share went to women, with colorful insults like “virago,” “harridan” and “termagant.” And that got me thinking.
It’s not just the obscure ten-dollar words; we have a host of ten-cent terms for women with no masculine equivalent. You can be too feminine, a girly-girl, but have you ever heard of a boyly-boy? If not girly enough, she becomes a tomboy.
To be fair, we do have the derogative mama’s boy, but interestingly its twin, daddy’s girl, is not negative. Why isn’t a boy’s devotion to his mother as endearing as a girl’s for her father?
Boys will be boys they say, but girls will … not have a colloquialism for gender-excusing behavior. When she grows up, we have words like “frumpy” for when we think she doesn’t dress attractively enough — and “slutty” for when she is too attractive.
If that woman is single, no one will refer to her home as a bachelorette pad, nor will her bachelorette years be framed as a golden, carefree time. Her brother could remain a bachelor for the rest of his days, but she eventually becomes a spinster.
We made new words for the life choices she has – homemaker, career woman and working mom – but we made them because we see this as a choice only a woman makes. Ever heard of a working dad?
These words paint a picture of the female experience teetering on a tightrope of expectations with so many ways to fall. We are told being too smart or too financially independent intimidates men. But go too far the other way and we’re labeled airheads and gold diggers.
If we don’t welcome romantic advances we are ice queens. I won’t even mention the words thrown at us if we are seen as too welcoming.
Accusations of opposite gender traits are used to insult both women and men, but only women are called out for embracing traits we’re supposedly meant to have.
They say we’re naturally more sensitive, but while it is not uncommon for a woman to be told she is too sensitive, if a man brings an above-average lack of sensitivity to a situation we often say “that’s just how guys are.” They aren’t being too anything; they just are.
Personally I believe the gender stereotypes pinned on men are equally unfair and damaging. Boys have a right to cry when they’re hurt, pursue artistic passions without fielding questions about their sexuality, and embrace or defy traditional gender roles without being told they should turn in their “man card.”
But where masculine nature is often treated as fixed and irreproachable, women are spoken about as something that can and should improve. Just ask the girls being told the existence of their shoulders and knees are an unfair distraction to boys in the classroom.
But it's not just coming from patriarchy. Fringe elements of feminism, which claim women who enjoy more traditional roles and hobbies aren’t real feminists, are also devaluing certain skill sets solely on the basis of their historic association with the feminine.
We were supposed to gain the right to choose the lives we wanted, not be told by other women what the right choice is.
In the end our understanding of the world is carved out with words, so it matters if our tools are flawed. We should question our language and where it might be failing us.
The thought it’s left me pondering is this: We have a term for the kind of man respected by other men; so why is there no “woman’s woman” when there is a “man’s man?”
Sarah Comer of Puyallup is musician, storyteller and community dance facilitator. She is one of six 2018 reader columnists for The News Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org