It's time to reclaim the female version of "guy."
There are countless words you can use to degrade a woman: bitch, slut, whore. The list goes on. But the word that does the most to set us back has nothing to do with outspokenness or sexual choices. It's a word that's used openly, in public, shamelessly, to our faces. In fact, it's the word I—along with most young women I know—use to describe myself.
The worst word to call a woman is girl.
Girls are children. Girls are dependents. Girls can't make their own decisions. And yet, when we talk about feminine achievement, we talk about girl power. Girls, according to Beyoncé, run the world. The character of Lisbeth Salander, self-sufficient though she may be, is a girl with a dragon tattoo. And, most importantly, in real life, among people I know and respect, female colleagues are "girls from work." The women with whom we studied for advanced degrees are "girls from school." A lot's in a name; although we don't mean to hurt each other, the word girl diminishes our maturity, our responsibility, our power. But what alternative do we have?
Even though my feminist heart hurts to admit it, woman is no good.
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It's not that there's anything wrong with the word. It's just that to advocate for the use of "woman" rather than "girl" is to ignore the practical truth. If all who identify as female were to go from girl to woman when they turned 18—or 21 or 13 or 16 or at menses or upon graduation or at some other arbitrary milestone—the scales of language would still be unbalanced. At least among English-speaking males, growing up is far more nuanced. A boy doesn't just instantly become a man: he gets to be a guy.
That usage of the word guy dates to the middle of the nineteenth century. Although it had an earlier, pejorative sense, it was by that time, especially in the United States, an all-purpose, informal word. (The phrase "you guys" has been around almost as long.) And there are plenty of reasons why a young man today would opt to be called a guy. For one thing, studies about "emerging adulthood," an idea that has made headlines in the past few years, seem to indicate that the sense of grown-up-ness comes on later in life. A developmentally appropriate 20-something male may not feel like a man. Man, after all, like woman, is a word that carries weight.
That mantle of womanhood can be too heavy—many of us who are the right age to have sympathized with Britney Spears when she sang "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" in 2001 are still stuck in between. As a 20-something female, there are moments, romantic and professional and Shania-Twain-approved, when I feel like a woman. Other times, I really do feel like a girl (though not as often as I am called one). I never feel like a lady except in announcements made also to gentlemen and I only feel like a dame when I watch old movies. What I feel like most of the time is a guy. A female guy.
There is a solution. There is a word to describe this phase. There is a female equivalent of guy. We can reclaim it from the realm of the ridiculous, restore it to its proper place, and use it to even out the inequality in terminology that persists between the sexes. The word is gal, and gal is a great word.
Gal has all the best qualities of guy. It's casual. It's all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It's friendly and fun. It's short and sweet. Like Ms., a word that would solve this problem if only it existed outside courtesy titles, it doesn't say anything about one's marital status. It has an etymological history as long as guy's, and hit its stride as a non-vulgar term at about the same time as its counterpart.
Somewhere the histories of "guy" and "gal" divided. One word became the default and the other became quaint. Quaint is not the goal, nor is cuteness, nor derisive folkiness. That problem with gal was highlighted recently, when Foster Friess, an American businessman who is active in conservative politics, joked that aspirin could be used as a contraceptive if "gals" held it between their knees. Gal has been relegated to the junk-drawer of Americana, of "Buffalo Gal" and "My Gal Sal" and—heaven forbid—Gal Friday.
But, as guy clearly demonstrates, a word that's casual doesn't have to be critical. And there's a time-tested way to change the connotation of words. Reappropriation of language has already been successful with other words for women: the magazine Bitch has 15 years of feminist writing under its belt and this past year saw the rise of the "SlutWalk." Negative words contain within themselves the potential for positivity—Michel Foucault called this concept "reverse discourse"—but the reappropriation has to begin with those who are affected. Women, young women, us girls: We have to be the ones who start identifying as gals. Then, finally, we'll be women of our word.