Why I am not a girl, and if you are female and over 18, neither are you
“The common woman is as common as the common loaf of bread – and will rise…” ~ From a poster seen everywhere in the late ’60s and early ’70s
Up until I was in my late teens, all women were girls. There were the girls in the office. The girls who worked at the grocery store. There were girls all over the place. Some of them were children. Some of them were 60 years old. Everybody knew that women were weak and helpless. They were rotten drivers and innately incompetent. The social more of the time was that men were there to protect women from harsh reality. The phrase “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” was not used as humor.
There were “boys” there, too, in Missouri in the mid-to-late ’50s and ’60s. They could also be any age, but they were characterized by being African-American. I remember the reactions those men had to the imperious labeling of “boy” from various ghastly good ol’ boys and condescending white women – those dark faces so bland, their smiles blinding, but those were hating eyes, and the minute the dangerous white faces were safely turned away, that jaw was clenched, the muscles working. To be called “boy” was a deliberate humiliation, and every player in this hideous drama knew it perfectly well.
Women from about 50 and up will remember this time vividly. I remember the “girls can’t take shop” days. I remember when girls couldn’t wear pants to school (in winter, you could have easily spotted the groups of girls from the groups of boys from the air. The girls were in enormous clusters trying to keep warm. The boys were running around like little hooligans in their warm pants.) I remember friends saying college advisors told them not to bother taking math or science because they were just there to get their Mrs. degree anyway.
I remember looking in the paper for my first job, at 17, and the sections of jobs for men versus those for women. I remember my first job as a keypunch operator. When they showed me the computer room, they told me, “This is where the men work.” All the women knew those men made far more money than we did for no more difficult a job. I remember when comparable worth passed in this state; before that, as a clerical, I made so little money that I had to take Thursdays off from my full-time job to go to the food bank, despite the fact I was walking lawyers through the incorporation process at my state agency.
Oh yeah, those were the days. Sometime along the line, we got tired of being called “girls.” It’s a very simple concept. A girl is a child, and children are powerless. They have no legal rights. They can be legally underpaid. It is frighteningly easy to oppress them.
A woman, on the other hand, is a big, powerful grownup. A woman is harder to underpay – we make a lot of noise about that. A woman is a darnsight harder to oppress. We tend to be quite vociferous in our objections to it, and we’re pretty good at making those objections into law.
We who lived through this time have never taken our progress for granted. We well remember how hard it was to get where we are in the first place, and we also remember the anger and backlash from people who had been quite happy to keep us down. This last election has shown the world what we always knew. Our oppressors have been waiting in the wings, still, waiting for any opportunity they could find to slam us back down. We had always known we had to remain vigilant. Even as the world appeared to have moved on, we knew better.
I have always known that words create reality and I have annoyed people for generations now by carrying on about it. I have ticked off more people I can count because I insist that, at least around me, they demonstrate some awareness of the power of language and to be careful about it in my presence. I knew I couldn’t control what they said away from me, but in front of me – well, it affected me and thus gave me the right to say something about it. So when I started hearing young women referring to themselves as “girls” and accepting this from men around them without blinking an eye, it made that wary, worried part of me start to itch. That itch turned into irritation, which, of course, had me speaking up.
One cherished young woman informed me insouciantly that I was making too much fuss about it. That was my generation’s take on it and they had moved on from there. It didn’t mean anything anymore. It took everything I had not to erupt on her. Too much fuss? They had moved on from there? It didn’t mean anything anymore? I thought about how hard it has been just to get to where we are, which is still not far enough. I thought about the way life had been before, and the sheer determination and hard work on the part of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of women to win us the right to live as we were created: equal.
And this young woman thought nothing of casting herself, her peers and the rest of us once again into that weak pit of permanent childishness? I had to bite my tongue and walk away from it because I loved her and did not want to burn the relationship down into smoke and ashes.
No. If we are female and over 18, we are not girls. We are women. We are fully grown, powerful adult human beings. We were born equal and this equality is not in men’s power to grant. This is a reality we must maintain. Anyone who refers to herself or another grown woman as a girl in any context that a man would refuse to be referred to as a boy is recreating a world we fought tooth and nail to overcome. We cannot give an inch. There are people just waiting to take it all away again, and they have more power than one might think. And to call ourselves girls and allow others to do so without protest is a foot in a door these people will gleefully shove wide open.