“Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about.”
Benjamin Lee Wharf, American Linguist
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I enrolled in a course entitled “The Psychology of Women.” Similar courses are routinely entitled, “Feminist Psychology” or “Feminine Psychology.” My course was taught by a wonderful woman named Claire Etaugh who is a pioneer in feminine research, and who gently but firmly pointed out the subtle and overt sexism women face every day. My class was probably 70% women, but I applaud the few brave men who were able to cast aside their egos and embrace feminism. Few men are able to do so, and frankly, we need more of them.
One of the first tasks Dr. Etaugh set us about was writing a list of derogatory names, phrases, and labels for women, and then writing a similar list for men. The results were shocking. Nobody had a problem finding dozens of derogatory phrases for women, but solidly “male” slurs were much more difficult to find. Many “male slurs” are really meant to feminize men, which is only an insult because we live in a hyper-masculine world where misogyny is the norm and sexism is nearly heralded. “Male slurs” included phrases such as: pussy, cunt, dick, prick, bitch, or tranny. Many of these words feminize men, and are only insults because femininity is (incorrectly) considered inferior to masculinity.
As you will see from the list below, the words to insult and dehumanize women are endless. This list is not complete, and probably cannot be. Language is necessarily ambiguous and shape-shifting, relying heavily on context, inflection, and tone to make sense or have meaning. There is both beauty and ugliness in this.
It is often said that language itself is not explicitly racist/sexist/transphobic, but that the person speaking the language is one or all of these things. I cannot completely agree, because language, at this moment in history, takes on cultural meanings and contextual interpretations whether we want it to or not. Calling someone a slut is a sexist dig because we live in a patriarchy that shames women for having sex. That same patriarchy, however, doesn’t shame men for having sex, so they are granted the more acceptable and applauded term, “stud.” Neither the word “slut” nor “stud” would mean anything if they were floating around in space, unhinged to any social constraints and free from the grip of the patriarchy. Unfortunately, they do mean two very different things for two people who engage in the same act. That is sexism, in a nutshell.
The word “feminism” is controversial and divisive, often because we fail to recognize overt and subtle sexism. Just because something does not impact you doesn’t make it any less real. According to the American Cancer Society, in the United States, about 1,620 people die every day due to some type of cancer. Nobody would deny this fact simply because they themselves were not plagued by disease. You likely know at least one person affected by cancer. I am sure you also know at least one woman affected by sexism, although she may not voice it. There is stigma and fear and shame in calling out a sexist, and therein lies an even uglier side of the patriarchy. If we confront a sexist, misogynistic man, we may put our lives in danger because he has internalized the idea that violence=manliness, and women have internalized the belief that violence against us is somehow our fault.
Some women use the following words and phrases because they don’t understand or aren’t affected by the inherent misogyny of these words. Still other women are co-opting some of these phrases. During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, the term “Nasty Woman” became a moniker for badass, strong, intelligent women. What was intended as a slur became a war cry. Often, women use sexist language simply because it is the language of our culture. Our culture is in us and of us just as much as we are in and of it. There is no quick fix for sexism, just as there is no quick fix for racism or homophobia or any other social issue. Turning the tide can be long and difficult, but you can start turning it by becoming aware of the works flowing out of your mouth.
We’ll begin with how we label ourselves. Miss is traditionally used for unmarried women, Mrs. for married, and Ms. for both. Our titles indicate our martial status, suggesting that marriageability is one of our greatest attributes. Men, on the other hand, use Mr. from the time they are children until they die. In addition, the act of taking a husband’s name began because women went from being part of their parents’ family to becoming their husbands’ “property.” Today, many women choose to take their husband’s names for different reasons, but it’s impossible to ignore the transactional root of a the long, expensive, and unnecessary process of changing a name. There are dozens of wedding traditions steeped in the patriarchy, but my favorite thing to hate about weddings is the term “Bridezilla” because it infantilizes and demonizes women on what is culturally supposed to be the “most important day of her life.”
The following list of sexist words and phrases are used derogatorily about and to women and very seldomly used derogatorily about men.
Abrasive: Assertive women are often labeled “abrasive,” while assertive men are simply “confident.” Women expend undue emotional labor making those around us feel comfortable; studies show that men feel much less pressure.
Bossy: Men are “good leaders,” women are “bossy.”
Ditsy: Girls are conditioned to act dumb in order to be liked, which is confusing when a word like “ditsy” is used a slur.
Emotional: We learn it is wrong to show too much emotion, often because other people don’t know how to react or respond, and we are taught to sacrifice our own happiness for the comfortability of those around us.
Frigid: While being emotional is frowned upon, being unemotional is wrong too. We should smile happily and make others comfortable, but God forbid we have real feelings.
Hysterical: See: emotional. Hysteria has historical roots. It was the first mental disorder attributable to women, dating back to the second millennium BC. Hysteria was clinically studied as a disease.
Hormonal: Period jokes, harassment, and shame surrounding periods is prevalent and rarely talked about. There is currently a campaign to remove sales tax from feminine hygiene products that has adopted the catchphrase: “Why are tampons taxed when Viagra is not? *patriarchy*
A Nag: Remember the old phrase, “Children should be seen and not heard?” The patriarchy wishes women would do the same. Every time a woman is accused of being a nag, there is a deeper issue. One or more of her needs are not being met, but instead of discovering what those are, we simply label her a nag.
Shrill: See: nag. Our voices are routinely bemoaned as too shrill or high-pitched. See here.
“Working Mom”: Flip this phrase; “working dad” has never been colloquialized because the responsibility of raising children falls heavily on the shoulders of women.
Irrational: See: emotional, hysterical.
Catty: Caring too much about minor things, i.e., having feelings.
Bitchy: Men and women alike can be called bitchy, although the term is rooted in femininity. A bitch is a female dog after all, and “resting bitch face,” is unilaterally used to shame women for not smiling.
Cold: See: bitchy, resting bitch face. Women are labeled cold easily and often if we are not receptive to the advice or advancements of another. Humans are complex beings who are never always warm nor always cold. Often, situations demand a cold or serious demeanor, and labeling women “cold” is just another tool to confuse and shame us.
“Feminazi”: I went on exactly one date with a man who said, “I hope you’re not one of those feminazis.” This term further damns women who care to label themselves feminists, comparing a campaign for equality with a group of people who murdered millions.
Diva: A “high-maintenance” woman, who men will never be able to satisfy. While we are persecuted for being a diva, we are also judged for being “cheap.”
Slut: Wanting sex or having sex, often with men, who receive no such label.
Cougar: Typically, an older woman who pursues younger men. This is an interesting dynamic because women are persecuted for aging, while men are largely not. Being a “cougar” isn’t always portrayed as negative, although cougars produce uneasiness in people because of the moral ambiguity we share about aging and sexuality.
Loose: Similar to “easy,” women are shamed for wanting, liking, or having sex.
Easy: We are sexualized, but shamed for having sex, especially if that sex is “easy” to get.
Prude: Shamed again, for not having sex enough.
Cheap: Shamed for not having nice items or dressing in name brand clothing. THIS article articulates why women are judged by how clean their home is, whereas men are not.
Mousey: Judgement based on looking any particular way other than a standard, westernized version of “sexy.”
Frumpy: Judgement based on looking any particular way other than a standard, westernized version of “sexy.”
“Ladylike”: Just as problematic as “manly,” because it reinforces traditional gender norms that do not serve us. Google “ladylike” and you’ll find various definitions, all in the vein of “appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.” synonyms include: genteel, polite, refined, well-bred, cultivated, polished, decorous, proper, correct, respectable, seemly, well-mannered, sophisticated, courteous, civil, elegant, urbane, civilized, courtly, dignified, gracious. All of this is really to say that being unladylike is a bad thing.
Moody: See: emotional, hysterical, irrational.
Over-Sensitive: See: emotional, hysterical, irrational, moody.
Nuerotic: See: emotional, hysterical, irrational, moody, over-sensitive.
“Female” Engineer: Insert any male-dominated career: doctor, pilot, police officer, scientist, etc. This requires no more explanation.
Spinster: An unmarried man is a bachelor, forever. An unmarried woman is the much less appealing “spinster.”
Mistress: There is no such counter for a man. The more general term “lover” can be used, but it does not carry the same implications. “Paramour” is sometimes used, but this term can apply to either partner in an illicit relationship, so it is not exclusively male.
“Just a Housewife”: Usurps the very real work that is running a household and shames women for not doing more. In addition, working women complete about two-thirds of the household chores in heterosexual relationships.
Princess: This HuffPost article states, “There is a distinction that needs to be made with the label “princess”: If a little girl has adopted the label herself and is inspired by princesses who are heroines, then, by all means, parents should let her be a princess. But there is absolutely no need for parents to pigeonhole a little girl into a demure, pink, princess box before they’ve had a chance to explore other avenues of identity.” Enough said.
Heart-Breaker: Calling a child (boy or girl) a “heart-breaker” sexualizes them, which is first and foremost, incredibly weird, especially in a society that teaches abstinence and shames young people for having sex. But labeling children “heart-breakers” also places children in the context of romantic love and sexuality long before it is natural or necessary, reinforcing the importance of physical desirability and appearance.
P.S. What did I miss??