Words Matter

At one point we were in an age of political correctness, yet now it seems we are forgetting that words matter. Or at least some people are forgetting it. We hear about people misspeaking, making clarifications and apologies for inappropriate things said. I’ve been reading the book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. This is not my overall review of the book, but something I read the other day stood out to me, and I keep seeing it everywhere now.

Words do matter, and referring to women, no matter their age, as girls is insulting. I admit – I’ve been doing this a lot too. It’s hard to change your thinking of you and your friends as girls to women. I’m working on correcting myself and changing my habits. How do I go about altering those of others though? Is this something women still find insulting or is it just me? It seems that over the last five to ten years there has been a lack attitude about sexist language. And it’s been bothering me.

For years women were defined by the marital status using “Miss” and “Mrs” to differentiate, while men have always been called “Mr” no matter what. I wonder about how this came to be years ago when I was first taking French classes in high school. Apparently, it took hearing in another language to question it. Since college I’ve preferred “Ms” not realizing the history and fight required to make it an option. Whenever I’ve been asked to fill something out, with three options or just two, my marital status has nothing to do with what I’m doing. And when I only have two options, I usually leave it blank out of anger and frustration. And those few options may not describe someone at all.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the Washington Post and New York Times began telling reporters to stop using words like blonde, divorcee, or grandmother to describe a woman in articles. Gail Collins makes an excellent point in When Everything Changed: no one would ever describe a man like that. You would never read the paper and hear about a witness or juror being a short, balding man. I find it hard to believe how long it took us to realize these differences and change them, but we still have a long way to go, and people seem to forget along the road why we wanted these changes.

In a New York Times article about Gloria Steinem’s 50th birthday party the paper talk about donations going to the Ms. Foundation, which publishes Ms. Magazine, which Miss Steinem helped start. That was in 1984. We have battled sexist language for a long time, but it was just in the last 30-40 years we’ve really made headway. Why do we keep slipping up? Shouldn’t these habits stick by now? To me that seems at once recent and so long ago. Let’s continue moving forward, and think about how we use words and why.

Originally appeared on Fem2.0


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