Are You a Girl, a Lady, or a Woman? Why Language Matters

Here's the real truth about the word "woman."

Posted Feb 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Are you a girl, a lady, or a woman? Yes, language matters.

I’m one of many feminists who worked hard to get the word “woman” into our collective vocabulary. "Girls," "ladies," and "women" are not interchangeable terms—rather, they are profoundly different in the implications they carry. 

If you’re not convinced that language makes a difference, I invite you to consider the following headlines:

  • Women march for peace
  • Ladies march for peace
  • Girls march for peace

Do different images come to mind? Probably so. It's likely that only the word "woman" connotes status, authority, and seriousness of purpose. We don’t think of a "girl" running for Congress or winning the Nobel Prize. We don’t say, “I think Stacey Abrams is a politically powerful girl."

The word "lady" is a step up from "girl,"  but the real reason many people prefer it to "woman" Is that it is reassuringly polite and tame. It functions as a euphemism, removing the sexual, aggressive, and reproductive implications inherent in the word "woman."

Complete the following sentences, and you will see that the designations "woman" and "lady" are hardly synonymous:

  • She feared that after her hysterectomy, she might not feel like a real _____.
  • Jane is sweet, soft-spoken, and modest. She is truly a _____.
  • When Sue began to menstruate, she knew she was on the road to becoming a _____.
  • She felt passionate with him, like a wild _____.
  • Why are you always fighting and screaming? Please behave like a _______

When I’m being playful among close friends, I may use the term "girl," (or "sweetums" or "honey-bunny," for that matter) but I bristle when I hear the word "girl" or "lady" applied to me in other settings. Words are powerful and our choice of language both reflects and shapes attitudes. A "colored boy" is not the same as a "black man." We separate the "men" from the "boys." There is a difference between a "boy," a "gentleman," and a "man."  

Let’s not pretend that language doesn’t make a difference for women. Certainly, we don’t think of a girl running for Congress or winning the Nobel Prize. The preferred use of the terms "girl," "lady," or "gal" often reflects an unconscious wish to define women in narrow, non-threatening, or diminutive terms. 

Too many women are, indeed, encouraged to remain girls and act like ladies. Perhaps when we no longer have a defensive need to see women in non-threatening or diminutive terms, our language will take care of itself. Until that unrealized world Is ours, let's consider the implications of the language we speak.