Amy Richards

(WOMENSENEWS)–The word "girl," which feminists railed against a generation ago as a demeaning and offensive term for women, is making a comeback.

Embraced by media and advertising, "girl" is popping up everywhere: in fashion catalogs, newspaper articles, advertisements on Web sites and television and in everyday conversation.

Feminists are taking note, and not all of them are pleased. The hard-fought battle to get American society to stop saying "girl" and start saying "woman" when referring to females in their late teens or older is still a fresh memory for veterans of the consciousness-raising 1970s.

"’Girl’ is an infantilizing term for women," said Sherryl Kleinman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "This becomes clearest when the doctor uses it to refer to his assistant or secretary, even if she is 50 years old: ‘Talk to the girl up front.’ I have heard this numerous times in the recent past."

She’s likely to hear it many times more, because examples of "girl" suddenly abound.

From Television to Hair Products, Selling Is All About the Girl

The John Frieda hair products company promises that "golden girls rule" in a magazine advertisement for its "Sheer Blond" shampoo and conditioner. The voiceover in a promotion for an upcoming episode of the NBC television show "Watching Ellie" says that the lead character in a series "promised the necklace to one girl, but gave it to another." An announcer giving a sports update on ESPN Radio tells listeners that "two girls" in the Women’s National Basketball Association have been suspended for fighting.

A student’s advertisement for a roommate posted on a State University of New York campus reads, "Girls are okay to move in (as long as you don’t make the place too . . . girlie)?" In an online advertisement for its personal greeting service, the home page for the Yahoo! Internet search engine asks, "Looking for a girl who likes to make waves?"

And the spring catalog for the J. Crew clothing company tells readers that wearing a dress is "a girl thing." That wasn’t what designer Diane Von Furstenberg told her customers 30 years ago when she marketed her wrap dress with the slogan, "Feel like a woman, wear a dress!"

The New York Times Calls a Cabinet Secretary the ‘Go-To Girl’

Users of "girl" are unapologetic, saying no offense is intended.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, the paper’s guide to printed propriety, declares that "girl" should be reserved for "the very young." But "girl" has slipped into frequent use in the paper’s Sunday Styles and fashion sections–where it sometimes appears on the same page as an article using "woman"–and it also has started to appear in the paper’s news sections.

In the "Our Towns" Metro section column of the July 14 Sunday Times, writer Matthew Purdy pondered why former New Jersey governor and current Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has been the target of so much criticism lately.

"Pick a problem that needs a villain . . . and she’s the go-to girl," Purdy wrote.

Kathy Park, a Times spokeswoman, says "girl" is a purely subjective style choice, and that the Times stylebook allows for flexibility.

"The haste and deadline pressure are the cause of most deviations from our style," Park said. "In occasional instances, writers may choose to substitute their own ear or judgment."

J. Crew has used "girl" in editorial copy for quite a while, said Thomas Cochill, a copywriter at the clothing company.

"Rather than using it to target a specific demographic, or imply a specific age group, we believe it conveys an attitude that transcends age, a sensibility that our customers identify with," Cochill said. "We use the word ‘girl’ to communicate a mood that is feminine, with the qualities of a youthful spirit of independence, enthusiasm, individuality and confidence."

‘Girl Power’ May Reflect Belief that Feminism Has Achieved its Goals

"Girl" may have re-emerged "perhaps because many people believe that feminism has achieved what it set out to do," said Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor and Guggenheim fellow at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lakoff, 58, also theorizes that "feminism itself has become an object of scorn for many women, especially younger ones, who don’t know their history."

Ann Ciasullo, a lecturer in English at the University of Oregon, sees a "kind of watered-down feminism that goes along with the use of ‘girl’ and ‘girl power.’"

"It seems to be a kind of depoliticization of feminism," said Ciasullo. She sees the use of the word by advertisers as yet another reinforcement of the message that women should strive to look sexual and youthful.

Whatever its intended use, "girl" has a complicated history in English, fraught with nuance and controversy, noted Lakoff and other language-watchers. It has long been accepted in certain professions and settings, but only if used in the proper context or by people who have gained the right to use it. And even then, it’s difficult for everyone to be happy with its use.

For example, "girl" has always been accepted in the modeling industry as a term for women models. Lakoff notes that the word takes on a bizarre overtone, however, upon a closer examination of how models are treated.

"Models themselves are infantilized: They wear clothing sizes normal for 6-year-olds, they are treated like children, ordered around," Lakoff said.

Among African Americans, ‘Girl’ Denotes Inclusion

"Girl" has also long been a part of Black English, but in a specialized way that has little to do with the feminist movement, said James Peterson, a social linguist who is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among many black women, "girl" is a sign of inclusion and acceptance among friends, Peterson noted. The word remains offensive, however, if used by whites toward black women, or if directed at black women "by anyone outside their immediate speech community," Peterson said.

Some younger women have embraced "girl" as a hip, edgy term identified with a movement known as Third Wave feminism. In the book "MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future," co-authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards examine how Third Wave feminism can be a choice for young women who can’t identify with the battles fought during the suffrage movement and the feminism of the 1970s.

"I think it’s both a generational reaction and an age reaction," said Richards, explaining why younger women might find "girl" acceptable. "I think ‘girl’ has a certain freedom. I know that my own usage of the word ‘girl’ is among girlfriends. It’s very fun. If I’m having a business dinner, I’m not going to say, ‘I’m going out with these girls.’ There are moments when it’s still derogatory. The real issue is context."

In keeping with that philosophy, the organizers of the an annual gathering of Southern feminist women known as the Southern Girls Convention deliberately uses "girls" in its title.

"We are all about the reclamation of the word girl; taking it back and consequently helping to take away its negative connotation," reads an explanation on the convention’s Web site. Organizers also thought the convention would have attracted a different audience, with less of an activist bent, had it been named the "Southern Women’s Convention." The gathering features workshops on a range of progressive topics such as body image, sexuality, sexual orientation and reproductive health.

Men Using the Word May Be Expressing Gender Bias

The problem with defining "girl" as acceptable in specific settings and contexts, however, is that others cannot be expected to respect those boundaries, said Jackson Katz, an author and nationally recognized expert on the prevention of gender-based violence.

"My biggest concern is the use of the word by men and how it perpetuates sexist attitudes by men," said Katz, who has conducted training sessions on preventing gender-related violence at universities and military bases in the United States and abroad.

"It’s not about Amy Richards reclaiming this word," Katz said. "What are men thinking about when they use this word? I think some of what is called Third Wave feminism is an accommodation of how things have not changed."

Darryl McGrath is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who writes often on politics and child-welfare issues.



For more information:

Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future:

Southern Girls Convention:

Jackson Katz: