I recently had an odd exchange with a friend of mine. It went a little something like this:
Me: I was so mad in class today because this woman took my seat. I mean, they aren’t assigned but I always sit there. It really threw me off.
Friend: *laughs*…wait, a college…woman or like an…adult woman?
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this response, but it really struck me: what is the difference? Aren’t traditional college-age women adult women? I personally don’t see a difference. College-age women are, by legal standards, adult women. But why my friend had to ask for clarification is because the normal word for a college-age woman isn’t woman—it’s girl.
What’s the problem with calling college-age women girls? We don’t generally call college-age men men; we call them guys. But guys is not the equivalent to girls—boys is. Guys doesn’t have the same connotation as girls. Guys has a sense of autonomy and is generally not age-identified. Girls translates as young, less intelligent, small, helpless, dependent, weak, and silly. People want to hang out with guys; the kids want to play with girls. By calling college-age women girls we characterize them as young, less intelligent, small, helpless, dependent, weak, and silly.
I’ve always thought of my college-self as a woman, not a girl. But I never really thought about when my peers and I transformed into women (I’m not speaking of legal recognition, of course). I always thought the last time I would struggle with where I fit in society age-wise was adolescence. In adolescence, we constantly (supposedly) struggle between the adult part of ourselves and the child part of ourselves. There is conflict inherent in being an adolescent.
But what about college…uhhh…kids? We are out on our own—some of us very far from home, all of us out of our parents’ sight. As 18-23-year-olds, we are legally adults and we are expected to act like adults. And yet, we are still tied to home. Many rely on parents for financial and emotional support, for advice, and even for things like health insurance (especially under the Affordable Care Act). So, we are in a bind. We still grapple with the conflict between child and adult. But still, we are mostly adult. If we commit a crime, we’re an adult. If we go to the doctor, we’re an adult.
So we come to my real question: why is it so hard to call college-age women “women?” Why do we have to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, women? And at what age do we stop being girls and start being women? Who decides that? College-age women are definitely not girls. So, why call them what they aren’t?
I think we’re uncomfortable with the word woman. I think we’re uncomfortable with the meanings around and of woman. I think we’re uncomfortable with women. Violence against women, women in business, women in politics, women in abortion clinics, conservative women, liberal women, women doing whatever they feel like doing because they’re adults who should be given the same rights as any other adult (especially the right to privacy). I think we’re so hesitant to call women women because we want to keep as many women as girls as long as possible because it’s more comfortable. Girls doesn’t have as much potential to challenge the patriarchal system. Girls are weak, silly, and helpless. They aren’t scary, capable women.
If we stop calling college-age women girls we give them a measure of…well, if nothing else, respect. And that’s not a bad place to start.
Guest blogger Sarah Flinspach is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota where she studies political science and minors in gender, women, and sexuality studies.