Gal, Chick, Girl, Lady, Woman: Women Just as Divided as Men on What to Call Themselves


We call each other “lady,” but that rankles some. Some people find “gal” offensive while others are bothered by “girl.” “Chick” means fluffy little creatures meant for cuddling and light thinking. Or does it? What do women call each other these days? More to the point, what’s offensive and what’s not?

When feminists were making their mark in the 1970s, “chick” and other terms were considered insulting. For chick in particular, many felt the term sought to infantilize women. Consequently, a generation of women threw off the term as a marker of patriarchal oppression. Now, chick is a common tag amongst third wave feminists who embrace the term as an endearment. Repossessing a word that was initially meant to demean has become a mark of empowerment and even sisterhood.

Still, not everyone agrees. So where has this left us? For some, walking a minefield of linguistics while waiting for a bomb to detonate without warning. And yes, don’t women have bigger fish to fry than worry about what people call them? What about the Great Recession, reproductive rights, climate change, or Madonna’s impossibly high bar of fitness for the age 50 and over crowd? Some might argue that we just need to get over ourselves. After all, sticks and stones – it’s just words, right?

Perhaps. But at the same time, to argue that words are nonchalant ignores the very power of language. Just a brief look at “chick” brings up an interesting historical narrative. First, it’s now become an adjective as much as it is a noun. But are you praising or insulting a book when you call it “chick lit?” In the 19th century, women like Fanny Fern, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Maria Susanna Cummins led in sales, enough so that Nathaniel Hawthorne famously remarked “America is now wholly given over to a d-d mob of scribbling women”.

When I just threw a Google on this subject, I found a site referring to Fern and others as “chick lit writer babes.” Was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, really a “chick lit writer babe?” And what is the intention of calling her that – is she being praised or demeaned? Sometimes, it isn’t clear. And this is where people get into trouble.

And WWGSD do? (And that would be, yes, What Would Gloria Steinem Do?) She vetoes chick here. But I have many feminist friends who use the term with aplomb, and I never flinch to hear it from them. Why? Because I know their intention. And yet, I don’t think there’s a definitive line to draw in the sand over who should say what. But I do strongly respect a person’s right to care. And because of that, I stick to “lady.” Or “girl.” Or even “man.” Who am I offending with that? I’m sure someone will let me know soon enough.

What do other think about this? We asked these women and one man of words how they felt.

Starre Vartan, author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life
So, regarding chick, I have been asked about this before. (Actually, I was accosted by a woman at a panel discussion, an old feminist who was so angry I used chick.) To me, using words that were previously considered insulting or demeaning to women, and using them to name ourselves takes their negative power away. I hope that by using the word “chick” for a blog about women’s green interest topics, we are giving it new life, and changing the definition over time. This has worked for other words, like fag, and I think it can work for feminist words too.

Gretchen Jones, Winner of Project Runway Season 8, Designer of Mothlove
I suppose I think this question is a ridiculous question in itself!? I think being bothered by such casual [and trivial] titles plays into the satirical element of being “PC.” Being offended by such terminology to me is a waste of time. We are all and any of these at any given time. Embrace them, accept them as nonchalant – and let go.

Julie Gabriel, author of The Green Beauty Guide
Girl, gal, chick are most depressive and diminishing. I’d rather hear “ma’am” or “ladies”. Why do you really need address your readers based on their gender? It makes as much sense as writing one article for women and one for men. Or making one bus entrance for Caucasians and another one for non-whites. What do women call each other here in England? “Luv” and “gorgeous,” and between very close friends it’s “princess” and well, luv. But mostly by name.

Robin Epstein, author of God Is in the Pancakes
I’m not really the take offense to language type, so I’m okay with being called anything except “spinster.” (I prefer “lady in waiting” to describe my state of matrimony or lack thereof.) I’ll also use any of those terms to describe women, though I rarely use “girlfriend” since it sounds dated and I don’t want people thinking I’m a spinster because I’m stuck in the 1995.

Anna Brones, Contributing Writer, EcoSalon
All my 20-something, independent, no-frills, upfront female friends call each other lady. Preferably said “hey layydee!” Although if anyone of the male gender ever said it to us, it would probably be returned with a raise of the eyebrows and a mental note to judge said man over ladies coffee later in the week.

Brian Clark Howard, author and journalist
The truth is that I often call women “chicks” when talking among my guy friends but I try not to use it in front of women because I have gotten bad reactions. When in front of women, I usually say woman or women unless they are obviously quite young, then it is girl. I try to find out what each person prefers.

Kim Derby, Contributing Writer, EcoSalon
These days I think we’re lucky to be called anything at all, with people texting and IMing so much and not even using names when they talk to people. So I’m not offended when called chick or gal or girl or lady. Just don’t call me “ma’am.” All kidding aside, life is too short to get upset about stuff like this. The word someone uses says more about THEM than it does about me anyway.

Anna Getty, author of Anna Getty’s Easy, Green Organic
Call me anything but don’t call me dude.

Image: samdogs

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.