Every Word for Women Eventually Becomes a Pejorative Term

Lots of days I go about my activities without screaming about the patriarchy, but today is not one of those days. Today I’m thinking about how words that are used to refer to women, eventually (and inevitably?) become insults.

For example, did you know Gossip started out as a very positive term?

“The history of ‘gossip’ is emblematic in this context. Through it we can follow two centuries of attacks on women at the dawn of modern England, when a term commonly indicating a close female friend turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity that female friendship implies and generates. Attaching a denigrating meaning to the term indicating friendship among women served to destroy the female sociality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, when most of the activities women performed were of a collective nature and, in the lower classes at least, women formed a tight-knit community that was the source of a strength unmatched in the modern era.”

[Gossip] originally meant ‘godparent,’ one who stands in a spiritual relation to the child to be baptized. In time, however, the term was used with a broader meaning. In early modern England the word ‘gossip’ referred to companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.

But it’s not just Gossip. Mistress used to be the female version of Master Now we only use it to refer to a married man’s girlfriend on the side. (Also, Mrs. is an abbreviation of Mistress).

Madame was the respectful equivalent of Sir. Now it means a lady pimp.

Even Princess and Queen — they started as terms of power, yet get twisted into terms implying entitlement.

Spinster referred to a woman who worked spinning fibers into thread. Now it’s a generic term for an older, unmarried woman, and laden with negative connotations.

On thing I learned while reading about the term ‘Spinster’ is that there are other historic terms that refer to women’s occupations, that are now in use as common last names (and hooray! have not become insults). For example, a woman who worked at weaving was a “Webster” while a “Baxter” was a baker. As a side note, I like learning those are feminine occupational terms and being reminded that women have always worked — either in addition to, or outside of, motherhood.

In 1852, Feminist denoted “the state of being feminine.” Now, it’s considered the ultimate insult by those who classify themselves as political and social conservatives.

And we’re not done yet! It’s still happening, even with new terms. Consider Influencer and Blogger. Or Mommyblogger. New fields, dominated by women — so the terms get used more and more often as insults.

I’m not sure what my point is in writing this post. I suppose I just want people to be aware of how much misogyny is built right in to our language — and language has so much influence on how we think. No matter how not-sexist a person wants to be, it sometimes feels impossible.

We all grew up surrounded by deep sexism — we eat it, and breathe it, and think it; it’s part of the atmosphere that we live in. I’m not sure it’s even possible to see every aspect of the sexism clearly, because we have no model to compare it too. We have no examples of what it’s like to grow up without deeply embedded misogyny — we can only imagine what that might look like. We really have no idea.

Maybe I’m just tired.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you have any favorite ways to refer to women that are positive? Or other examples of female words that started out neutral, but have become pejoratives? Did you know the linguistic term for a neutral term becoming a negative term is “pejoration”? (I just learned that today.)

P.S. — 25 words that don’t mention gender in their definitions, but are only used to refer to women.

33 thoughts on “Every Word for Women Eventually Becomes a Pejorative Term”

  1. I have never commented here before, but now is the time I think.
    Thank you for thinking your thoughts and writing some of them down for us to read. I liked your angry summary in the end. I think is very appropriate.
    What made me write this comment was the sentence after that. Even if you were tired, even if you were tired of patriarchy: Your analysis and thoughts ought not to be dismantled just because of that.
    It felt like an apology and that for me is a problem. Because the more I read and think about social realities like racism and patriarchy I feel like we all are still deeply immersed in this culture und ways to think. It is hard work to become a feminist and anti-racist.
    Keep it up!

  2. You are so right. I just looked up the origin of ‘bluestockings’ which was used (in German, too and till quite recently) to describe women who were keen on education and emancipation. originally this was the name of an English literary and political Salon (18th cent), open to men and woman. The name actually came about bc of a fashion faux pas committed by a man apparently :- …. No words …

  3. When I was at university back in the late 1960s, an English professor had each class member take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side he asked us to list all the pejorative names for a female; on the other, pejorative names for males. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. The combined class list of denigrating names for women was more 10x the number than for men. A lesson I never forgot.

    As you note with more recent titles such as mommyblogger, etc., not much has changed.

  4. A word that is female-adjacent, used pejoratively by otherwise enlightened men – Hey, Steven Colbert! – is douche. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a woman use the word as an insult; it’s usually men who use it to describe a man for whom they have little respect. I never really gave it a second thought (which is so embarrassing now) until a few years ago when I heard Lily Tomlin interrupt an interview and ask the interviewer not to use the word douche as an insult because it’s pejorative. In my head I heard a record-scratch and screeching brakes – why had that never occurred to me before?

    Well, now I’m on the hunt for the words to which I’ve turned a deaf ear. . .

    1. Ugh, yes, I hate when people use douche as an insult! I hate the whole history of douching to begin with, and then somehow “thing with proximity to a vagina” became this ultimate insult when referring to dirtbag guys.

    2. Yes this! I was just having an argument with my husband about this term the other day- and how mysogynistic it is. And he didn’t (wouldn’t) understand just how demeaning it is. He went so far as to google and found that they sell douches for men and said that the term can’t be mysogynistic because douches aren’t just a product for women. I was so frustratingly mad.

    3. Hi, I’m a woman who uses douche as an insult! Maybe not even as an insult, but more of an adjective, like saying someone was behaving in a douche-y manner. I realize everyone may not agree, but I have no problem with douche being used as an insult, because douching is unnecessary and can mess up the ph of your vagina (it is a self-cleaning oven, folks!). Seeing ads for douche products is actually what makes me mad.

  5. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Young Jane Young by Gabrielle

    I ate the soup, and I immediately began to feel better. My sinuses cleared and my throat felt less raw.
    “See,” she said, “it’s not just an old wives’ tale about chicken soup.”
    “I hate that phrase,” I said. “Old wives’ tale.”
    “I’m sorry,” she said.
    “No, it’s not you. But it’s so hateful and sexist and ageist when you think about it. ‘Old wives’ tale’ is basically a way of saying ignore everything that dumb old woman says.”
    “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she said.
    “I hadn’t thought of it that way either. Not until I became an old wife myself.”

  6. A related issue I’ve thought about a lot since my daughter was brain-injured at birth last year: many common insults people toss around relate to specific physical and mental disabilities: dumb, idiot, mouth breather, lame, imbecile, moron, retard, etc. I wish all of these ugly words would disappear and we could have civil discourse not reliant on name-calling.

    And another whole topic which I would love for you to explore: how women get evaluated in the workplace! How many men’s performance evaluations ever use a word like “whine” or “moan” or “meltdown” when describing how an employee confronts challenges in the workplace?

    I believe even the same words could be used with different connotation to compliment a man vs. criticize a woman, i.e. a man could be described as aggressive and demanding in a positive way (he has high standards, and he gets things done!), whereas those same words in a slightly different description would be used to imply that a woman is unreasonable and hard to work with.

  7. This is really interesting. My friends and I (all single college students, in our 20s) refer to ourselves lovingly as spinsters, since we’re all without partners, and we’re 5 young women living together in perfect harmony haha (a bit like Little Women!) It’s become an inside joke, a positive take on a word with a negative connotation, and has made us proud of our status as single women in our 20s by owning a historical insult, and making it trendy ;)

  8. Thank your for sharing this article and the comments. They remind me of Patricia Hill Collins’ notion of naming. I’ve just moved and can’t find my copy of her book BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT. Thus I’ve resorted to Wiki. Here is a quotation that gets close to what I would have pulled from the book if I had access to it:

    Self-definition is ‘the power to name one’s own reality.’ Collins articulates black women’s resistance against controlling images as an important step for practicing self-definition. …The rejection of the dominant group’s definition of black women and black women’s imposition of their own self-definition indicates a ‘collective Black women’s consciousness.’

    The article and stories shared here help us self-define and reclaim naming and a “collective consciousness.” Again, thank you.

    P.S. I just love that my daughter calls her close group of friends her “coven.”

  9. Somewhat related: how many of the proper terms for non-human females are used as insults? Bitch, cow, sow, heifer.
    Most men (I think) would not be offended if they were called bulls unless it was bull-in-china-shop.

    1. Well, here are few animal words that I sometimes use for men that are none too flattering: pig, snake, ape, octopus… I’ve never used any of those to describe a woman.

      1. Except that these words are gender neutral. As Margaret pointed out, it is the name of a female animal being used in a derogatory manner to describe women.

        Perhaps dog (male dog), as in “He’s such a dog.” I don’t think anyone would think much these days of that being said about a man.

        Perhaps jackass as a form of Jack (male donkey).

  10. On a lighter note (because life is so hard right now): is that gorgeous photo at the top part of that series of family portraits you did some years ago? I’d love to see all those beautiful prints again!

  11. Ok so the words that we’ve been discussing as a family (we have teens) lately are the D word that is a male body part and the P word that is used for a female body part. We’ve been talking about how it’s not ok that the D word is used interchangeably to refer to someone as an a’hole’ or mean or rude while the P word is used to refer to someone as weak. Both words leave a lot to be desired but that fact that they are used in such ways says so much about male female inequalities.

  12. Adding to the above comment, examine the curse words, most are gender biased, same with insults, for instance the name a of fatherless child is considered an insult because the child is without a *man*, what is the child’s title if he or she is motherless? And would being without a mother become as horrid an insult?

    Witch -evolution of the word “wit” someone quick thinking and intelligent, usually associated with female leaders in medieval times –who eventually had to be stopped or burned at the stake.

    Hag -a variation of the word hagio which means “Holy”. See above. When a woman began to receive recognition above her male counterparts, actions were taken to silence her.

    Just a thought from someone who could easily be considered a “Crone”, a word that is commonly, now, used to describe a bitter nasty evil *old* woman – however a word whose origin was associated with longevity, endurance, unrelenting pursuits, balanced, spiritual, a woman who doesn’t whine or complain because she has seen life and knows how to understand all of its ills are actually gifts of knowledge, an earthly Goddess, and or a woman who has lived enough life to have wisdom, and or a woman with such expertise as to hold a trust and honour among other women as a midwife -one who can safely bring life into the world while preserving life.

    So yes, lots of substantiation for gender bias and pejorative words for women!

    1. These are so fascinating. I remember having a discussion about the three crones in graeco-roman mythology in high school. My teacher made a point to state that ‘crones’ in this context doesn’t mean ugly or callous or anything derogative– it was just as statement that they were old and wise and so it was understood that they could make decisions about mortals’ lives. I’m thankful he made the clarification, but I wish he had just stated that “that’s what crone means” rather than “that’s what crone means here.”

      Thinking about it now, it’s interesting that so many of the wise people in those mythological traditions were female (Athena, Artemis, the muses, the crones, Gaia, etc.) and the gods were widely known to be flippant, easily-distracted makers of either war or love (often both in one fell swoop), but the gods were still ‘in charge.’ And by interesting, I of course mean enraging.

      Also, read an article a while back about witches in Puritan (and related) society. Any woman who was autonomous (could make their own decisions and/or money), who was educated, who didn’t have children, or who /spoke to other women/ could be labeled a witch, as well as any man who fraternized with these wicked, witchy women. So women were taught by society not to invest energy in each other, because then you’d be labeled a witch, and then if you didn’t invest in female relationships, you’re backstabbing or a gossip or what have you. Labels shape reality.

  13. My mother had a shirt in the late 80s that said “Feminism: The radical idea that women are people.” The older I get the more I love this simple definition and its positive reclamation of the word.

  14. well in french some people still argue over the new rules of recognizing the feminine for every noun applied to a profession. For example, we used to say “écrivain” for writer, male or female, but now we can and should say “écrivaine” (same for professeur/professeure, etc), but some people still think the feminine of these nouns is ugly and doesn’t sound right. I find that discussion so exhausting and unbearable. I am excited to be a Professeure, a Docteure and an écrivaine! I think that sounds just right.

  15. I have two daughters and in our house the culture is to take ownership of the words. It’s not perfect and sometimes profane, but it does the trick. We get our power back. It also helps that we have a man in the house (my husband, their father) who supports us in the endeavor.
    So, when some old way of doing things isn’t working, I’ll often say, “probably just an old husband’s tale.” When we pump each other up, “Ok, time to woman-up!” On the profane end of things, when a male is being petty and obstinate, my daughter will declare, “He’s being such a little bitch!” Men who are sexually careless are just a “whore” not “male whore,” (absolutely no need to make the distinction), etc., etc.

  16. You must have read your scriptures last week- ha! My husband pointed out that- why did they have to use the word, whore to describe the abominable church, or the mother of abominations? Why use mother in that sentence? He said that chapter has always bothered him (didn’t help that our 13 year old girl was reading it out loud). That it bothers him makes me immensely proud!

  17. Such a thought provoking post, thanks for putting this out here. I am surprised there aren’t more comments.

    Another item for this list – chick lit. I am in a book club, and one of the genres for us to read is chick lit. In researching book ideas, I came across some info from an author who mentioned how degrading the chick lit name is – as if the book is not worth reading or has no merit.

    I understand the tired bit…it is so easy to become tired of pushing against what has been ingrained for so long, trying to improve the situation. Dealing incessantly with those who are unwilling to listen, reflect, understand – downright exhausting over time. But continue we must!

  18. I think a good amount of the misogyny we experience is embedded in traditional religions and their texts. For instance one of my grandfather’s morning prayers in Hebrew was to thank God for not making him a woman. That was not my grandfather’s personal prayer, but part of the liturgy.

    I really appreciate your bringing this issue up, as well as all the wonderful comments! Bravissima!

  19. In german language it is the same.
    Just look at the german word for magnificent. It’s HERRLICH and comes from the word HERR which means master or gentleman. The german word DÄMLICH which means dim-witted or goofy comes from the word DAME (Lady in english). So to behave like a lady or a woman i.g. means being childish.

  20. Thank you for writing this, I agree.
    I just finished reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. It points out to maddening degree how “gender neutral” approaches are usually just male bias in a shitty outfit.

  21. This is so true and i realised it rather amusingly. I found a vintage storybook about Cinderella for my daughter. It’s probably over 60 or more years old. In the book, the evil sisters twice refer to Cinderella as “a common kitchen slut”. The first time i read the book i stopped mid sentence, shocked. I changed the word for her ears but it was strange. I then got my husband to read it to my daughter and he really fumbled with shock which gave me a good laugh. But that apart, any term about women ends up eventually degrading her. Etymology be damned, context is king.

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