{the life} “Girls” vs. “Women”

by Rachel on April 6, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the terms “girls” and “women” — specifically, I’ve been trying to figure out how people use these words and why.

For most of my life, I’ve referred to myself and my female friends as “girls” and to my male peers as “boys” (through high school) and then “guys” (college and beyond). I used the term “women” sometimes — sorority nationals always referred to us as “sorority women” and “college women” so I got in the habt there, and I talk about “women’s magazines” and “women’s health” without even thinking about it — but in general, I still used the term “girl” regularly. Sometimes it’s just easier to say “girl” (“girlfriends” rolls off the tongue better than “womenfriends” or “ladyfriends”) but other times it’s because I still think of myself and other females in their twenties as, well, girls.

And that doesn’t seem quite right. I really don’t think we’re girls anymore. And yet “women” often feels like something that other — older — people are…until I remember that five years ago, I probably called a 26-year-old female a woman rather than a girl.

So what are the standards we use to decide when people transition from “girls” to “women”? I’ve been thinking about it and trying to figure out what the markers of adulthood are in our culture today, and, quite honestly, I’m stuck.

Is it getting your period? Perhaps, though that’s happening younger and younger these days and I’m not sure an 11-year-old should be treated like an adult.

Is it turning 18? Could be. That’s when you get the right to vote. Still, though, there are plenty of other things you can’t do at age 18.

Is it going to college? Perhaps, but many college students aren’t self-sufficient and certainly don’t behave like adults.

Is it moving out of your parents’ house and becoming self-sufficient? Maybe, but given the current economy and trends, that might not happen until you’re well into your thirties.

Is it getting married? Could be, but people are getting married later and plenty of people never get married. Is a 35-year old totally self-sufficient female still a girl? I don’t think so.

Is it having kids? [See problems with "Is it getting married?"]

Given the fact that there isn’t a clear-cut official marker of adulthood in our culture, I’m not quite sure when to use the term “women.” But still, I’ve been trying to use it, mainly because I think referring to adult women as girls is problematic. First, it seems to undermine our experiences and maturity. I don’t want to be referred to as a girl at work; I’m a capable adult and should be given the appropriate title that reflects that. Second, the term “girl” seems like a way of excusing our own bad behavior or our lack of responsibility. To me, “girl” implies that I’m young and therefore allowed to be irresponsible. Sometimes when I am thinking about or discussing “girls’” behavior, I remind myself to instead think of this as “women’s” behavior. It’s easy to forgive certain things when it’s children taking part, but when you remind acknowledge that it’s adults behaving irresponsibly, cruelly, unprofessionally, or illegally, it helps me recognize, This is completely unacceptable. I feel like calling myself and my peers “women” helps me raise my standards and expectations.

I’m really curious how other people feel about this and what terms you use to refer to yourself and your peers. Do you use “girls” and “women” interchangeably? Do you think it matters? Let’s discuss!

{ 40 comments }

1 Bronwyn April 6, 2012 at 10:25 am

For some reason it used to make me VERY uncomfortable to refer to myself as a “woman” or even my friends as women. Until recently, like, this year actually. I’m not sure when it started to seem more appropriate… I just started to feel that referring to myself as a girl felt wrong, a little demeaning, like I was still a child with no responsibilities for myself. I also find I don’t tend to say boys or guys as much as men. I say the transition might just happen when you personally start to feel more like an adult… and thus more a woman than a girl.
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2 Taylor April 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

It’s kind of crazy that you posted about this, because I was literally just reading another blog ands the author always refers to herself as a girl and I caught myself thinking, “but she is almost 30 years old and is engaged, does she really think of herself as a girl?” I always refer to my male friends as guys, and I think that sort of serves as a term in between boys and men. There doesn’t really seem to be a middle ground for females (also, for the most part I don’t like being called ‘female’ by guys, it just bugs me for some reason). Basically I think the simplest answer seems to be that he transition into adulthood for women in our culture is relative to each individual person.

3 M. April 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

Women makes me uncomfortable, and most of my friends also, so we use “ladies”!

During law school, we referred to our large group of friends as “the law girls” and “the law boys”, as appropriate, and now we’re “law ladies” and well…still law boys, but really, they act like boys about 80% of the time, so…we think it’s fine :)

4 Stina April 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

I use girl/ girls almost exclusively with the ocassional use of lady/ ladies. I very rarely use woman to describe anyone.

A part of me (the super, hardcore feminist part that minored in Women and Gender Studies in college) likes the fact that the word girl is exclusive to, well, girls. The words women, woman, and female are all rooted in the masculine, and on some level that really bothers me. It bothers me in the same way the fact that there’s no gender neutral pronoun and the fact that we refer to a mixed gender group or even a group of girls as “guys” bother me….if that makes sense.

Plus I just really hate they way woman/ women sounds…which might be a subconscious thing related to everything I just said.
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5 Joni April 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

Well said. I never really thought about that but I couldn’t agree more!

6 Katie Cummings April 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm

That is one of the things I was thinking while reading also! In college we had a Womyns group on campus, and I took a few gender studies classes, but didn’t get overly involved. For me it depends on the setting, I tend to say “getting together with the girls” or if I’m feeling like its a more formal setting I might say “ladies”. I tend to refer to boys as “boys”, unless I’m talking to a male, and then I say “guys”.

Its a very complicated idea!
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7 Toni April 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

I’m a 45-year-old professional woman who often refers to herself as a feminist. I use them both, depending upon the situation and who I am referring to. As a board member of a nonprofit named WOMAN, I do tend to use this term in reference to my colleagues out of respect, however, these same women are often the ones I refer to when talking about us and our activities such as in a Facebook post declaring “I’m with my favorite girls at XYZ.” Basically, for professional reasons, I use woman, women and female; socially and when referring to fluff (for lack of a better word), I use girls.

8 Nicki April 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I’m 26 and I was going to write the same thoughts – I tend to refer to other (professional) females as women and all my close female friends as my girls/girlfriends!

9 Rachel April 7, 2012 at 11:13 am

That makes sense…for people who find it awkward/weird to call their friends “women,” I think starting the transition by using it for professionals/colleagues first and then starting to use it more socially is a good idea!

10 Caitlin @ This Bride's Joyride April 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

I don’t know why, but it doesn’t feel comfortable to say “women” when talking about my friends or my peers. I find in work scenarios I always refer to females as “women” including myself, but in friends/social situations – it’s always “girls”. I’m 27 and engaged and truthfully, I would prefer girl or lady (and don’t feel like it’s demeaning unless in a work scenario). Woman just sounds sort of harsh…

I always use guys (in place of men) and the only time I find myself using “boys” anymore is when I am actually talking about high school boys and younger or I realized the other day when my friend and I were complaining about the male species we were saying things like “why do boys do this, or boys always do that”. Maybe I use boys as this age only in a negative way?
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11 Dori April 6, 2012 at 11:02 am

I’m actually very uncomfortable referring to myself or my friends as women. I think it’s because I have a hard time seeing myself as an adult. I remember high school so vividly that I can’t believe so many years have passed, and I just don’t feel like a real grown-up, even though I am 29. My friends are girls, I’m a girl. I have the same issue with the word men. I can’t call my boyfriend a man (he will be 35 next week) and I can’t call my 26-year-old brother a man. I see them as boys or guys. I see us all as non-adults, because our parents are the adults. It doesn’t make sense though and I wonder how other people my age so seamlessly made the switch, and when? And does it feel weird to them like it does to me or is it just the next logical step?

Of course, I became a woman the day of my Bat Mitzvah. At almost-13. Ha!
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12 Hannah April 9, 2012 at 8:29 am

I totally feel the same way as you! I still feel like a little kid sometimes (and living alone is all just a game of house), that calling myself/my friends “women” makes it seem like we’re my parent’s age. I’m pretty sure I’ll be 80 and still think I just graduated from HS last year! How fast the time flies…

13 Deva @ Deva by Definition April 6, 2012 at 11:13 am

I’ve often wondered if part of the reluctance to say you are a woman – not a girl – has to do with how long we spend as “girls.” I was called a girl until I was 18 or 19 – by family members and some friends of the family. In my head, I WAS a girl, because that’s how I was seen by others.

It wasn’t until I realized that by thinking of myself as a girl and not a woman, I was, essentially, reducing what I am as an adult female into a label intended for someone much younger than I am. By reducing myself from a woman into a girl, I was, in a sense, influencing how others see and saw me.
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14 Stephanie McKay April 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

On a similar note, I recently read an article about ‘adult girls’ after having a similar conversation on breaking the calling-everyone-girls habit. The article brought up Zooey Deschannel, and although I love her in New Girl, I have to admit the article was right. It questioned why women (and girls) love people like Taylor Swift and Zooey, who are seemingly perpetuating the infantilized cartoon version of a woman under the guise of girl power. Even the tag line of New Girl is ‘adorkable’ and yet women sort of fancy themselves as these very smart, independent, capable adults while playing this little girl role until later and later in life. Why wouldn’t we want to be more badass like Lisbeth Salander, pure genius complete with computer hacking and self-defense skills that rival that of a Jedi knight? Someone who is not afraid to be alone and needs no one to take care of her. But are those roles our only choices as women? If you are likeable, are you adorkable? Or are you a cold, impersonal bitch? I often lament the lack of strong female leads in society who are both feminine and successful with no need to be rescued by anyone but herself. IMO, romantic comedies are the bane of the female existence.

15 Mary April 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm

It’s a tough cycle to break. People have certain expectations out of movies, and if they’re not met, the flicks won’t do well, so studios won’t buy, so movies where women are more badass won’t get made. And when traditional romantic comedies do well at the box office, it perpetuates the type of movies that the general public wants to see. It’s unfortunate. I completely agree w/you re: romantic comedies. I think Bridesmaids was a good film that *sort of* broke some barriers with that, but there’s still a long way to go. And, it’s not just just females that get stereotyped in Hollywood. Every group suffers similarly (especially in comedies, since stereotypes are easy “funnies”) – look at how homosexuals and various racial groups are portrayed in comedies. Almost decisively stereotyped.

16 Deva @ Deva by Definition April 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I think the “adorkable” girl thing has a lot to do with the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – the girl who seemingly never grows up, and is somewhat of a stock character. With the idealization and proliferation of the MPDG “character,” it can almost make it seem as though that is what is truly desirable in a woman – to remain girlish.
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17 Rachel April 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

Do you have the link to the article handy? I would love to read it! After reading this comment yesterday I went and read a bunch of articles on New Girl/Zooey Deschanel and want to read more! It’s a really interesting discussion.

18 Tracy April 6, 2012 at 11:34 am

I’ve always preferred the term ladies. I feel like it portrays the same standards of behavior that ‘women’ without the implications of age or life status. One can be and act like a lady at any age and I find that thinking of my female friends and colleagues in this way helps me to define my expectations of conduct for myself and others.

19 Shannon April 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm

If I’m referring to a group of people my age (25) I’ll use women or ladies. But the problem is that most of my time with women my age is called “Girls Night.” We don’t say “let’s get the women together,” we say “I desperately need some girl time.”

I have noticed that guys I date refer to me as girl, as in “I’ve been dating this girl for 4 years,” but that could be because of “girlfriend.”

20 Mary April 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Let’s get the ladies together seems to work (a bit more smooth than women). And “Ladies Night”!!!

21 Mary April 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I never use the word girl in reference to 20′s-some females and when someone else refers to me as such I cringe. I find it demeaning coming from men. I’m 27 years old, but I think it was sometime around college that I made the transition from “girls” to “ladies” or “women.” I also play a lot of soccer (played in college, and play semi-pro now) and I think part of that transition occurred on the field. I remember being a 12 year old playing with a 15 year old who called us all ladies – at the time I felt it was so strange. But now, I would never use the term girl to refer to my teammates now, and I would never refer to my boyfriend as a “boy.” (sidenote: shouldn’t there be some term for a significant other that’s not your fiance or husband that sounds a bit more grownup than “boyfriend,” amiright? Partner? I’m stumped on that one..) Anyways, bringing it back to the original discussion, I’ve never addressed my female friends as girlfriends….they’re just “friends.”

22 Mel April 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm

I think the marker for titles is much more self-identified than tied to an event or self-suffiency. I dated a 28-year-old man who was still receiving finacial support from his parents (while he searched for jobs) but his play-ethic, insight, the way he treated me and the things we talked about were very adult or mature. Meanwhile I have 24-year-old guyfriends who live independently but might as well still believe they’re in college.
(Ps. I’ve never beeN fond of the term “boyfriend” but I do enjoy saying I’m going “out with the girls” I think because spending time with my closest friends- mature wonderful people-makes me feel warm and silly.)

When adressing a person or a group, I always prefer to use lady/ladies.

23 Katherine April 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm

If you haven’t watched this already, I would suggest it. It addresses a very similar topic, but more specifically about women in tech referring to themselves as girls rather than women.

http://www.geeksaresexy.net/2011/11/17/how-to-get-more-women-in-tech-in-under-a-minute/

24 Dallas April 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Having gone to a women’s college (not a girl’s school) I’m notoriously fanatical for using women vs. girls. I just find girls demeaning. I am a grown-ass woman. I pay my own bills, I get my oil changed, I work hard at my job, etc etc etc. I also generally try to avoid calling a group of men “boys”, but I do slip into it when talking romantic stuff. Hm. Interesting post!
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25 Bess @ I Dream of Greenie April 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Plus not to mention this show about twenty-something women called “Girls” that’s about to premiere on MTV.
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26 Chelsea April 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm

This is a really interesting topic. I always used to cringe at the thought of being a “woman”. But just like Dallas, I went to a women’s college. We always used to joke that it wasn’t a “girls school without men, it was a women’s college without boys.” I still correct anyone who refers to Salem College as a girl’s school. I’m 28 and haven’t lived with my parents since I was 18, I actually moved 900 miles away from all of my family and never looked back. I pay my own bills, barely support myself and deal with all of my own issues so I think it’s safe to say I’m a grown-up.

Recently I’ve noticed myself referring to myself as a “grown-ass woman.” Perhaps it’s because I’m hanging out with a guy who is only 23, has yet to go to college & still lives with his mother (no judging please), so I often look at how much growing (as a man) he has to do and contrast that to my own state of adulthood. In this scenario he’s definitely a young man and I’m definitely a woman.

What I call my female friends is completely reliant upon the context and how much alcohol we’ve had to drink. We refer to each other as girlfriends, chicas, lady friends, bitches, sisters, girl, and ladies, but we don’t refer to our group as women unless we’re speaking about our college classmates as a large group, or in a formal setting among professionals. I wonder why the term woman, or women, gives so much of us the heebie-jeebies? I can’t think of a traumatic event that could have happened to all of us that would have made that word so uncomfortable. Maybe our health teachers embarrassed us by referring to puberty (another nasty word) as our path to womanhood or something…? Gross. Like Rachel said, an 11 year old is still a girl, tampons or not.

At the end of the day whether you refer to yourself as a woman, girl or lady, doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re comfortable.

27 Andi April 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I actually chastised a coworker for addressing me as “young lady” in a patronizing manner. Although it sets me on edge, I accept this term when it’s used only as a greeting, because more than a few of them have kids my age (25).

In casual settings with everyday coworkers/friends, I typically use “girls” or “ladies” and see no harm in it. However, I am much more sensitive to terminology when in a more formal situation.
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28 Rachel's Mom April 6, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Just wait until someone, like a waiter or salesman, refers to you as “Ma’am,” instead of “Miss.” Then you’ll feel like a woman…a really old one!!!

29 Rachel April 7, 2012 at 11:10 am

I’ve been getting “ma’am” more often than not lately! I don’t know if it’s because I look that old or if it’s just a Texas thing — people say “yes, ma’am” out of habit more than “yes, miss.” But every time I hear it, I do think, Wait, when did I become a ma’am?

30 Rachel April 6, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I started thinking about this after graduated from college, which is when I think I first felt like an adult, namely cause I was (mostly) supporting myself. I’m 25 and now feel very comfortable calling myself a woman. I think this is because I started my first job teaching at an all-girls school (my alma mater actually), and once 17-year-olds start referring to you as “Ms. So and So,” you realize, oh man I’m not in adolescence anymore. What I really like, though, is that my school refers to our students as “young women” instead of girls. I think this is empowering and raises the standards expected of them. Similarly, I noticed that when I refer to my students as “scholars,” they seem to take more pride in their work and participate in class more frequently! Names can both empower and subjugate, so it’s important to use them appropriately.

31 Britney April 7, 2012 at 6:35 am

I’m 25 and I told off a canvasser on Thursday for calling me, “Hey, girl.” It kind of sounded like he was trying to pick me up. I think it stems from attending a women’s college – I haven’t been a girl since high school, though I don’t always refer to myself as a woman.

How do you feel about the Miss vs. Ms. thing? I got a little mad at a friend the other day when I received the save-the-date for her wedding – we attended the same women’s college and she addressed the envelope to “Miss Britney”. I’m a single woman (which she knows) and I think being called “Miss Britney” at the age of 25 is a little derogatory, unless I indicated to her otherwise (which I haven’t).

32 Rachel April 7, 2012 at 11:09 am

I’m not sure how I feel about Miss vs. Ms. I was talking to some coworkers about it last week, in the context of them asking me if I’ll change my name when I get married. (Answer: undecided. Not deciding until I absolutely have to.) Miss, Ms, and Mrs all present problems…I’m jealous that men can just always be Mr. I know that women can always be Ms. but I think there’s an understanding that you’re not a Ms. if you’re married, therefore it’s not as all-encompassing as Mr. I’d like to see us just have two terms: Mr. and the female equivalent.

Anyway, I don’t really feel insulted when I receive something addressed to “miss” because I don’t find “miss” as immature/childish as “girl” (though I’m not really sure why I don’t). Also, the terms seem so easily used and confused, I don’t take it too personally. That said, I can see why you found it derogatory!

33 Jess-ThatJessGal April 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I hadn’t really thought about the “girls v. ladies v. women” phasing much before, but as a high school science teacher, who also happens to be the only single person on campus, a side from the kids of course, I prefer to be Ms. Mahoney. NOT Miss Mahoney. That was my name when I was a “young woman” (aka, under the age of 21 in my book)…so I guess that means I consider myself a woman. And I do. I’m a strong WOMAN who is a fabulous twenty-something. I do refer to my best friends as my “girls” sometimes, but I also call my little senior groupies my “girls” too, so I think it’s all about context. And I use the term “ladies night out” but ironically “girls (or gals) night in.” I know older generations divided “ladies” as the genteel class , often homemakers, while “women” were the working class…a la Rosie the Riveter.

Thanks for another thought provoking topic, Rachel! I guess I had thought about it more than I realized, because all that rolled off my fingers pretty easily!
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34 SP April 7, 2012 at 10:27 am

Oh, I really like this post. I’m kind of sad to admit I didn’t even start thinking about this until I was 28. Before that, I still mentally thought “girl”, even though I’ve been self sufficient for a very long time.

I read “nice girls don’t get the corner office” recently, and in the very beginning, the author tells you to give yourself permission to be a woman, not a girl. And it made a difference. I work with a lot of men, and a lot of older men – so i know some of them think of me as a girl. But that doesn’t mean I have to.

With friends, I am OK with girl. I don’t use it much, but it doesn’t grate.

I think you are a women when you decide you are one.

35 Danielle April 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I think that part of the discomfort that people have with these terms relates to the fact that a ‘girl’ sounds more relaxed, but a woman sounds more ‘aware.’ (And there is that implication of girl as less responsible than the woman, which implies that only the ‘woman’ is in control, etc.) But I think this way of looking at it is harmful in 2 ways, by:
1. Making those who believe themselves to be just ‘girls’ to possibly feel less in control of their own behavior, and
2. Making those who believe themselves to be ‘women’ to be less able to have fun. (After all, ‘girls’ just wanna have fun, right? And ‘women,’ what do they do? All of the stuff that needs to be done, I guess.)

I think it actually works in a similar way for the terms ‘boys’ and ‘men.’ Perhaps getting rid of these terms would allow people to assume more responsibility for their actions, while simultaneously allowing people to maintain some of the liberation to relax and enjoy life? Hm.

36 Jes April 9, 2012 at 10:09 am

I use the term “girls” casually when in a social situation when other females are talking about “girl time” or “girls night” (I prefer ladies). Other than that I use lady or ladies most often because that is what I would like to be called. I think that the term “girl” can be very demeaning and depending on who it comes from I (personally) find it a little hurtful. I am 25 and work for a construction equipment manufacturer and get called “little girl” on a very regular basis by the men and the women in the company, and it honestly pisses me off as soon as I hear it because I know that it is meant to put me down and make me feel inferior to the people who have been there longer and think they know the industry better than I do. I don’t call them “old girl” or “tall girl” so when did they think it acceptable to call me “little girl”. (sorry for the long comment)

37 Frances April 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

When I was a college freshman, I noticed that my favorite professor always referred to female students as women. It made me realize that we were grown up (mostly – drinking and dancing on tables are just part of the learning experience, right?) and should have higher expectations and standards for ourselves and to take more responsibility. To me, it was a sign that she respected us and had certain expectations for us. It gave me a vision or sense of what I wanted to become. Conversely, the professor who called us “girls” was condescending and had much lower expectations of female students. I enjoyed subverting his expectations immensely.
Still, sometimes I refer to my friends as girls, as in girls’ or ladies’ night out, but most of the time, I try to refer to us as the women that we are.
Oh, and while I don’t necessarily enjoy being “ma’am”-ed, I try to look at it as a southern thing. After all, I still get carded sometimes.

38 shandra April 9, 2012 at 11:59 am

This post is so timely for me, I am 29 and was featured in this weekend’s edition of my hometown paper for a talk I did recently. The headline referred to me as a “local woman”. My boyfriend thought this was hilarious and asked me if “I’ve ever been called a ‘local woman’ on the front page of the paper before?”. His impression was that it made me sound old. I thought so too but then my mom pointed out that anyone over 18 is referred to as a man or woman when reported in the paper, which makes sense. If i read a headline about a “local girl” and then saw a photo of a 29 year old, I would feel like that was a bit of a misrepresentation!

39 Rachel April 9, 2012 at 7:10 pm

I try to use ladies as a middle ground. I would be offended if someone out of my peer group referred to me as a “girl”.

Also, I am ALWAYS offended when someone calls me ‘ma’am’…i know that’s not the point of this discussion, it just makes me feel old!!

40 Talitha April 17, 2012 at 4:41 am

The problem is English…there is a mid level gender word in Swedish for example (I word like guy but obviously for girls: that we just don’t have in English). I think we should all invent one and start using it…because it does take some time to feel like a woman :)
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