01/12/2011 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Little Indignities

Being called "girl" by a woman is sometimes worse than a man doing it

Names are important to individuals and groups. Fundamental to being a whole person is the ability to garner respect via how you want to be addressed. On one end of the spectrum, you can be held in contempt in a courtroom if you don't address the judge according to protocol. I double-dog dare you to say to a presiding judge, "Hey, Girl! I object!" On the other end of the spectrum is the bully who calls you names based on characteristics not in your control; that's the domain of epithets that can start fist-fights or even riots.

Somewhere in the middle is the seemingly intentional disregard for addressing women as women, instead of the clueless diminutive "girl." Similar to the black pride movement in which black men said "Enough" to be being called "boy" by the dominant group, many of us "uppity" women objected to being called girls when we were obviously not; it was an issue of newfound respect and a way to assert ourselves as something beyond frivolous: as people of consequence. However, a lot of women themselves are more accustomed and perhaps more comfortable with a cutesy/folksy "girl" or "miss." Thus, there is some understandable confusion with some people's manners.

I was recently taken aback during a business meeting when a woman in her 20s (I'll call her Heather) referred to me and my two older sisters as "girls." We were all old enough to be at least her mother, if not her grandmother. She didn't just do it once, she did it at least four times. "Does that sound good to you girls?" she wheedled. I wanted to stop her and give her an etiquette lesson, but didn't because I didn't want to come off as a bitchy, politically correct, cranky-pants geezer.

If I were truly unfettered, I would have asked, "Looky-here, you numbskull whipper-snapper. Just who do you think you're talking to?" which would have given her a perfect "Do as I say, not as I do" lesson in how NOT to be with each other in a business setting. Why am I offended by the term "girl?" As usual, context is everything. If an actual friend calls me and says "Hey, girl," I'm charmed and delighted, as this is based on a relationship. If a complete stranger who wants me to commit money and time to her business refers to me as a girl, I want to give her a piece of my mind. And not the pretty part either.  

I had my feminist awakening at 15 -- when I was an actual girl -- by immersing myself in Robin Morgan's "Sisterhood is Powerful," along with other classic books on liberation politics, including Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice," Malcolm X's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." They gave me a way to view my status as a female in a whole new light and gave me a mission: my own liberation and the freeing of everyone I could touch from rigid class and gender constrictions that were in place to keep "The Man" in top position.

And just as black men did not appreciate being called "boy," I saw the parallel of being referred to as a girl. Calling women "girls" was a not-so-subtle way of reminding us that we are not in power, and that anyone "above" us can use terms of endearment ordinarily reserved for someone who is actually dear. And the "girls" who referred to themselves as girls knew who buttered their toast, so they made it a point to help keep the rest of us Libber Women in line.  

"Hey! Where's your sense of humor? What's the big deal about being called a girl?" Indeed. In the scope of the universe, it isn't such a big deal to be called a girl except, except ... WHY would someone call me a girl when I'm so obviously not one? And is it also ageism combined with sexism that would have Heather so blithely and sweetly calling us all girls? Eeeewww. I hate the way some people speak to older people, like they are stupid or inferior.  

I'll warrant a guess that Heather would never have addressed our male contemporaries as "boys," but would have deferred and called them "sir."  

There's the world of books and there's the real world. As a teen, I discovered there were so many damned battles to fight that I would be worn out within a year if I took on every yahoo who called women "girls," or who didn't understand the politics behind little indignities. I learned to conserve my energy, to bite my tongue. Hey, an activist only has so much personal fuel to fight the good fight.  

Bottom line: I'd rather spend my time advocating on behalf of Heather's reproductive and civil rights then spending my precious time on individual manners. I choose to believe she meant well and was merely clueless.  

P.S. Speaking of liberation politics, mark your calendars right now for 7 p.m. Jan. 29, when the Thomas Paine Society will be holding "The Headstrong Evening Club" at the Castle Green, 99 S. Raymond Ave., Old Pasadena. Admission is $35, or $25 for seniors, students and members. For information click here to send an email.

Note: This post appears both here and in my column in the January 6, 2011 issue of the Pasadena Weekly, for which it was written.