Last Friday night, I was walking across an intersection in Manhattan. A cab driver was aggressively (99 percent of Manhattan cab drivers do everything aggressively) trying to turn right, and almost hit me. I gave him my death stare, as I usually do when cab drivers are out of line. He rolled down the window and said, "Bitch, don't get yourself killed."
I usually like to think of myself as a reasonable person. I am pretty thick-skinned and can handle being insulted (after all, I'm a Huffington Post writer and have to deal with loads of critical, insulting comments). But being called a "bitch" for no reason by a complete stranger practically brought me to tears.
If he thought I was such a "bitch," then I was definitely going to play that part. My anger was so overwhelming that I started yelling back at him about how he had some nerve to criticize me when he was the one who was clearly in the wrong.
This interaction got me thinking about the word "bitch." After all its garbled history, and many different meanings and connotations, what are we even left with anymore? What is the actual meaning? And is it okay to ever use this word when referencing a woman? As a woman, I find the whole matter to be fairly complicated.
Merriam-Webster defines "Bitch" in the following ways (aside from the original meaning, "a female dog"): "a lewd or immoral woman," "a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman," and/or "something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant."
An 1811 dictionary refers to the word as "the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman."
The history of the word "bitch" is kind of all over the place (we will stick with the noun, though the verb, meaning "to complain or whine" is also a definite snub to women, too. There is also the adjective "bitchin,'" which is, oddly enough, used to describe something that is "cool"). But let's begin at the beginning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "bitch" has been used to refer to female dogs since around 1000 A.D. The term was first used as a derogatory slur against women sometime around the 15th century.
English language historian Geoffrey Hughes writes, "The early applications were to a promiscuous or sensual woman, a metaphorical extension of the behavior of a bitch in heat." This is partially why the term "son of a bitch" is found to be so offensive. Essentially, the mother is being referred to as a woman who has sex with lots of people.
The biggest rise of the word as an insult against women was in the 1920s. In 1915, most of the books and articles published used the word "bitch" only to refer to a female dog. However, in 1925, there were numerous articles and books that used the word as a slur against a woman or women. By 1930, the number of references that called a woman or women "bitches" outnumbered those that referred to dogs.
While this can certainly be linked in part to the great change in language that took place at this time (the 'roaring' twenties was a time when people felt more daring and adventurous), could it not also be partially attributed to women finally gaining a bit more power in society? Women received the right to vote in 1920. Men were extremely hesitant to give women the right to vote; voting would give women quite a bit more power. The Seneca Falls Convention, where women demanded the right to vote, took place in 1848. Women didn't achieve suffrage until 68 years after that. There was even a National Organization Against Women's Suffrage. During this time, the word bitch was used to mean one or more of the following: "Malicious or consciously attempting to harm," "Difficult, annoying, or interfering," or "Sexually brazen or overly vulgar." Women who were fighting to attain the vote could definitely be attributed to the former two definitions.
The word's growth stopped for a bit during the 40s and 50s, maybe because women started "behaving" again. This is the time of the nuclear family, the perfect housewife. Women went back to doing their familial duties: cleaning the house, cooking, looking after children, tending to their husbands.
Starting in the late 60s, it began climbing quickly again. (this linked graph below shows the prevalence of the word in the Google Books database since 1850).
Women's discontent with their social standing had finally reached a boiling point. During this second wave of the Feminist movement, in the 1960s, "bitch" was reclaimed by women. Feminist attorney, Jo Freeman, wrote "The Bitch Manifesto" in 1968.
"A woman should be proud to declare she is a Bitch, because Bitch is Beautiful."
Personality-wise, she states that bitches are "aggressive, assertive, domineering, overbearing, strong-minded, spiteful, hostile, direct, blunt, candid, obnoxious, thick-skinned, hard-headed, vicious, dogmatic, competent, competitive, pushy, loud-mouthed, independent, stubborn, demanding, manipulative, egoistic, driven, achieving, overwhelming, threatening, scary, ambitious, tough, brassy, masculine, boisterous, and turbulent."
Feminists have since then fought to give the word a more positive connotation. They have attempted to reappropriate the word to mean "a strong or assertive woman." The 90s song by Meredith Brooks called "Bitch" has the refrain, "I'm a bitch, I'm a lover, I'm a child, I'm a mother, I'm a sinner, I'm a saint, I do not feel ashamed." There's also the extremely common phrase, "You say I'm a bitch like it's a bad thing" that has become an internet meme as well as being printed on numerous T-shirts, etc. Bitch magazine refers to itself as "a feminist response to pop culture."
Of course, this doesn't mean that the word hasn't continued to be used derogatorily since then. "Bitch" can be used to refer to practically anyone. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it began being applied to men in the 1500s, to the male gay community in the 1930s, and also became prevalent in the black community in the 1990s (note almost every rap song ever). Now, in reference to men, it is generally a negative term used to mean "subordinate" (i.e. "Jeff is totally his boss's bitch.") All of these connotations are pretty negative.
In 1997, the New York City Council tried to introduce a measure against the word. Councilwoman Darlene Mealy stated that "the term is hateful and deeply sexist" and called it "a vile attack on our womanhood."
Also in late 2007, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, a female audience member asked then presidential contender Senator John McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?" (referring to Hilary Clinton). This caused quite a stir in the news.
We can all agree that name-calling is offensive. However, it becomes worse (in my opinion) when minorities or those who have been historically discriminated against are slurred by their historical opressor. I am much more offended at being called a "bitch" by a man than a woman. In a way, it feels if we can reinvent this negative word and claim it as our own, it makes us stronger. Some women feel that they are dropping the negative connotation when they keep the word within the female community. I can understand that.
However, this word is never okay to say when used negatively. As women, do we really want to perpetuate a male stereotype? Do we want to be thought of as whiny? Or skanky? Do we want female ambition to be given a negative connotation? I find it extremely shameful that a woman called Hillary Clinton a bitch. Surely, there are negative things that can be said about Hillary Clinton, but does resorting to sexist name calling have to be one of them?
Regardless of how he means it, it will never be okay for a man to call a woman a "bitch." Luckily, there are about five billion other words men can use to criticize without sounding like a misogynist.
What do you think? Is it okay to call a woman a "bitch"? Do you cringe when you hear the word? Let me know in the comments!
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