References should separate women from the 'girls,' many ** say

March 19, 1993|By Cox News Service

A man she'd never met -- a dentist in "a young, hip dental office in upper east Manhattan" -- called her for a date. During their small talk, she politely asked about his work setup. "It's two dentists and five girls," he said.

"I laughed and said, 'So, the dentists must be men,' " recalls Linda Cohen, the thirtysomething publisher of teen-oriented .

Sassy magazine.

"He said yes!" she recalls incredulously, adding that she said "no" to the date. "I don't think he got it."

Two decades after feminists rejected the use of the word in reference to adult females, "girl" keeps popping up -- in magazines, in newspapers, in conversation.

In September's issue of Working Woman, editor in chief Lynn Povich called a women's college "one of the all-girls Seven Sisters schools." The New York Times ran a story last month that referred to Giorgio Armani's models "or girls, as they are called . . ."

The question is, who's calling them that? And is it cool, even expected, to lighten up in the '90s? There doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule.

Some women think no one -- especially men -- should call adult females "girls."

"I think men in particular use the word 'girl' to describe women of a certain age when they wouldn't use 'boy' to describe a man of the same age," says Nadia Moritz, 28, director of the Young Women's Project in Washington.

"Frankly, I find it offensive," says Ali P. Crown, director of Emory University's Women's Center. "I haven't noticed its becoming more acceptable. The word 'girl' connotes a child -- what goes along with that image is a child who's docile, demure and dependent."

"When I think of a girl as a child, I remember the expression 'Children should be seen and not heard,' " she says. "If [female] children remain girls and boys become men, then we've just set up another hierarchy of the sexes."

"I've heard it used more today than five or six years ago, from women and men," says Marcia Ann Gillespie, executive editor of Ms. magazine. "We've gotten sloppy with our language. I think some people think it's not an issue with them."

"It certainly offends me," says Rosemary Ellis, executive editor of Working Woman. "I have friends all over the nation who are not necessarily career women but don't want to be called 'girl.' "

Blame it on a terminology gap. When boys leave high school, they graduate to becoming "guys," says Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology in women's studies at the University of Southern California. But women don't have a clear equivalent to the word "guy."

" 'Gals' doesn't cut it," she says. "It sounds like square dancing, so there is a gap."

"Usually the term 'girl' is used to describe females 16 and under, or maybe 14 and under," says Ms. Moritz. "Then there's the term 'young woman' for 15 to 25 and then 'woman' for 25 and older."

Ambiguity also exists about the context in which the word is used. In African-American culture, for example, the term is often used as a short version of "girlfriend," especially between women who are close, according to Ms. Gillespie.

"But that's intimate and it's between us," she says.

"I think among younger women it's become used as sort of in-your-face," she adds. "I do not think that it's acceptable from men."

One means of measurement is to think of what you'd call a male of the same age, says Ms. Ellis.

"To call a male over 21 a 'boy' would be an insult. It would make them mad," she says. "I say when in doubt, err on the side of respect."

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