An Open Letter to Incredible Women on: Words, Gender and Unintentional Consequences

Dear Incredible Women: 

This post has been coming for a long time.

On Friday, I along with another amazing female teacher Angela, sat in a large circle with our two advisory groups combined for what is becoming a weekly tradition of young women, talk, and challenging of thinking and ideas.  I have deliberately brought topics to the circle that are things that I am grappling with and genuinely want to hear what they have to think and say on a topic.

This week, I brought to them the questions: 

  • When do we as females transition from being girls to women? 
  • When do we begin to self identify as women and even in some cases- like I have- reject the label of girl, because I have earned my status as women in my family, community, and society? 

I listened to them dance around the question for 30 minutes, touching on everything from their relationships and learning from their own mothers, aunties, and older sisters to what they feel they need to accomplish in life and how that is tied to womanhood. 

At the end of class, I reminded them of my original question and they finally flushed out an answer for me: post college, financial independence, established in a career.  No one mentioned relationships, intimacy, or the cliche "coming of age" ideas that I had grown up with.  I shared with them the thinking I had learned in my Adolescent Psych class at NYU 10 years ago that there is a period in developed, western nations (think United States, Canada, UK, etc.) called "Emerging Adulthood".  It is the period after high school, but through college and then after as one transitions from college to high school.  The thinking is tied to biological research around brain development and that the brain is not fully developed until the middle 20's (some say later!) This theory of Emerging Adulthood corresponds with when my group of Junior and Senior girls said they would feel like they could call themselves: woman.  (Here is a pretty good article about Emerging Adulthood.)

The bell rang. The desks were moved back to the original formation.  The girls moved on to last period.  As an educator, I never know if the time and space to think about theses big ideas has an impact?  I don't remember anyone in high school talking with me like this. Challenging me to think about what was important to me and what my timeline might look like.  And what it means to be a women.

I don't want to be referred to as a girl. I am almost 40. I am not a girl.  I have been teased in my grad program about my feelings when it comes to referring to adults as: girls or boys.  But, here is my bigger concern: that young women, women who have status in the media and are seen as role models to girls like my students, continue to refer to themselves as girl.  I have seen the hashtag #girlboss even used by the incredible Tiffany Pham who was named by Forbes as a Top 30 under 30.  Would you EVER see the hashtag #boyboss?  I mean really?   Women, own it.  Be: #THEBOSS or even simply #BOSS.  

When I listened to our students sit and talk about when they thought they would feel comfortable calling themselves woman it was tied to experience, knowledge, independence, and achievement. This is an amazing shift from generations past when being a woman was tied to menstruation, having sex for the first time or getting married. Our female students are incredible but setting the example of continuing to tie achievements to gender- and especially childhood, does a disservice to these strides.  

So to all the amazing young women, who still feel they are emerging or have not yet become the women you hope to be: that is ok, but I encourage you to think about the messages you are sending to the next generations through social media and your digital platforms.  Word choice is important.  Leadership is essential.  If we, as women, want things like being POTUS to no longer be novel, then we need to pursue them as people, humans and not diminish the power of achievement by equating it with childhood. 


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