The Importance of Naming

I wonder how you see yourself when you’re reflecting. Do you see yourself as a woman or a man? Or do you think to yourself, after all I’m only a girl, or only a boy.

Having just celebrated International Women’s Day seems a good time to talk about it.

poster from "Rosie the Riveter"- documentary about women performing traditional men's jobs during the Second World War.

poster from “Rosie the Riveter”- documentary about women performing traditional men’s jobs during the Second World War.

Living in the country I’ve been disappointed and dismayed to hear how common it is to label women as girls. And surprised at the responses I get when I point out to someone that actually, I’m a woman, not a girl. It saddens me when I hear mature women giggle and say that oh no, they’re only girls.

I thought this was a battle that had been won back in the seventies.  Some people respond when I object by saying that surely it’s not important. To which I want to say, well then, why are you protesting and why is it difficult for you to use the term” woman” rather than “girl”. If it doesn’t matter then it won’t matter what term you use and you’ll find it easy enough to do.

Because it’s never only words. Language, the very words we use, shape how we think and who we are. Many traditional cultures have rituals and strong beliefs around the significance of names. Revealing one’s true name can give the other power over you; in others, names are not given until initiation ceremonies. If words don’t matter, then why do we need a Racial Vilification Law? And why could one of our footballers successfully object when a young spectator called him a nigger?

Of course words matter!

Listening to a university conference for young women some years ago I was moved by one of the young participants. She got up and began to introduce herself as  “I’m a girl in”…pause…deep breath…”I’m a young woman in year 11″….A moment of insight and change for that young woman and one requiring courage.

I confess that when I name myself as woman, sometimes I still need to take a breath, because to do so I am acknowledging my maturity, my strength, my power and my responsibility for my own life. If I’m only a girl then I can still expect someone else to look after me.

To my shame I remember a moment with my primary class back when I was in my early twenties. We were playing a ball game and as one of the boys was about to throw to me, I said ” Remember, I’m only a girl.” He was a child, maybe ten, I was an adult. I still cringe when I think about it. What was the message I, as his teacher, was giving? Unfortunately that’s not the only time I’ve taken refuge in the excuse “I’m only a girl!”

However, the most telling illustration for me about the power of names  is a story told by a South African man. As a boy in South Africa one of his mentors was the African man who worked in the garden of his parents’ home. There were household changes and this man took over some of the house chores.

His story goes that one day he commented to his mentor that he hadn’t realised  he was a house boy, as well as a garden boy. The African man drew himself up, gazed at the boy and said “Son, I’m a man, not a boy.”

Do I need to mention colour distinctions here?

So, women, let’s be proud to be women- strong, mature and beautiful!

P.S. I would love to know what you think!

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Naming

  1. food for thought. to some degree I think it’s a personal opinion and preference … But, when it comes to how the Media (and celebrity figures) portray the genders, there is a Very strong need and obligation to use words carefully, especially in the area of victims of “Domestic Violence.”

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