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!

Little boxes on the hillside, and they all look just the same.


Having lunch at work one day, a colleague remarked: “Now I can understand why Kathryn (me) has never married…”

I was so startled at this , I didn’t even ask her why I hadn’t. She could have saved me many hours and many dollars spent with my therapist as I’ve struggled to unravel the complexities of my relationships.

Why haven’t I ever married any of the very suitable men who may have given me security, stability, safety, a sense of belonging, a family…the very things I have always thought I wanted?

Why have I (mostly) chosen the ones who will never give me what I want?

As I’m writing this I realise I’m assuming she meant marriage as in wedding, bride and groom, confetti, signing the register…But maybe she meant, as I do, a long term, totally committed relationship. That’s a whole other can of worms. Did she think I have never experienced the joys, the wonder, the pleasures, the pain of a relationship with someone I love? As I write that, I find myself getting hostile- how dare she?

How did she know I have never been married? (in the strict sense of the word.) My colleague had never asked me and it had never come up in general conversation. Most people my age, if currently single, have at least one divorce behind them.

What did she think? That I’m so boring no one would ever want to marry me? or so unappealing? or something worse? How dare she even assume that I am heterosexual- she never asked me.

My mother once said, pointedly, on hearing that a cousin had married for the third time: “Well, it just shows anyone can get married, if they really want to.” Did this woman also think that?

I’m not married. I don’t have children. Does this relegate me to that old stereotype of “spinster”?

But there is a much more significant issue here and this is merely an example- an example of the assumptions we make about each other. I’d never had even one “getting-to-know-you” conversations with this woman. Anything she thought she knew about me had come from general, superficial conversations. But she had assumed. Assumed she knew me and assumed a quite intimate knowledge of me. It’s breathtaking in its arrogance.

But we all do it. We don’t bother to find out about the person we work with, or our neighbour and maybe we don’t really know our friends. We all make assumptions.

That remark reminds me to:

never assume;


discover each person’s unique story;

to “walk a mile in their shoes.”

We aren’t all made of ticky-tacky, and we aren’t all the same.( Song by Malvina Reynolds, made famous by Pete Seeger.)