Recently, I heard one of my students in Bard College's Basic Writing class telling the others that his girlfriend was a "total bitch" because she got angry when he called her a "chick." "She knew I didn't mean it in a bad way," he said. The rest of the class nodded in sympathy and agreement, not with her anger, but with his assessment of her character. "What's wrong with being called chick?" one female student asked. Plenty, I thought, and felt very old. There is no good way to be called a chick.
I asked the female students in the class what terms they use to describe themselves and what they want to be called by others. The male students consider themselves men. The female students answer, "Girls, but it's all right to be called a chick, and bitch is okay too if said in affection. You know, when a guy is kissing you or something." When I asked them if they ever called themselves women, they sat in polite silence, not wanting to disappoint me by saying no. My students -- smart, ambitious, very liberal -- are frankly uncomfortable with being called women.
I was surprised by my students. I am older than they are -- by all of six years. All of us are new to Bard College: they are fresh from high school; I am just out of graduate school. We grew up with the same popular culture; we often use the same slang. All of us are eager to fit in at Bard, which means conforming to the college culture of respect for each individual, treating others as adults, and on paper at least, referring to one another as men and women.
But when my students call themselves chicks and girls, they seem to be saying, "Don't bother to respect me as an adult; I'm just a kid here." The term bitch is another story altogether; it almost seems to say, "Don't respect me as a person." I know that it's not easy to be so young and to call oneself a woman; the culture of my college, a woman's college, was to do just that. . became very adamant about my terms: woman, non-negotiable. My parents were surprised by my earnestness; they found it cute. But they adjusted to the term woman and treated me as more of an adult.
Why do my students choose to settle for less? The irony is clear: to treat these female students as children, as girls, to give them a curfew or curtail visits from male students to their rooms for example, would invite revolt on the campus. To pay them less for their campus jobs than their male classmates are paid would be heresy to them. Their indignation at these very ideas when presented them in class was probably equal to that of the woman who refused to be called chick. My students accept the benefits of women, of adults, but they won't accept the term.
When my class told me that even I, the teacher, could call myself a girl, a chick, I felt that table around which we all sat lengthen and divide into two. I found myself standing on one side of a chasm, the side of adulthood, next to the "total bitch" who wouldn't be called "chick," waving to my students on the other side. They are young women eager to claim adulthood, womanhood, in act but not in name, not realizing that to call yourself girl is to be treated as a child. Claim your womanhood, my students, and leave the girls behind.
MARCIA WORTH teaches writing at Bard College and in the New York Cay Public Schools. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Teachers College. She lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.