noun | wom·an | ˈwu̇-mən , especially Southern ˈwō- or ˈwə- |
an adult female person
The word’s primary definition is simple enough: according to Merriam-Webster, a woman is “an adult female person.” Also according to Merriam-Webster, it is in the top 10% of most-used online words. This is hardly a surprise. Feminism (a noun which Merriam-Webster defines as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”) is now in its fourth wave. Its current focus is on using social media to amplify opposition to all-too-common phenomena of violence against women, with an emphasis on sexual harassment. Feminism is seeping into popular culture as well. Beyonce’s song ***Flawless, for example, samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: in the middle of the song, we hear the activist read a few lines from her now-famous speech “Why We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”
This brief excerpt highlights what is most interesting to me about woman’s definition: in these few lines, Adichie reinforces the word’s inherent binary. Through the comparison of women to men (specifically, of girls to boys), she places women on one side of this binary, and men on the other. Interestingly, this binary is also reflected in the language: while a woman is defined as a “female person,” a man, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an individual human; especially an adult male human.” The gendered caveat of the word man lies only in the qualifying clause, skewing baseline humanity with maleness. Woman’s etymology further supports this: it is derived from the Old English word wifman, which itself combines the words wife and man—the former being the Old English synonym for woman, the latter being synonymous for human. The word “man” not only has more definitions than woman, but these definitions also extend beyond the confines of gender and even traverse into different parts of speech (the verb meaning to control or supply, for example). So not only is the word woman binarized, it is also linguistically upholds a gendered inequality. However, this binary does not solely exist within the confines of the language; it has somewhat insidiously entrenched itself into the norms of our culture. In fact, it is so subtly embedded that it can impact the way in which women think and feel about themselves and each other.
The word is especially appropriate given that March is Women’s History Month. It has been recognized as such in the United States only since 1995; before this, starting in 1981, just one week in March was celebrated as Women’s History Week. This week, and later the month, builds on the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, which has been recognized in the United States since the year 1909, but was only recognized by the United Nations starting in 1975. (It became a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917.) The resilience of the women’s movement is always striking when its history is considered, particularly in a country like the United States, which touts equality and progressivism in its ideological foundations. Women’s History Month has only, within the past twenty-odd years, been adopted as a mainstream, national holiday. It can be disheartening to think about how much more work needs to be done, particularly when the definition of the word “woman” upholds an innate inequality. Yet, one of language’s most beautiful characteristics is that it can be fluid and dynamic; with work, the norms embedded both in our language and our society have the potential to change.