What if “woman” was not used as a synonym for “white woman”?

Certain words, most words, in fact, carry along all sorts of baggage with them. Words are like overstuffed suitcases. When we bandy about the hefty word ‘woman,’ most people see a Costco-variety suitcase, a ubiquitous ‘everywoman’ that, like the dark green Costco luggage at airport baggage claim, is indistinguishable from all other women. Yet, this pervasive use of ‘woman’ to represent a very particular type of woman – a white, heterosexual, middle class, manicured, polished, feminine women - is harmful to ALL women.

When a media mouthpiece says “woman” they usually mean ‘white middle class hetero woman.’ When they mean a female who is not part of this limiting normalization, they add adjectives and stir – such as Chicana, Black, Queer, Homeless, etc.

So, what should the word ‘woman’ mean? Well, channeling Freud, it seems the word should mean what the individual woman wants it to mean. It could mean “I have a vagina,” it could mean “I identify as female,” heck, it could mean “I don’t identify in any gender category but need to use the damn bathroom.” But, from a societal level, it is imperative that we who have our social justice awareness caps on use this term woman more carefully. As a case in point, why is Obama referred to as a black man while Hillary is most often referred to merely as a woman?

“Woman” should not be used to make whiteness or other categories of social privilege invisible. It should not be used as a synonym for white woman, for a heterosexual female, or for any other supposedly (ugh) ‘normal’ category. Rather, the word must carry all the heavy connotations stuffed into the very large, overstuffed suitcase of all those social positions, identities, and intersectionalities that are socially constructed as well as embodied by those who identify or are identified as women.

Published in: on May 21, 2008 at 5:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. [...] I wrote in an earlier post on my Professor, What if … ? blog, “Words are like overstuffed suitcases” that need unpacking. As I argued, ‘Woman’ [...]


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