03 November 2009

Virgin or What?

When you have a lecture program entitled “Throughout History, Stereotyping Women as Virgin, Witch or Whore” and the TOP Coordinator introduces it by saying today’s version of witch is actually bitch, and whore has become ’ho, you know it’s going to be a no-holds-barred kind of day.

Therese Greenfield, our first speaker, chanted in chilling tones the litany she learned as a child to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, the primary female role model in the Catholic Church: “Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother inviolate, Mother undefiled.”

Virginity is made paramount here, a standard that pits women against their own normal, natural sexuality. Yet no one, at least in the parochial schools I attended, ever asked why virginity was so all-fired important. Of all the characteristics that make for a wonderful friend, daughter, mother, sister, partner, leader, colleague, airplane pilot it certainly wouldn’t appear in my top 1000.

And what about men’s virginity? There’s no chant that encourages boys to be chaste and undefiled. In fact, the very term virgin refers to a female unless somebody’s making a joke, as in the recent movie “Forty Year Old Virgin.” Our culture suggests that male virginity actually has negative value; it’s something boys need to lose to be considered manly. Just the opposite of girls. When girls are no longer virgins, do we appreciate them as more womanly?

“Virgin or what?” Young Therese, like many girls raised in traditional religions, wondered what the alternative was. A girl was presented with an all-or-nothing proposition, as if she were a coin with two opposing sides and no choices in between.

Whores and ’Ho’s

The other side of the coin being something very bad, the Bible’s other Mary, the Magdalene instead of the Virgin Mother.

“It’s the oldest profession,” people say with a smile. Personally, I’ve never understood this. Wouldn’t hunting or fishing have come earlier? I mean, really. How about farmer or fruit picker? Maybe when people talk about the oldest profession, they only mean for women.

Okay, I can go with that. I repeat, shepherd, farmer, fruit picker.

Or how about mother? Wouldn’t that have to be the absolutely oldest profession? Or doesn’t child rearing count as a job?

But back to whores. Or ’ho’s, as so many girls and women are called in rap music and high schools and, probably by now, middle schools too. A girl seems to be a ‘ho if she talks too much to your boyfriend, or even a boy who isn’t your boyfriend but you have your eye on. So if she’s a whore with your guy but no money has changed hands, does that mean any girl with a boy is a ’ho —even, perhaps, you?

No, that can’t be right. Let’s try that again.

She’s a ‘ho because she’s stealing something, a boy, that belongs to you. You don’t call her a thief because sex is involved somehow and besides, you really want to disparage her because she’s got or might get your guy. (Apparently, this boy is stupid and powerless enough he can be taken. Otherwise we’d blame him. Wouldn’t we?)

’Ho is, admittedly, much more insulting than thief. A thief, after all, could be a boy, or even a man.

From the male perspective, a female is a ’ho if she rejects his advances, prefers another guy, or whenever she leaves him or does anything else he doesn’t like. Almost as if someone must have paid her not to want him or to obey his wishes. Is that where the prostitute part comes in?


Kate Clifford Larsen, our second speaker and author of Bound For The Promised Land, made it clear that throughout history, women who rebelled or couldn’t be suppressed—or who inspired jealousy for whatever reason—were labeled witches. They were brought to trial and, often, murdered.

When I got home after the lectures, I went straight to one of the most rebellious texts I know, Mary Daly’s Wickedary, a send-up of Webster’s written with Jane Caputi. The book defines words from a female-centered perspective, reclaiming labels meant to dishonor and put down. Witch reverts to it’s original meaning of a strong, knowledgeable woman, to which the authors add: “an Elemental Soothsayer; one who is in harmony with the rhythms of the universe: Wise Woman, Healer,” and more.

In the 1970s and 1980s some feminists even adopted the acronym “W.I.T.C.H” for their organizations. One group called themselves Wild Independent Thinking Crones and Hags. Now there’s a group I’d like to be part of!

Hold up.

I already am part of a group like that.

According to Wickedary, a hag is a woman who sees through the oppressions of patriarchy, exposes fools and calls women into the wild, bountiful land outside patriarchal thinking. Crones are those who have survived the “perpetual witchcraze of patriarchy”, women who’ve discovered their own depths of courage, strength and wisdom, the highest order of hags.

If that isn’t TOP all over.

From Rogue to Bond

When Kate announced we women collude in stereotyping other women, I felt the tension rise in the room. What woman here, she asked, had never called another female a bitch, for example?
Men don’t seem to do this to each other. She took us back to colonial times when men who had sex outside of marriage were labeled rogues, a term of scorn and dishonor. But the label didn’t stick.

My guess is men didn’t use the term on each other enough. As early as 1750, it was no longer such a bad thing for men to enjoy sex outside of marriage, though of course it remained so for women. Today, though a whore is still a whore, a rogue may be kind of an interesting guy, even a sexy-looking, all-powerful James Bond.

How does this happen throughout history, with words and values and stereotypes? I think derisive labels and attitudes stick to women more than men because:

· People in power do the naming
· Naming adds to power
· People who feel powerful refuse to be shamed
· People without power get named, blamed and shamed

Will Women Choose to Name Themselves?

How can women grasp the power to name themselves? Wickedary offers us one way to take back old, venerable terms that have been co-opted. The authors create empowering new meanings for modern-day insults.

Is that the way to go?

My friend Lyn claims the label bitch proudly. “It stands for Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Creative Human,” she says. Maybe she is right. Maybe that’s how demeaning terms slide off men like so many raindrops; they refuse to be made to feel less-than. Fine, they say, call me a rogue. I’ll go you one better: I’ll be a rogue.

Hmm. Maybe the next time I’m called a bitch, I’ll thank the person and tell him/her why. Dare I pass the compliment on to other women after so many years of refusing to say the b-word? But imagine if we women called ourselves—laughingly, lovingly, proudly—bitches and witches, whores and ’ho’s and whatever other derogatory terms have been invented for us. Wouldn’t we defuse any attempts to demean, shame and control us?

Or, if that approach doesn’t appeal, what if we created positive terms for strong women and sexy women, smart women and courageous women—and never used those names for men, but just flooded the language with wonderful words for everyday women?

Whatever women choose to do to slough off denigrating labels and the attitudes behind them that hurt real women, whether we laugh at insulting terms or invent words that affirm women or use both approaches at once—let’s do it together.

—Cheryl Suchors


  1. This question is HUGE- the notion of "claiming the naming" we're given, versus "re-writing the script" entirely. It seems prevelant in nearly every historically oppressed population, and lanuguage is SO powerful... the same way I hear groups of Black teens dropping the "n-word" left and right, but we all know of its horrific and hurtful power outside of the safe circle of friends.
    I personally like the notion of the "both/and" approach. Making light and positive the words of current stereotyping, owning them, using them, changing their meanings, AND flooding our interactions with newer, stronger, better ways of giving a shout out to the sistah!
    -Maggie Magner

  2. The power of language is always underestimated. Or perhaps it is downplayed by those in control.
    It seems that the ability to introduce new words or recycle old ones resides with the high status individuals and the press that pass on their words to the general populace. Since I am not the president, J.K. Rowling or a Hollywood entertainer I don't think I'm going to originate any new words. Maybe I could join a groundswell to twist old words into new usages as Cheryl suggests. I am going to have to get hold of Wickedary!
    One thing in my power is to make sure that I, personally, never use denigrating words, and to show my disapproval when others do.
    Keep up the good work, Cheryl!

  3. One of the things I heard from my mother when I was growing up was that women are either mothers or lovers, but not both. Wow. Even when I was small, I knew there was something wrong with that.
    Maybe there's a word that takes a stand against that dichotomy.

  4. Nice work Cheryl. I am the one referenced re. b-i-t-c-h as acronym for beautiful, intelligent,talented, etc. You can use whatever words you want to spin an insult on its ear. As an Episcopal priest I like to use "holy" for the h just because I think all humanity is sacred. I have also been campaigning for years to undo the image of Mary Magdalene as whore/ho. It is nowhere in the bible but the product of a later growing misogynist culture and church. Wonder how it's stuck all these centuries!? As to Mother Mary she is not referred as a virgin in biblical literature either! This too was a later addition just to secure her "place" in the tradition and, yes, control women. Language is the most powerful symbol we have and what forms us and shapes our souls and bodies. I often get dismissed when I roar about all those all male pronouns for the deity. Grrrr. Thanks Cheryl and others for keeping the awareness alive and well.

  5. What an intelligent, thoughtful, brilliant blog, Cheryl! It's wonderful the way you present the arguments of the speaker and develop your own ideas and bring in Wickedary, too. I love this, and I applaud your continuation of the dialogue begun at TOP. I think it's great that I can see what you are all talking about, even from California!
    I totally agree that language shames and blames us in very powerful ways. Remember the saying at Cambridge Friends? "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will REALLY hurt me."
    The tricky part, it seems to me, is how do you change the language and the culture that surrounds it? And what words do we choose to replace the ancient stereotypes? I like Lyn's terms, and I would add Mother and Healer and Friend to the list. I guess the first part of changing the culture is to expose the words and the damage they do, and you've done that eloquently. Way to go, Cheryl!

  6. well done, cheryl! glad to know i can come here and find your interesting thoughts on a weekly basis! a bitchin' friend!

    jane p.

  7. The AMC TV series, Mad Men, set in an American advertising agency in the early 1960s, provides an interesting perspective on gender roles and attitudes toward fidelity.