Sunday, August 30, 2009

From Emily: Cheryl Glenn's Response

Cheryl Glenn is now one of my favorite scholars since she responded to my email so promptly. There's nothing that it would be bad to post, so here you have it:

What a great insight!
Thanks so much for writing to me about this issue.

I know I consciously use "women" when talking to graduate students, but I don't know why I use "guys." Maybe because I have a tendency to use "guys" when referring to both men and women? Maybe because guys don't need any reminders of their manhood?

What terms do YOU think I should use in situations like last Thursday's?


Here's my response:

That's a good question. I don't have an opinion on what terms you should use with grad students, but I think my personal preference would be to try to consistently use terms that go together. "Guys" feels similar to "girls," and "women" feels similar to "men." However, I think the risk that would come from calling female students "girls" and male students "guys" is that "guy" usually refers to young men, rather than children. "Girl," on the other hand, can also refer to children. So perhaps calling women "girls" would automatically cause problems, even if there were no middle aged female grad students. I guess there are no perfectly paired terms for gender.

Bottom line, though, I'm glad you use "women" when you're talking to grad students. It feels much more empowering to be a "woman" than to be a "girl."

Thanks for your response,


Sometimes I'm jealous of the precise language more experienced writers use. I didn't say more than she did, but it took me twice as many words.


  1. I'm somewhat surprised that she didn't mention the assumptions made by using "guys" to refer to people of all genders and sexes. Having a group-friendly gender-neutral term is a good idea; however, it's always intrigued me that the acceptable "gender-neutral" term is actually quite gendered. Let's face it: "guys" are generally assumed to be male and men. If we were to use the term "ladies" the way Cheryl uses "guys," how many of the males in the mixed group would object to being referred to as women? And what does it say that none of the women object to being referred to as men?

    It could mean a lot of things, I suppose, but my take on it is that women are so used to men being the standard human beings that we don't even question it when we're assumed to be one and the same. I find that troublesome.

  2. I agree with your concern about women accepting maleness as something that can include them (where femaleness is not taken to include men), but I don't think we can ignore the fact that on a very practical level we have to deal with the language older generations have given us. For me, the phrase "you guys" is entirely separate from the word "guy." So I'll say "what do you guys think?" the same way someone else might say "what do y'all think?" And I recognize that the origins of "guy" go back to an exclusively male term - I just don't think of it that way anymore. Since language does, indeed, evolve, and we accept many other words as innocuous that were once classist or even racist - I don't know. It's a complicated issue. Idealism and pragmatism seem to but heads a lot.