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I am Ho, Hear Me Roar  by Renee Bondy
I am Ho, Hear Me Roar

I teach a course on women and friendship. It’s as good a teaching gig as any feminist could hope for and I learn countless things from the women’s studies students, who range in age from 17 to around 24.

Recently, during an end-of-term reflection where I asked students whether the course met their expectations, Sarah, a student, raised her hand. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she said, “but for the first several weeks of this course, you really bugged me. You called us ‘women’. It made me really uncomfortable. It wasn’t a word I ever used to refer to my friends.”

I was taken aback. Having taught the course several times, I could usually anticipate the students’ likes and dislikes about the class. But what surprised me wasn’t just what Sarah said, it was the chorus of “mm-hmms” and the nods of assent that rippled across the lecture hall.

“Like nails on a chalkboard,” another student added, in reference to hearing me use the term woman in relation to women’s friendships.

My initial thought was that these young women were scarcely out of girlhood and were probably used to being referred to as girls. But then I thought, this is a women’s studies course. Surely using the word woman shouldn’t seem out of place.

“Tell me a bit more,” I asked.

“What do you call yourself and your friends?”

“Girls, I guess. Chicks.”

Others chimed in: “Girlfriends.”

“BFF.” Best friends forever—I’d heard that one before from Paris Hilton.

“Bitch.”

“Ho.”

Ho. A hundred pairs of eyes on me, I wavered. To lecture or not to lecture? To rant or to dialogue?

“Is that okay with you—to be called a bitch or a ho?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, it depends who says it. If it’s my friend, it’s fine. I know she means it in a good way.”

And so went the discussion. On one level, the students were echoing familiar debates: Is it like lesbians reclaiming the word "dyke"? Or like African Canadians or African Americans using the word "nigger"?

But this woman question seemed so intimate. Each person in the room was a woman. Each had elected to take a women’s studies course, and yet so many of them were uncomfortable with the word woman in reference to their friendships. As far as the language of feminist scholarship had taken us in our semester together, and as much as we had learned about the power and beauty of women’s friendships, Hos seemed destined to be the final word of the term.

And yet my experience in university over the past several years leads me to believe that the sentiments expressed by the young women in class that day are not atypical. Female students call each other many things, and woman does not rank highly among their choices.

I take some solace in the fact that I am not alone in my discomfort with this particular linguistic turn. In her essay “Becoming What We’re Called,” Alice Walker expressed her fervent disdain for the widespread use of the phrase “you guys” to address women. She poses the question, “Isn’t it at least ironic that after so many years of struggle for women’s liberation, women should end up calling themselves this?”

Ironic, indeed.

As my students debated the pros and cons of words like ho and bitch, I felt sad and angry. A historian, I could hear the voices of women who fought to have their womanhood recognized in the public sphere, under the law, in institutions of higher learning. Sojourner Truth’s renowned speech “Ain’t

I a woman?” seemed wholly new and pertinent to this contemporary crisis of language.

That Sojourner Truth and women like her claimed their status as female adults with such passion and conviction should, I thought, offset the need for further arguments.

More recently, feminists of the 1960s and ’70s held that language is a weapon, a tool that was frequently used to diminish women. In the ’80s, feminists practically banned the word girl from public lexicon: We were adult humans, not children.

The very liberation of women, argued radical theorists like Mary Daly, was contingent upon the liberation of our language. Some embraced new, hybridized terms like womanist, womyn, herstory and woman-identified-woman to emphasize their desire to create and control their language, and to seek power through their choice of words.

So, what changed? Why is the language of friendship employed by some young women in the 21st century so fundamentally different from that of their second-wave foremothers?

We cannot discount the influence of the popular media. In particular, hip hop and rap have transformed the lexicon, normalizing terms such as bitch and ho. Even young, socially conscious feminists such as writer Ayana Byrd admit to being desensitized to their use. In The Fire This Time, Byrd acknowledges that she, too, has “fallen victim to the normalizing effects of visual and lyrical hoochie overkill.”

Yet acceptance of such terms is by no means universal.

How is it that sports commentator Don Imus’s reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” sparked international outcry and debate, yet a casual “Hey, ho!” between women in the college corridor is not afforded a second thought?

Less controversial, but noteworthy is the almighty Oprah’s “You go, Girl!” as a rallying cry for female empowerment a few decades after feminists donned buttons declaring “Don’t call me GIRL!”

Perhaps one way to understand the apparent contradictions in usage and interpretation is to consider young feminists’ efforts to claim space in the popular media, reclaiming and reframing language to serve their own ends. Take the punk-inspired

Grrrl movement of the early ’90s for example, which intended to popularize feminist attitudes among young women.

Not to mention Bitch magazine. In the words of Bitch’s editors, “When it’s being used as an insult, bitch is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. … We know that not everyone’s down with the term. Believe us, we’ve heard all about it. But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to take the word as a compliment, it loses its power to hurt us.” In this context, the word bitch is reclaimed as a source of power and strength, and is no longer demeaning or derogatory.

Although this helps to explain the big picture, where does it leave us in our everyday lives, as we frequent the places, spaces and faces that matter most? If a central project of contemporary feminism is the reclamation of language, does this then necessitate a rethinking of the words we use to identify ourselves and each other?

In Everyday Acts and Small Subversions, Andee Hochman alerts women to the inadequacies of language to convey women’s experiences of friendship. The word friend, says Hochman, “doesn’t begin to cover enough ground.” Friend is applied to everyone from casual acquaintances in the workplace to those women with whom we have had decades-long relationships, friendships whose bonds often prove more enduring and significant than those with our family members or romantic partners. “There’s a level of intimacy that friend seems too small to contain. Then we make it even smaller, often denigrating it with the qualifier just. They’re just friends, we concede, as if friendship were automatic and uninteresting, less full of potential than any romantic pairing.”

Reclaiming language, says Hochman, is about repossessing ourselves. To a degree, I understand that it is their longing to do just that which leads some of the young students in my classrooms to experiment with and stretch the boundaries of women’s language, and to reject conventions of the past.

Young women seek their own identities, their own rituals of naming, distinct from those of their mothers and grandmothers’ generations.

Still, I cringe when I hear students call each other by terms which I feel are less than empowering.

In the women’s studies classroom, we continue to think critically about words and to see the language of women’s friendships—and ourselves—in the broader context of women’s history and feminist politics. And I remind myself that our women’s studies program is itself the result of the desires of our foremothers—women who did not always see eye-to-eye on every issue and idea—to see norms questioned and new ideas explored.

Fundamentally, the reclamation of language must be entered into with keen attention to the multiple, conflicting and ever-changing meanings of words, as well as a sensitivity to their impact on us as individuals. Reclaiming language, especially the language of female friendship, with its intimacy and emotional weight, is a complex and ongoing task, but one worthy of the time and attention of women—friends, companions, sisters, amigas, allies, cronies, soulmates, bffs and gal pals—in all their diversity.

Renée Bondy teaches in the women’s studies program at the University of Windsor.

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