Welcome to another segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that works to foster the unlearning of oppressive words in our everyday language by explaining why they are harmful and providing inclusive alternatives.
This week’s phrase is “bitch.”
When you use the word bitch, who are you addressing? Your dog that just had puppies? The paper you’re working on? The ‘evil prof’ that assigned you that paper? Is that professor a woman? What are you saying when you call a person, more specifically, a woman, a bitch? Why do we use the word bitch in these kinds of situations? Why is it that we seem to use bitch to describe something unpleasant and often gendered?
This term bitch has been gendered in its use throughout history, whether in reference to a female animal or a human female. The earliest use of the word “bitch” was to describe a female dog in early England, coming from the Old Norse word bikkjuna: female of the dog. With this in mind, it may seem that the word was not used in a derogatory way, but rather as a descriptive term for the classification of animals. But how did “bitch” go from a way to categorize animals to a way of demeaning women? And how has the evolution of the term contributed to the way women are viewed and treated?
In “The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue”, written in 1811, bitch is defined as:
A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may he gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St. Giles’s answer—”I may be a whore, but can’t be a bitch.”
As seen here in its early English history, the derogatory use of “bitch” was a way to control women and their sexuality. It evolved from a way of describing a dog, which could be owned as the property of a man, to a demeaning and offensive term for women.
In this way, the term was used to highlight the way that a woman, much like a dog, or any other form of property, was ultimately owned and controlled by a man. Using this word as a means of coercion and control, the term functioned as a way for men to regulate their property through language. In the case of its use against women, as a word worse than ‘whore’, it yielded coercive power over women’s autonomy.
Author and activist Jo Freeman explains that the way this term flexes its subversive power is through reminding a woman of her subordination. Using the word against women “serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people who do not conform to the socially accepted patterns of behavior.” This word is a force and a reminder for women to modify her behaviour and actions to that which would better please those in power.
But what about when women call themselves bitches? As women gained more power and rights, the term seemed to take on two different meanings. As women’s movements – such as the suffragette movement and feminism – gained traction in the 20th century, the term started to take on more meanings. People in power continued to use the term “bitch” as a way to take down assertive women, while white feminists decided to re-appropriate the term, as some feminists found it empowering to reclaim the term to mean a strong woman.
An example of this can be seen in the founding of Bitch, a North American feminist magazine. Bitch was established in 1996 in Oakland, California. In their manifesto, the founders discuss why they chose their name, stating that if being called a bitch means being an outspoken woman, then they were, and continue to be happy to be called “bitches”.
Reclamation does not come without its own baggage. While white women are afforded the luxury of ‘reclaiming’ this word, other racialized groups are not always afforded this privilege. While some women of colour embrace the term, others highlight how reclamation is not a simple process. The use and reclamation of the word within these different sectors vary from woman to woman.
The Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls & Young Women gets at why this word hangs so precariously, reminding us that, when considering topics of violence against women, “it seems important to raise questions about derogatory words as one more form of violence that they encounter. The question remains: “How should we foster more discussion about this issue?”. Rather than focus on the word, a stronger focus is needed to the way in which this word is wielded throughout different contexts of race, gender, and class.
An example that illustrates these particular tensions can be seen in the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) terms like “bad bitch” and “basic bitch”. It is important to keep in mind an understanding of the ways in which gender, race, and class either privilege or disadvantage different groups’ use of these words, and the way in which cultural appropriation can occur within these frames. For resources that unpack these issues further, see here and here.
While the use of the term ‘bitch’ wavers between a feminist statement and a derogatory term, it is important to understand the complex history and the many uses and contexts behind the word. Addressing the ways in which the word ‘bitch’ is often racialized can help us understand a broader problem among mainstream feminist discourse. When feminism is dominated by the views and interests of white feminists, it is easy to lose sight of the scope of privilege and oppression around the use of words like ‘bitch’. A feminism that doesn’t include and value the experiences of women of colour is only “White Feminism,” and thus a feminism that “forgets” to be a good ally to women of colour.
You may feel like using the term, but reclamation of the word does not always remove the word from its original meanings. Here are some alternatives to the use of the word “bitch”:
|“Oh my god, she’s such a bitch!”||“Wow, she’s being very disagreeable/rude/unpleasant”or: “Wow, she’s being very bold/vocal/assertive”|
|“Stop your bitching”||“Please stop complaining”|
|“Hey Bitch!||“Hey!”/ “How are you?” (Don’t gender your greetings, just be polite)|
|“Basic Bitch”||None. Come on, this term is appropriated and misused. Just don’t use it.|