On feisty and ditzy women

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Helen Mirren once told the Daily Express:

Two phrases I hate in reference to female characters are ‘strong’ and ‘feisty’. They really annoy me. It’s the most condescending thing. You say that about a three-year-old. It infantalises women.

I’ve been pondering on a long list of words that are only ever used to describe women. ‘Feisty’ is top of that list, but there are many more that worm their way into our everyday conversations.

At work women in senior positions are described as ‘ambitious’, ‘bossy’, ‘strident’, ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘pushy’, ‘sassy’, ‘bitchy’ or ‘bolshy’. In contrast, women lower down the pecking order are said to be ‘bubbly’, ‘airhead’, ‘cute’ or ‘ditzy’. These are all words that are rarely used about men and they all have negative connotations.

There is also that give away phrase ‘very intelligent, but …’ (a variant of which pops up in the Helen Mirren interview), which implies that bright women must have compensating features, such as a sense of humour, to be acceptable.

And of course, we all know that the word ‘hysterical’ derives from the Latin for a womb, so can only be used of women, along with ‘hormonal’, ’emotional’, ‘highly strung’, ‘sensitive’, ‘illogical’ and ‘irrational’, not to mention ‘menopausal’.

There’s more. ‘Bombshell’, ‘curvy’, ‘voluptuous’, ‘high maintenance’ stand alongside ‘frumpy’, ‘frigid’ and ‘whinging’. It seems we can’t win either way.

And finally, why do we never refer to someone as a ‘working dad’? And how often are women referred to as ‘brilliant’ or ‘genius’?

So why am I indulging in some feminist whinging on a Lib Dem blog? Because I know that I have been guilty in using some of those terms myself – and sometimes in a derogatory and critical way. But they have no place in Liberal Democracy, so we need to be vigilant.

Of course, I am not saying that no-one should ever use critical language about a woman, but we need to ask whether we would have couched equivalent criticism of a man in the same terms. If not, then we need to get our thesauruses out and find alternatives.

Whether we are interviewing people as candidates, describing councillors or MPs, or talking about political colleagues, we should take care to use words and phrases that have no hidden gendered implications.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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25 Comments

  • Andy Hinton 28th Jun '18 - 5:53pm

    Good post, agree with the general thrust, but I would quibble with some of the words given as examples (I genuinely think I’d be more likely to describe a man as “ambitious” or “abrasive”, for instance).

    More seriously, though, I wonder whether getting the thesaurus out is really the answer here. The point, surely, isn’t so much whether we would have made a criticism of a man in the same terms, but whether we would have made it at all? If you find yourself using a very gendered word to criticise a woman, it’s a good sign that you probably *wouldn’t* have said the same thing about a man, whether in those words or any others.

  • Helen Dudden 28th Jun '18 - 8:26pm

    When I had international family law issues with a grandchild, I studied. It was one of your MEPs said, he felt sorry for those, I wished to stand up against. I travelled to discuss with a head of the justice system, even went to Brussels. I was so wishing to help my grandchild, and I did. I so wished I could have become a lawyer, but when I was much younger things were different. I still believe, in the importance of being a wife and a mother. But, this is an important job too. Maybe, because I was widowed very young, I see my role as a stabilising force.
    I still comment on law, and have done and said much in the EU, and various other much needed changes. I was one of the grandmothers, who very recently was in the House pushing for the rights of excluded grandparents.
    I remain, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, loving every minute, but my love of family law draws me to help others make change happen.
    I perhaps, am a little like the legally blonde character in the movie. What I care about, pushes me and drives my fight for justice.

  • Let’s be clear, I can’t fault Mary’s article……….but on the day when we hear about our country being involved in rendition and torture where oh where are the Lib Dems voices condemning these outrages against human rights? I’ve heard Ken Clarke – but from Lib Dems not a peep.

  • David, to be fair the party has commented on the issue today. They put out a press release with strongly worded comments from Christine Jardine, but they can’t force the media to use it.
    A blog like ours can’t always produce an immediate reaction to stories in the news, but it would be good if someone could write a post with their thoughts on the subject.
    Now, please, back to being rude to women …

  • Not sure why there’s a problem with “strong”. The broader point is that language is gendered and reflects social stereotypes that can work against women. Whether changing the language removes the underlying assumption is a matter for debate. But there are perjorative words used largely about men. “Thugs” are usually male. Does that help to create a view in society that all men are potentially violent . Perhaps it does.

  • Mary ReidMary Reid 28th Jun ’18 – 10:30pm……………….Now, please, back to being rude to women ………..
    Rude to women? You should hear my wife when she gets going on the subject of men!

  • Ruth Bright 29th Jun '18 - 8:40am

    In defence of Mary it is amazing how dangerous these words can be. Rose McGowan has shown how an array of actresses were labelled over the years as “divas” or “difficult on set” and saw their careers crash and burn as a result.

    Working with people with dementia I found that women were given labels like “difficult” or worse still “non-compliant” far, far more often than men. Many women would be horrified if they knew what the medical profession thought of them: “frequent flyer”, “worried well” etc.

  • @Ruth Bright

    Those words “difficult” and “non-compliant” will be used with reference to male and female patients (whether such words should be used at all is another matter). The reason you feel they are used far far more often to describe female rather than male patients could well be because;
    – there are vastly more women with dementia because women’s life expectancy is higher, and dementia is directed correlated with age
    – within married couples, the wife is far more likely to outlive the husband, meaning more men with dementia will be cared for by their surviving wife than the other way round. So far more women with dementia come into contact with statutory and voluntary dementia services.

    “”””Many women would be horrified if they knew what the medical profession thought of them: “frequent flyer”, “worried well” etc.””””

    If its these words that horrify you, the medical professional is obviously doing a good job of keeping it’s “special” vocabulary away from you hearing it

  • Ruth Bright 29th Jun '18 - 9:48am

    James Pugh – ouch! appeared to have touched a bit of a nerve there. Sorry – unqualified person referring to neurology, my apologies.

    Thanks I had noticed that there are more women than men with dementia. But, as an “elderly primigravida” who was called a “naughty girl” for wanting to discharge myself from hospital I stand by my concerns about the problem of misogynistic terms and attitudes in health care! As for the term “non-compliant”, the refusal to obey authority, that’s a pretty patronising, de-humanising and illiberal term to apply to anyone of any gender.

  • @Ruth Bright

    No nerve touched, don’t worry. Just providing an alternative hypothesis for your experience

    “”””Thanks I had noticed that there are more women than men with dementia. “”””

    Then i guess we can agree that this is probably the mostly likely reason? I’d guess the ratio of men:women in receipt of statutory dementia care in an institution is going to be 1:5 (but it would go down easily to 1:2 in specialist institutons for those with deemed “challenging” dementia)

    “”””But, as an “elderly primigravida” who was called a “naughty girl” for wanting to discharge myself from hospital I stand by my concerns about the problem of misogynistic terms and attitudes in health care!””””

    Absolutely. As I said, if “frequent flyer”, “worried well”, “elderly primigravida”, and “naughty girl” are the things that have offended you the most, then the medical profession has been very discreet in letting you in on the sort of words and expressions we use.

    “”””As for the term “non-compliant”, the refusal to obey authority, that’s a pretty patronising, de-humanising and illiberal term to apply to anyone of any gender.””””

    As I said, the appropriateness of that word is another matter. It fell out of PC medical lingo last century, and “non-concordant” is apparently a better word to describe a patient who does not follow a treatment plan. It doesn’t confer a judgement on the person, just a statement of fact that the person isn’t following the plan in part or in whole. I highly highly doubt it would be used by a doctor to refer to a person with anything beyond mild dementia, since dementia reduces capacity, and it therefore isn’t expected for the person to independently follow a treatment plan. It may be used by nurses to describe patients with dementia who won’t “comply” with nurses’ assistance in washing, dressing and hygiene.

    At the end of the day medicine is hugely paternalistic because of the assymmetry of technical information that exists between a doctor and patient (let’s hope the advance of health informatics does away with that). The language is therefore paternalistic. Even the word “patient” denotes paternalism (which is why “patients” are refried to as “clients” in mental health settings, and “service users” by social workers). I understand it’s an issue for some and does lead to problems downstream.

  • This seems an appropriate place to say well done to Carrie Grace today.

  • Carrie Gracie – predictive text is a pain.

  • Ruth Bright 30th Jun '18 - 8:45am

    Dr James – yes indeed, I’ve escaped lightly when it comes to being labelled by the NHS.
    Less so a close relative of mine whose last days of “care” were, in my view, blighted by the labels: difficult (openly used by her GP to her bewildered family), female, old, working-class and, of course, “Do Not Resuscitate”.

  • Gordon Lishman 30th Jun '18 - 9:32am

    Having had the unusual experience for a man of being hormonal (female hormones) and then with menopausal symptoms, I haven’t noticed any tendency to characterise me on that basis. I wonder why not. I agree particularly about “feisty”. I once mentioned the point to Barbara Castle of whom the word was often used (red hair and small stature are apparently symptoms of feistiness). She said she preferred it to some of the other words that had been used to describe her.

  • Lots of interesting thoughts here. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not so much the individual words that are a problem, but the tone in which they are used, or the frequency with which some are applied when it’s not appropriate.

    The term ‘strong woman’ is an interesting one. Over the past few years, the world of story-telling has become more and more interested with the idea of ‘strong women’, but while Terminator’s Sarah Conner was a refreshing step forward and could legitimately be described as stronger physically and mentally than the majority the average woman, too often the term is banded about to describe any woman that shows a bit of backbone, or used as short-hand for not being two-dimensional. But does a female character in a novel or tv show have to be to be ‘strong’ (a characteristic traditionally associated with men) to be interesting?

    Then there’s just the basic query – would you bother to specify that a man with a similar attitude, whether it’s in film or in the board room, was a ‘strong man’?

    In defence of the term ‘worried well’. In my days doing emergency planning work in the NHS, it was an important category to be considered and looked after and the description is easily understood. It was never intended to describe time-wasters, but rather those with legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. In a major incident, those are the people who appear to have escaped unscathed, but might know someone who is hurt, or be at risk of PTSD etc. Another common usage comes when medical scares in the media lead to a temporary glut of people seeking advice from their GP or health visitor. It shouldn’t mean that the worries are not real.

  • Helen Dudden 1st Jul '18 - 10:37am

    I think the constant obsession with dementia is one that seems to be an important one at present. As a woman of 70 years old I like to write and say what I think. Not everyone will have dementia, and I’m grateful for that fact. I’ve got arthritis, that’s a different one.
    Women are different to men, I think most of us know that.
    In my Jewish prayers, I say thank you every day for being what I am.

  • @Ruth Bright

    “”””Less so a close relative of mine whose last days of “care” were, in my view, blighted by the labels: difficult (openly used by her GP to her bewildered family), female, old, working-class and, of course, “Do Not Resuscitate”.””””

    Not sure what a GP is trying to convey with the word “difficult”. It wouldn’t be universally understood. I guess you should have asked. A commonly used term (or “label”), is “challenging” which might have been his intention. As hurtful as this word might seem, it is used to convey high intensity nursing needs, which is important to signal so that if the person is being transferred to a ward or nursing home, that the bed manager allocates them to a ward (or nursing home) with some surplus capacity and/or nurses with greater experience and expertise in caring for patients with high intensity nursing needs.

    The labels of gender (“female”) and age (“old”) are crucial in both medicine and nursing. First and foremost it is so a patient can be admitted to a ward appropriate for their gender (and some hospitals have wards for older patients which have higher volumes of ward healthcare assistants, physiotherapists etc). But a huge amount of blood test and imaging interpretation requires knowledge of the person’s gender and age to be accurate.

    As for “working class”, I can’t see any reason why this label would be used in a healthcare context. I’d certainly enquire and actually make a formal complaint

    As for “Do Not Resuscitate”/DNR, this is also a crucial label for clinical reasons. It means if the person stops breathing or their heart stops beating, then it is felt that the highly invasive procedure of CPR, intubation, and artificial ventilation is highly unlikely to lead to a positive outcome. DNR are applied to patients whose baseline health state is such that they would not survive such invasive procedures

    I often wonder what people who seem very strongly opposed to “labels” think should be done instead in complex settings such as healthcare

  • Ruth Bright 1st Jul '18 - 7:15pm

    Helen – you are wonderful.

    James – I give up. I was referring largely (apart from “difficult”) to implicit not explicit labels. Your words: “You should have asked” conveys a certain lack of sensitivity not unknown in the medical profession. I confess to not always asking the right questions when I am watching a relative die!

  • Don’t give up Ruth!
    I do understand how difficult it must be for the medical profession to get things right in their interactions with patients and their relatives, but my observation over the past few years of (unfortunate) contact with the NHS suggests that women, like my partner and daughters, get treated in a condescending, patronising and disempowering way, by male and female staff, and this doesn’t happen if I’m there as well. My daughters were called “a comedy act” by a consultant for expressing their concern about the treatment of their grandmother who was dying of dehydration, and I expect, from what Dr James has said above, that my partner will have had some code phrase appended to her records this week for trying to insist that instead of antibiotics as a first resort, someone should get a stethoscope out and listen to her father’s heart to see whether his bouts of breathlessness might be caused by a recurrence of the problems which led to him having heart bypass surgery.

  • Helen Dudden 1st Jul '18 - 8:34pm

    Ruth Bright. Thank you. I’m one of those that asks questions, that makes me difficult. Also, working class with learning. I don’t like labels.

  • @Ruth Bright

    If people don’t ask, things will never change. Asking is part of communication, and when communication breaks downs, a whole lot of other things do.

    Asking why your relative was being labeled as “difficult” is intuative because it is naturally controversial. I am asked to explain myself by patients and their families on a lot less controversial subjects on a daily basis and I find it helpful as part of my own continuous improvement, and also developing trust and rapport wit patients and their families. And asking sometime after is perfectly reasonable, especially if it continues to bother you long after the event to the extent that you share the issue on a public forum.

    Ditto about the “working class” label. Doesn’t sound at all appropriate in your relative’s case. It is sometimes appropriate in some settings, for example maternity, where a “working class” mother might express a strong desire to breastfeed. Because rates of breastfeeding (both initiating and continuing) are so much lower in low socioeconomic environments, if a “working class” mother does say she wants to, there are earmarked resources available to offer extra support in the community (because it’s likely few if any of her peers will breastfeed, nor her own family a generation above her). Just an example. As I said, you should enquire and make a complaint about your relative’s case. Again, it doesn’t matter it happened in the past. Things will never change if people don’t speak out.

  • @Helen Dudden

    If you don’t like labels, how do you expect professionals to communicate with one another

    Take this example of a possible patient summary from a GP

    “83 years old(1) female(2) with diabetes(3) and ischaemic heart disease(4) requires a total hip replacement for osteoarthritis in the left hip. She lives alone is widowed and with no children(5)”

    If you remove the labels in the advance communication, then each individual healthcare professional has to discover it at point of contact;
    (1), the pre-surgery assessment clinic will not know her age, so will have to book an echocardiogram/ECHO when she is encounteted at the clinic, delaying the surgery
    (2), the bed manager will not know her gender, so will not be able to plan the use of beds in wards, necessitating the use of scare side-rooms or even cancelling the surgery on the day
    (3), the anaethetist will not know she is diabetic, meaning she won’t be put first on the list, meaning she could become hypoglycemic whilst being nill by mouth waiting for her surgery slot during the day
    (4) the surgery team may know realise she will be on aspirin, so might not have stopped it before the surgery
    (5) an older person living alone needs to have social care after surgery and discharge from hospital needs flagged very early on so that things are in place

    Again, I am bemused by people people with a deep ideological opposition to “labels”, in all settings. In healthcare they form a crucial means of communicating important information succinctly. The fact there are people rallying against healthcare professionals communicating with eachother is interesting. Obviously we are talking about labels that convey useful and accurate information.

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Jul '18 - 9:32pm

    James Pugh, a difference. Diabetic, age, female, hardly labels, describing. Labels are difficult, feisty, these are labels. Another hormones, that really gets me. Probably her hormones. One more, speak to her slowly, a natural blond.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Jul '18 - 9:51pm

    Thanks tony. Just five minutes ago Tory MP Helen Whateley (whilst also praising the NHS for the treatment of her little boy) spoke in the House of Commons about her grandmother’s abysmal treatment in her last months. It sounded very much like your family’s experience and mine.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Jul '18 - 11:15pm

    Ruth Bright. I agree, I have an aging parent who is very unwell. My parent is over 90 years old, during the last few years their mental health most certainly has gone downhill, as well as physical health. It was difficult to get help with the mental health issue’s, my sister fought for the help she needed. I wrote countless emails to the MP, putting the pressure on, from that area. At least, he has an interest in the subject.
    Now eating, is something they have some problems with. It is their choice, they are cared for at home, I spoke with a social worker today. Home care, seems to be a good option, as they come to a stage in life where little else can be done.
    Very sad, but true.

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