Talking about undergraduate study creates a unique brand of internal awkwardness: once you know that a person uses she/her pronouns, how do you refer to her? “That girl in my class?” “That woman?” “Lady,” even? Does it matter if she is younger than you? How about whether she is younger than the professor?
It is important to note that not all people who use she/her pronouns identify as all or any of these terms. English speakers make a variety of generalizations in their speech, relying on heuristics to describe each other with the information that they have. Respect is due to every person — you should refer to them in the terms that they dictate to you.
Currently, with over 300 million people living in the United States alone, people are bound to develop a multitude of ways to talk about each other. This is part of the deal of using a shared language: it changes over time, and the norms vary widely between different speakers.
One example of a gender-related word that is gaining traction is the term “womxn.” Many users replace “women” with “womxn” in order to remove “men” from the word. Some use it to be more trans-inclusive, but others still argue that it can actually be transphobic.
This debate indicates a larger reality: one chooses to use terms in their speech and/or writing based on their perceptions of meaning and on their personal values. When more individuals start speaking one way, this shows a greater degree of cultural acceptance.
But it is impossible to enter any linguistic debate without examining how a word or structure came to be. The history of a word reveals the needs and values of the people who invented and innovated on it; continued use implies a maintenance of these purposes, while changes suggest larger shifts in societal needs.
Returning to the word “women” (in its singular form, “woman”) is an exercise in this practice. Predictably, there is an ongoing debate over the etymology of this common word. While many sources seem to agree that “man” began as a mainly gender-neutral term for humans, some argue that the prefix “wif” in the archaic word “wifmann,” which meant woman, turned into the word “wife” and others claim that “wif” always meant “wife.” The Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, lists the etymology of the word “woman” as the noun “wife” plus the noun “man,” which supports the latter interpretation.
Of course, using the word “woman” does not mean that one sees every woman as the wife of a man. But it does reveal the possible fundamentally sexist origins of the word — men got to remain “man,” the default, while “woman” is a word just based on a relationship to men. This creates a clearly skewed binary of value with long-lasting repercussions.
So, is the solution to stop using the word “woman?” What, then? Eliminate gender references entirely? But both of these actions would be counterproductive: the point of examining the morality of language is to use language more morally, and reducing gender affirmation is certainly not a means to this end. The best course of action, then, is to refer to others with respectful intentions and to apologize and change behavior when one makes a mistake.
In the case of women, call them women (the term “womxn” necessitates further research and discussions). Especially if you are not a woman, you should not call women, who are adults, “girls.” Women might call themselves and other women “girls,” and this is usually in a friendly, in-group context. This is particularly true in professional settings: calling women “girls” — or “chicks,” “gals,” etc. — is inappropriate. And many women will agree that some words, like “ladies,” are irritating or creepy. In essence, you can do research or even ask a woman with whom you are close for advice, but she is not beholden to educate you.
The best general practice in language is empathy. Using a language relies at least some degree of empathy; we need to be able to understand what a person means by their speech. In the case of talking about women in English, intentional speech indicates empathy. Taking time to understand the implications of a word facilitates more respectful engagements with others.
Perhaps the future of English will be one without gendered speech. But today, women, as a marginalized group, deserve English speakers’ attention to detail.