Navigating gendered vocabulary can be tricky. I use the term “guys” to refer to just about anyone—men, women, children, even the elderly—but every now and then my poor vocabulary has led to confusion or even discomfort.
But terms for the “fairer sex” are pretty limited. “Females” sounds starchy and medical, and even “women” often feels too official. “Girls” indicates youth and can be belittling when used in reference to adults. “Ladies” can sound like they’re all attendees of a prissy tea party, while“gals” just reminds me of middle-aged Midwestern women on group shopping trips.
This problem isn’t new; in fact, it can be traced to the Middle Ages, according to Tara Williams, associate English professor at Oregon State University. In her new book, Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing, she investigates the origins of our modern gendered vocabulary.
Though "manhood" appeared about two centuries before, it turns out we have the bubonic plague to thank for words like “womanhood,” “femininity,” and “motherhood.” Before the late 1300s, women were primarily defined by their marital status—such as maiden, wife, and widow—but after the plague wiped out about a third of the European population, “opportunities opened up for women to expand their roles in society, and language had to be created to describe these roles,” Williams says.
You can order the book for yourself on the Ohio State Press website.