Girls and women and maturity, oh my
Courtney Phelan | Friday, February 26, 2016
Whenever someone asks me where I go to school, I have a minor existential crisis.
I love Saint Mary’s College. That’s not the problem. The problem is that I have to respond, “Saint Mary’s College. It’s the University of Notre Dame’s sister school, in South Bend, Indiana.” Since many people aren’t familiar with SMC, and since I always talk too much, I then have to make the decision of how I will describe my home: “an all-girls school” or “a women’s college.”
The difference between “girl” and “woman” is a relatively simple one by definition. A girl is a female child, meaning “from birth to maturity.” Girls are kids. Girls are babies whose parents hang “It’s a Girl!” streamers around their house. Girls wear cute pink dresses and pigtails with bows in them. Girls are immature. Girls giggle. They’re members of the Girl Scouts and play with Barbies. Girls go to elementary school.
A woman is an adult female, meaning “after reaching maturity.” Women are grown-ups. Women wear pantyhose. Women buy women’s magazines, like “Good Housekeeping” and “Cosmopolitan.” Women have to worry about things like women in the workplace and women in combat and going to the gynecologist. Women have a special place in hell for those of us who don’t support one another. Women are mature. Women chit-chat. In media, women have to be “strong female characters.” Women of color have to be Women of Color or Strong Black Women. Women have jobs. Or children. Never both at the same time, of course.
Sometimes, women are ladies. Either a lady, like in England, or ladies, drinking half-price margaritas on Thursday nights at a T.G.I. Fridays.
Girls and women are distinct from one another, at least in our linguistic connotations.
So what am I?
Of course, the standard definitions and connotations of girls and women, in contrast to boys and men, are stereotypical and often problematic for females as a whole, even more so for females of all diverse communities. I don’t have a problem being biologically or socially considered a female — Saint Mary’s has made sure of that. The existential crisis comes from declaring myself to be a grown-up or not. Some days, I wear pantyhose and a name tag that says “Miss Phelan,” and teach children. To them, I’m another adult in the classroom. Some days, I think about what it would be like if I move back in with my parents and how frustrating it will be if they don’t respect me as an adult.
Other days, I make mom call the pharmacy to refill my prescriptions for me, because refilling prescriptions is hard and has something to do with insurance and credit cards and I just want my mom to do it for me.
To some people, like the students I work with in my education field placement or my early childhood development center kids, I’m a woman. I’m a grown-up. But to some people, like my parents and grandparents, I’ll always be a girl. I’ll always be their little girl, in fact. And I’m still a girl to men whom I don’t know who roll down windows to tell me that I’m a “sexy little girl.” This happened to me in a grocery store parking lot a few days ago. I was wearing a stained grey sweatshirt and oversized grey sweatpants that are covered in cat hair. Clearly, I am an extremely sexy little girl.
This isn’t a problem unique to me or Saint Mary’s. It’s something I assume most college students deal with. We’re usually out of our familial homes, yes, and are testing the waters of real life through apartments and summer internships. But many or most of us are still reliant on our parents, not only financially, but emotionally, too. We make shopping lists and then buy our own groceries and, yes, college-aged women do go to the gynecologist, but we still think about things like “insurance” in the vague realm of “things I’ll have to do someday but at least not today.”
Males struggle with this issue as well, I’m sure. But Saint Mary’s makes me confront it head-on every time someone asks about my school. “All-girls” sounds much too juvenile, but “women’s college” still sounds too scary, even as a junior. So when asked to describe Saint Mary’s, I usually just make a nervous grunting sound and stare at them. A very grown-up, mature, womanly response.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.