Bitch, Slut, Spinster & 5 Other Words Women Have Reclaimed

Every day as she gets dressed, my roommate slips a simple metal necklace over her head. It's silver, with a thin chain and a metal bar stamped with the words "kinda slutty." On days when I plan to sleep over at my girlfriend's house, she points to the necklace and jokes, "I'm kinda slutty, but you're just a slut."

While women once upon a time would balk at the idea of proudly calling themselves "slutty," many of us are now emblazoning these words on our chests as tiny badges of honor. But how did words like "slut" and "bitch," which have been used for generations to cut women down, become slogans of empowerment?

"If you want to change how something is perceived, one way to do it is to change the way you refer to it with language," says Sali Tagliamonte, PhD, a linguist with the University of Toronto. Women tend to lead changes in language, she says, because it often shifts the balance of power in their favor.

So, as much as the "sticks and stones" pre-school rhyme wants us to believe the contrary, words do have power — they have the power to make us feel small or, if we take them back, the power to build us up.

Read on for eight examples of "offensive" words that strong, outspoken feminists have made their own.

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When Bitch Magazine was founded in 1996, the word wasn't used as colloquially as it is now, Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisle said in a 2014 interview. It was mainly used in one specific context: as an insult to women — but not just any woman. "Bitch" was "hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended," according to Bitch's website.

Zeisle and her co-founders heard it on the streets of New York City whenever they didn't respond to a catcall, for example. So, when coming up with a name for their feminist magazine, "bitch" seemed like the perfect fit. "We thought, What would it look like if we reclaimed this word? What would it look like if we took away its power to make us feel small for being women?" Zeisle said.

They decided to do just that, and helped turn "bitch" from an insult into a rallying cry. As the website puts it: "If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment."

In 2011, a police officer in Toronto told a crowd of college-age women that if they didn't want to be sexually assaulted, they shouldn't "dress like sluts." Soon after his comments, more than 3,000 marchers rallied to protest blaming rape survivors for their assaults, and thus the SlutWalk was born.

Now, thousands of marchers gather every year wearing their "sluttiest" outfits to continue the protest. Co-founders Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis started the movement to shift the meaning of "slut" from one that attacks women's sexuality and agency to one that would empower them. "Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work," the founders wrote on their website. "No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”

As SlutWalk has grown, however, the organizers have become more careful about recognizing who can safely reclaim the word "slut" — mostly white, well-off women — and who can't. They've made more efforts in recent years to include people of color and sex workers, for whom reclaiming words like "slut" is often more complicated.

Most people probably don't remember a time when "suffragette" was anything but a positive descriptor in history books. Suffragettes were a radical, badass group of women who organized early feminist movements, and eventually won the right to vote in 1920. But, "suffragette" didn't always have the same meaning. It actually started as a derogatory term, according to historian Nancy Rohr.

In 1906, the London Daily Mail referred to a group of women who had begun to organize around women's rights as "suffragettes." It was meant as an insult. "The newspaper label implied something not genuine, rather diminutive, or even to be ridiculed," Rohr wrote in the Huntsville History Collection. "The movement was something less than the real thing, as a small kitchen became a kitchenette."

The word spread to the U.S. and began to describe women in the suffrage movement there, too. Although it started as a way to make these powerful women feel small, they embraced the term and continued to fight for their rights, showing the men who tried to put them down that the women's movement was anything but small.

Originally, "spinster" was used to describe unmarried women, and especially young women whom people believed would never marry, according to the Cambridge dictionary. The dictionary helpfully adds a note that "this word is likely to be offensive." It's offensive because the assumption is that women who never marry are somehow less worthy or less attractive because no man wanted to scoop them up ("spinster" was popular long before women were allowed to marry each other).

It's another word that seems so dated no one would use it anymore, but it's actually found a new meaning for those who either have no desire to couple up, or those who want to change the narrative of what a "happy ending" looks like for women. Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own, told Fusion in 2015 that the lives of many women are dominated by two questions "Who am I going to marry?" and "When is it going to happen?" Instead, she's fighting for women to stop worrying about marriage and ask themselves, "How do I live my best life?" In doing that, they can embrace their life as a "spinster," and reject the thought that not attracting a life partner makes them worth less than those who do.

There's some contention around reclaiming the word "bossy." A few years ago, powerful women (like Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé) started the Ban Bossy movement, which argues that everyone should stop using the word as a descriptor for women because it discourages young women from working toward leadership roles. But, others argue that we don't need to #banbossy, we just need to take away its power.

"Consider this," Tracy Moore wrote for Jezebel in 2014. "'Ban Bossy' is a campaign led by a trio of mad-powerful bosses who very well may have been bossy as children, and that is a good thing." She, and many other feminists, argue that "bossy" isn't an inherently negative word. In fact, it connotes power and responsibility — two things many women strive to obtain. The word only becomes problematic when people use it to belittle women who are in authoritative roles.

"When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader.' Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy,'" the Ban Bossy movement claims. That's absolutely true, but the belittlement won't just go away if people stop calling her bossy — they might just start using a different word. If young girls started to see being bossy as a positive attribute, the comments meant to hurt them might actually empower them. (Just ask Tina Fey. She's happy to call herself a "bossypants.")

It's no mistake that feminist writer Lindy West titled her memoir Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman. The book is an exploration of the ways in which society use women's voices to tear them down. The word shrill literally means "not pleasant to hear; loud and high," according to the Cambridge dictionary, and is often used to describe the voice of a powerful or angry woman.

During the 2016 presidential debates, for example, many political critics characterized Hillary Clinton's voice as "shrill," without even mentioning the voices of her male opponents. By focusing on the sound of her voice, they were discounting what she was actually saying.

In Shrill, West flips the script. She claims "shrill" as her own and says that, yes, she is loud — and her voice deserves to be heard.

At a distance, being called "girly" might seem like a compliment. Parents coo it at their daughters like it's the sweetest thing — "She's such a girly-girl!" The problem is, the idea of being "girly" (aka, very feminine) is often synonymous with being weak and fragile, or even dumb and superficial.

Some women are hoping to change that, though. There's no reason femininity has to inherently imply weakness, so why can't "girly" be used as as symbol of strength? For starters, Legally Blonde came out back in 2001, effectively demonstrating to a mainstream audience that, yes, women can be both traditionally feminine and smart.

As Alyssa Mastromonaco, deputy White House chief of staff for operations, wrote in The Washington Post in 2014, "Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of the Economist and the second season of 'The Mindy Project' downloaded on her iPad?"

Over the last few years, many women have written about their decision to embrace their "girly" sides. "By the way, I do throw like a girl. A collegiate softball starting pitcher type of girl," Marisa Donnelly wrote for Thought Catalog in 2016. "I am such a girl. A cute and feminine, but tough and headstrong girl. And no, that’s not an insult."

When it comes to women's sexuality, it seems as if there's no winning. Women who are seen as too sexual are ridiculed as "sluts," and women who aren't sexual enough are deemed "prudes." It's a double standard that leaves only a sliver of "acceptable" behavior for women to cram their sexual desire into.

As sex-positive feminism tears down the idea that women can be "too sexual," and attempts to promote women's agency, it has to also dismantle the idea that women can be "not sexual enough." So, if we're going to take back the word "slut," then we should also take back the word "prude," right?

With the rise of the SlutWalk in 2011, Tracy Clark-Flory wrote an argument "in defense of prudes" for Salon. "While it's kick-ass that so many women are proudly calling themselves sluts, I'd also like to defend the prudes, and those of us who would rather toss out those reductive categories altogether," she wrote.

While Clark-Flory would rather throw out words like "slut" or "prude" altogether, others proudly reclaim the word. "I really think we should make a point to tell the young women in our lives that it's okay to not want to be sexy," one woman wrote on Reddit. "As for me, I'm a proud prude."
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