The word “bitch” has become so engrained in our culture speaking out against it might seem radical.
In high school I spent the majority of my weekends working at a dog-boarding kennel. Though my primary duties were to feed, clean and occasionally pet our furry clients, I also helped out with the kennel’s breeding facility. The kennel was owned an operated by a couple that in their spare time bred and showed standard poodles. It was also the first time I heard the word “bitch” used regularly to solely describe dogs. I can’t put my finger on exactly what was unsettling about switching my vernacular from the kennel to high school. The differences in the use of the term on Sundays versus Mondays started to become conscious.
Since the 15th century, the word bitch has evolved from its purest form — a term for “lady dogs” — to a commonly used slang for women. Until the 1920s “bitch” was a rarely used demoralizing term – but when it was used, it was used to degrade women to the level of dogs. However, during the time of women’s suffrage, the use of the word more than doubled in newspapers and literature. As women asserted power, they were more likely to be hurled a sexist epithet. It wasn’t long before “bitch” became an “all-purpose insult for annoying women.”
During the second wave of feminism, activists attempted to “reclaim” the word. Word reclamation occurs when the subject of a derogatory slur reappropriates the word for his or her own use. Advocates of word reclamation argue that when the “slur or insult is used by the people whom it had originally intended to demean, then the word loses all of its malicious meaning.”
In 1974, Jo Freeman wrote The Bitch Manifesto, and declared that “We must be strong, we must be militant, we must be dangerous. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose.”
Since then, women have reclaimed “bitch” by both declaring themselves “bitches” and calling other women “bitches” as a term of endearment. Pop culture propagates this message. In 2007, Britney Spears released “Gimme More” and announced, “it’s Britney Bitch” to the word. The song is said to have “revolutionized the B-word” into a term of empowerment.
I feel lucky to be living in a time when women can feel empowered enough to attempt to take back their sex-specific insults. However, men don’t have an analogous term. There is no word for a man asserting his power. Men don’t have to reappropriate a slur to wipe the shame of being a man away.
Yes. It is great for women to be strong. To be confident. To say what they think. To be opinionated. But to do all of these things, do we need to denigrate ourselves to dogs?
No matter the work done to reclaim the word, sexism is still a seemingly insurmountable problem. Not everyone uses the reclaimed definition of “bitch.” We cannot erase the history of the word when it still has so much existing negative usage. Maybe if women actually reclaimed the word, and the power of the insult was gone, I would feel differently. I don’t believe word reclamation is impossible (in a later post I’ll talk about “queer” and difference between reclaiming “queer” and “faggot”).
However, even if the power of insult were gone, I still don’t know if the dog-in-heat genesis of the term would pass muster as a term of empowerment. Just a few days ago Donald Trump released an ad depicting Hillary Clinton barking like a dog. When women in power are degraded to “bitches” in such an obvious and disgusting way, is it even possible to empower ourselves to be “bitches”?
There’s a strong correlation between women asserting power and women being called “bitches” with a derogatory intent. While some might think reclaiming this word lets us take back the power, I think we should closely examine whether we want to be using this word in any context. Shouldn’t we instead encourage women in power? I think this is done by calling women strong, confident, committed, focused, and inspirational - the same words we use to describe men with equal power.