Many people are confused, as the terms “first-year” and “freshman” are used interchangeably. They are in fact significantly different. The term “freshman” is a gendered term, whereas “first-year” is gender neutral. The use of the term freshman to refer to the newest class in the Gustavus student body imposes a male identity onto female students.
This practice is rather ironic at Gustavus, where the student body is composed of 57 percent female and 43 percent male. It seems that if we were to generalize our gendered language, we would tend towards feminine language rather than male language.
This inclusion into male-dominated language is nothing new for women. The phrase “you guys” is one of the only acceptable forms of expressing a plural second person pronoun. I can speak from personal experience that an attempt to neutralize this gendered expression through the use of the southern “y’all” often elicits chuckles among Gusties.
Hardly any women take offense to being considered “one of the boys.” Being referred to as “you guys” is considered to be no big deal. The phrase is comfortable and familiar; it rolls off the tongue. The problem is that the use of male gendered language in reference to women removes women from our conversations and from our ideas.
Before women gained the right to vote, women were represented in politics — but it was through their proximal male relations. Their interests and identities were talked about by males in male spheres, and in male language.
In the 1980s, shoulder pads were a popular fashion trend for women in business, which made women’s shoulders higher and broader, much more of a male figure. It was considered more professional for women to appear masculine. These are just a few examples of our society supposedly purports to have equality between men and women, even though our society continues to favor men and masculinity.
You still don’t believe me? It is hard to wrap your head around. It does not seem as though something as innocent and as commonplace as the phrase “you guys” could actually be destructive to female identity or women’s empowerment. Let me throw it at you from a different angle.
While women may not have a problem being grouped with one of the guys, men certainly have a problem being grouped with women. In sports, men are demeaned by saying “you throw like a girl.” The clincher is when someone refers to a group of guys by saying “hey, ladies,” as an insult. And men can be incredibly resistant to the idea of wearing a skirt or heels, even in private, to see what they are like.
The imposition of female identity on men is seen as demeaning and emasculating, whereas the imposition of a male identity onto women is seen as including or empowering. This illustrates the gendered inequalities in our language.
If we really considered the phrase “you guys” to be innocent and non-threatening, why don’t people go around saying “you girls” to a group of mixed gendered people, or even an all-male group? It is important to refer to our youngest class of students as first-years because we need to change the way that we structure our language dynamics earlier rather than later. Every time someone generalizes women with male language, we reinforce the idea that womanhood is something that can be neutralized by a male standard, and that we do not have to be burdened by the realities of our gender.
Women are not empowered by society referring to them as men – women are different and that is a strength, not a burden.