History of the Word “Bitch”


The use of the word “bitch” has changed dramatically since it was first used: from subjugating woman to empowering them to embrace their inner self.
Photo by Griffin Schumock

“Bitch.” Insult? Boss babe? Female dog? I recently have been called it in both a positive and negative way. So how should I feel? During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had that exact dilemma. On one side, she had American Trump supporters going as far as making t-shirts stating “TRUMP THAT BITCH.”  So she should be mad right? People are using the word as a tool to hurt and degrade her. Others think she should own the title. 

Editor of the New Yorker from 1992-1998, Tina Brown, says that her advice to Hillary is “own your inner bitch. Because that’s what young women like.” According to Brown, “she does best when she is herself. Which is frankly a very serious, powerful, uncompromising, unsmiley face kind of a woman.” So what does owning your inner bitch mean? To answer this complex question, we look backwards.

 Comparing woman to dogs began with the original boss bitch, Artemis. The Greek goddess of the hunt, moon and chastity. She often worked with a pack of dogs, and comparing the two was meant to diminish woman to a subservient, animal like role. Ancient Greek men could not relate to a strong woman, so what do people do when they cannot understand something? They ridicule it.

Around the 1400’s, the word began infiltrating art. Seen in many English plays, “bitch” became completely integrated into society. The word is first documented in one of the Chester plays. The Chester plays were a set of mystery plays acting out biblical scenes. The aforementioned play was The Kings and Herod; the Adoration of the Magi; the Slaughter of and the Innocents. In the scene, the king had ordered knights to round up and kill all young boys. When a woman refuses to give up her son, a knight calls her a slut. She responds with “whom callest thou ‘slut’, scabbed bitch?” The woman calls the knight that, because she knows it will hurt, meaning that a female aligned insult was a powerful word with extremely negative connotations.

The term continued to be used as an insult for another 500 years. Its reformation can be seen in second and third wave feminism. Women of the 60s and 70s were done being degraded. In 1968 Jo Freeman published the Bitch Manifesto. It started with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir, a French feminist writer. It states “Man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male.” To the followers of the Bitch Manifesto, being a bitch meant understanding yourself, and making a conscious choice to be proud of that. The manifesto says, “our society has defined humanity as male, and female as something other than male. In this way, females could be human only by living vicariously through a male.” Being a “bitch” was beginning to become a symbol for female independence. The manifesto goes on to say “A woman should be proud to declare she is a Bitch, because Bitch is Beautiful. It should be an act of affirmation by self and not negation by others.” This began the reclamation of the word “bitch.” These women made the choice to be something so no one could tell them what to be.

“Bitch” began to be integrated into society, and with pop culture. Variations such as bitchin’ meant “sick” or “rad.” This version was used in films beginning in the 80s. The term is used several times in the Back to the Future films. This term is continued to be used with positive phrasing. In season two of the hit Netflix show, Stranger Things, main character Eleven, uses it to express her admiration of things.

Portland Community College Women’s Studies Professor, Virginia Martin, said she was inspired to join the field because she “was impressed with the framework and mission of Women’s Studies [as] it aims to facilitate a learning environment in which students might internalize and critically analyze socio-cultural systems of oppression and, by extension, understand the multiple and intersecting identity points at which each person is located within those systems.” Through analyzing the use of language, Martin believes we can break down those harsh societal standards. After analyzing her own experiences she said, “I have been a perpetrator of racism and ableism, ignorant to my privilege, and I have also been a victim to circumstances beyond my control. But at the end of each day, I know that I am a survivor, a feminist survivor. Surviving with a feminist lens is a different kind of survival – it means looking beyond your own struggles and understanding how interlocking oppressions impact those around you. It means asking for help and love and support from your community. It means learning how to become a true ally and advocate for those who experience exploitation and discrimination.” Being a woman and being a “bitch” can no longer mean only looking out for yourself, because no woman will be free from judgment until every woman is free from judgement. We must set the standard at which we expect to be treated, and therefore how we treat others.

So “bitch,” The word has traveled across time and the world to become redefined. The word began as a term to subjugate women, to keep them as low as dogs. This way, men could continue to control them. But in the last 50 years, the word has become aligned with feminism. Being a bitch means being yourself and not letting anyone take advantage of you. So Hillary, own it! You have broken so many gender stereotypes and stayed resilient through it all. You make the rest of us proud to be “bitches.” In the words of Jo Freeman, “Bitch is Beautiful.”

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