'Bitch' : The Gendered Slur That Took Off Post Women's Suffrage In The West

'Bitch' : The Gendered Slur That Took Off Post Women's Suffrage In The West
Illustration by Shreya Takodara

Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-American and a member of the Democratic Party serving as the U.S. Representative for Washington’s 7th congressional district, recounts the history of the word ‘bitch’ and she says that it, ‘took off in usage from 1915 to 1930’, right after women were given the right to vote.

“Because God forbid that women would have the right to vote.”

In 2008, American comedian and writer, Tina Fey, in reference to the public’s negative perception of the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2008, stood by Clinton’s competency and refused to accept gender stereotypes surrounding strong women.

She said, “Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch,” Fey said.

“Let me say something about that — yeah she is.”

In this journey of claiming and reclaiming the word, we have lost track of where it came from, and how it got splintered to mean so many different things!

We don’t know how to define the word anymore. The connotations are plenty and cannot be pinpointed to mean something specific. The slur has become so common, that it is often uttered casually, and sometimes without even a second thought. Over the years, however, it has been appropriated by different cultural moments and social contexts to mean so many different things, that we do not know what exactly it means anymore. It is one of those words which had undergone various semantic developments over the course of its usage in contemporary English.

Once upon a time, a bitch was simply a lady dog. It had no other connotations and was not really considered a slur. Even though the earliest use of ‘bitch’ specifically as a derogatory term for women dates to the 15th century, it was used most often in the cultural and social milieus of the 19th century as a gendered slur, meaning a promiscuous or lewd woman. However, the term became more popular in its common usage during the 20th century and once again became an insult used against women. In between the years 1915 and 1930, the use of ‘bitch’ in newspapers and literature more than doubled. A major factor behind the repeated use of the word was the women’s suffrage movement which led to the first legal mandate in granting women voting rights. Men were not happy about it and started appropriating the word, ‘bitch’ to refer to ‘annoying’ women.

Author Ernest Hemingway seemed to have a rather deep penchant for the word ‘bitch’, as he used it extensively to refer to not just women, but also to bad editors, Spanish dictators, and enormous deer! He called many of his female characters “bitch goddesses.” In a classic move, after a fall-out with Gertrude Stein, he is believed to have gifted her a signed copy of Death in the Afternoon with the inscription “a bitch is a bitch is a bitch.” Ironically enough, Hemingway also used the word as a means to describe positive qualities like ferocity, edginess, and grit, as reflected in his descriptions of a ‘bitch of a squall’ blowing outside, or called himself a “son of a bitch sans peur.”

In the 1970s, ‘bitch’ was re-appropriated by popular culture, especially music. Miles Davis named his 1970 jazz album, Bitches Brew; the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Bitch’ in 1971; Elton John came out with “The Bitch is Back” in 1974. During the same time feminist writer, Jo Freeman reclaimed the term in her Bitch Manifesto which kickstarted a series of feminist efforts to reappropriate the insult. The Bitch Manifesto in declaring that “‘Bitch’ is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose.”, set an unapologetic undertone to the word, leading more and more women to embrace the term in a positive light. Being called a ‘bitch’ became more of a compliment since it evolved from implying something derogatory to meaning a strong and empowered woman, who refuses to give a damn!

However, it didn’t happen overnight. From referring to a woman who is promiscuous, to using it as an insult for a woman who had done you wrong, ‘bitch’ evolved through different shades of meaning and usage. By the 1980s, the use of the word was tinged with violence and misogyny, harbouring a much darker tone than ever before. ‘Bitch’ owes much of its history of violence to the hip-hop movement in Bronx, New York, which saw its use in various calumnious ways. Slick Rick was among the first rappers to have used the word in the 1985 song ‘La Di Da Di,’ where the ‘bitch’ in the song is a jealous and violent woman.

A year later, Ice-T rapped about beating up a “bitch” who talked back to him, in “Six in Da Morning.” The term was loaded with such negative connotations that women weren’t able to take it in their stride and label themselves bitches just yet. In fact, many female hip-hop artists took it as a blow to their sense of self and challenged the use of the word. Queen Latifah rejected the use of the word in her 1993 song “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which opens with the question: “Who you callin’ a bitch?” She took on gender equality, and specifically name-calling, head on in ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ (1993), in which she raps, “Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/ Trying to make a sister feel low/ You know all of that gots to go.” Other female rappers from the same era frequently used the term to refer to themselves and/or others, notably Roxanne Shante (who even made a 1992 album entitled The Bitch is Back) and MC Lyte.

Then came Trina with her single, ‘Da Baddest Bitch’ which re-appropriated the term as a symbol of female empowerment and agency. ‘Bitch’ was someone powerful and fierce; in other words, she is someone you don’t mess with. Pop culture icon, Madonna, who had previously shied away from the word, went on to embrace it openly later on in her song, Unapologetic Bitch. Missy Elliot’s She’s a Bitch released towards the end of the 20th century is a war cry against the language of misogyny. Meredith Brooks’ pop hit “Bitch” (1997) identified “bitch” as one of the myriad characteristics that make up dynamic femininity.

Step into the 21st century, and the word ‘bitch’ gets an entirely new leverage through its uses in various media. Jay-Z, rockband Buckcherry, Busta Rhymes, Kelis of Milkshake used the word in a more or less, positive spirit. There wasn’t much agreement on what a bitch was, but as Too $hort put it in 2006, “One thing’s for sure / You will get called a bitch / Bitch!” The word was reclaimed by pop culture, books, magazines and colloquial language, just like ‘queer’(which was initially used as a slur), has been reclaimed by the gay community.

With glocalisation, the word ‘bitch’ has also come to be used quite frequently in India and all over the world where English is spoken. (The literal translation of ‘bitch’ in Hindi is ‘kutti’, which too is often used as a gendered slur in India.) More often than not, however, it is used in everyday talk quite casually, without meaning anything specific. But it would be wrong to say that the word has been reclaimed completely. A ‘basic bitch’, for example, is still a slur, even though it has lost its bite. This is perhaps because women are not only reduced to their sexuality but critiqued and shamed for it even today. The word will continue to bear the legacy of being a slur, so long as the context in which it is used doesn’t change.

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