Women discuss reclaiming female slurs


Thomas J. Yang

Jeanna Sybert, president of the American Association of University Women at Pitt, discusses the history of select derogatory and misogynistic words at the group’s “Reclaiming Words” event Monday night. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Visual Editor)

By Noah Manalo | Staff Writer

Jeanna Sybert was sure to address both sides of the reclamation argument in her presentation — and she didn’t shy away from using shocking language to make those points.

The University of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the American Association of University Women held an event, C U Next Tuesday: Reclaiming Words Through a Feminist Lense, Monday night in room 540 of the William Pitt Union. Sybert, the secretary of the Pitt’s AAUW chapter and a senior studying communication and political science, gave a brief presentation on reclaiming words. Following the presentation, there was a short discussion on the topic.

Sybert began the talk by defining a reclaimed word as a slur or other negative term used to refer to a certain group, which the group then reclaims for its own use. After conducting research on reclaiming words, she gathered that the purpose of this is to reduce the power of a dominant group and to control one’s own — and others’ — views of oneself.

It also limits the ability of suppressing groups to use the word on the groups,” Sybert said.

Sybert highlighted that many groups, including the black, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, have worked to reclaim slurs. Now, women are doing so as well. Sybert provided the audience with arguments she found for and against the idea of reclamation.

“Language has power. That’s the takeaway,” Sybert said.

Sybert also presented arguments for reclamation that show how it undermines the historical, social and cultural power of slurs. She said it also changes the original meaning and intent, creates a sense of community and empowerment for those in the oppressed group and opens conversations about microaggressions and broader issues related to oppressions.

In addressing the other side of the argument, Sybert said it can appear as a movement in which only privileged members of a group can partake, and it does not erase how words are used in relation to either interpersonal or systemic violence. It can also invalidate experiences or the feelings of those who do not want to reclaim slurs.

“Of course there are other words that can be reclaimed, but there are three big ones we are going to talk about,” Sybert said.

According to Sybert, the “big three” are “slut, bitch and cunt.”

For the first word, the she showed a video that outlined its historical context. She went on to talk about SlutWalk, a transnational protest march that calls for the end of rape culture. She highlighted criticism in an open letter by black feminists, accusing the event of being exclusionary to women of color.

“We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations,” Black Women’s Blueprint writes.

“The arguments are something to keep in mind while deciding whether or not to reclaim the word,” Sybert said.

The speaker said the second word holds negative connotations for both men and women. Sybert provided descriptions and varying arguments on the word from philosophers such as Mary Daly.

While Gloria Steinem said the response to the word should be “thank you,” Sherryl Kleinman, Matthew B. Ezzell and A. Corey Frost write that the word is not part of the feminist movement.  

Then the discussion came to the third and final word, first used for a 13th-century London street. The medical community in the 1500s also used the term as the medical word for vagina, but it became taboo in the 1800s, which Sybert joked about during the presentation.

“Victorian societal terms that ruin everything also ruined the word,” Sybert said.

The presenter displayed a tweet from The Onion showing what she believed was a completely wrong usage of the word and a clip from a performance of the Vagina Monologue reclaiming the word correctly.

The event closed with discussions among the event attendees. They shared their own personal ideas on reclamation and expanded the discussion to broader terms, including the idea of women in music reclaiming the words in their songs and the idea of the reclaimed word “girl.”

Maddie Stackhouse, a first year studying neuroscience, said she came into the discussion knowing it’s a complicated topic and a lot of people have differing opinions on the subject.

“I personally already do reclaim these words with friends of mine in specific contexts and situations,” Stackhouse said. “There’s a time and place for everything.”

Allison Phillips, the organization’s event coordinator and a sophomore studying anthropology, thought the discussion was pretty much what she expected.

“I am not comfortable with the term ‘slut’ due to personal experience with the word. I find the word is associated with a weapon,” she said. “It is used in a negative manner far more than in a positive manner. I cannot think of any positive uses myself, but I am not going to say that no one can reclaim it.”