“The B Word”

“Bitch” is an insult word, yet I doubt there is any living, adult, English-speaking woman who hasn’t applied it (at least in her mind) to another woman, in cases where no other descriptive term will do.

In my experience, it’s used to portray a female character who is cunning, underhanded and spiteful, rather than a strong woman who pursues her aims in daylight.  It is true that, when a woman is attacked for pursuing aims opposed by her accuser, she’ll also be faulted for not being good at being a woman.  But I don’t think “bitch” is typically used for that purpose.

There are other insult terms that are gender-specific.  “Prick” or “dick” is not a compliment and neither would be applied to a woman.  But what does “bitch” suggest?

In my memory, I wander back to Kipling’s fabulous tale of the boy raised by wolves.   In the poem with which The Jungle Book concludes, the “only son” asks his mother:

“Now was I born of womankind and laid in a mother’s breast?

For I have dreamed of a shaggy hide whereon I went to rest.”

At the final stanza, the human mother …

loosed the bar, she slid the bolt, she opened the door anon,

And a grey bitch-wolf came out of the dark and fawned on the Only Son.

What I like is that the “shaggy hide” of the “grey-bitch wolf”  — the animality in us all – is a piece of what we come home to.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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5 Responses to “The B Word”

  1. Nilda says:

    I have heard ‘bitch’ applied to men and women. I have heard it as a term of endearment, and as a term of derision. I have heard it said towards women who are aggressive in the same manner men are, but while the male is called assertive, the female is called a ‘bitch’.

    Strong women are intimidating to all who lack confidence in themselves. Calling a strong woman a ‘bitch’ tells me more about the one doing the name calling than the one they are attempting to tear down.

  2. Gail says:

    As someone who loves dogs, I say, let’s take the word back and turn it into the compliment it should be. Next time someone calls you a bitch, smile and say “thank you.”

  3. Kate says:

    We get used to the word bitch. People are intimidated by strong women.

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