“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, soon to appear in a revised second edition. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. 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.
This entry was posted in Culture, Femininity, Feminism, Gender Balance, Literature, Masculinity, Philosophy, Political, Social Conventions, The Problematic of Woman and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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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