Why No One Should Call You “That Woman” Ever Again

The American legal giant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died this week. She worked tirelessly for decades on behalf of women and minority groups, both in front of the Court and as Justice of it.

Consider this post my very small, feminist-esque tribute to a brilliant mind; one hopes to be able to argue even a fraction as persuasively as she did one day.

I Was Known as “That Woman” For a While

It’s extraordinarily effective. Two innocuous words, three syllables, no profanities, and yet being called it has an effect on me which is entirely disproportionate to its apparent inconsequence.

There are plenty of stepmothers who have suffered a degrading nickname – I know of bitches, and witches, and (my absolute least favourite) “The Other Woman“. However there’s something about being referred to as That Woman which I believe is infinitely worse. It’s inherently dismissive, degrading and lazy. It’s sexist. And women using it to describe other women is, in my opinion, unforgivable.

My, admittedly accurate, nickname was actually started by my mother in law, and then picked up and continued by my stepdaughter’s mother. It was, I would say, a good year before I was awarded the privilege of being known by my name, but I know of many women who are never afforded that small luxury.

Why Being Called “That Woman” Makes Me So Angry

Edwina Langley, writing for Grazia during the 2016 US election campaign, made a compelling argument about why it is insulting to be referred to as a woman in certain circumstances.

Take Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton as “a nasty woman”, or Theresa May being put back in her place as “a bloody difficult woman” by Kenneth Clarke, and a “stupid woman” [cough allegedly, cough] by Jeremy Corbyn. I get angry about it for the same reason that I get angry about our President of the Supreme Court (until recently), the formidable Lady Hale, being labelled “not easy to deal with“.

Being Nasty, or Stupid, Becomes Intertwined With Being a Woman

We are nasty or stupid because we’re not conforming to what society thinks we should be doing.

You’re a nasty woman because you’re saying things that a woman shouldn’t be saying, or a stupid woman because you don’t understand a woman’s place.

Theresa May was a stupid woman because she was politicking too hard, too forcefully, and was in danger of shouting down her male colleagues. Hillary Clinton was a nasty woman because she was threatening to give as good as she got.

A nice, clever woman does not do these things. “Why can’t you all just be nice, clever women?”

[An even more worrying interpretation might be that you’re stupid or nasty because you’re a woman. That is a slightly different argument, however, and I don’t believe that it’s generally what is meant when such terms are used in disputes within stepfamilies so we’ll leave that one for now.]

But If You’re Just “That Woman”?

Well. Here our gender becomes the entire insult. There is no other adjective to bolster it or to hide behind. It’s literally the whole thing.

You’re still a woman who is not doing what a woman should be doing, but by referring to you simply as “That Woman” the verbal attacked intends to absolutely highlight that in the round (as opposed to picking out particular attributes as above); there’s no hiding our meaning here. You’re a woman, but you are “less than”. You are inherently coming up short. You should be ashamed of your behaviour and who you are.

I am generalising on the basis of my own experience here, but That Woman seems to be used to describe women who are perceived as having done something unladylike, or unbefitting of their womanhood.

In my case, I was perceived as having stolen something that wasn’t mine (it’s the woman’s fault after all), and of not understanding motherhood (what use am I as a woman if I don’t understand that?). The use of That Woman was intended to emphasise how little I belonged in any decision making role; that I was wrong; that I didn’t understand; and that I didn’t matter.

And having another woman deciding to use your gender as a dirty word? Something to be spat at you in anger? That plays into the patriarchal assumptions we’ve all been trying to fight this entire time, so please. Just stop it.

The Concept of Womanhood has been Thoroughly Defined by Expectations Throughout History

Now this is a bold claim, but bear with me. Could the expectations, and anger towards new stepmothers boil down to women having to fight for their place in society?

There have been strict societal rules around being nice, quiet, accommodating, and nurturing, and those who did not conform have historically been shunned and labelled as not to be trusted – a fate which befalls most who begin a fight for change. Take the Olivier Sisters, for example, who were seen as odd for their outspoken, radical and “unruly” behaviour (although, I hasten to add, were also completely irresistible to the male admirers they accumulated).

Do not venture, or seek adventure, and do not tempt the menfolk.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, as we rush around our daily modern lives in the Western world, that as recently as the beginning of the 1900s women were still denied the vote. We were not permitted to own property, or to practice the law.

Much analysis around why that was suggests it’s because we were seen as dangerous. I can see this assumption about women feeding into the way women feel about each other; so often in stepfamilies, the new stepmother is seen as a threat.

Now this is a bold claim, but bear with me. Could the expectations, and anger towards new stepmothers boil down to women having to fight for their place in society?

We have been conditioned to believe that we must behave in a certain way to achieve success. If a marriage fails, it’s our fault (Page 5 onwards of this North American Review extract from 1889 is worth a read if you’re in the mood). If a man cheats, there’s still a pervasive attitude that he’s fundamentally “a good guy“, thereby removing his blame. If you misstep, there’s another woman waiting in the wings who is much more proficient at playing her part than you are, and she will happily take your place.

It’s no wonder mothers often react to a new stepmother in the family with insecurity and mistrust.

There’s Only One Way to Mother?

I would also suggest that we’re brought up believing that there’s just one way to mother. This is not just based on the expectations of men, but of women on other women too. It’s the continuous layering of restrictions and rules around the conduct of women, which ultimately restrict our freedoms and our expectations of ourselves.

As soon as we get our heads around our different roles in our families, the conflict between the women in the family starts to dissipate. This is no coincidence, and we need to start recognising earlier on in our stepfamily journeys that you’re not a failure of a woman if you’re not naturally nurturing. You’re not a failure of a stepmother if you’re not naturally organised, or outgoing, or laid back. You’re also not a failure of a mother if your children are benefitting from another woman’s wisdom.

I Am Guilty of “That Woman”-ing My Stepdaughter’s Mother

I just couldn’t bring myself to extend any sort of respect her way.

There is another angle to the That Woman problem; dehumanisation.

Removing a person’s name dehumanises them. I have been guilty of this with my stepdaughter’s mother, and I will openly admit to having struggled to use her name when times were tough.

She would make me so mind-blowingly, hand-shakingly angry. She got under my skin unlike anyone ever had before. I just couldn’t bring myself to extend any sort of respect her way.

Why? Because I know that if I humanised her, I would be in danger of understanding her, and I really didn’t want to risk opening that box of empathy. I felt wronged, and had a deep desire to be angry about it. “Just let me be angry about it for a while,” I used to say to my partner.

We have no desire to empathise because we’re angry, and we’re angry for good reason; it’s a perfectly natural reaction to some really horrible things that have happened to us. I know very few stepmothers who have never experienced any sort of anger at some point in their stepfamily lives.

It’s when that anger becomes a habit that problems really start to arise – not just for the members of your family but for your own mental health too.

It's when anger becomes a habit that the problems really start

Whilst I have never used the term That Woman, for the fundamental beliefs I’ve explained above, I have to admit that I’ve come very close. In fact, by refusing to use her name at times I’ve produced the same result. I sought to undermine her authority and her opinions, and to invalidate the effect she was having on my life.

I have stopped doing that now, and I will even use the shortened version of her name on occasion (which had felt far too familiar and, well, nice to use previously). It has honestly helped me to close a chapter of our stepfamily life that none of us would want to revisit, and my family is infinitely happier because of it.

Ultimately, We Should Show Each Other The Basic Respect That Another Human Being Deserves

Nobody wins when we attempt to dehumanise each other. Someone has to break the cycle, to pull themselves out of the cesspit of hurt, anger and injustice, to see the light and recognise that we are all just people.

Let it be us, stepmothers! If nothing else, to recognise that someone else is just another person is the first step to be released from the initial thundering throes of anger. You might never understand their actions, and I’m not for one minute saying that you need to welcome into your world and heart someone who has been completely awful to you, but calm respect will do your own mental wellbeing the world of good.

Who knows, maybe one day they’ll offer you the same curtesy in return.

And the next time you’re called “That Woman”? Call them out on it. We all suffer when even women themselves can’t acknowledge each other as human beings.

Girl power