According to the petition, posted on Change.org, the venerable publisher, which produces the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), offers a series of synonyms for woman, including “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly.”
Featuring the hashtags #IAmNotABitch and #SexistDictionary, the petition includes several excerpts, which it says are suggested usages of “woman.” These include: “Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman;” “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman;” and “If that does not work, they can become women of the streets.”
While the OED itself does not feature these definitions, they do appear in other reference books produced by the publisher, as well as online dictionary Lexico, which takes its content from OUP dictionaries.
“This sexist dictionary must change,” demands the petition, started in June by London-based marketing manager Maria Beatrice Giovanardi – who is also a women’s rights advocate – and the east London branch of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for “gender equality … at work, at home and in public life.”
It continues: “These examples show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men.”
The petition refers to the online abuse targeted at women and says language usage must change in order to tackle this problem. It states: “We can take a serious step towards reducing the harm this is causing our young women and girls by looking at our language – and this starts with the dictionary.”
It continues: “This is completely unacceptable by a reputable source like the Oxford University Press, but it’s even more worrying when you consider how much influence they have in setting norms around our language. These misogynistic definitions have become widespread because search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo license the use of Oxford Dictionaries for their definitions.”
Giovanardi told CNN that she herself had been subjected to online abuse – and even rape threats – since launching the petition. However, she said, the response has mostly been positive.
“The response has been great because we have received the support of some very big women’s rights organizations,” she told CNN. “You have to expect a backlash, but generally I feel very supported.”
The “outdated” definitions “denigrate” women, according to the petition, which requests that the definition is expanded to include broader examples, such as “a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.”
Responding to a request for comment, an OUP spokeswoman directed CNN to a blog post published last month on its website.
In a post entitled “Mapping ‘woman’ in the Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Thesaurus of English,” Katherine Connor Martin, OUP’s head of lexical content strategy, said the content raised in the petition does not appear in the OED, but instead “derives from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, which aim to cover contemporary English usage and are accessible online in a variety of formats.”
She said that editors are “investigating whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update.”
However, she explained that “often there is a nuance to how words are defined and presented in our dictionaries, which is important to take into account.”
She added: “If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory.
“Part of the descriptive process is to make a word’s offensive status clear … The phrase ‘the little woman’ is defined as ‘a condescending way of referring to one’s wife’ and ‘bit’ is labeled as ‘derogatory’ in the thesaurus.”
Giovanardi told CNN that the petitioners had not received a direct response from the publisher, adding that the blog post “doesn’t really address any of the concerns raised.”
“In future, I think the solution is to come up with some limits as to what is actually considered too sexist or too abusive,” she said. “We want a serious commitment to changing the definition – hopefully they will listen.”