The issue with calling a woman a ‘Karen’

Jul 26, 2023
Labelling any woman as a Karen diminishes what she has to say, and makes it (and her) something to shrug off and not take seriously. Source: Getty

Throughout history, men have used social, legal and religious restrictions to shut women down (and up), keeping them subservient to and dependent on them. 

Forget for the moment our contemporary concerns about equal pay and affordable childcare. In early modern Europe, men locked disabled, troublesome or unmarried women away in convents. Royal and highborn women and girls were political pawns, traded between countries to cement alliances and treaties. Once married, they became walking wombs, their value resting solely on the timely production of sons and heirs for their husbands.

Lady Margaret Beaufort, for example, was married to a stranger and sent away from home as a child. In 1457, at the tender age of thirteen, she gave birth to a son who would become King Henry VII of England. 

One particularly cruel way of silencing women was to accuse them of witchcraft. From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe.

Needless to say, women who fell victim to this extreme form of religious persecution were generally poor and old, However, in many cases, they were important women, such as midwives or those with knowledge of traditional medicine that threatened traditional male headship.  

The legal position of women did not improve until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act (England,1870). Prior to that, a married woman’s husband was the legal owner of any money she earned, and a woman could not inherit property, either. Moreover, prior to the Act, the entirety of a woman’s property was placed under the ownership of her husband.

The perils of being a wife did not end there, either. If she were troublesome (opinionated?) or unappealing (ageing?) to her husband, he was empowered to commit her to an insane asylum (so much easier than divorce).  

Women had to fight hard for a say in government. The Suffragette movement stands as a testament to the struggle. However, women were eventually granted the vote and have, over the past century, found a seat at the table of governments across the Western world. 

In the middle of the last century, feminism raised the flag for equal pay and although wage parity has not yet been fully achieved, women can now be found working in all sectors and taking their place alongside men in universities, boardrooms and banks. 

Yes. Women now have rights and we have a voice. However, that doesn’t mean that men welcome our contributions nor that they are unopposed.  Language betrays the underlying misogyny that lies in waiting to silence women who dare to speak out. It has always been there: a subset of pejorative words for women, for which no male equivalent springs readily to mind.

These words include crone, hag, witch, slattern, strumpet, shrew, harpy, fishwife, battle-axe and, most lately, Karen!  Note here that young women, those who are still aglow with sexual ‘promise’ are generally not targeted by these epithets. Young women are feted, but not forever. After all, everyone ages.  

You see, it’s mature women who are Karens. Karens are women who have the temerity to stand up and complain (about anything), including being stuck forever in a queue, poor service and/or punctuality, uncontrolled dogs, regulation-breaking neighbours, potential trespassers, inconsiderate gym members and so on.

Of course, no man has ever complained about such matters – or anything. Right? Wrong.  

Men complain and make nuisances of themselves, too. However, the pertinent point here is that where decisions are made, men still do most of the talking. At meetings, for example, men speak more than women and they talk over them

What woman has not been pushed aside or hushed by a man? Labelling any woman as a Karen diminishes what she has to say, and makes it (and her) something to shrug off and not take seriously.

Labelling any woman as a Karen is just another way of silencing her. No doubt, it works because the term has been adopted as a popular stereotype with Karens becoming the butt of countless online jokes and memes. 

Nobody can deny that the position of women and girls in modern society is far more equitable than at any other time in recorded history. However, misogyny punctuates our language, reminding us of man’s age-old desire for headship and control over women.

When he complains, he makes a point.  When she complains, she’s nagging. When he has multiple sexual partners, he’s a stud.  When she does likewise, she’s a strumpet (or worse). When he gets old, he’ll never be a crone or a hag. He’ll just be an old man – or perhaps a silver fox. The message is obvious.  Women and men are judged differently, and women should “hold their tongues”. 

It’s not that men are above criticism or stereotyping. For example, the term “toxic masculinity” immediately springs to mind. However, despite modernity, feminism and ‘wokeness”, the older man is still afforded a kind of dignity and acceptance not granted to older women.  

In the name of fairness, then, what term would you nominate to be the male equivalent of a Karen? Unfortunately, whatever you decide – perhaps, Kevin, Nigel or Percy – I can guarantee that it will never ‘stick’ like Karen.


Did you miss the original Karen blog this is in response to? You can read it here

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