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Redefining a word steeped in sexism is no small feat

Origin story

How generations of women powerfully reinvented the word “broad”

By Cynthia Allum on May 20, 2015

“Who put the broads in broadcasting?”

That was a line that Kathy O’Hearn heard regularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when she began toiling in the television industry at CBS. Now a longtime executive producer, O’Hearn remembers when male colleagues blatantly dished out inappropriate jokes. “People didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable,” she said. “As a woman you had to laugh and persevere and say, ‘Well I’m here,’ and just do a better job than any guy around you. That’s how women in those days survived and succeeded.”

Though the term brings to mind a bygone era of newsboys and bathtub gin, suddenly “broad” is big: With the emergence of the show Broad City; Vice’s new female-focused channel, Broadly; Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas’s production company, Broad Street Pictures; Lifetime’s initiative Broad Focus; and Fortune’s daily newsletter The Broadsheet, it’s easy to forget that the word was once considered derogatory. According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, as recently as 1972, women’s libbers in San Francisco were protesting the term and equating it to the n-word.

It’s not unusual to see historically marginalized groups re-brand negative terms to serve progressive cultural agendas. But how did generations of women reclaim “broad” so quickly and triumphantly?

Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan, tracked an underground etymological thread through recent decades to see how women took back the word “broad,” updating an aspersion to make it an accolade. Equipped with historical slang dictionaries and Google’s magical “Ngram Viewer,” she explored the word’s evolution.

“According to these dictionaries, the meaning of broad as a woman goes back to the use of broad to refer to playing cards, which goes back to the late 18th century,” Curzan revealed. From there, “broad” was used to refer to a ticket of admission, which the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dated back to 1912. The quote they reference? “I gave him broads to the show.” In hindsight, it’s hilarious.

“It’s funny now because of the ambiguity, but that would’ve been tickets to the show. Right around the same time, we see it show up referring to prostitutes, a sexually promiscuous woman,” said Curzan. Many theories that sprouted across the Internet connect these two meanings, and they most likely arise from A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang. Published in 1914, that reference book speculates, “Broad is derived from the far-fetched metaphor of ‘meal ticket,’ signifying a female provider for a pimp, from the fanciful correspondence of a meal ticket to a railroad or other ticket.” According to Curzan, around that time, “broad” was used to refer to a woman contemptuously as being rude—not necessarily as a prostitute.

But the best definition has to be in The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang in Unconventional English: “Somewhere between derogatory and so old-fashioned as to be charming in a hopeless way.”

“I would disagree with charming, but I do feel like it feels antiquated enough that it’s harder to find it insulting,” said Curzan. “I would just have to think it would be a joke, or somebody would say it with an old-fashioned movie accent, like ‘That old broad.’ Who would actually say that seriously?”

Interestingly, according to Curzan, the most popular expression that includes the b-word is “tough old broad,” which began showing up in the late 1960s and 1970s. Then it dramatically spiked up in the mid-1980s, before leveling in the 1990s. Now we’re getting a little uptick in the 2000s. Although the term was mainly used by men to refer to women negatively –one 1965 example Curzan cited was a phrase saying that a man is married to a “tough old broad with three chins”—as time went on, women began to use it to proudly refer to their own power or resilience, as in, “Yeah, I’m a tough old broad.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer results for "tough old broad"

“In ‘tough old broad,’ I think you’re hearing some of the pushback,” Curzan said. “It’s a pretty good candidate for getting reclaimed. It has some of those connotations of a powerful woman, given its associations with ‘tough.'”

Pattie Sellers, Fortune‘s senior editor at large told Women in the World that the women on Fortune‘s annual list “tend to be gutsy pioneers—and some wouldn’t mind being called ‘broad,’ which is pre-WWII slang for independent, aggressive women.”

Today, women are less likely to resist—and some are eager to embrace—the pre-WWII slang. The word benefits from a useful ambiguity—the broad definition of “broad,” is an asset. “Within something like Broad City or Broadly, they are trying to give the idea that we have a broad focus, as in, we are welcoming to all, including women.” This big-tent latitude does not work as well for words like “dame,” which doesn’t necessarily evoke power, and the more dismissive, demeaning “chick.”

And that’s precisely why Lifetime went with the name, “Broad Focus.” Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President of Publicity and Affairs at Lifetime, explained to Women in the World: “Because our initiative is dedicated to seeking new, fresh voices in the creative community, we knew we needed a name that was also fresh and that stretched the way we think about women. We love the double meaning of the word broad when paired with focus. Broad is a nod toward the feminine without being soft … while focus captures the essence of working with cameras and capturing stories.”

Broad Street Pictures’ Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas fell for the word’s flexibility, too. In an email, Reiner said, “I thought ‘Broad Street’ worked as a name for several reasons. First and foremost, we hope to create many films over the years that cover a broad range of entertaining, thought-provoking themes. Also, we are two ‘broads’ who hope to hire many ‘broads’ in the future.” Thomas added, “Our upcoming film under the Broad Street Banner, EQUITY, is the first female-driven Wall Street movie, and Broad Street crosses Wall Street in the financial district. We look forward to shooting the film this summer.”

Lastly, the aforementioned “old-fashioned” and “charming” aspect of the word “broad” is disarming and funny. “Of the terms for women, this one feels usefully antiquated so that it’s not as powerfully negative as some of the other terms out there.”

Abbi Jacobson devised the name “Broad City” for her wildly popular show, a choice that The New Yorker called “a sly reclamation of an old-fashioned term.”

“A broad is a full person,” Jacobson’s co-star Ilana Glazer told the magazine.

This new notion of “broad” being a “full person,” or someone who is complete, echoes Vice’s decision to name its new channel for women “Broadly.” In an interview with Capital New York, Tracie Egan Morrissey, who will lead the site, said she took input from many women at Vice and the conclusion was they liked the pun and how it would speak to the scope of their coverage.

Certainly, today, the broads are putting the “broad” in broadcasting. O’Hearn said that despite the sexism she encountered early in her career, she is grateful for the “profound and deep” bonds it created among her female colleagues who ultimately became lifelong friends, including one of America’s most experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl. O’Hearn shared some meaningful lines from an email chain that occurred after a recent get-together with other CBS women who started working in the late 1970s. In it, Stahl shared an intimate memory.

“There were always extraordinary women at CBS. If not on camera, definitely producing and editing–and in a few cases, shooting—pictures… We just hummed along, loving what we were doing, expecting that if we did it well, they would let us hang around and keep doing it. We were there not to make a statement. We were just grateful we were being allowed to do what we loved– something denied our mothers’ generation. Even when we’ve wanted to scream ‘sexism’ or ‘f–the f—ers,’ we knew we were lucky to be in the door.” And as they silently pushed forward, they left it open for future generations of women.