So, I said something like, "Don't be such a bunch of pussies" in response to concerns about working extra hard for some project. Though I never really thought of it as a a reference to other uses of the word pussy, it didn't sit well with me.
I wondered on Facebook to some friends who care about words if 'pussy' was a gendered disparagement. DId it refer at its root to women or felines? I inquired for alternatives.
I learned things. tl;dr: From now on, I will say, "Don't be such a bunch of wimps!" I will not be using pussy or sissy ever again. Nor will I be using the suggested poltroon or pusillanimous or caitiff.
Pussy was first found in print in 1583 referring a sweet and amiable woman. It was, in fact, a compliment. They think that it referred to supposed virtues of a kitten. It took over a hundred years to be used as a reference to genitals _or_ cats (in fact it referred to rabbits long before it was used for cats).
Sissy was a later usage (mid 1700's) that derived from sister and, in the late 1800s was used as disparagement for effeminate men. That is the very essence of a gendered slur.
Both sissy and pussy were references to homosexuality very shortly after they first appeared and long before, in the case of 'pussy' the word referred to genitals (without negative connotation). Also, in the case of pussy, it was used to compliment the gentleness of a gay person.
Bottom line, sissy is the worst offender since it went directly from referring to a sister to being used to say a man was bad because he resembled a woman.
Pussy is more complicated. It did not get used as a disparagement until the middle of the 1900's, ie, a very recent usage for this very old word. Still, those years have definitely turned it into a gendered slur.
One of my friends suggested 'caitiff'. Turns out it's a very old word dating to the early 1300's. It originally meant prisoner or captive but very quickly came to be disapproval with a strong implication of immorality and wickedness. I'm guessing it was a reference to the criminal nature of people who were prisoners. The latest reference in 1870.
Wussy dates back to 1977; it's root, wuss, to '76. The OED speculates that it was a casual portmanteau of wimp and pussy.
Wimp dates to the early 1920's. It appeared almost simultaneously as a disparagement meaning weak, feeble or "wet" (?!) and, apparently separately, meaning "woman or girl". The latter without negative connotation.
Another suggestion that I love is 'pusillanimous' but whenever I have used it the laughing pretty much killed the impact. Still, a great word.
Poltroon? Pretty much the same. Interestingly, both of these are quite old (1400-1500's) and both mainly meant cowardly but a poltroon is worse, adding wickedness. Non-gendered but laughably archaic.
For now I'm going to say that pussy is definitely gendered as is wussy and it's worse cousin, sissy. Wimp arguably not but it's not perfectly clean either. Probably it's the closest to a winner so far.
I suppose "Don't be such a pussy!" and "Don't be such a wimp!" are pretty much equivalent both in meaning and impact but the latter says it without a strong sexist reference. I guess it works.
It is really weird that every contemporary disparagement I can think of is based on using women as the epitome of weakness. I really hate that.