Sunday, August 11, 2013

The word "lady," part two (please stop calling me that)

Here's part one of my discussion of the word "lady." Maybe read that first. Since that post last September, I've become more vocal about not wanting to be called a lady, but my female Midwestern friends (and male friends) continue to do it.

"Hello, ladies."
"Have any of you ladies heard about..."
"How are we today, ladies?"

Even though I've now lived in Chicago for 20 years (after growing up in California), I'm becoming less tolerant of this word. You'd think I'd mellow out, adapt to the culture, get over it. I don't know why I can't. Maybe it's because in my middle age I'm even less likely to behave myself, so being called a lady, with its connotations of good breeding, restraint and gentility, feels increasingly inappropriate.

I want no one to take this personally, it's just a general announcement: I am not a fucking lady, so please stop goddamn calling me one.

Here are some alternatives:
"Hello, folks."
"Hi, everyone."
"Have any of you all heard about..."
"How are we today?" (How about leaving off the address altogether?)

It's also offensive when someone refers to a female who's over the age of 20 as a girl. If English speakers can accept man as an unmarked, ageless, universal term, why can't we do that with the word woman? Really, this is beyond my comprehension. Americans, especially Midwesterners, act as if woman is a rude word.

"Today I saw this lady..."
"She's a very smart lady."
"Who was that lady?"
"And then this lady walked in who I'd never met..."

Why the aversion to the word woman when we constantly use the word men? The answer is that our use of language reflects the sexism and double-standards of our society. Some of my Midwestern friends bristle at this argument, insisting that they don't use the word lady with any of the sexism of our broader culture. So what? Just because you don't have ill intent when you use a word doesn't mean that word isn't destructive. Countless people in past decades have had only the best, most innocuous intentions when using words like "cripple," "retard," "wetback" and even, as we know from Paula Dean, "n-----." Dean argued that when you're born of a certain generation in a certain context, "n-----" is a perfectly ordinary word that doesn't imply any negative meaning. Obviously, "the n word" is destructive and has a lot of negative meaning no matter how Paula Dean tries to spin it. My point is that thinking that you aren't using a word with any bad intent does not mean the word isn't still carrying baggage.

I recognize that for many people, lady is a perfectly ordinary word that doesn't imply any negative meaning. I just can't wait until we recognize the inequality that language can reflect and reinforce, specifically in the ways we refer to women and men.

20 comments:

Unknown said...

In NYC, at least to my ears, when someone says "hello, ladies," they are usually doing it with at least a modicum of irony.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

To my ears, that's still offensive. Is calling a roomful of special needs students "retards" okay as long as you use a modicum of irony?

Unknown said...

Regina, I would only call you a lady with A LOT of irony. Robert

Unknown said...

And it is no where near as offensive as your example.

Mango Marilyn said...

I don't like to be called "mam".

Mango Marilyn said...

I hate when people call me "mam" - or "lste for dinner".

Anonymous said...

I don't want anyone to call me "mam" or late for dinner.

Andria Anderson said...

The very idea that the one and only Regina Rodriquez-Martin would ever "mellow out" is head-shaking. Would the sun also rise in the west then?

As far as "lady" goes, I remember feeling much the same way as Reg in my younger years. Woman really is a prefectly fine, equitable word that deserves more usage. But now that I'm an "old lady" (I overheard Jr. Hi boys call me that last month), "lady" has a nostalgic quality to it.

Historically, "black" used to be derogatory. But Blacks transformed that. Maybe "lady" used as irony is a step in that direction. Certainly "refinement" has already gone the way of the do-do bird, in this age of jeans-go-to-fine-restaurants.

I have a friend who hates the word "folks" (something about the "L" - silent or not?) I have a friend who disdains "you all" as a Northerner masquerading as a Southerner. I have a friend you hates "guys" as a term for a mixed group. Now I learn I have a friend that doesn't like "ma'am".

I guess it's no wonder being in a group wears me out? I long for the day that thought-sharing allows us to understand another person's best intentions toward us and recieve those intentions as exactly appropriate for us.

Selana said...

Wow... I had never thought of that before. I guess I have been living under a rock. I will definitely look at the use of that word in a different way. Thanks for the history lesson too.

Ray Waller said...

Just as I teach my students to call authors by their LAST names not their first names, as if authors are all children, I teach my students to use the word 'woman' and you're right, Regina: at least with younger Americans, an entire generation has either been directly taught or has picked up on the implication from popular culture, that 'woman' is a dirty word--they act embarrassed by it, and many young women are actually offended to be called 'women.' It causes a lot of tension and even anger to be directed toward me when I teach 'non sexist and non racist uses of language.' But your example is absolutely on the mark: very few young MEN are offended by being called MEN, and most of them dislike being called 'Boy'. Older men would resent being called 'codger', I point out to them, and make then have to be conscious of the implications of language even if it makes them uncomfortable. Black students are ashamed to read and talk about slavery, as if they want to pretend it never happened because it 'depresses' them, and European ethnic students claim that although their grandparents or parents are Italian-American, Polish-American, etc., that they consider themselves to be 'no color or race.' "We all are one because we all have I-pods and androids," one young man told me as he walked me across campus one day to 'set me straight' in a friendly way. "All that stuff about the meanings of words is in the past, and you old people won't let go of that, but we got past it," he told me. The repression of history and all it's unpleasantness is what is behind all of this, and people are trying to forget that the reason American women fought for several decades to no longer be called 'ladies' was because that word signified the time when women were legally and culturally the PROPERTY of the men in their lives and in their families [when I teach Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, they are put off by the authors' 'negative tone' and the 'negative feelings' of feminist literature. Caling a woman a 'girl' or a 'lady' is not just a question of 'taste' or of 'opinion and preference' as one of my students argues--it is a question of whether this society will take responsibility for its own past, present, and future. I support you.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Selana. And thank you for your support, Ray. I notice that the two people of color who left comments here are more open to my ideas about language being oppressive than the white people who left comments.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Andria, it's possible that women could reclaim "lady" the way others reclaimed "Chicano" and "black," but where's the political movement? There was a black movement and a brown movement that accompanied the reclaiming of those derogatory terms. Women today aren't doing it. So, no, I don't think all these women who use the word "lady" are reclaiming it. Nor do we seem to be heading that way.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I've never thought that it infringed by freedom of expression or thought in any significant measure to avoid using descriptive words that some people find offensive. If the use of "lady," the so-called "n-word" and "retard" or other terms hurt or offend some people, it is little bother for me to make a switch in usage. I suspect that those who so vigorously defend these terms have a vested interest in their use that goes beyond a normal attachment to words that we grew up with. As long as there are some vivid words available to have honest, edifying discussions of race, sex and the utter banality of every day life (and the idiots who seem to ruin it at every turn), I will be satisfied.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I don't know why people fight so hard for terms that offend others. Why not just give the person who's upset by the word the benefit of the doubt?

Anonymous said...

Fear of being lame is an issue, perhaps. Really cool people get to use these words with impunity. Everyone hates not being Tarantino. I'm mixed race, and his use of some words is not problematic for me. Anyone else, and I'm all hairy eyeballs about it. It is giving up a bit of power to have to give up these words. And I think being cool enough to use these words is just another way we ascribe certain status to certain people. That said, I would not use a word I knew offended someone.

Jessica Young said...

You know what I hate? "Females". I hate hate hate it when a man refers to a woman or women as "females", like we're a different species than he is. That makes me want to punch someone. Truly.

Matt said...

I am not a big fan of "lady". It is OK when someone says "ladies and gentlemen" but in other contexts "lady" sounds too polite and patronising. I have also heard "lady" grossly misused as in "the "lady" was rude" -to me this sounds ridiculous.

I don't understand what people find rude or disrespectful about the word "woman" - they don't feel the same about the word "man". One of my least favourite uses of "lady" is when a girl or young woman is condescendingly addressed as "young lady" when a boy or young man would just be called "young man". Around a century ago, "young woman" was used - in Shaw's Pygamalion, Professor Higgins says to Eliza Doolittle "We want none of your slum prudery here, young woman" but "lady" has replaced this so much.

Something else I don't like is when men are referred to as "males". A woman I worked with a few years ago in an office where I was one of just two men once referred to me as "the other male" - this made me sound like a wild animal.

Matt said...

I have recently come across blatant misuse of the word "lady" in a review of a Los Angeles bakery in saying that the "lady" was rude. I don't get why the word being misused like this by some people? People never misuse "gentleman" in the same way. I just don't get why the person used "lady" instead of the normal, generic "woman" which would have been more appropriate - has the word's meaning been lost or misunderstood by some people? I am English and people don't misuse "lady" over here in this way.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Matt, you're right: to call someone a "rude lady" is a complete paradox. As long as we still have concepts such as "acting like a lady" and "being lady-like," Americans can't argue that the word "lady" is unmarked by its history as we pretend it is.

Matt said...

Regina, I agree totally with your comment. People really seem to oddly misuse the word in the United States - as you say this is a paradox.