Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Word "Lady," Part One


Re-posting this from 2012 because it feels like it needs to be said again. With editorial changes.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in the Midwest who uses the words "woman" and "women" instead of "lady" and "ladies." Am I the only one who learned during the 1980s that "lady" is euphemistic and sexist? Am I the only one who doesn't think it's rude to call someone a "woman?"


Historically, the terms "lady" and "gentleman" connoted a standard of social behavior and social standing. A “lady,” in particular, was supposed to be modest, pure, clean, asexual, etc. All women aspired to be "ladies." "Ladies" were higher class and more strongly marked as feminine, which often meant needing to be taken care of, handled with delicacy and shielded from the rough world of men.

Clearly, most Americans no longer see women as needing to be shielded from the "men's" world. So why do we default to using the word "lady" instead of the unmarked word "woman?"

Many Midwesterners (I live in Chicago) argue that when they use the word "lady," they aren't using it with it's old historical meaning. It's just a word now. But I argue that any use of unequal terms perpetuates inequality. If Americans used the word “gentlemen” in our daily speech as much as we use "ladies," we would be using equal terms. But we don't. We use “men." We call men "men" and women "ladies." When English speakers shifted to prefering the word "men" over "gentlemen," why didn’t we make a similar shift to the word “women?”

I believe it's because people -- however unconsciously -- still imagine that our females are polite, feminine, delicate people who need shielding from the world of males. A man can be any kind of man, but we prefer a woman to "act like a lady," with certain expectations of restrained appearance and behavior. Even for people who don't believe this, using the word "lady" when we don't use the word "gentleman" equally, evokes the double standard of behavior we all grew up with: boys will be boys, but girls must become little ladies as soon as possible. 

Using the word “ladies” when we’re not using the equivalent term “gentlemen” reflects our historical sexism. I'm a woman, unmarked and free, but each time someone refers to me as a "lady" I feel suggested expectations of ladylike behavior: "ladies" don't use swear words, sit with their knees apart, burp in public or make their sexual desires clear. None of those protocols appeal to me, so please don't bother calling me a "lady."

If you're one of those people who only feels comfortable calling women “ladies, ” then at least be consistent about also calling men “gentlemen.” Belief in equality is reflected in using equal terms for females and males, such as talking about "men and women," or “girls and boys." Referring to females as "girls" or "ladies" in the same breath that you refer to males as "men" is offensive.

Speaking of offensive, I don't know when it became rude to call someone a "woman." No one acts like it's rude to call someone a "man." In fact, "being a man" is seen as admirable. But I've had people tell me that they use "lady" because it sounds young while "woman" sounds old, and that "lady" sounds familiar while "woman" sounds distancing. These views indicate that the word "woman" has some negative associations. I cry out in the midst of the heartland: Does no one see the sexism in how the word "woman" has negative associations while "man" does not? And don't you want to push back against that by using the word "woman" in a neutral or positive way? It seems they don't.

My Midwestern friends are bewildered by these views. They think "ladies" is a perfectly innocent word that's respectful and polite. I'm the odd one out on this one, probably because I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. But I can't ignore the connotations of that word, especially contrasted with the less-than-neutral view of the word "woman." And it's especially hard for me to hear the terms "men" and "ladies" used as if they're equivalent. When someone is referring to full grown adults, I find "men and ladies" just as insulting as "men and girls."

Stop thinking that just because you mean no harm, you're causing no harm by using historically specific words (people also use that defense when they use words like "retard" and "n-----"). I'm a woman: strong, equal to men and not afraid to be impolite. Let's take the negative meanings off of the word "woman" and call things as they really are.  The word "lady," part two.

1 comment:

Matt said...

An interesting post, and I remember reading your original post. As a feminist myself, I agree with the points you are making. I have heard people say both "lady" and "gentleman" when referring to customers etc., but of course "lady" is used in many contexts where its male counterpart simply would not be.

I think it sounds too polite in many other instances when man is just "man", "fellow" or "guy" or whatever and my least favourite uses are when a girl or teenager is scoldingly addressed as "young lady" and when someone shouts "hey, lady, look where you're going" (both patronising) and when it is used loosely as a subsititute for "woman" and not in a polite way.

I also can't understand why it became rude to call a woman a "woman". As you said, "man" is such a positive term. I have seen from works written a century ago that "woman" was used more often then and I don't know when the word became so negative.