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.

6 comments:

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.

Rayfield A. Waller said...

A student once said to me, bless his little millennial, digital age, social mediated heart, that, 'You old people read too much into language, Professor Waller, with all that political correctness stuff about calling African Americans 'Black', and calling Girls 'Women'. Words just describe things, that's all. They describe stuff you need to know, they give you important directions, like--EXIT THIS WAY--and they give you information.'

Uh. Yeah. Tell it to Goebbels.

I too, get to feeling, with a slight shock, it always comes as a shock, that I seem to be the only one who learned in the eighties to call a woman a woman and not a 'Miss' (I still use 'Ms.' despite some people literally getting angry at me for it), a 'lady', or worst of all, a 'GIRL'. I suppose a generation (our generation, Reg) has fallen silent and is pretending we were not better socialized than the current generation. We allow ourselves to be cowed and we seek to assimilate the current culture in order to avoid confusing or upsetting the post 911 fear fetishists and neutral culture enthusiasts (walk and talk without rhythm so we won't attract the terrorist worm!).

No lie, this happened: I was at Detroit's farmer's market yesterday buying apples and the apple woman handed me some honey crisps (try them when depressed, they can fool your brain chemistry into thinking it should produce dopamine instead of the death hormone). She smiled and said good naturedly, 'try peanut butter on these, it's delicious!' I thought, how strange, but how good that sounds, and I was very charmed by her attitude and thinking I would dig out my jar of peanut butter in the kitchen cabinet when I get home, I don't eat peanut butter but I keep a jar in case some fictitious peanut butter eating friend visits and has a keen desire for a peanut butter and jam sandwich--I do have six various jars of fruit jams in my fridge and cabinet). I smiled at the apple woman.

And then, standing next to her handling the money was the apple MAN--the actual owner of the farmers' market apple stand, clearly, because he was older, much more Anglo, and clearly more suburban, and he scowled at her, and even though I was still standing there, said, "lay off the peanut butter talk--some people have nut allergies!'

REALLY, I thought. I thought, "Really, you ass hole?" She looked embarrassed and ducked her head, and I wanted to slap him across the head with that bag full of apples in my hand. I think the only reason I didn't is because I had that sick to the stomach feeling some of we 80s socialized men get in public when a man psychologically abuses a woman and it is shaming to not only the woman but to the 80's socialized men nearby who feel disoriented, unsure if this is actually happening, and if it has the significance we feel it does, and wonder exactly what to do about it that wouldn't simply reiterate the whole 'dominating man' model of public behavior.

Rayfield A. Waller said...

"A Student Once Said to Me' PART 2


'Chivalry' is part of the problem, so all that chivalric, knight in armor, beat up the bully type of stuff that was programmed into us in the 70s will in an instant run through our heads, and in the next instant all the feminist theory of the 80s runs through, negating the kneejerk 'chivalry', the urge to 'save' the woman who was just disrespected by some man who lacks any compunction, shame, or any of the other restraints those of us raised in a feminist world have embedded in us. The apple man also lacked any of the sometimes crippling ambivalence that stops 80s socialized men from saying or doing anything about this unfettered, un-ironic, unconscious asshole who just insulted a woman who was just being good to us, and kind to us.

So I didn't slap him across the head with the bag of apples, which my not having done has been haunting me since yesterday--I only just now realize how much, because look at how much I'm writing about it and it was just supposed to be an example of the current culture of language, in a larger point I thought I was going to make. It's been bothering me that I didn't hit him in the head with my apples.

Instead, I smiled at her, and walked away and hissed 'asshole' at him so only he could hear it and yes, he actually looked at me with surprise and even looked hurt that I said that to him. That made me even angrier. He thinks 'he's the victim in this scenario.

At any rate, I feel beset by people who are Black and Anglo liberals, conformists, post 911 fear geeks, who are saying 'let's all huddle together in little social media groups and blog about reality rather than actually going to an ACT-UP or an OCCUPY gathering and crashing a bank lobby to shut down the bank for a day, safety junkies. When these people look at me strangely or even try to correct me for refusing to call a woman a 'Girl', I simply double down. That's how I deal with it. I say real loud, 'WOMEN ARE NOT GIRLS". I say it like I'm not going to defend it or explain it, and like they ought to be AWARE. That's all.

Rayfield A. Waller said...

"A Student Once Said to Me' PART 3

I keep writing with awareness, I keep teaching my students awareness, I keep talking with awareness. I teach my students in every context, from history to expository writing, to film studies, to popular music analysis, that the point is not 'correctness' but AWARENESS. Conformity is trying to be correct. Awareness is well, simply being aware. You can conform without having any idea of what it is you are turning away from or conforming to, and so conformity to sexism and misogyny are as easy as giving a mindless 'thumbs up' on FACEBOOK (where notice, there ain't no such thing as a thumbs down--it's either thumbs up or nothing because your critique can't count, only positivism and approval is counted).

Awareness requires history, and knowing some history. You don't call a woman a 'girl' if you are aware of the long four hundred year history on the North American continent alone, of woman fighting to no longer be the property of their husbands and their families. If you are aware of the hundreds of letters Abigail Adams write to her husband John Adams demanding that he push his fellow legislators to give women rights in the foundational documents he helped to craft, you are aware of the history of the issue of language. If you ever read "Ain't I A Woman", the speech presented extemporaneously by Sojourner Truth in 1851 at The Women's Convention in Akron Ohio, you know why Truth deliberately defies the racism and sexism of the time by calling herself 'Woman' not 'Lady', and you know why the feminsist and abolitionists of the era did not call their convention a 'GIRLS'Convention'. Truth said in part:

"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches...Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?"

It isn't only a matter of seeing that 'Lady' on a public restroom sign is used in the same context as 'gentleman' is being used (personally, I resent anyone calling me that--I'm a man, not a 'gentle' man--of the 'gentry'. I've never owned slaves, a smoking establishment, a horse, or a country home). No, the matter is also that a woman, independent of a 'man' or a 'guy', or a 'dude', is a human being who has struggled to be seen not as an extension of the other sex in either a good OR a bad way, or in any way at all, but simply as a human.

Rayfield A. Waller said...



Calling me neither a 'guy' nor a "man" is going to be a product of my history of being a slave, being forced to carry a pregnancy against my will, and being raped or rescued from rape. It does not signal my separation from other men who are less deserving than me of protection, legal rights, ownership of land, and class privilege. 'Guys' are not opposed to 'Men' in a concern over being perceived as exempt from serving in wars, dying in coal mines, or from selling sex on a corner to feed our children as opposed to 'Dudes' who everyone knows must do those things.

Appellations are not just titles for social purposes, or to 'describe' and 'inform'. Where woman are concerned, as with Black people, appellations do say, or echo, the degree of one's humanity that people choose or do not choose to be AWARE of. The apple man felt quite comfortable being an asshole in public. Rest room signs are quite comfortable with their own misogyny, because language NORMALIZES as well as describing, directing, and informing.

There is reason that Cambridge University found, after analyzing more than 160 million words used by the global media to describe and to cover male and female Olympic athletes during the 2016 Olympics, that the word, "Man" was used three times more often than the word "Woman" despite the fact that women comprised forty five percent of the athletes competing. Traditionally female events outnumbered traditionally male events, and therefore, following the typical commercial practice of greater percentage as well as greater popularity, 58% of NBC prime time coverage focused on women compared to 41% being focused on men.
"A Student Once Said to Me' PART 4

Yet, men were given comparatively more serious, respectful, and humanizing coverage, being referred to as 'men', not 'guys', while women were more frequently describes as 'girls', were identified more frequently as being 'married', and were referred to not with the words 'fastest and strongest' as much as men were, while men were referred to by marital status and age far less frequently than women were. In one case a woman gold medalist was not identified by her name at all, but by her status as the wife of a man who was named. In another case a gold medalist woman was not focused on as much as her husband was, as he was being described as 'The man responsible for making the winner a gold medalist'.

I'd love to ask the apple man, how about THEM apples?

Matt said...

Rayfield, I thought that calling a man a "gentleman" was a compliment meaning a man who is considerate, courteous and well-mannered? And calling a male customer/stranger a "gentleman" is simply polite. I don't see how this has anything to do with slave masters, smoking establishments or horses or the historic meaning/connotation of the word "gentleman".

I don't really like women being called "girls" (unless men are being called "boys". I am a man but I dislike "guy" or "dude", they are very slangy terms and not especially polite or respectful to me. "Guy" originates from the man who tried to blow up British parliament. I am English, and these two words aren't quite as common here, although they are becoming commoner in use with the Americanisation of British English.