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Culture

Let’s talk about the word “lady”

Where did it come from, and why does it annoy me so much?

by Clár McWeeney, Former Content Manager at Clue
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What is it about the word “lady” that turns me sour? For a while I felt like I was being pedantic by getting annoyed when I would be called a lady, or be met with the greeting “Hey ladies!” in a group.

It seems normal at first. Calling the women’s bathroom the ladies room, referring to a group of girls and women as ladies, the Tom Jones song “She’s A Lady.” It’s just a synonym for “woman” right?

Wrong.

Let’s start with the various different definitions of “lady” that Google gives to us:

  1. a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken
  2. a woman of high social position or economic class
  3. (dated) a man’s wife, a female lover, or sweetheart

Man’s equivalent of “lady” is “gentleman”:

  1. a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man
  2. a man of good social position, especially one of wealth and leisure

Do you hear groups of boys and men being referred to as gentlemen as often as you hear girls and women being called ladies? Not in my experience.

Okay, so what? Lady/ladies just sounds nice. It’s shorter. What’s the issue?

It’s understandable to think saying “ladies” is harmless because it’s been integrated into the English vernacular, evolving into a synonym for girls and women. But when comparing the term’s use in relation to “gentleman,” you see a disparity. “Lady” is used much more than “gentleman,” which is still perceived as outdated (1). This is a problem — it adds to damaging notions of femininity, where women are still meant to be, or are inherently, demure and gentle. When female adults are referred to as “ladies,” there’s typically a patronizing attitude present.

“Lady time”

The use of lady in the euphemism “lady time” to refer to menstruation is meant to refine a bodily process that’s deemed by society as unpleasant. Saying “the ladies’ room” does the same thing. The use of “lady” in these instances sterilizes the female body by substituting words that accurately refer to biological functions with something vaguely feminine. Sugarcoating physical realities perpetuates the idea that women should be secretive about their health. It keeps menstruation as a taboo topic, which is dangerous.

Instead of “lady time” or “ladies room” you can use: menstruation, period, the bathroom, the restroom, the loo, toilet

“Ladylike”

“Ladylike” has been used to refer to girls or women who act in accordance to traditionally feminine behaviors: being refined, delicate, crossing legs, not drinking too much. There’s nothing wrong with these traits and behaviors, but using the term “ladylike” perpetuates the idea that they’re inherent to girls and women, which is incorrect. Boys and men can have these characteristics. People’s personality features shouldn’t be tied to their gender.

Instead of “ladylike” you can use: modest, polite

There’s also a casual definition for lady typically used in North America: “an informal, often brusque, form of address to a woman.”

“Hey, watch it lady!”

You’ll never hear someone say “Hey, watch it gentleman!

Similarly there’s “young lady.” When a person uses lady in this context—a rude or offended tone—they’re indicating frustration with the woman receiver of the term. Using lady in this manner asserts the inherent meaning of the term, which suggests that the woman is causing irritation and should act in her “innate” polite manner.

Instead of “lady,” you can use: jerk, fool, the name of the individual

Reclaiming “ladies”

Recently, there’s been efforts to reclaim the use of “ladies.” As Ann Friedman put it, “as happened with the n-word, ‘queer,’ and ‘bitch,’ ‘lady’ has been repurposed in a way that diminishes its sting.” For many women, saying “ladies” has become a tongue-in-cheek way to refer to other women who are aware of its connotation — we know how “ladies” can be used problematically, so us ladies are here to hone it for ourselves. And using “ladies” seriously when meeting other women can evoke a sense of comradery.

Reappropriation of words can work and for “ladies” the success lies when women are using it with each other, with positive intentions.

But it doesn’t always mesh with everyone. Even ironically using “ladies” can dismiss non-binary people in way that’s more painful than when misusing “women” or “men.” It can be empowering to refer to fellow women with gendered terms, but remember the baggage of femininity that comes with “ladies” is not something everybody wants.

If you’re a woman referring to a group of other self ID’d women, and you don’t like the reclamation of “ladies,” you can use: pals, friends, folks, people, sistren, sisters, women

“Ladies” at work

Friedman also created the blog “Lady Journos” to highlight accomplished women writers. There’s also the advice column “Ask a Lady” (alongside “Ask a Dude”) on the women-centric site The Hairpin.

Outside of attempts to reclaim “lady,” when the word is used to refer to work, it’s generally condescending. Considering the gender pay gap, glass ceiling, and inequality in employment, using “lady” when referring to professions—lady cop, lunch lady, cleaning lady—generally trivializes women’s work. Adding “lady” to a job title emphasizes gender imbalance across fields of work and casts doubt upon women’s competence (2). Describing somebody’s occupation with “lady” is condescending as it insinuates feminine stereotypes that would affect performance. Cleaning and serving food have been deemed as “traditionally” women’s labor, so the use of “lady” reaffirms gender division in seemingly degrading fields of work (2, 3).

Instead of adding “lady” to a job title, use the gender-neutral noun.

Side note: most women’s national sports leagues are described “Women’s insert-sport-here,” to distinguish from the historically default men’s leagues, however Ireland uses “Ladies’ Gaelic Football.” Do better, Éire.

So…is there any time when saying “lady” is OK?

When “ladies” is used together with “gentlemen” there are fewer problems, as the intention is to politely refer to groups of men and women — for example, an announcer saying “ladies and gentlemen” at a theater or sport event. But it’s not so inclusive, which the Transport for London recently recognized and thus ditched the greeting for gender-neutral salutations. Similarly Barack Obama used “folks” in his speeches. “Lady” and “ladies” on their own can carry a weight of toxic femininity. Traditional femininity socializes girls and women to be subordinate, allowing only boys and men to have the “masculine” traits of aggressiveness and strength.

Beyond reclamation, saying “lady” and “ladies” can subtly uphold antiquated and damaging ideas of femininity and gender. It can seem like petty semantics at first and adjusting your vocabulary can take time, but it’s important to evolve language for equality and acknowledge the complicated depth of a seemingly innocent synonym for women.

Do you know how lady/ladies is translated and used in other language(s)?

And remember, instead of saying “lady time,” try to #justsayperiod.

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