When I left school in 1976, my first paid job was operating a steam press in a hospital laundry. My payslip described me as a ‘laundrywoman’—an archaic-sounding title that made me feel like a character in a Dickens novel. It was a hangover from a time when English-speakers distinguished between working class ‘women’ and middle or upper-class ‘ladies’. Originally ‘lady’ was the female analogue of ‘lord’, and it can still be a title for the wife or daughter of an aristocrat. But it has undergone a process known as ‘semantic derogation’, where the female term in a male-female pair gets downgraded in status. ‘Lady’ was initially downgraded to apply to bourgeois women as well as aristocrats. Later, it became a polite way to refer to a woman of any social class.
This was another reason why it felt odd to be called a ‘laundrywoman’. My early instruction in the mysteries of etiquette had given me the impression that the word ‘woman’ was disrespectful, if not actually insulting. When I was a child, my mother pointedly referred to most adult women we did not know as ‘ladies’. On buses, it was ‘let the lady sit down’. In sweetshops, ‘tell the lady what you want’. ‘Woman’ was the word she used to refer to someone whose behaviour she disapproved of. ‘Silly woman!’ ‘Someone should have a word with that woman’.
You could say that my mother was making symbolic use of the old class-related meaning of the woman/lady distinction, using the high-class term ‘lady’ to give status to those she wanted to show respect to and the low-class term ‘woman’ to withhold status from those she wanted to disparage. You see the same pattern in formulaic expressions containing ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. The wife of the US president is referred to (respectfully) as the ‘First Lady’ rather than the ‘First Woman’; the female lover of a married man is referred to (disrespectfully) as ‘the other woman’ rather than ‘the other lady’.
But the difference between a woman and a lady isn’t only about social status and respectability. To see what else it might be about, let’s try a little fill-in-the-blanks quiz. For each of the example sentences below, you have to decide whether it’s better to fill the blank with ‘woman/women’ or ‘lady/ladies’.
1. She was a perfect ____ about it.
2. The church flowers were arranged by the _____ of the congregation.
3. Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable _____.
4. Some ____ reported that they experienced multiple orgasms.
5. In Victorian times, it was common for _____ to die in childbirth.
6. A ____ was raped in the city centre last night
These examples give no information about the social status of the people referred to, but I’d still expect English-speakers to have an intuitive preference for either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. Example (1) is straightforward: ‘a perfect lady’ is another of those idioms where you can’t just substitute ‘woman’. (You can say ‘a perfect woman’, but it means something different.) In example (2), either ‘ladies’ or ‘women’ would be possible, but since the sentence is about a stereotypically feminine activity, flower arranging, you may have had a preference for ‘ladies’. In (3), the blank could potentially be filled by either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’, but in this case I’m betting you picked ‘woman’. And in (4), (5) and (6) I suspect you chose ‘woman’ without hesitation.
The difference between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ in these examples is the difference between femininity and embodied femaleness. That’s why virtually no one would choose ‘lady’ over ‘woman’ in the example sentences dealing with sex, childbirth and rape—things that happen to, or are done to, female bodies. ‘Lady’ is a euphemism, a veil drawn over the grossness of female physicality, sexuality and reproduction. A lady does not have bodily functions, whether sex-specific, like menstruation (as the song says, ‘only women bleed’) or shared with the male of the species (there used to be a saying that ‘horses sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow’). The word ‘lady’ appears in coy expressions like ‘lady garden’, which are designed to sanitize references to the female body, but when the reference is to something like rape, which cannot easily be sanitized, its effect is incongruous and jarring.
‘Lady’ is also an incongruous word to use in contexts where the emphasis is on female strength and physicality: that’s why ‘woman’ is more likely in example (3). It isn’t feminine to be strong, or ladylike to get physical. There is one significant exception to this rule: female athletes are often officially referred to as ‘ladies’. We have ladies’ football teams and ladies’ golf and tennis championships; in the US, high school teams for sports played by both sexes, like basketball, were traditionally called ‘the Xs’ and ‘the Lady Xs’. (I know of one school in Indiana where they were called ‘The Devils’ and ‘The Lady Devils’.) But this isn’t really an exception, or if it is, it’s the kind that proves the rule. Calling female athletes ‘ladies’ is an attempt to counter the perception of athletic pursuits, and the women who engage in them, as ‘unfeminine’.
There is a connection between the sex and class-related meanings of the lady/woman distinction. The femininity evoked by ‘lady’ is prototypically middle-class (and white). Think of the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, where young working-class women are sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ladies. Though there’s no question the ladettes are female, their teachers constantly describe them as lacking in femininity.
Similarly, there was nothing feminine about the job I did in the laundry, even though it was a job done exclusively by women. It was hard physical labour (the presses we operated were heavy, and so were the damp sheets we used them on), performed in conditions that made us sweat like horses. ‘Laundry ladies’ would have been a ludicrous way of describing us. (It’s true, of course, that women who clean other people’s houses are often referred to as ‘cleaning ladies’, but that’s another case of ‘lady’ functioning as a euphemism. Domestic employers, who have to negotiate an individual relationship with their cleaner, would rather not acknowledge the class inequality.)
Not long after I stopped being a laundrywoman, I started being a feminist—a supporter of what was then called the ‘Women’s Movement’ or the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. We didn’t call ourselves ‘ladies’. The femininity of the ‘lady’ was one of the things we wanted to liberate women from; another was the idea that female bodies are gross and unmentionable.
Second-wave feminists made a concerted effort to reclaim the word ‘woman’. But a new generation of activists has started to treat it the way my mother did, as a word to be avoided because of its potential to offend. In my mother’s day the problem with ‘woman’ was its class connotations; today the problem is that references to ‘women’ may be felt to exclude trans and nonbinary people. If we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable or disrespected, we’re told we should refer to the class of humans formerly known as ‘women’ using expressions like ‘uterused people’ or ‘people with ovaries’.
These phrases have been criticised for various reasons, but for me the fundamental problem is that they can’t be used in any context where you want to affirm women’s humanity, dignity and worth. Can you imagine saying ‘Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable person with ovaries’? Or ‘In Victorian times it was common for uterused people to die in childbirth’? I can’t. These aren’t ways of talking about female human beings, they’re ways of talking about gynaecological specimens.
The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.