Call Me Woman

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.

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29 thoughts on “Call Me Woman

  1. An interesting and timely read, thank you! I’ve recently been working to reduce and minimise my use of “lady” for reasons that gel with your argument above, so this was positive reinforcement. FWIW, I chose “women” for number 2, as well.

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  2. Thanks for writing, I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to future posts!

    It’s interesting that a term of real world power and class status such as ‘lady’ becomes a tool to divide women by way of pretending that all women who conform to femininity could lay claim to some similar respect and power. I seem to remember (though could be misremembering) Spender noting in Man-Made Language that, as they become theoretically applicable to any woman who measures up, the clout of such terms in their capacity as honorifics is also significantly lessened.

    I think derogation also applies to some sense/s of “lady”: it is scathingly used to refer to an uppity and/or insignificant woman (“now listen here, lady”), for telling off demanding girls (“that’s enough out of you, young lady”), or as a diminutive for adult women as in “little lady” or “my old lady”. I reckon there’s enough to propose a negative sense of “lady” borne of earlier euphemistic/sarcastic use. So, honorifics like queen, princess and lady are all potentially heavily loaded with negative connotations – and in the case of “madam” and “mistress” no longer really function as honorifics at all. There are now empty categories in a paradigm where lord/mister/master remain undisturbed, positive status markers.

    Just think it’s interesting that, not only does this usage function to berate women of lower class and enforce gender conformity, but it also functions to undermine the social power ostensibly granted to ladies/madams/mistresses in the first place.

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  3. One of my wife’s family stories: when her father was a young child (this was in the 30s), he announced that there were two ladies and a woman at the door. The “woman” was smoking a cigarette.

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  4. I would have thought that in 1976 you would have been referred to as a laundryperson

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  5. When I was an exchange student from Germany in Sheffield in the late 1980s I worked in a pub and my payslip told me I was a “barmaid” … the term seemed so quaint and British and totally unreconstructed 😉 …

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  6. Elke makes a good point: 1976 was the year the Sex Discrimination Act came into force, and it did outlaw sex-specific job titles except in certain occupations. But the NHS obviously hadn’t quite caught up when I started working in the laundry. Language apart, they were still totally segregating the actual work, which was also in breach of the law: men operated the washing machines and women operated the presses–and the men earned £20 pw more than us, which was a fair amount in those days. (Also totally unjustified by any reasonable measure of the skill involved…but then ironing is a natural female attribute, amirite?) This experience of low-paid, gender-segregated work did a lot to make me a feminist at a fairly early age (17).

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  7. If a man, of any age, refers to a woman or women as a ” lady or ladies”, I unthinkingly see him as sexist. I’m not alone in this. Words matter. When I worked as a security guard in a mining camp, even though I wore the same uniform and steel-toed boots as the male guards, my uniform said, “Guardette.” I hope that with diligence, and enough time for the irredeemable dinosaurs to die out, “lady” will be seen as the archaic term it is and we will all be seen for the women we are.

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  8. Hi there,

    I want to first make clear that I am in general on board! However, in the last section it seemed to me that you were invoking ‘straw transfeminism’ or whatever we might want to call it: I’m sure you can find an example of someone who does hold the extreme position that to use ‘woman’ at all is offensive, but the majority of people would not say this, partly because most feminists for whom this is an issue are in fact very invested in the category ‘woman’–there are, after all, trans women. Thus I really doubt that anyone would object to the example of the grandmother. It’s important to note what exactly ‘woman’ is picking out in any of the cases: is it this rich concept, that you seem to be working with, or is it in fact merely ‘person with ovaries/a certain kind of hormones/chromosomes (etc.)’? This will also help account for the difference between singular and plural usage (i.e. that so long as a person in fact *is* a woman then really no one will object to them being referred to as one) — when we start talking about ‘women’ as a category it needs to be made clear whether we are indeed talking about women or if we are talking about certain sorts of bodies (same goes, mutatis mutandis, for men). There is currently no non-awful term for this latter category (‘females’ makes you sound like a PUA or a biologist…) and yet it seems useful to have one: for example, when I compete as a runner, I compete as a ‘woman’ where all this means is that my what we might want to call, i.e. what i call, ‘hormonal handicap’ is acknowledged.

    I don’t know what terms people have thought up, but in the end, in most cases it is almost certainly easiest to just go with ‘people’, apart from as above where a distinction is being made (thus, ‘In Victorian times it was common for people to die in childbirth’, ‘People can spend up to £x on sanitary products in their lifetimes’)–I don’t know if you think something is lost there, or if it sounds strange, but to me it seems preferable, as women aren’t merely their bodies in contradistinction to male bodies, but something far more than that, and I would hope that this is something that all feminists could agree on.

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  9. Thought provoking post and looking forward to more!

    (In 1976, I (biologically male) worked as a maid in a sorority at my university, because it was the highest paying position I qualified for at the time. My title was indeed “Maid” and I liked it; but in retrospect I know this was because of my privileged perspective, from which I could enjoy the irony.)

    Back to your post: as a linguist, could you comment on the choice of the verb “happen to” in this passage?

    “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.”

    This usage stopped me cold. I expect it was intentional, to make a point. But I see childbirth and sex as activities a woman performs, not that a female body has happen to it. The quoted construction feels to me disempowered and disempowering and leaves me sad that it, perhaps, reflects the honest perspective of some women. What have men done? Language indeed reveals.

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  10. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I have to say, in recent times lady seems to be a far lesser evil than the dreadful misuse of ‘girl’. I hear women of all ages referred to and refer to themselves as ‘girls’. As a woman in my twenties, if I ever describe a person as being ‘woman’ to people of my age group they will generally assume I’m talking about someone much older. I find it disturbing that most of the feminist memorabilia, badges, patches discuss ‘girl power’ and meanwhile in the LGBT+ community most women identify as ‘girls who like girls’. I feel so entirely erased when I am described as a girl, as if all my growth was for nothing and to only be tucked into a corner for neatness. I hope people can learn to be proud of being women.

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  11. I agree that women need to claim the term “women” and discourage “ladies” for the reasons given above and for a while after the “second wave” this seemed to be happening. However I believe society is slipping back… is it due to the feminist backlash or perhaps younger women who mistakenly take the strides of the 70s for granted?

    Personally I am happier to accept “girls” in preference to “ladies”, again because I agree wholeheartedly with “debuk”. Younger women who disagree need to learn about the history of the term. Bottom line is that currently we hear “ladies” far more than “gentlemen”- that should be a concern for women. Men never have to think about this issue- they are always just “men”- why can’t it the same for us?

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  12. The song “Only Women Bleed” (by a man named Alice Cooper) is about domestic abuse, not menstruation. It’s a common misconception.

    Meanwhile, I’ve spent a whole lot of time reading your posts without commenting because you’re so thorough and because you never give me anything to disagree with. Keep on posting.

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  13. I see comments on your current post are closed so I thought I’d sneak in here. Totally agree with the content on this post and the current one. I too was brought up with the nice ladies/undesirable (common/rough) women type of definition. I had it beaten out of me very quickly on my first newspaper. ‘There’s only one lady in this town and she’s Lady Whatever Her Name Was.’ I too have written about women, ladies and girls on one of my blogs and, needless to state had arguments, especially from Men Who Know Better Than Women. Including the classic, ‘my female friends like to be called ladies so that’s ok isn’t it?’ No. I doubt your friends are feminist or they wouldn’t be associating with you.

    Women, mostly if not all feminists, have spent a long time and a lot of effort getting rid of the male default: chairman, spokesman, policeman, fireman, postman, use of he (to include everyone of course) and we still aren’t there yet. But erasing women from periods, abortion, and pregnancy and referring to them as non-men (why not refer to people as non-women?) is a very bad step in the wrong direction. Women have periods, babies, abortions. Not men. Women. Not non-men. Biological women.

    And if you saw the recent CPS report, sexual crimes and assaults against women have increased. These aren’t gender based crimes. Thirteen women get raped every day. Not people, not men, but women, and we need to focus on that. Most women have been sexually assaulted in some way or another. Have most people or most men? No.

    There is a place for gender neutral language. But not when we are talking about women.

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  14. Can we really try to find another term for the “First Lady” – partner of the President of the US? This is the 21st Century. The very existence of the term makes it seem like the partner will always be female, never a man. Michelle Obama was a strong woman. We have yet to see how Melania Trump makes her mark in the role. (Please don’t write her off as many have done so already just because she conforms to today’s western beauty ideal!)
    How about Presidential Partner? Other ideas welcomed.

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  15. I think this raises another question: why should we expect or want the President’s spouse, who nobody elected, to do an unpaid job for the nation (there’s no salary, only an allowance)? This is rooted in the traditional assumption that a wife is her husband’s helpmeet–elect him and you also get her–and I think it has no place in a modern democracy. In the UK the prime minister’s spouse has no official position or duties, and many recent ones have had their own independent careers. First Ladies, whatever we call them, are a sexist anachronism.

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  16. Wait…I can’t use lady? Lady is diminutive? When I round up the women in my office I always call out, “Ladies, we need to have a chat”. When I need to do the same with the men in my office, I say, “Gentlemen, we need to have a chat”. Did Lady all of a sudden go from a term of respect to being a pejorative?

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  17. I’m not sure how carefully you read the post: the point is, it’s about context. The usage you describe is jocular, and you treat both sexes in parallel ways. That’s a bit different from substituting ‘lady’ for ‘woman’ where you wouldn’t substitute ‘gentleman’ for ‘man’. That said, it’s possible your female co-workers find your manner patronising. ‘Round up the women in my office’ — how do you think that comes across?

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