You’ve come a long way, lady

Ann has a great piece in the (newly launched and very beautiful) New Republic about ladies who call each other, well, ladies. Sifting through the intergenerational interpretations, rap lyrics and colloquialisms, she writes,

….the word “lady” has become core vocabulary of feminism in the age of irony. With its slippery meaning—associations range from grandma’s lavender-scented powder to the raunchiest of rap lyrics—it encapsulates the fundamental mutability of modern feminism.

And goes further,

…..“lady” splits the difference between the infantilizing “girl” and the stuffy, Census-bureau cold “woman.” (Both still have their place—just not in the witty conversation that young feminists want to be having.) It’s a way to stylishly signal your gender-awareness, without the stone-faced trappings of the second-wave. It’s a casual synonym for “woman,” a female counterpart to “guy,” commonly used in winking conversation between one in-the-know woman and another.

You should read the entire article because it is a very honest reflection on the how and why many of us use the term “lady” to refer to our friends. And as Ann suggests–something to think about–perhaps our use of “lady” is a nod to how we as a generation are navigating gender and feminism, in all it’s impure, in-between and complicated ways.

Readers: How do you feel about calling your friends “ladies”?

Join the Conversation

  • David Blanar

    A thoughtful piece although there’s something slightly discomfiting about the discussion of reclaiming lady in the name of postmodern irony. The word itself has uses which seem (to me) morally neutral: as when I say hello to a group of ‘ladies and gentlemen'; or point out the Lord and Lady of the manor (clearly, I’m putting aside class assumptions for the moment); or even read about the Lady of Shalott, a woman whose stature remains undiminished by the appellation.

    Which leads me to think perhaps the misshapen use of it was in the 70s, as an infantalising epithet, in which case it may be seen as a historical blip in the progression of how the word is appropriated and employed in society.

    Now that its former ignominy is behind us, maybe it can now be used openly, no winking required?

  • Emily Sanford

    I’m not wild about it. It has that stylish/high-class/fashionista ring to it, related to women saying, “Hey, Beautiful!” to each other. Which is totally fine as a form of affection, but doesn’t feel explicitly *feminist* to me because it’s a subtle reminder that the quickest way to make a woman feel good is to make her feel elegant… pretty… dare I say princessy? (Indeed, “Lady” is still an official aristocratic title in the U.K… “My lady… ” stirs up all sorts of allusions to chivalry.) Men don’t greet each other with, “Hey, Handsome!” (or call each other “lords” for that matter :-). I do address some of my closest friends (of all gender identities) as “Beautiful,” but I wouldn’t say I do it for feminist reasons.

    But words can sound so different to different people. I was interested to read Ann finding “woman” too old and matronly. I think of it as powerful, strong, sexy and self-satisfied, unapologetic. It reminds me of a friend who once said, “My ex-husband told me he thinks the problem is that sometimes he just hates women, to which I said, ‘I is one!’ “

    • Angel H.

      Which is totally fine as a form of affection, but doesn’t feel explicitly *feminist* to me because it’s a subtle reminder that the quickest way to make a woman feel good is to make her feel elegant… pretty… dare I say princessy?

      You must remember, though, that there are women who don’t fit into the mainstream beauty culture. In this way, claiming the title of “Lady” is very feminist because you are claiming your own beauty, despite what anyone else says.

      • Emily Sanford

        As a woman with dwarfism, I do remember how narrow mainstream beauty standards are. I understand that calling unconventionally attractive women “beautiful” and “ladies” is one way of broadening the definition of beauty and of opening up the mainstream’s mind. But it still supports the idea that beauty and elegance are very, very important for women – that nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.

        As said before, I still call friends “Beautiful,” but I would like to see feminism help women get to a stage where we *barely* care what anyone else says about our looks, even when it’s praise. Michael Chabon declined to be in People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People and said: “I don’t give a shit about it … I only take pride in things I’ve actually done myself. To be praised for something like that is just weird. It just felt like somebody calling and saying, ‘We want to put you in a magazine because the weather’s so nice where you live.’ ”

        I’d love to see all people – though especially women – get to a stage where they primarily take pride in things they’ve actually done. Whether or not “lady” can signify that is open to debate.

        • Angel H.

          I see what you’re saying and for the most part, I agree with you. However, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with a woman seeking beauty and elegance – being a “lady” – as long as it’s on her own terms.

  • Sarah

    Love it! I’ve always found it to be a truly classy and respectful way to refer to my ladyfriends.