About a month ago I was showing my sister-in-law a video on feminism that I had posted here on The “Oh!” Face. Being the advocate of women’s rights and feminist that she is, I was sure she was going to love it. When I asked her what she thought she said that it was great but she didn’t like how the presenter referred to the audience as “Ladies.” To her the word lady has a negative connotation. To be lady-like means to uphold some untenable standard of femininity and to be un-lady-like is to be seen as being a ‘bad woman.’ My sister-in-law doesn’t alway feel like being a Lady and to be addressed as one feels, to her, like just an other patriarchal putdown.
My wife on the other hand took the oposite stand on the issue. She loves being called a lady and feels that it is a very respectful term of endearment. Working in the service industry, she regularly greets a group of women, “Good evening ladies,” and very much enjoys being greeted in the same fashion. She’s concerned that a day may come when people no longer address her such.
In all honesty, since my sister in law brought it up, I have had to check myself regularly before using the word. I’m not as quick to refer to women as ladies when working at my restaurante job and just in general. I have become my wife’s nightmare! A person, less willing to greet a group of women as ladies.
I am well aware of the power that language has, especially when being used either as a means of raising up or tearing down the less privileged. Referring to women as ladies or girls can be very demeaning and belittling. However it can often go both ways, many of my female friends refer to their women friends as ‘the girls’ or going out for a ‘girl’s night,’ and like my wife, many women love being called ladies. Woman often feels too formal and in certain contexts can be used as an offense as well.
As with many things, context is the key. Some words are just plain offensive, they were created to be offensive and even when spoken ironically are offensive. Neither woman, lady or girl are such words and so I feel that the context in which the words are spoken is as important as the words themselves. Finding offense where none was intended can lead to conflict between two parties who would otherwise be allies. We must all do our part to help eliminate the use of offensive, derogatory and oppressive language but ignorance is not a crime. If a person says something that you find offensive, it is not your duty to attack them for their ignorance but to teach them a better way. Education is the cure for ignorance not conflict. If we spend more time teaching people why what they are saying is offensive and less time getting angry about the offense then there will be fewer ignorant people saying offensive things.
Is lady an offensive word? Yes, to some people, but taking offense when none was intended is not the fault of the offender but the choice of the offendee. With language, we must pick our battles and see ignorance as something that we can help not something that we must fight against. But what do I know, I’m white guy.