I’m No Lady

I hate being called a lady.  It’s almost as bad as being showered with “yes, ma’am’s” by my students!  I’m not against manners; to the contrary, I value them highly and even keep a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior on hand in case of an etiquette crisis.  (I kid you not.)

Pulling out my dictionary, I see “lady” not only means that a woman is polite and considerate but also that she’s “proper” and/or “virtuous.”  Which of course implies that other women are not.   Maybe that’s why, for me, lady is a category that tends to resist ironic appropriation.  However, I will admit that there are a few important exceptions:

  1. when used by drag queens
  2. in Tom Jones’ song, “She’s a Lady”
  3. when used by the glorious Lady Brett Ashley, whose namesake (a character in The Sun Also Rises) is independent, sexually liberated and drinks her way across Europe.  What’s not to like?

But let’s face it:  sometimes being called a lady is just plain sexist.  For example, I was appalled when a man (himself a writer) called me a “lady writer” a few years ago.  Ugh.  There are also times when people use the word as a synonym for woman, as in “My new tattoo is a hit with the ladies” or (to a child), “Say thank you to the nice lady.”  I’m not a fan of this more “neutral” use of the word, because I don’t think lady can ever be neutral.  That’s the point.  It’s a value judgment. 

Historically, ladies were the object of a knight’s devotion, so the term suggests chivalric codes as well as a particular social position.  I love being treated chivalrously and think the practice of chivalry can be feminist, but I think it’s problematic to encode chivalry in identity categories (e.g. butch/male lover and femme/lady beloved).  As many feminists have observed, a  pedestal is a small place to live.

Why do I feel immediately constrained when someone (however well-meaning) calls me a lady?  I think it’s because of the engendering work the term does–its quiet insistence that women follow certain codes in order to be thought of as meritorious, desirable, or attractive.  Although I certainly respect those femmes who find a retro appeal the identity of the lady, I see “femme” as a category that breaks gender norms and “lady” as an enforcer of them.  That’s why I’m proud to say I’m no lady. 


11 Responses

  1. Now see… me? I like being called a lady… treated like a lady… the works.

    Different strokes I guess…

    But duly noted — I will never, ever call you a lady. LOL

    Reminds me of comedienne I saw once who was swearing up a storm then turned to the camera and said, “I’m a fucking lady, ain’t I??” lol

    Go ahead girl. 😀

  2. “lady writer!” ugh. that adjective use of lady is…creeptastic. it’s like calling a grown woman “little lady.” “nice lady” drives me crazy too. not for calling someone lady, but because it is always said in that “you’re a child, and therefore obviously idiotic” voice. that attitude is a peeve of mine.

    (in defense of my namesake, it’s a different case if it’s a title.)

    mostly, though, i hear lady used with an ironic nod to the sleaze factor (maybe because i usually hear it from lesbians).


    “Sleaze factor” is a great way to put it. Love that post of yours! As for the significance of your namesake, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that you’re actually royalty. Either that, or you’ve been knighted. xo SF

  3. i watched gone with the wind a lot as a child. rhett butler was my role model. (he kind of still is, actually, though i recognize what a problematic film that is on just about every level.)

    anyway, i was always fascinated by that scene where scarlett o’hara says rhett’s not a gentleman, and he replies, “and you are no lady.” and he means that both of them break the rules and transcend the dead categories of their society.

    the ultimate bad boy with the ultimate bad girl… now that is the archetype for me. but you, tina, you are a lady in the best sense of word.

  4. I don’t know. I’ve never had an issue with being called a lady, I guess b/c people still mistake me for being 15? Haha. Anywhoo, I agree there’s a value judgement on “lady”…other times I’ve seen it used as neutral (or as close to neutral as one could get I suppose). I don’t have too much of a problem w/ people using it…I guess I just with people would stop with the lady/whore dichotomy as it stands for good/bad.

    That probably wasn’t coherent…I’m taking finals this week.

  5. just like Tina, I too love being called, treated and all that other lady stuff… 😉


    when you said someone called you a ‘lady writer’ that totally made my blood boil for some reason…

    It *is* offensive, isn’t it? And so Victorian. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I have lots of love for you, Tina and all the other fierce ladyfemmes out there in the blogosphere! xo -SF

  6. Im with Laura…
    its like being called an actress….just call someone an actor…does it need to be gender specific? Does being a female writer make you different than other writers? It just makes me thing of the Chris Rock skit where he goes off about people saying Colin Powell is so well spoken. All smart people can be well spoken regardless of race or gender…why put a qualifier on it?!?

  7. the gendered suffixes are not so offensive to me. that, to me, is like saying “here is someone who acts, and also is female or male.” whereas adding “lady” on is basically saying, “see, there are real writers, and then there are lady writers, who must be differentiated from real writers.”

    it is ridiculously prevalent in college sports where there is the real (read: male) team, “the mascots,” and the women’s team, “the ladycots.”

  8. Hmm. Recently my friends have been using ‘lady’ as in ‘hey, lady!’ much like they would say ‘hey, girl’ or ‘hey, babe’… which is still gendered of course but seems to be pretty devoid of the proprietory etc implications.

    For me ‘lady’ implies elegance. ‘Ladylike.’ And it makes me think of the Victorian era, which I have quite a fascination with.

    Something in me likes/wants to be the proper, virtuous woman at least in APPEARANCE… seeming very polite and demure etc when actually I’m nothing but. Subverting it, almost.

    … lady writer bugs me horribly too. Seems really belittling.

  9. I’d have to squash the man who called you a “lady writer.” The nerve.

    I always thought it was a southern thing (and I am a Southerner) but lady is reserved for a certain type of woman. She is compassionate, brave, honest and her smile lights up a room. Whoa. I think I need to discuss this with my therapist.


  10. (In my best Veruca Salt voice.)

    But I LOVE my pedestal!

    However, lady writer is very wrongful. Also, I love (mostly sane) Southerners. Their charm is unbelievably soothing.

  11. I use lady when i greet friends & family, as a term of endearment. ya know like “hey lady!” or “what’s up, lady!” i also use it in replace of woman in general conversation too.

    maybe it’s a southern thing. my dad often calls women, even strangers…sweetheart, honey, &, girl (he doesn’t use lady that much however). i use to call women “girls” a lot when i was younger (i’m only 21 btw). now i use lady instead. i just think it fits my personality and vocab.

    as a feminist, i know words like those tick some women off and reinforce sexist stereotypes so i definitely understand that you don’t like lady, especially because of the value judgement associated with the word.

    however, i like lady and see it as a neutral term and try to use it that way or in an ironic way.

    but i’ll make note to watch my language when it comes to strangers and new acquaintances.

    *the queen’z here*

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