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:
when used by drag queens
in Tom Jones’ song, “She’s a Lady”
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.