When Ladies Turned Into Women Then Back Again

women's roomWhen I was a teenager, my mother kept a copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room on her bedside table. Over the years, I read parts of it though I retain no clear memories of what I read. (And I might be confusing its story with The Fear of Flying, which was also on my mother’s bookshelf.)

That said—and note to self, buy a copy and read it—what I do remember distinctly was the cover, the formal red letters of LADIES’ blotted out by the strong black-markered, hand-printed WOMEN’S. I liked that cover.

As a girl, the word “ladies” suggested to me a forced properness, as in walk like a lady (small steps), eat like a lady (small bites, slowly), it’s not lady-like to cross your legs (I still do) and worst of all, “Smile, little lady.”

As second-wave feminism arrived in the 1970s, as I read my sister’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and attended ERA rallies with my mother, I welcomed the arrival of women as a replacement for ladies. To me, it felt more powerful,  competent, and independent. (Weren’t ladies married to lords, anyway?) The word “woman” (as in “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar) also seemed more inclusive than lady, which felt tainted by class connotations. When I came out in the mid-1980s, I celebrated women’s power and womyn’s space and greeted a group of female people with the words, “Hello, Women.”

Fast forward thirty years and women is out and ladies is back. Ballparks, bowling alleys, and night clubs still host ladies’ nights. Even my liberal cohousing neighbors organize ladies’ nights. Emails at work often begin with Hello Ladies! when addressed to a group of females. To me, a group of knowledgeable, professional women is powerful. To others, perhaps, it is scary because it challenges the status quo. Is that why so many women choose lady as a self-descriptor? To show she is not  rocking the patriarchal boat?

Does word choice still matter? The women in my department (many in their 20s and 30s) are sharp, innovative, hard-working, and accomplished. Does it change anything if they address themselves as ladies instead of women? How does age, race, class, and transgender issues comes into play here?

Has lady been reclaimed and empowered as the word girl (grrrl, girlz) has been? (Or has it? More about girls vs. women in a future post.)

What do you think?