Why are some women offended by the term "ladies"?
November 8, 2011 3:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm a woman myself, and don't really understand the context behind why the word "ladies" is offensive. Can anyone clue me in?

Some history:
A couple of weeks ago I introduced a women's bikeshare program with "Hey Ladies!" on an internet forum. Someone took offence after I posted the message. I apologized for using the term (thinking they were offended because I wasn't being more inclusive) but never asked them why the word had offensive con notations. My boyfriend had a similar situation at a baseball game, when he referred to the women sitting on the bench as "ladies". An older woman gave him the stink eye and said, "who are you calling ladies?"
posted by raintree to Society & Culture (69 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Those people are all buttheads. I am a lady-type myself, and have no problem with anyone using the term ladies. In fact, I always see it as a nice way for a woman to casually greet a group of women. Are you a dude? Maybe if a dude says it, some people might think it's patronizing? Not me, though.

Weird. I've heard people get offended about a lot of things, but never the term ladies. This is a first.
posted by phunniemee at 3:57 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

I gotta think the woman at the baseball game was making a joke. "Who are you callin' ladies" is a joke women have been making for ages to indicate that they are rough-and-tumble and not some kind of delicate noblewomen who cannot enjoy a beer and a baseball game.
posted by chrchr at 3:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [14 favorites]

What? I'm a lady and don't have a problem with being referred to as ladies (obviously in a group setting) nor do I have a problem with being included in "what's up guys?"
posted by boobjob at 4:00 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I learned somewhere that the word lady originates from the times in which women owned nothing. To be a lady meant that you were the property of another person. When I hear someone use the term ladies these days, I cringe. I think it sounds so condescending.
posted by rglass at 4:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Some women are uncomfortable with it as they view it as a diminutive (not unlike the use of the word 'girls' to describe adult women). Also, there is a weird social class history to the term in the US.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:03 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Hmmm. It grates on my nerves, for sure, especially when used in an XX-only setting. For me, it is because "ladies" used to address a group of women feels like patronizing language from male-dominated settings. When women use it to greet each other, it seems even worse somehow. Just kind of patronizing and silly. I don't like "girls", either.

But I don't get, like, OFFENDED by it. I just don't say it myself.
posted by peachfuzz at 4:04 PM on November 8, 2011 [15 favorites]

On one hand, it's a class thing, on another, it may have come across like a very different way of saying Hey Ladies!
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:06 PM on November 8, 2011

I thought Lady was the new grrrl?

"Like feminism itself, it would be a mistake to peg the lady-centered blogosphere as just one thing (“lady” being the term of choice for many online writers, an ironized alternative to the earnest “woman” or problematic “girl”). "

Someone is always going to be offended by something or someone.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:07 PM on November 8, 2011

You might find this thread helpful.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:07 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find that the term "ladies" is used frequently in Australia, and is used by a reasonably broad cross-section of people. It was only when I moved to the USA for a while that I discovered that its use was seen as offensive by some.

I kept using the word. It was part of my laconic Austrayan charm.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 4:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no problem with the term, as long as it's not said "Ladies..." in a sleazy Disco Stu voice.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Ladies" is a term that necessitates careful usage for me. If it's used as general affectionate term just like "hey ladies what's up" that doesn't bother me, but it grates a little when it's used in a "hey ladieeeessss aren't we awesome because we're women? Let's do girly things together and revel in being feminine together!" type of way. Same with calling someone "honey" or "darling."

Plus, there's the added Creeper McCreeperson factor that Demetri Martin uses in a bit (1:39ish). Tone of voice matters, and when coming from a guy or in a text-only format it's a lot easier to read a creepy or condescending tone into it.
posted by lilac girl at 4:10 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am lady, and I introduce my girlfriend to people as "my lady." I think it sounds cute. I have no problem with someone referring to me as a lady. I am not understanding how else you address a group of women??? Girls seems condescending, and would you really ever say, "Hello women"? That's just dumb.
posted by AlliKat75 at 4:10 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is one use of "lady" I object to, and that's slapping "lady" at the beginning of college nicknames when you're talking about the women's teams. "Lady Volunteers," etc. Ugh.

This is a legacy of a time when it was almost always condescending (or sleazy). Now it kind of depends on who's talking and how they're saying it, although if people who have strong opinions the other direction say otherwise, I'm certainly not going to say they're weird for it. Unless they're offended by a woman saying it. Then I'm going to be puzzled.

Freshman year I played soccer at a formerly all-male college where the men's teams were called the "Lords." Our name was thus the "Ladies." So embarrassing, at the time. I would have almost rather been a Lady Lord.

I call myself a lady when I'm feeling silly. It's a silly-sounding word, to me. And one that soccer captains always used to address everybody when they didn't feel like calling us "guys."
posted by Adventurer at 4:12 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's just that a lot of people in the past have used it to be condescending, to highlight the fact that the people they're addressing are women in situations that should be gender neutral, to imply that the people they're addressing need to be treated with kid gloves and can't handle reality or any roughness. It's often used by guys who want to live inside a Renaissance faire and treat all women as blushing maidens. It's also been used to keep women in line -- acting like a "lady" has meant that your freedom is restricted because you're not allowed to act in all sorts of ways that men are allowed to act. It's also been used as a sarcastic way of pointing out that people are NOT ladylike and therefore "deserving" of disrespect.

I've definitely been irked by it before when it's been used condescendingly or to emphasize gender when it shouldn't matter.
posted by cairdeas at 4:12 PM on November 8, 2011 [22 favorites]

I'd rather be a lady than a girl! I frequently use it to greet my female friends. "Hey lady!"

I agree with AlliKat. "Hey women!" sounds really awkward. "Hey guys" would work just fine for me in that situation, though. But grar! The patriarchy! Maybe ladies is the right answer after all.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:13 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Journalists avoid "lady" because it can apparently seem patronizing.
From the AP Stylebook:

"lady: Do not use as a synonym for women. Lady may be used when it is a courtesy title or when a specific reference to fine manners is appropriate without patronizing overtones."

That being said, I think you'll find only a veeeeery few people will take offense when it's used in a normal way. If it's being used in a patronizing or sexist way, of course people will get the tone behind the statement. I think the only time I personally took offense was to the owner of a startup I was working for who said things like "We need more ladies here" in a kind of sleazy way.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:14 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Allikat75: would you really ever say, "Hello women"? That's just dumb.

Agreed, yes, but why is it dumb to say "hello women" but not "hello ladies"? I would put forth that "hello ladies" is just as silly. If it's just a generic greeting, why does it have to specify gender? How about, "hello, vagina-owners!"

(Note: I'm firmly tongue in cheek about this; I mean, I care but not a LOT. Also, I say "hello women" all the time, but only as a joke amongst like-minded colleagues in my almost entirely female office)
posted by peachfuzz at 4:16 PM on November 8, 2011

I am a woman, and I am strongly offended by the term "lady" in many contexts. Here's why:

1) It needlessly calls out the gender of the people in question, many times when it isn't relevant. This says that being female is the important thing.

2) It has a connotation of weakness-- ladies are people who might have fainting spells or the vapors or have to go powder their noses. They might be effete, or prissy, or any other negative stereotypically feminine trait you wish to imagine.

3) It has a patronizing history when used by men. Men today who refer to "ladies" are often referring to women they want to sleep with.. e.g. "I'm smooth with the ladies". (Yeah, right.)

Now, for a little more blather:

For example, many female athletes have been on a team with the word "Lady" in it-- for example, my high school mascot was the buffalo, but the women's teams were often referred to as the "Lady Buffs". Yeah, that's kind of irritating and subtlely dismissive- as chrchr says, the women in question are not delicate noblewomen. But I wouldn't say it's a joke. Instead- to me it seems like the institution is saying "sorry, female athletes, you're not good enough to just be the Buffs. We have to come up with some other name."

Another example: a woman might be referred to as a "lady doctor" or a "lady attorney". WTF? Who cares what gender your doctor or attorney is? If a woman has the title she's your doctor or your attorney, and it's dismissive to include an unnecessary adjective.

The day somebody calls me a lady physicist I reserve the right to vomit in their general direction.

Additionally, "ladies" are supposed to have reserved standards of behavior that highlight their femininity. Ladies cross their legs, don't cuss, are modest, buttoned-up, and generally boring. I definitely remember being admonished by stupid adults when I was a little girl with "ladies don't play in the mud/ get their dress dirty/ climb trees/ whatever". (No, it wasn't frequent, mostly from older relatives, but still, ugh.)

Ah, and I should also mention its use in the phrase "young lady." Those two words completely patronize the woman in question. I think many of us have heard it way too many times in a negative context, for example "Young lady, you shouldn't be reading those Tarzan books." (Dude, I'll read what I want, and even though I was 12 at the time, the phrasing really pissed me off.)

In closing, I loathe the word "lady". Unless you're specifically using it in a reclaimed way, which is always delicate territory, I think the flavor it gives is rather negative. I would rather you call me "bitch", frankly.
posted by nat at 4:16 PM on November 8, 2011 [46 favorites]

How about "Hello, folks!" or "everyone" or "y'all"? If it's a group only of women, it's not like there will be gender confusion if you don't address them using a gendered term. I don't get the "But how else would I greet a group of my women friends?" thing. There are words besides "women" or "people."

I use "ladies" sometime when I'm feeling goofy or sarcastic (I'm a woman). I've heard it used in contexts where it's meant to be a condescending remark. Who really hates it and who doesn't really care may be quite generational.
posted by rtha at 4:20 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thinking it over a moment, I think most of my knee-jerk feeling of being irked when addressed as "ladies" either by a man or a woman is:

-A lot of people have an idea of what it means to be ladylike (dainty, saccharine, simpering, shallow, stupid, can't handle/seeks to avoid reality involving any harshness or grossness) that I don't want pushed on me to conform to, and I don't want people seeing me as the sort of person who is like that. It's a knee-jerk reaction from having all that pushed on me as a kid.

-When my gender is emphasized seemingly for no reason, my knee-jerk reaction is, "what kind of bullshit will I now have to put up with because of this?" Another reaction from childhood.
posted by cairdeas at 4:26 PM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Dude, there's nothing wrong with Ladies.

Words can change, and they can have more than one meaning and connotation. I think it's way too simplistic to say that it's only offensive. It might have been patronizing in the past ("Whoa, a lady doctor!") but I don't think it's used that way much any more (at least among young people), and if it is, it's usually being used ironically.

I do remember hating when a middle school teacher (female) would exhort us girls to "be ladies" when we were being loud and raucous-y. So I see how it can be annoying when used as a kind of perfect and quiet "ideal" that all women should strive toward. That sucks.

But like lots of complicated words, I don't see any reason why women can't reclaim this word and use it how they would like. Can we please not completely sterilize language?
posted by imalaowai at 4:26 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have addressed groups of all women as, varyingly, "hey, y'all," "hey, you guys, "hey, girls," "what up, bitches!" and "hey, ladies," depending on to whom I am speaking. I can not tell you the number of times I have opened an email to a fellow woman friend with, "hey lady!" I think it's all about knowing your audience.

I DO think there is a huge difference between calling someone a "lady scientist" and opening an email to several women with "hey, ladies!" however, and I tend to think that equating the two makes the former seem like a more frivolous complaint than it actually is. Calling someone a "lady scientist" means she's a freakish exception to the norm, and of course you wouldn't do that (other than sarcastically). Addressing a group of woman as "ladies," especially as a fellow woman, is, more often than not just a cheery greeting, IMO.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I must admit that while I wouldn't give a second thought to saying "Hi guys" (or even "Hello gentlemen" which is obviously sex specific) to a group of men, I might be more tempted to say "Hello everyone" to only women over "Hello ladies". That said, it definitely seems like delivery matters to a much greater degree than "Hi guys" ever would.

That said, on a side note, I also must admit that I love it when women refer to other women as "dude".
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2011

"Ladies" feels needlessly patronizing to me, and I don't believe that I am am a butthead, at least for this particular reason. "Girls" is even more offensive, as is "females." As for people rejecting your use of ladies,, some of those folks may have been transgender or genderqueer and they were objecting to being misgendered.
posted by crankylex at 4:31 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lady is sometimes disliked because it's a nice thing to say, and to some niceness implies different treatment. It's logic that goes nowhere good, obviously.

If someone is offended on etymological grounds (lady started out as bread maker, what the wife of a property owner would do), ask them if they'd rather be a "wife man" (woman) or a fertile nurser of infants (female.)
posted by michaelh at 4:31 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am generally not offended by it and use it myself (I am a woman as well). I find it ridiculous when it is used in sport team names, especially when it is a qualifier for a male animal- or character-identified team name. "Lady Rams," etc...seriously, aren't we beyond this?

When it is used in a condescending manner or to actively insult someone, however, I see red. When a coach uses "ladies" to imply that his male players are wimpy or whatever, I am irked no end.
posted by Morrigan at 4:32 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't know if I'm precisely offended by it but it's not something I would ever say, somehow.

I baulked when my ex-boyfriend referred to me in the third person at a restaurant like that, "The lady wil have..." but that might be more because I was capable of delivering the order myself. Still, something about being referred to as a lady grated.
posted by peacheater at 4:34 PM on November 8, 2011

Lady is sometimes disliked because it's a nice thing to say, and to some niceness implies different treatment. It's logic that goes nowhere good, obviously.

Just wanted to point out, michaelh, that there are often very real consequences to women for accepting different treatment that is "nicer." Women are often then barred from occupations (military, science) or opportunities (suffrage) that involve being subjected to/thinking things that are *not* nice, with the reasoning being that they can't handle it since they are so used to niceness and gentleness.
posted by cairdeas at 4:35 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Agreed, yes, but why is it dumb to say "hello women" but not "hello ladies"? I would put forth that "hello ladies" is just as silly.

I agree that they're both goofy-sounding, but for different reasons. If you say "hello, men!" to a group of men, you sound like an oddly cheerful commanding officer. "Men" is something you call a group of men who are supposed to be faceless because you're training them to go into battle and they're all wearing the same uniform and the same haircut and everything. "Women" just sounds like an abstraction to me, as I imagine "men" would if it didn't have that army context. Maybe from reading it in newspaper articles and whatnot all the time: "48 Percent of Women Do This," "Obama Tries to Appeal to Women," etc. But "Hello women" might sound like you're from outer space, depending on how you say it. "Hello, humans." I like it. I might try it.

I pretty much just decided to believe "guys" is gender-neutral. I like the sound of it better, so I'm taking it. Also "dudes," which is clearly available for gender-neutral use because, like "actor" or "comedian," the female-specific alternative ends in a diminutive and can therefore be considered illegitimate. Those are my word notions.

If somebody uses "ladies" in some of the ways outlined above I see red, but maybe because I've heard it so much between girls in an athletic context, where the only plural alternative was "guys" or the not-grown-up-enough "girls," it hardly registers for me when one woman says it to another, unless there's some sort of call for "ladylike" behavior implied. I do wonder to what extent this might be a generational thing.
posted by Adventurer at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Apparently Morrigan's post got "I see red" stuck in my head. Speaking of evocative words.
posted by Adventurer at 4:41 PM on November 8, 2011

After traveling in Turkey alone (I am a woman) I could not stand the usage of lady or ladies. I was endlessly harassed and hollered at nearly always it started with, "Hey Lady..."
posted by sulaine at 4:45 PM on November 8, 2011

I get why people find "lady doctor" or "lady sports team" or "young lady" patronizing and shitty, but honestly I feel the same way if you substitute in woman or girl. Needlessly pointing out that someone(s) is OMG FEMALE is always pretty patronizing.

That said, I think using ladies a la Demetri Martin is endlessly hilarious to me as a straight lady. So I'm pretty low on the offense spectrum.
posted by grapesaresour at 4:48 PM on November 8, 2011

I think it all depends on the context: it's usually neutral to me, but can --- with exactly the same wording in a phrase, just different emphasis --- be anywhere from mildly irking to extremely offensive. But all in all, I'd also say the female persons how sniped at you are indeed buttheads.

Oh, and Adventurer: I'll see your Lady Volunteers, and raise you with a local high school's teams --- the boys are the Stallions, so the girls' teams are (drumroll please!) the "Lady Stallions."
posted by easily confused at 5:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's not a question of offence but of a dislike of the overtones of a word.

The male equivalent of "lady" is "lord".

"Act like a lady" has nothing to do with being female, but of obeying certain cultural norms.

"Lady" is just a step away from "princess" conceptually – maybe I shouldn't be surprised that a culture where little girls are encouraged to think of themselves as princesses has re-spawned the word "lady".

Not all women are ladies. The neutral word in English for an adult person of the female sex is "woman" and if anyone is offended it should be the women who fought for the use of that simple word to indicate what they were.
posted by zadcat at 5:04 PM on November 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

As suggested above, the sensitivity may be generational. I'm of the generation that introduced the title Ms. and eventually saw it become common usage (and yes, I subscribed to the magazine at its founding, too).

I've fought the fight to be addressed and treated with some respect -- I was a radio announcer in the early 70s when female voices on the air they were still rare, but refused to billed as "the lady DJ". One supervisor who called me "his girl" while talking to a client never made that mistake again. And I spent decades refusing to "act like a lady."

I now find "lady" or "ladies" needed in only two contexts: as a formally bestowed title (Lady So-and-So) and in the charming-if-slightly-archaic phrase "Ladies and gentlemen". That said, if I'm out with a group of women friends, I'm not offended if we are addressed as "ladies" by a server if the context is clearly not patronizing or offensive. After all, these days the speaker is unlikely to be a skeezy jerk trying to hit on one of us ... and I reluctantly acknowledge that we're likely known as "the table of old ladies" behind our backs.

OTOH, I still find it disconcerting to be called "dude." Sorry, but that ain't every gonna feel right.
posted by peakcomm at 5:15 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Lady" gives me an icky feeling when it's used sincerely, because it seems to imply some kind of delicate-flower status that I don't think a modern woman necessarily embodies, even when she's a pretty delicate flower.

And yet I don't mind if one of my friends calls me lady, and my sister and I have called our mom Lady for years (I'm pretty sure we got that from Animaniacs).

I have three female tenants in one of my rentals and when I need to email them about something this always gives me pause at the salutation. Ladies...no, backspace. Sounds weird and patronizing. Girls...no, they're young, but they're adults. Backspace. Guys...no, they're WOMEN, not guys. Backspace. "Hey, women..." no, that's not a thing people actually say. BACKSPACE.

"Hey all..." is where it always ends up going to. I only use "lady/ladies" in a very familiar context.
posted by padraigin at 5:16 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I worked as a server at a restaurant where we were regularly reminded not to say to female customers, "Hi guys, how are you tonight?", etc. The restaurant received complaints from women who didn't like being called "guys", and we were told to call them "ladies". I thought it was lame to complain about such a thing (yeah, I know you're not a dude, lady), but on the other hand, I could appreciate that "guys" was a very casual thing for a server to call women (or men) at a nice restaurant, so I had no problem saying "ladies" instead. It sounds classier.

In a more formal situation, "you guys", or even "everyone" or "everybody" really doesn't fly -- you're not at TGI Friday's. It's Ladies/Gentlemen/Sir/Ma'am.
posted by imalaowai at 5:26 PM on November 8, 2011

I am totally not offended by it and I hear it all the time. Of course "lady doctor" will always be offensive, and skeezy dudes will always be skeezy, but I don't think those connotations are inherent to the word itself. I also think this is a generational thing - I'm in college and I hear young women call each other "ladies" constantly, and it never seems to carry the same baggage that others are mentioning here.
posted by dialetheia at 5:30 PM on November 8, 2011

"Hi all" or "Hi folks" works for me where "ladies" feels gacky for its implications of a particular kind of (weak, dainty, dependent and obligatory) femininity.
posted by springbound at 5:39 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I seriously don't care whether someone refers to as a lady, a girl, lumps me in with the guys or greet me and others with a "hello, people". Words develop new connotations over time.

It's obvious that women aren't the property of men nowadays and that the use of the word "lady" isn't used in that sense anymore. Thus, I am not offended, no matter what the origin of the word is.
posted by MelanieL at 5:44 PM on November 8, 2011

Maybe this is a generational thing? Gen Xer here and whenever a man says "ladies" I (perhaps improperly) assume he's sexist and possibly skeevy. But I live in the south and I am often addressed as "little lady" here which seems to imply I'm like a size 2 tiny precious flower. (Which I'm not.)

If a woman says it, I usually don't even notice.
posted by tuesdayschild at 5:44 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

The opposite of "lady" in this context is not "lord", but "gentleman".

I am Gen X and an avowed feminist, but was raised Southern (east Texas) and would not consider "ladies" demeaning when used by a woman to address a single-sex crowd made up of women, assuming tone, etc. were not in question. (They always are on the internet, though.) Also, having known many grand old Southern ladies who were loved and feared for the iron fists in their velvet gloves, the idea that "lady" has a connotation of weakness is utterly foreign to me. YMMV and probably does.
posted by immlass at 5:49 PM on November 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

I am a man, and in my daily experience, ladies is used in social and professional circumstances commonly, especially between groups of female friends or teammates. Other languages are strictly gendered, and even in English it's not grammatically perfect to refer to a group of women (or men) using a gender neutral term (of which many are of recent vintage.) I haven't had a chance to address a single-sex group of women, but I suspect I'd greet them with "good morning, ladies" in my least skeezy voice. When addressing a group of xy, I use "hello, men."
posted by Michael Pemulis at 5:53 PM on November 8, 2011

I reserve my anger for people who actually intend to be insulting. I've never had anyone say Hello ladies as anything other than a simple greeting. No offense intended or taken.

People get fussy about all kinds of stuff. If you notice someone's bothered by it, then respect their preference.
posted by 26.2 at 6:12 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would not have been offended at all by your email, but I do think the word lady can be problematic because as said above it implies a set of behaviors that women are (or have been in the past) under pressure to enact in order to be considered feminine. I'm reminded of a friend in high school who was sitting with her leg up on the table and a teacher told her to "sit like a lady". Ugh.

But other than that, when women use it with each other I see it as kind of an ironic take-back thing and I think it's cute. I just don't like the traditional usage.
posted by bearette at 6:22 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A good rule is only to use the word "lady" if you would use "gentleman" to refer to a man in the same context. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone say "gentleman" outside of euphemisms for strip clubs, so there you go.

I don't find "lady" or "ladies" offensive, exactly, but I find it annoying. It rings a little silly to my ears. There's almost this falsely conspiratorial connotation to it, especially when women address each other as ladies. Probably because the same people who say "ladies" say things like "remember, ladies, if you sprinkle when you tinkle..." or "Ladies, tomorrow is pink martini and manicure night!" or "Here's one for the ladies (insert joke about how men don't ask for directions or whatever)." Silly stereotypically feminine stuff. Like we're in a Chocolate-Craving Emotion-Having Shoe-Shopping Club meeting and I've been counted in the membership against my will. Like at any moment someone's going to burst into a commercial spiel about indulgent guilt-free cheesecake yogurt or ask me if I've ever had that not-so-fresh feeling.

Other associations I have with "lady": prostitutes, drag queens, and the sort of condescending yelling at strangers that goes "Lady, you're hysterical" or "get off the road, lady!" In other words, "lady" is code for "don't take her seriously." Even "girl" is more serious-sounding in many contexts than "lady."

I personally don't mind being called "guy," and address groups of either gender as "hey guys." Sometimes I refer to myself as a "lady guy" because it's ridiculous and cracks me up.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:47 PM on November 8, 2011 [11 favorites]

I think it's a mistake to put the terms "lady" and "ladies" in the same category, even though one appears to be (OK, technically is) the plural of the other. "Lady," in my experience, is either used dismissively or in a way that the user thinks is charmingly quaint, said user usually being mistaken about the applicability of the adverb.

"Ladies," on the other hand, is just the default collective noun for women in a casual social situation. Seriously, what else would you like to be called? "Guys"? "Women"? "Peeps"? Maybe there should not be any gender-specific collective nouns for people, I don't know. I would love to know the definitive non-offensive term, though. I feel funny saying "ladies" when I need to refer to more than one person, all of whom are female, but I'll be damned if I know a better alternative.
posted by bricoleur at 6:57 PM on November 8, 2011

It's like the difference between "guy" and "guys." I have no problem being included in "guys," but if someone refers to me as "yo, guy" or "the guy [x]," I rankle.
posted by bricoleur at 7:01 PM on November 8, 2011

I am female and am not offended in the least by the term "ladies." I use it occasionally myself and have never given any thought to it. Honestly, I'm not sure this is somehting you can win on---I am in my mid thirties and have had a friend smack off to a waiter calling us "guys" and also had friends bristle when I referred to them as "ladies." Short of "hey you," I think you'll have to take your chances.

I think this depends TREMENDOUSLY on context though. A guy calling me lady as he shows me the location of the makeup mirror in the car is a totally different scenario than a woman talking to a group of friends or acquaintances. I think most will give you the benefit of the doubt and for those who will see insult where none was intended - including those who will get angry about "ladies" and those who get angry about "guys"... you just aren't going to make everyone happy.
posted by supercapitalist at 7:46 PM on November 8, 2011

I use "lady" and "ladies" all the time. I never mean it as an insult ad therefore should not be taken as one. Huzzah!
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:52 PM on November 8, 2011

I'll second bricoleur's comment that "lady" is different to "ladies" as a form of address. The latter wouldn't bother me as a member of a group, but being addressed as "lady" directly isn't entirely polite/respectful/etc. Similarly, I might address a group of men as "gentlemen" but I wouldn't address an individual (gentle)man as "gentleman". I'd say "sir" and "ma'am" to individuals. (Again, assuming all things are equal in tone, etc., which are much harder to determine on the internet.)

Nthing that you're extremely unlikely to find a collective address for a group of women that won't offend someone, whether or not they say it. To the extent that being a woman is a state of lesser value in Western/American civilization, it's pretty much impossible to have a collective address for women that doesn't in some way end up as a put-down that offends some women so addressed.
posted by immlass at 7:54 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I work in a female-only office in a predominately male-oriented environment. A LOT of the men who come into our office greet my co-worker and I with, "Hello, ladies!" I am pretty sure they don't mean anything offensive or demeaning by it. Nor do I think it has ever occurred to us to be offended.
posted by ainsley at 8:18 PM on November 8, 2011

Cynthia Heimel has a lot of potent quotes on this lady thing, but the one that always sticks in my head is that calling someone a lady means that you can't wear white and splash through mud puddles. Ladies give everyone the mental image of the British Royal Family women who aren't allowed to have any fun. And I never heard that "lady" equates to "woman is property," that's horrible.

Technically, "ladies" and "women" and "girls" aren't offensive. But I don't think any vagina-owner actually really likes being called any of those terms, really. Which is why ladies frequently use "dudes" and "guys" regardless of technicalities. I prefer 'y'all" because it's friendly and includes everyone.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:44 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to a women in science thing at my Southern school and they called us ladies. They also provided us with pink princess folders for our hand-outs. I hate being called a lady or being addressed as 'ladies' if I'm in a group. I don't think I'm particularly lady-like (I wear pants, sit with my legs uncrossed, study science, don't go to church regularly). I completely avoid 'lady' or 'ladies' and I don't think there's a difference in meaning. I say 'Hi everyone', 'Hi everybody' or just 'Hi! How are you doing?'.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:30 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Ladies" makes me very uncomfortable. I can never see any reason for it to me used - usually "everyone" or saying someting like "for those of you who are women" or "for women" works well when you're addressing people in person or by email. I was never very keen on "ladies" because it always suggested there were many expectations to which I needed to rise. A college prof explained the historical significance and why it was no longer acceptable in most formal and journalistic writing to use the term. Pretty much everyone I know has abandoned it and it always makes me cringe when I hear it - like the person just doesn't get the loaded language. I never say anything, though.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:03 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't read this whole thread, but after reading the first dozen or so answers, I just have to say, as a man, I HATE being called "dude" - ESPECIALLY by women. But that's because my interpretation of the word is that it means I'm a useless, lazy, stoner, man-child. I'm not American, and when that word entered my culture it was via American movies which all seemed to be about .... useless, lazy, stoner, man-children. But I know to many other people, the term is just analogous to buddy, pal or mate.

So I guess my point is, these kinds of words - lady, girl, dude - mean different things to different people, based on in what context they have heard the terms used in the past. It can be a bit of a minefield, dude.

I have no advice :( Other than if you offend someone in this way, just apologise, and try to remember not to refer to them that way again.
posted by Diag at 11:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think people who object to the term "lady" object to it on the basis that being ladylike is actually a very narrow, restrictive definition of women, often applied to a group of people who are in fact well outside of those boundaries. I myself am not a fan of this term used generically as it seems to cover just about every way in which I fail at Ideal Womanhood.

On the other hand, I do use it as a greeting to my group of girlfriends, but that's because I know full neither I nor they are using it in a baggage-laden way. I guess with a group of women you don't actually know (as in your example) it's potentially more problematic.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:31 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

People will carry all sorts of baggage around terms like lady. In the UK, the formal title of lady is conferred by marriage or birth. That might be part of the objection. Another, as people have said, is the baggage around dainty flowers who are their husband's chattels etc. This seems overblown to me, but then I'm a bloke.

To quote the old joke: "She's no lady. She's my wife*." - the inference that to be a lady there has to be a lord loitering in the background has some traction.

*Interpretable on all sorts of levels, obviously
posted by MuffinMan at 4:36 AM on November 9, 2011

I'm female, and I get where people who are annoyed by "ladies" are coming from, and sometimes I am in agreement with them, e.g. using the term "ladies" in connection with any kind of health campaign especially bugs me (breast cancer awareness, that "Red" heart health thing, etc.).

But I will also address women of my acquaintance as ladies in some circumstances. I will even greet individual women friends with "Hey lady" (usually accompanied by a side hug and hip-bump, I don't know why!) which is semi-ironic but semi-serious. I could use her name or "you" or "girl" or whatever but sometimes "lady" feels the most right.
posted by mskyle at 6:05 AM on November 9, 2011

There is one use of "lady" I object to, and that's slapping "lady" at the beginning of college nicknames when you're talking about the women's teams. "Lady Volunteers," etc. Ugh.

My high school's girls teams were the Lady Popes.


Anyway, if it's a women's bikeshare forum, "Hey Everyone!" would be a fine way to go, assuming you're not specifically excluding men who might be reading.
posted by desjardins at 8:06 AM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is no one correct answer.

I (and I am a male) sometimes use the word 'ladies', but only when informally addressing a group consisting of only people who are female and whom I already know. I sometimes address any one of my sisters as "hey lady". I do not intend to be offensive, nor do I think of the female persons in either case as being unable to slog trough mud, or as being particularly dainty or anyone's possession. and yes, I have sometimes used the word gentlemen to address a group of all males informally.

I would never use 'girls', and feel pretty awkward about using 'guys' in a mixed setting ('folks' seems okay) and never in a female-only setting.

But, if there is anything the internet has taught us is that there are likely to be some people who are offended over any given label. Which is not to be dismissive of their bases of offense (how many people who find 'ladies' offensive from the bases of history are also offended my the institution of marriage?), but to weigh it, and be sincere about how you use it.
posted by edgeways at 9:04 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't remember the last time I heard anyone say "gentleman" outside of euphemisms for strip clubs, so there you go.

Perhaps somewhat hilariously, I use "gentlemen" ALL. THE. TIME. in a professional setting in a highly ironic fashion. Generally because the group of people I'm referring to are anything but. Fortunately, they just don't realize it. :)
posted by FlamingBore at 9:32 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I learned somewhere that the word lady originates from the times in which women owned nothing. To be a lady meant that you were the property of another person.
I don't think this is true. In fact, I think it's nearly the opposite of true.

"Lady" is, etymologically, "loaf kneader", and is akin to "lord", which is "loaf keeper". In both cases, "loaf" relates to the person's relation with their servants - i.e. we all eat the bread, but it's the bread of the lord and lady.

I could see objecting on the "kneader" vs. "keeper" grounds, but the primary division is between the rich and the poor, not between the female and the male. Not every woman -- not nearly every woman -- was a "lady", just like not nearly every man was a "lord". And unless you were one of a very select few people, a "lady" was viewed as your superior.

It's only relatively recently that "lady" came to refer to a general woman, much like "gentleman" came to refer to a general man.
posted by Flunkie at 11:00 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think 'ladies' has an implication of bein essentially decorative, rather then essentially effective.

It's surely a remnant of millennia of sexism - it's hard to find any word for women that doesn't in some form carry the taint of sexism: girl, mistress, lady, madam, etc.

So anyway "Gentlemen, let's get this done" sounds plausible in a way that it doesn't with ladies, which sounds somehow tongue in cheek. Ladies are, they don't do.

There's also the thing where the concept of lady was used as a sort of weapon to divide women - are you a lady or not? Sort of like the negative of slut shaming, but doing the same work.

It's my hope that as we move to a more egalitarian society, all these words will become neutral again. But we're not there yet and I think it's fair to be sensitive about that.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:14 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Lady" is, etymologically, "loaf kneader", and is akin to "lord", which is "loaf keeper".

I came here to say that.

So anyway "Gentlemen, let's get this done" sounds plausible in a way that it doesn't with ladies, which sounds somehow tongue in cheek. Ladies are, they don't do.

And according to the etymology of the word, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The loaf kneader is the one getting the job done, while the loaf keeper is doing sweet FA.

Even if you look at the more recent "gentlemen" - have you heard of men being offended by being called "gentlemen"? A gentleman was someone who didn't have to work for a living, so if you don't like "lady" because of the implication of being "decorative, rather then essentially effective", what does "gentleman" imply?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:31 PM on November 9, 2011

"Hello, humans."

I actually say this sometimes.
posted by tangerine at 11:11 AM on November 17, 2011

"Act like a lady!", meaning, don't climb a tree, don't RUN, don't yell; in other words, don't have any fun, because you are female, and that is all you are. Ladies wear white gloves and know how to sit properly and are very quiet and have no opinions. That is why I cringe when our soccer team is called "ladies", even though people are saying it in a positive way and not thinking about the whole history of how women were (are) labeled and the expectations society has for females. In the 70's restrooms were labeled "Ladies" and "Men", which are not equivalent terms. Much work went in to having this changed. Sometimes seemingly little things mean a lot, especially in language.
posted by Schomms at 7:12 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

"She's no lady. She's my wife*." - the inference that to be a lady there has to be a lord loitering in the background has some traction.

This joke does not mean what you think it does.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:22 PM on June 18, 2012

« Older should i have a joint wedding with my sister?   |   Have license, would like to travel Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.