from “single ladies” to “lady boss," women are taking back the l word

Historically a signifier with negative implications, 'lady' is now a word used by women to unite and inspire the sisterhood.

by Jean Kemshal-Bell
31 March 2016, 2:31pm

​Photography Josh Olins

Mom always told me never to call a woman a lady. Women should not have to act a certain way, she'd say, to gain respect. Don't censor your thoughts, your behavior, to be a lady—be a woman. Growing up in rural Australia in the 90s, "lady" was just part of the everyday vernacular. It was considered the highest praise—but veering slightly from its rigid criteria often meant a swift plummet to the realm of "slut," "skank," "bitch," or "butch."

Nowadays, though—much to my mother's dismay—lady has become popular with the, well ladies. It's part of the Beyoncé brand of feminism, a term to unite and inspire the sisterhood. It's not uncommon to get emails from colleagues with a "hey lady"' address. Rather than an adjective to police behavior, lady has become an endearing term exchanged between young women—women who likely consider themselves feminist. It's become so popular that its historically negative implications are easy to overlook.

Not for mom though. Her generation championed the second wave of feminism, where the spotlight was shone on ingrained sexism, such as the relationship between language and gender. Linguistic scholar Robin Lakoff's seminal work Language and Woman's Place (1975) noted language's role in oppressing women. She discusses how lady is used to mask a woman's sexuality. Lakoff asks us to consider this sentence: "She is only twelve but she is already a woman." Now switch "woman" for "lady." At first glance the two words seem like interchangeable synonyms, but in that context they provide two very different meanings.

Thanks to second-wave feminism, from the 80s to the aughts it became increasingly taboo to call women ladies—particularly in the workforce. Now of course we are moving away from gender qualifiers all together: doctors are doctors, cleaners are cleaners, police are police. Pointing out gender is not only irrelevant, it's offensive.

But how should women address one another? What should we say when we're greeting a group of friends? Hey girls? Hey women? The latter sounds awkwardly stiff, the former infantilizing. As Ann Friedman points out in her article for the New Republic, lady has become the female counterpart to guy. "To quote Britney Spears's 2002 power ballad", she says, "many of the female gender today think of themselves as 'Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman'."

We're living in the age of irony, we're told, so the proliferation of the lady-lingo may not be a sign of regression but rather the distance women feel from the upper-crust ladies of the Victorian-era or the doting housewives of the 50s. By actively reclaiming the word, even if it's with a tinge of irony, women are redefining what it means to be a lady. It's still regularly used as a sign of respect but the behavior that deserves the respect has changed. Gaining a "hey lady" can make you feel part of an inclusive, proud group of women.

A great example of this is the rise of the phrase "lady boss," which fights to simultaneously reclaim two words that have been used to put women down. Instead of mocking the idea that women can hold authority, lady boss is said loud and proud as a show of respect for successful women. And it's not just millennials adopting the the idiom; the Columbia Business School regularly uses the #ladyboss hashtag to live Tweet their all-women panel discussions.

But like other derogatory words that have since been reclaimed, tone and context are important when determining when its use is and isn't appropriate. And while it might be okay for women to refer to one another as a lady, it can feel demeaning when men use it. In an article for The Guardian Paul Baker, Professor of English Language at Lancaster University, makes an important point: "That's one of the problems with reclaiming concepts: not only do you have a set of people who don't understand that the word has been reclaimed in the first place, so they continue to use it in the older negative way, but you can also have different understandings of what the reclaiming actually means," says Baker. "And even if you're in on it, you still may not want to participate."

When chatting with people about this article, it's become clear that lady is still fraught with meaning. My cousin, a doctor, says patients often refer to her as "the lady" yet her male colleges are simply "the doctor," and some men said that lady signifies a woman with class. Does popularizing a term, without a discussion on its history, just normalize its use in all contexts? Or can it head in the same direction as "queer," which has been stripped almost entirely of its negative connotations? With women taking charge of the narrative, hopefully being a lady will one day just mean a strong, opinionated woman.


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