Lady business

I never used to give it a second thought.


As in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Lady and the Tramp, lady doctor, first lady, Lady Diana and “Hey Ladies.”

Until recently, I didn’t realize how much I use that word, much less how much I hate it—nearly as much as I love it.

I finally understood the power that word had to make my skin crawl after a friend used it during a recent conversation about a physician.

“She’s a doctor,” I snipped by way of correction, surprising even myself with how defensive those words sounded coming out of my mouth.

What the hell?

Since when did I care about the word lady—or any female-centric word for that matter?

Bitch, cunt, girl—it used to be that only the matronly ma’am really annoyed me.

I’m not entirely sure what triggered this sudden love-hate relationship, but lady is certainly loaded with meaning. Rooted in Old English it means, loosely speaking, “to knead bread,” but over time, the definition somehow evolved to signify the “mistress of a household.” It also came to be known as the royal or noble female counterpart to “lord” or, among more common folk, as a complement to “gentlemen.” In politics, “first lady” became the signifier for the spouse of a president or prime minister.

In more recent American culture, however, the word’s meaning has contracted and expanded meaning so many times, it’s dizzyingly confusing.

Bitch, cunt and girl have all been co-opted, in one way or another, by feminists young and old. And in many ways lady has, too, but without the deeper scrutiny or the acknowledgement of its different meanings and uses.

Historically in the United States, lady was both something one aspired to be—feminine, proper, classy—as well as a condescending diminutive used to describe a woman doing a man’s job: lady teacher, lady lawyer and, yes, lady doctor.

As a child, I also knew that the word set a standard I was expected to not just meet but also to project, and my parents schooled me on just what exactly this meant.

A lady, one who could count on being treated well, didn’t talk out of turn or, to quote my mother, “roughhouse.” A lady wore pretty, feminine clothes, played the flute instead of the saxophone (true story) and didn’t bite her fingernails.

As I grew older, however, my interpretation of the word shifted and evolved. Now, I use it as term of endearment used among friends, hear it as a pop-culture song phenomenon (replete with its very own dance) and embrace its wry, Liz Lemon-esque definition for one’s sexual reproductive organs.

Its broader social meaning has also slightly shifted in the last 10 to 20 years, as feminists have sought to “reclaim” the word (think the feminist-centric music label Mr. Lady Records), but it’s still rife with complicated meanings.

In modern vernacular, the word lady can be at once charming (“Single Ladies”), ironic (lady business), patronizing (little lady), classist (cleaning lady), sexist (lady doctor) and downright unsavory (ladies of the night).

I’m not suggesting the word be banned, but clearly we should rethink when and how we use it. It’s one thing when it’s playful or sweet, quite another when it’s demeaning—intentionally or otherwise. Because, as Helen Reddy would tell you, that ain’t no way to treat a lady.