by Susan Swartz
all the issues that invoke a woman's passion, I have yet to encounter
one as inflammatory as the debate around what women prefer to
be called. Growing up, I heard my Grandma Jo refer to nearly
every female as a "gal," whether she was five or ninety-five.
In my twenties, I took great pleasure in educating every man
I encountered, be it a boyfriend, coworker or pastor, that "girl"
was reserved for someone whose mother still had some say in the
clothes she wore and the hours she kept. And in my early years
as a working woman, I received frequent lectures from a variety
of women mentors on the titles I should allow others to use in
reference to me.
I brought this article by Susan Swartz to work one day, entertaining
some of my coworkers and infuriating others, adding to my curiosity
about the power titles have over women. Considering this issue
of Horizons is focused on the search for meaning and balance
in our lives-and my suspicion that most of us would accept being
called just about any title, if it would help us attain it-I
couldn't resist including Ms. Swartz's ponderings on this age-old
do a lot of lady talk in the Midwest. Waiters, museum docents,
the man running the architectural tour in Chicago. They all called
us ladies, prompting me to ask my friends, "What's with
the lady stuff? I thought we didn't like that."
What did we wish to be called instead, they asked, lowering their
voices, smoothing their skirts and arching a pinky over their
tea. (They really didn't do that. I was just making the point
that we don't do the lady thing.)
I did explain that I come from California where women are guys
and so is everyone else.
That's one of the problems. There aren't many alternative terms
for women, in the singular or group form. I don't mind "guys,"
although I've been told it's "so '90s, very Seinfeld."
But ladies? I don't know.
la-dy \la'-de\ n, pl ladies 1 a: a woman
having proprietary rights or authority esp. as a feudal superior
b: a woman receiving the homage or devotion of a knight or lover
2 cap: virgin mary - usu. used with Our 3 a: a woman of superior
social position b: a woman of refinement and gentle manners c:
woman, female - often used in a courteous reference <show
the lady to a seat> or usu. in the pl. in address <ladies
and gentlemen> 4 a: wife b: girlfriend, mistress 5 a: any
of various titled women in Great Britain - used as a customary
title of (1) a marchioness, countess, viscountess, or baroness
or (2) the wife of a knight, baronet, member of the peerage,
or one having the courtesy title of lord and used as a courtesy
title for the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl b: a female
member of an order of knighthood - compare dame (Merriam--Webster's
Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Springfield, Mass.: 1998)
Several years ago I fretted over the
word "girl" being used inappropriately on females long
past puberty. My friend Rich brought it up because his older
sisters taught him never to say "girl" when he meant
"woman" and now his women friends were referring to
each other as "the girls."
I agreed it was confusing and explained that women are sensitive
to labels. But we also change our minds.
Around that time "girlfriend" floated into the vernacular.
It was affectionate and sounded hip and, for some reason, not
at all girlish, to call each other "girlfriend." But
it implies a certain intimacy. The woman behind the airline counter
is not going to look up and ask, "Where we flying today,
The term "lady," which I thought was in mothballs,
has a crossed ankles, smile-pretty-and-don't-say-what-you-think
image. It's your great aunt who never broke into a laugh or a
No more, say two New Yorkers who have declared "lady"
back in fashion. I think it's because they couldn't find a decent
"Hi women. How you women doin'?" never has caught on.
So they decided to resurrect the term lady, buff it up and give
it to women they admire.
In their book, The Art and Power of Being a Lady (Atlantic Monthly,
2001), Noelle Cleary and Dini von Mueffling use it to define
the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and
Chelsea Clinton. Ladies, they say, have style and substance,
grace and strength, independence and confidence. Unlike the old-fashioned
lady, today's gets her hands dirty and is more forthright than
The authors think the term will creep into common usage once
women grasp the new meaning and take it as a compliment. Cleary
said she makes a point of yelling out, "Hi, ladies,"
when she meets her friends in a pub.
As evidence that the word is getting around, the authors point
out that the characters in the TV show Sex and the City call
each other ladies, as do the women on The View. That's a pretty
wide range of ladies, from Carrie and Miranda to Barbara Walters.
The authors even convinced Candice Bergen to call herself a lady.
"At first she took umbrage with the term," said von
Mueffling, "but after we explained our definition, she decided
it did apply to her . . . at least some of the time."
There are new manners expected of today's new lady. For example,
a lady can curse but knows when not to. A lady will not put up
with offensive talk, especially when it's bigoted and mean, and
will take on the offender. A lady stops to consider the consequences
before she sends a vicious email, and never with a cc. A lady
does not date her good friend's ex. And she doesn't apply lipstick
in a restaurant.
What? That last one may be too much for us guys.
Susan Swartz writes for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa,
California. This article was reprinted with permission..
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