What’s in a Word? On Ladies, Feminists, and Getting the Joke

Even before our initial launch on March 8, we received criticism that wasn’t focused on the style or content, but a “what the what” with our choice of title and our still very sparse self-description. For example, early Friday morning we received an email from a woman we’d never met, with the succinct, “Why on earth would you organize around the word ladies?”

A more verbose email came from a woman who took issue with the word “lady” and the word “feminist” wrote, “I automatically categorize you as a woman who is an economist, segregating you into a ‘special group’ instead of an economist (part of the whole). I think it is important to note the achievements of women, especially because it is important that women gain recognition and are acknowledged for their extraordinary work, however, if we are to reinvent a reality for women, should they be separated by the gender construct that they are fighting? Could you be an economist that focuses on how economy impacts women and girls?”
These are valid points, and I appreciated the feedback from both of these women. The two emails reflect the same sentiment, but from what I interpret to be two different generational perspectives. The first reflects disappointment that graduate students would highlight a word that was rejected in the 1960s and 1970s. I understand it feels like a step backwards to use a word that has demure, docile connotations, when Second Wave feminists insisted on a word that was more powerful, women. We respect the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s this word was not favored by feminists, and that it took great effort for women to insist on not being called “girls” or “ladies.” Robin Lakoff, a feminist linguist, published a paper in 1973, “Language and Woman’s Place.” The word lady, when applied to a doctor, a salesperson, or a domestic worker, demeans working women and professionals.The second email reflects an uneasiness with the way we chose to highlight differences among men and women in the field. Why not try to assimilate, she argues, rather than point out the fact that you’re women and economists.
I’ll cut to the punch line here. The use of the word “lady” in the title of our blog, and many of the titles of our categories, are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The blog’s title is supposed to draw attention to the absurd notion that one would qualify the term “economist” with “lady.” To our ears, the term Lady Economist sounds outdated and old-fashioned, and that’s why we use it to highlight the fact that women represent a minority in the field.
A number of other popular blogs have addressed the reassurance of the word lady. The article int he New Republic, “Hey Ladies: the unlikely revival of a fussy old label” describes the word as used by feminists in the age of irony, and as a building a bridge between “girls” and “women.” Jezebel blogger wrote “Ladies: we need more words than just ‘Lady'” and also reposted a blog from Vice titled, “Where are all the women?The Hairpin blog uses the word “ladies” so naturally you’d never know the word was once offensive – yet a quick perusal of their advice column, “Ask a Lady” reveals a nuanced and sophisticated take on what it means to be a feminist navigating the complex terrain of sex and relationships. It would be a mistake to automatically dismiss these writers, and not dig deeper beyond the headlines to understand their diverse points of view.
We also know that the word “feminist” makes some women and men uncomfortable. Feminism of the past excluded a lot of women, particularly working class women and racial minorities. Some of the most incredible, strong women I know both here and abroad would never describe themselves as feminist, yet they hold many of the same values of equality. I once described a very supportive, pro-Choice male companion as a feminist, which I of course meant as a compliment, and realized that I had accidentally emasculated him. We’ve chosen this word because we believe in it, but also recognize its history.
We stand by the use of both words, and welcome the interest and controversies they provoke. Keep sending us your feedback, comment on the posts, and don’t forget to have a sense of humor.

Categories: Angry Feminists, Girl Math-1

5 replies

  1. Hey Lady! I LOVE this post! Keep up the great work and your sense of humor.


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