In the second episode of HBO’s “Girls,” three young women are eating frozen yogurt on a park bench: Jessa, the slutty one, Shoshanna, the prudish one, and Hannah, our protagonist. After Hannah expresses frustration with her pseudo-boyfriend, Shoshanna whips out a copy of a fictional advice book: Listen, Ladies: A Tough-Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love.
Hannah: Wait, but here’s my question: Who are the ladies?
Shoshanna: Obvi. We’re the ladies.
Jessa: I’m not the ladies.
Shoshanna: Yeah, you’re the ladies.
The exchange is a perfect who’s-on-first for the urban twentysomething: the word “lady” has become core vocabulary of feminism in the age of irony. With its slippery meaning—associations range from grandma’s lavender-scented powder to the raunchiest of rap lyrics—it encapsulates the fundamental mutability of modern feminism. To quote Britney Spears’s 2002 power ballad, many of the female gender today think of themselves as “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” “Lady” has come to occupy the middle ground.
This is new territory for an old and loaded term. “Lady” once implied a proper woman who is not to be disrespected, crosses her legs at the ankle, and never talks out of turn. She doesn’t work; she lunches. Later, of course, it was adopted as a catcall (and cattle call) in the style of the late-’80s Beastie Boys. “I threw the lasso around the tallest one and dragged her to the crib,” they rapped in “Hey Ladies.” Then there were the gender-specific drink specials at your local dive.
But even as the term got raunchier, the “Downton”definition persisted. (See Vanity Fair’s February issue, which features lush watercolor paintings of “Downton Abbey”’s Michelle Dockery, creatively titled “Portrait of a Lady.”) Rappers still distinguish between ladies in the street and freaks in the bed. (Thank you, Ludacris.) A new, self-published advice book called Dare to Be a Lady “explores what it means to be a lady in a world where high moral standards are not often upheld and women often behave like men.” In response to a get-out-the-vote video by Lena Dunham and other hip, young liberals, the fusty conservative group Concerned Women for America called its counter-campaign “Lady Smarts.”
This morally loaded and intellectually unserious interpretation meant feminists in the 1960s and ’70s objected to the term, especially in professional contexts. “[T]he more demeaning the job, the more the person holding it (if female, of course) is likely to be described as a lady,” wrote the feminist linguist Robin Lakoff in a 1973 academic paper. “Thus, cleaning lady is at least as common as cleaning woman, saleslady as saleswoman. But one says, normally, woman doctor. To say lady doctor is to be very condescending.” Lakoff pointed out that no such dichotomy existed for men: “Garbage man or salesman is the only possibility, never garbage gentleman.” Likewise, feminists argued, “woman” should be the neutral default.
But now, “lady” splits the difference between the infantilizing “girl” and the stuffy, Census-bureau cold “woman.” (Both still have their place—just not in the witty conversation that young feminists want to be having.) It’s a way to stylishly signal your gender-awareness, without the stone-faced trappings of the second-wave. It’s a casual synonym for “woman,” a female counterpart to “guy,” commonly used in winking conversation between one in-the-know woman and another. A scan of my phone reveals dozens of text messages that begin, “hey lady.” General David Petraeus’s paramour, Paula Broadwell, reportedly concluded an e-mail to a friend, "GREAT to see you, pretty lady"—a more grown-up way of signing off “xo.”
It has entered the professional world, as well—albeit with some spin. I aggregate the work of women journalists on a site I named LadyJournos. “Ladyblog” has become the de facto way of referring to the digital version of the women’s pages: Gawker Media’s Jezebel, Slate’s XX Factor blog, Buzzfeed’s Shift. The Hairpin, the female-centric companion to The Awl, uses “Ladies First” as its tagline and features an advice column called “Ask a Lady.” (It also publishes “Ask a Dude.”)
In all of these contexts, there’s a tongue-in-cheek sensibility at work. I named my site LadyJournos as a deliberate nod to the fact that it should be ridiculous—a full decade into the new millennium—to have to point out that women are doing good work. Founder and editor Edith Zimmerman told me that The Hairpin’s use “arose from the joking phrase ‘Hey laaadies!’ We’re in on the joke, so let’s take it a step further.” As happened with the n-word, “queer,” and “bitch,” “lady” has been repurposed in a way that diminishes its sting.
Such reclaiming may be easier, however, if you aren’t from a generation where the insult was commonplace. “Every time I hear a woman casually called a lady, something goes off in my mind,” Lakoff told me. “If you came into feminist consciousness 40 or so years ago, and at that time identified the word lady as a problem, it’s very hard to let that go.” It’s the linguistic equivalent of exercising on a stripper pole. Other objections stem from linguistic saturation of the term: “Ladies, like ladyparts, lady business, lady writer, etc., started out as humorous and ironic, but overuse has made it clichéd and affected,” the feminist writer Katha Pollitt wrote me in an email. “What is wrong with ‘women’?” Pollitt asks. “Does that sound too fat and hairy for today's young females?”
The answer is ... kind of? “‘Woman’ has this heaviness, which sounds old,” Zimmerman says. “‘My friend Dave is dating this wonderful woman!’ sounds like this bosomy matron.” She would like to use “woman,” she told me, but it just didn’t feel right, and her understandable equivocation reveals something about where we’re at with feminism. Age is not something to fear—but we don’t want to be using vocabulary that makes us feel older than we are. Gender politics are important—but sometimes we just want to greet a female friend with a popular term of endearment without launching a feminist crusade. (The very act of caring so deeply about language has a whiff of ’70s seriousness about it.) We know we’re not back there—to the pre-Roe era rife with restrictive gender norms—but we also feel uncomfortable staking a claim to a fully feminist future. See: Every fraught debate about whether it’s possible to “have it all”; even though we want the right to abandon all the obligations of home, it seems most of us don’t actually want to. To quote Britney, “All I need is time, a moment that is mine, while I’m in between.” The fluidity of “lady” is part of its appeal; it fits right in with modern feminism’s in-betweeness.
These days, everything is contextual; nothing is verboten. (Well, almost nothing.) And in some cases, “lady” can be a pleasingly incongruous term of address for a woman who never married, can hold her scotch, and swears like a sailor. But I’m not generally thinking about these things when I deploy it as a term of address. Mostly, I’m just saying hello to a peer. Yeah, I’m apparently saying, we’re the ladies.
Ann Friedman is a politics columnist for New York’s website. Find her writing, pie charts, and GIFs at www.annfriedman.com. Follow @annfriedman.
Correction:This piece originally identified Edith Zimmerman as the cofounder of The Hairpin. She was the founder.