Why Do You Call Us Ladies?
History, gender, and manners in public life
It seems as if the term ‘ladies’ has made a comeback in public life. No matter where we are — in a small town or big city, in the gayborhood or a mainstream hotspot — strangers greet us the same way: “Hello, ladies;” or “What can I get you ladies?” And we are not alone. Hosts, servers, and salespeople everywhere address those they presume to be women, as ‘ladies,’ without a thought about the meaning or history of the term. People who are more masculine than your average cisgender guy; people who engage in public displays of queer affection; people who are femme, athletic, punky, androgynous, or professional are all addressed as ‘ladies’ now. The question is, why?
Elitism and Exclusivity
The term ‘ladies’ itself has a history that illuminates how power, privilege, and oppression have functioned throughout American history. From early modern times through much of the twentieth century, the term ‘lady’ signified women with power and authority over others by virtue of their race, class, marriage, or ancestry. A lady was a queen or head of household who oversaw subjects, children, servants, and slaves. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham notes, “Ladies were not merely women; they represented a class, a differentiated status within the generic category of “women.”” During Reconstruction, for example, married black women who didn’t work outside of the home and aspired to such status were socially condemned for even trying. A lady was a quintessentially normative white woman who set the standards by which other women were judged.
Consider the story of Abigail Adams and her most famous quote. When Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “Remember the Ladies” as he drafted the Declaration of Independence, she was not advocating for the rights of American women who were predominantly poor, indentured, and enslaved. Rather, she called specifically for married women’s legal rights to property and protection from domestic abuse. Abigail wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the Hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” Despite the particular focus of her request, this sentiment has been celebrated as a broad call for women’s rights, and is considered a foundational moment in American feminism.
While the social and political criteria for addressing a singular woman as ‘lady’ remained intact for centuries, the plural version of the term proved more flexible. ‘Ladies’ became a polite form of address to a general group of women on their own or with men, as in ‘ladies and gentleman,’ a phrase that is still commonly used to this day. Even though ‘ladies’ could be used interchangeably with ‘women,’ it also retained an element of specificity throughout the nineteenth century. Nowhere was this more evident than in the difference between sex-segregation of spaces and the designation of certain areas for ‘ladies.’
Sex-segregation itself was routinized in American life by the state in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century carceral institutions, from almshouses and prisons to asylums. Voluminous reports documenting carceral life designated groups of people “females or males” and declared certain spaces for “women or men” — but never for ‘ladies.’ The Philadelphia House of Refuge, for example, had “male and female” departments. The only ‘ladies’ who set foot there were elite reformers who visited as part of their service on the ‘ladies committee.’
The emergence of ‘ladies’ rooms in the later decades of the nineteenth century signaled something different. Special spaces for ‘ladies’ in department stores, libraries, trains, and restaurants were seen as a way to carry a bit of the protective tranquility associated with the domestic realm into public areas. It matters that they were called ‘ladies’ rooms and not women’s rooms. ‘Ladies’ rooms were not intended for poor, black, immigrant and working women who already moved around in public; invisible to the protective gaze that followed and constrained elite white women. Under Jim Crow segregation, for instance, black women regardless of class were not allowed to use the ‘ladies’ rooms. In 1887, Massachusetts and New York were the first two states to pass laws that required employers provide separate restrooms for women. This extension of ‘ladies’ spaces to workers was an expansion of the protective ideal that rendered some women more precious and fragile than men.
The term ‘ladies’ as a noun in its own right (aside from a plural of ‘lady’) can be traced to this very era at the turn of the century. The frequency with which the sex-segregated workplace toilet was called the ‘ladies room’ inspired widespread usage of the word ‘ladies’ as a shorthand reference for the women’s restroom. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘ladies’ is, “Usually preceded by the. A public toilet or washroom for women.” ‘Ladies’ are principally toilets for women. Think about that for a minute.
While ‘ladies’ rooms were historically a refuge for some women, they are sites of harassment for gender nonconforming people. Some women feel an ownership over ‘ladies’ rooms and designate themselves the gender police to determine whether or not transgender women, butches, studs, AGs, masculine of center, genderqueer, and nonbinary people are permitted to be in those spaces. Despite laws and policies in some states and communities to protect transgender and gender nonconforming people in public accommodations, there is a longstanding tradition in the United States of people taking it upon themselves to harass and punish those who do not conform neatly to the gender binary.
Lesbian & Feminist Critiques
In the 1970s and 1980s, both the feminist and gay liberation movements developed a consciousness and critique of gendered language. Feminist scholars launched a campaign against the term ‘ladies’ in the 1970s, arguing it was as a euphemistic and/or substitute term for ‘women’ that mocked women and made light of their capabilities. As linguist Robin Lakoff put it, “Speech about women implies an object, whose sexual nature requires euphemism, and whose social roles are derivative and dependent in relation to men. The personal identity of women thus is linguistically submerged; the language works against treatment of women, as serious persons with individual views.” This logic explained why ‘women’ was the preferred term in situations where women were in positions of power and/or being shown respect.
Many lesbian and bisexual women embraced the spirit of feminism and its demand that women be seen as strong, capable, independent, assertive, and equal to men. For them, ‘Lady’ was historically associated with marriage to a man, dependency, white supremacy, and wealth. Calling a group of lesbian feminists ‘ladies’ was an affront to their politics, but it also served to erase differences some were proud of and cultivated, including androgynous and masculine gender expressions.
Far from relating to the category of ‘lady,’ throughout the 1980s many lesbian writers, activists, and academics were grappling with the category of ‘woman’ itself. They felt that the issues and needs of the ‘woman’ at the heart of the feminist movement were not theirs. Cheshire Calhoun summed up this collective sentiment when she argued, “feminist values and goals have worked against representing lesbian difference.” Just as important theories of lesbian difference were gaining traction (such as Monique Wittig’s claim that lesbians were not women), feminism sought to erase these distinctions under a unifying umbrella ‘woman.’ For many, lesbian was a ‘third gender’ that refused the restrictions of manhood or womanhood, not unlike a contemporary transgender and non-binary position. Witting writes, “The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not.” The idea that lesbians could be ‘ladies’ was unthinkable.
Lesbians have long struggled to navigate how to respond when strangers greet them with the term ‘ladies’ in public. In 1999, Von New wrote about the frustration they felt when a server greeted a group of lesbians with “Good evening, ladies.” New wrote, “I think about how I learned at a young age what it means to be a lady. To sit properly. To walk properly. To dress properly. To package myself in a way to seem as innocent and harmless as possible. To hide my strengths and passions.”
Beyond the Gender Binary
And yet ‘ladies’ has become the all-encompassing ‘go-to’ phrase in public life today, especially in restaurants. One reason for the widespread use of ‘ladies’ is the backlash to the use of ‘guys’ as a gender-neutral greeting. Women have taken to social media in droves complaining about servers who call them ‘guys’ for two principle reasons: lack of professionalism and an erasure of the fact that they are women; sometimes women spending lots money expect to be treated, well, like ‘ladies.’ As Andrea Wenker wrote in her 2008 review of a Colorado Springs restaurant, “Hint to servers: When your customers include women paying eleven bucks for a martini glass of shrimp and iceberg ribbons, “Which one of you guys ordered the shrimp cocktail?” doesn’t cut it.” The fact remains that some people think of themselves as ‘ladies’ and expected to be treated as such.
The pervasiveness of ‘ladies’ has coincided — quite ironically — with the vibrant growth of the transgender rights movement, marked by its profound teachings about the power of gendered language in everyday settings. Transgender people ask all of us to reconsider our assumptions in greetings and salutations. Over one-third of the 28,000 transgender people who participated in the 2015 U.S. Transgender survey reported their identity as ‘non-binary.’ While people have different strategies for navigating dominate gender norms, the terms ‘ladies’ and ‘guys’ are both inadequate for this group. This raises what might seem like a basic question: why must a person’s gender be assessed, named, and categorized in order to exist in public? Or use a restroom? Or eat at a restaurant?
Many of us today have good reasons to think the category ‘ladies’ does not reflect our values, lives, or the times. The next time you greet a group of people you presume to be women, ask yourself a few questions: Are they slaveholding mistresses? Are they royalty? Are they wives of heads of state? Do you know their gender identity? If the answer to these questions is no, consider the fact that “hello ladies” might not communicate the warm and timeless welcome you are hoping to convey. Try dropping the gender reference entirely, simply saying, “Hello,” or “How can I help you?” remembering that ‘you’ is a perfectly adequate greeting to use in formal or casual occasions for any number of people, and without the baggage.
 OED, Lady, n.
 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, 17 no. 2 (Winter, 1992), p. 251-274, 260.
 Richard Alan Ryerson, “The Limits of a Vicarious Life: Abigail Adams and Her Daughter,” Proceedings of the MHS, third series, vol. 100 (1988), pp. 1-14, 6.
 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776, p. 2. Massachusetts Historical Society.
 The 11th Annual Report of the House of Refuge of Philadelphia (Philadelphia,1839).
 Mary Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (Johns Hopkins, 1989); Abigail A. van Slyck, “The Lady and the Library Loafer: Gender and Public Space in Victorian America,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 221-242.
 Terry S. Kogan, Sex-Separation in Public Restrooms: Law, Architecture, and Gender, 14 Mich. J. Gender & L. 1, 58 (2007), p. 6 and 11.
 OED, Ladies, n.
 Robin Lakoff, “Language and Woman’s Place,” Language in Society, 2, no. 1 (April 1973) p. 45-80, 45.
 Cheshire Calhoun, “The Gender Closet: Lesbian Disappearance under the Sign “Women,” Feminist Studies, 21, no. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 7-34, 8.
 Monique Wittig, “One is not Born a Woman,” in The Straight Mind and Other Essays, (Beacon, 1992), p. 9-20, 13.