I am of a generation that was brought up with (though most certainly not to laugh at) the joke ‘That’s no lady, that’s my wife’. Classist overtones? Undoubtedly, as well as inherent sexism: the word ‘lady’ to me is not one with which I want to be associated. Let us leave aside the question of whether a knight’s wife should be deemed a Lady, though that also contains inherent sexism: my husband has no title deriving merely from the fact that I am a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, as such a Lady does. However, use of the word ‘lady’ continues to be used in ways I regard as sexist and demeaning: as in ‘here is top lady scientist Professor X’. And yes, I have been introduced essentially in that cringe-inducing way. As far as I’m concerned, either I should be introduced as a top scientist or just call me Professor without any adjectival qualifier (I will return to the idea of ‘adjectival’ below).
So when the Buzzfeed Life section ran a listing on what women at the top would offer by way of advice to young women setting out I felt a little put off by its headline referring to ‘lady bosses’, albeit I am well aware of the honour I should feel at the sight of my own words appearing in such a list (and if I hadn’t known beforehand, my Twitter feed soon spelled this out ). My own tweet expressed slight unease about the title (poorly reproduced below) and the next time I looked the offending word had been removed (so thank you Rachel if you’re reading this). Now the title simply reads ‘ 21 Tips For Slaying At Work From Top Bosses’ which seems positive enough.
However let me return to the adjectival use of the word lady which I so dislike. It has always jarred on me although I’d never stopped to wonder why; the word ‘woman’ as a prefix would annoy me almost as much if used in this way. Then I read an article in the Guardian during the autumn and all was made plain. I was reacting against the bad English as much as against the highlighting of gender. I am not a woman scientist – any more than I am a lady scientist. If it is felt necessary to point out that I am a woman, the correct usage is that I am a female scientist. Woman and lady are nouns and should not be used to qualify another noun. This is not a new complaint. Dorothy Sayers in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night about a fictitious Oxford women’s college and speaking through the voice of her quasi-heroine Harriet Vane, objected to the head of the college being referred to as a ‘Lady Head’. I suppose in that language I would be a Lady Master. It’s just wrong, as well as distasteful.
Now by and large I see no reason why my gender should be relevant when I am introduced as a speaker; after all it’s pretty obvious once I’m standing there that I am indeed a woman. I am a scientist who happens to be a woman, however, not someone who is doing womanly science. Nevertheless, if my profession has to have a gendered tag attached to it to satisfy someone’s sense of – well what? Old-fashioned chivalry? – let’s say propriety, I wish they could get their grammar right.
But one should ask – although the moment of a public introduction hardly seems the right moment to do this – why is it necessary to identify my gender at all? I find it hard to imagine introducing a man as ‘here is male Professor X’, let alone as ‘gentleman Professor X’. I’m afraid it comes down to the quote of Samuel Johnson
woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all
Since it still seems surprising to some to find, for example, a female physicist giving a seminar, such people appear to feel obliged to refer to it. I can’t help feeling that those who choose to stress my gender in introductions probably think, misguidedly, they are somehow complimenting me because of my rarity value. From where I stand, it doesn’t feel that way.