Am I a Lady?

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.


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4 Responses to Am I a Lady?

  1. Carlos says:


    poignant observation on the state of the world in 2015… yes, 2015!…

    perhaps next time you can thank the host by addressing him as a ‘male’ “something”…

  2. Lynne Roper says:

    Absolutely re the grammatical mistakes, and spurious gendering. The term “lady” though contains a veritable morass of patriarchal norms and expectations in terms of appearance, dress and behaviour that makes it grate particularly.

    A lady must not swear, her knees should be together and covered, and her ankles crossed when she sits. She must not have opinions on anything more controversial than knitting patterns. She should not work outside the home. She will have “breeding” whereby her genes will tell her which cutlery to use at banquets.

  3. Adrian says:

    Thanks for writing this. It only makes it that much more awkward when needlessly specifying the sex/gender of a person to then accentuate it with weird grammar.

    I was reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, recently, and came across this sentence about Mendeleev’s mother:

    “Boldly for the time, his mother took over a local glass factory to support the family and managed the male craftsmen working there” (p. 50).

    She managed “male craftsmen” – It was as if he was so impressed with her being in management over male people – that he had to state their sex twice for emphasis. So awkward. I’d think we’d be beyond this… Thanks for pointing it out so we can all be more aware and hopefully make this change happen as quickly and widely as possible. And props to Rachel Miller for making that change in her article. 🙂

  4. Trevor Hawkes says:

    I too loathe the word ‘lady’ and all that it stands for; it embodies the idea that, unlike men, women are too delicate, different or pusillanimous to be called women.

    How can this creeping blight on standard English be stopped (along with things like “Between you and I…” or “Myself and Jane can’t come …”) ? Americans sometimes use the word as a put-down as in “Look out , lady, !” It’s a pity that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are both modifications of the male forms. Strangely, it sounds OK in long-standing compounds like ladybird, landlady, etc.

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