Please Stop Calling Us “Ladies”

It’s become ubiquitous.

Everywhere we go we hear, “Hello, ladies”. “Ladies, how can I help you?” “What will you ladies be having?” and “Thank you, ladies, please come again.”

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with these phrases, despite the superfluous “ladies” dumped into the beginning, middle, and end of them.

What’s wrong is that one of us – a lesbian couple – doesn’t identify as a “lady”.

My sweetheart isn’t trans or gender-queer; she’s definitely female-identified. But she’s decidedly butch, and has never been the feminine flower that “lady” implies. She hates to be called that, and I suspect she’s not alone.

One of my butch friends told me that when she was in second grade, after quite a struggle, her mother sent her to school in a dress. My friend went into the restroom and refused to come out. She stayed in there, embarrassed and crying, until the school called home and asked her mother to bring her some jeans.

My friend didn’t have words for what she would grow up to be, but I’m sure she already knew, deep in her second grade self, that she wouldn’t be a “lady”.

My sweetheart is like that. Calling her “lady” is like trying to stuff that budding tomboy into a dress. It’s a refusal to recognize who, and what, she is, even when she’s in a sports coat or a black leather jacket.

Of course, I understand that “lady” has become synonymous with “woman”. But what service professional in their right mind would greet us with “Hello, women.” or “What will you women be having?”

In fact, to transpose those words creates phrases that sound oddly sexist.

We realize that every retail clerk and waitperson isn’t setting out to ruin her day. But there’s no reason to approach our table with “Hello, ladies,” when “Hello” will do just as well. Strangely, this is just as likely to happen in a queer-friendly environment as anywhere else.

We’ve tried a couple of different approaches. She has tried educating people kindly, often to blank looks. Many meals start out with her muttering, “I’m not a lady,” as the waitperson walks away. Sometimes I’ll say kindly that she’s not a lady. I’ve suggested that waitpeople do it intentionally, as a way of recognizing that she’s not a male person. However, I’m sure it’s more like a mindless linguistic tic than an intentional statement.

So, spread the word: If you’re in the retail or service industry, or any business where you have contact with the public, from airlines to booths at the Folsom Street Fair, stop calling women “ladies”. (Print this out and hang it on a bulletin board where your co-workers can read it too.)

Words like “ladies” are supposed to be polite, but anything that calls attention to a difference – like color, size, or gender – is bound to exclude someone, and that’s never polite.

I know that service people also approach men and say “What will you gentlemen be having today?” But they don’t usually differentiate for tables of mixed gender or other obvious visual combinations. In my informal poll, most waitpeople will use a neutral phrase in these situations. To try and concoct a phrase that works  would be awkward and cumbersome.

Well, guess what? It’s also awkward and cumbersome for us when you lump us together with a one-word description that doesn’t need to be there.

After all, there’s no phrase I’ve used in this essay that wouldn’t be just as warm or welcoming without the ubiquitous “ladies” interjected into it.

See, you had us at “hello”.

8 responses to “Please Stop Calling Us “Ladies”

  1. Very good points indeed. “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” are used daily where I live – it’s part of Southern life.
    When I was dating a transman who had not yet started T, there were definitely service people who addressed us as “ladies” with spite, usually with an eye roll. Those people were treated with respect by us, but if there was a tip involved it …wasn’t. Other people would start to say “Hello Ladies” but would instead stutter and come out with “Hey ya’ll”
    “Ya’ll” is a great term in that way. 🙂

  2. This drives me nuts, too. I always want to be snarky and ask if we all LOOK like ladies. It also always makes me unsure as to why people can’t just give a generic “hello.”

    Thanks for this post 🙂

  3. Yikes. I hate that, too. In my experience, I pass as male so often that when people call my galpal and I “ladies,” they’re usually queer or queer-friendly folks trying to be nice. I guess that’s good, but it weirds me out. Almost as bad: the things men call each other. When I deliver pizzas to men, they refer to me as “buddy,” “partner,” “chief,” and, once, “kemosabe.” It’s WEIRD. I am generically friendly to everyone I interact with in my job, and I do not find it difficult or burdensome. A friend of mine mentioned the idea of making informative business cards to leave on the table with the tip in restaurants. We should do it.

    • The cards on tables… that’s exactly what I was thinking… or maybe even something flyer-sized that the restaurant could post in the back… and buttons… yeah, some buttons that say “Don’t call us ladies!”

  4. On the other hand, my ex is a butch who does not like being called a butch. Hehe.

  5. I have short hair, about the same length as my boyfriend. The GM of a restaurant greeted us from behind with “good evening Gentlemen!” and I turned to him with a sparkly smile and said “I’m a lady!” and he was SO flustered and apologetic. It was kind of awesome. He did refer to us as “guys” for the rest of the night – which I realize has a bit of a gender neutral tone, but not REALLY.
    We did get some freebies out of it and some great service.

    I wish it were that easy for your sweetheart – maybe she could try “that’s my lady, I’m her [insert phrase she might prefer]” If you engage with them openly, sometimes a mutual understanding can be reached. It’s definitely harder than just leaving a card on the table but face to face interaction is the best way to educate people.

  6. Oh, and, when I waited tables in New Mexico, I picked up “y’all” and loved it.
    It really should be nationwide. 🙂

  7. My former CEO used to refer to my team and I as “ladies” all the time, and it would drive me crazy. I mentioned it to my boss, and she said, “Oh, he’s just trying to be nice” and let it go.

    I think so many people just see that as The Nice Thing to Say When Addressing Women that they don’t think about what they’re doing. I’ve responded before with “I’m no lady” to get the point across with a hint of humor, but a lot of times it just goes over the speaker’s head. Oh well.

    Thanks for writing this.

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