Is She a “Lady” or a “Woman”?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about the words lady and woman:

I was attempting to explain,  to my walking group, the difference between “woman” and “lady”. I gave examples, through parallel terms the equality between male and female, woman and man, lady and gentleman.  I said, “We are all women, but not all of us are ladies. When asked if ‘lady’ was a ‘better’ woman, I was stuck because, I don’t feel that’s is the case, but I think our culture thinks so.  Any help? 

This question is one with all kinds of ramifications.

I belong to a generation for whom gendered words used to be fairly clear-cut:

woman: generic word for a female human being
man: generic word for a male human being
lady: a woman of refined behavior and speech
gentleman: a man of refined behavior and speech

According to these simple definitions, a lady is a woman, but not all women are ladies. Ditto with the words man and gentleman.

Since the gender revolution, some women are insulted to be called “ladies,” feeling that the word suggests inferiority, hypocrisy, or condescension. Children, on the other hand, seem to be taught to call all women ladies, and Hollywood celebrities habitually use the word “lady” to mean “girlfriend” or “wife.”

The questioner’s pairing of lady and gentleman makes sense to me, but I think the word gentleman has pretty much lost its meaning for most people. For example, policemen, lawyers, and newscasters often refer to men in criminal custody as “gentlemen.” I find this usage especially irritating.

I think of lady as a special word for a classy woman, one who dresses appropriately for different occasions and speaks and acts with unfailing courtesy to everyone she encounters. I wouldn’t say that a lady is “better” than a woman. I’d just say that certain things set a “lady” apart from your generic “woman.” To draw from the celebrity sphere, I might associate the word “lady” with Oprah or Meryl Streep, but probably not with Rosanne Barr or Britney Spears.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, lady and woman still had connotations of social class. A NY Times article dated 1887 tells how a “gentleman” knocked down a cabman because he’d insulted the man’s wife by referring to her as a “woman.” In many novels, servants are careful to distinguish between “ladies and gentlemen,” and “persons” of lower rank. As late as 1966 Agatha Christie describes this exchange between Hercule Poirot and his manservant George:

Poirot considered this reply. He remembered the slight pause that George had made before the phrase–young lady. George was a delicate social recorder. He had been uncertain of the visitor’s status but had given her the benefit of the doubt.

“You are of the opinion that she is a young lady rather than, let us say, a young person?”

“I think so, sir, though it is not always easy to tell nowadays.” George spoke with genuine regret. —Third Girl

I suppose that in our “nowadays,” any significant difference between the words lady and woman has disappeared for most speakers.

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17 Responses to “Is She a “Lady” or a “Woman”?”

  • Cecily

    I think this is an area where the nuances, especially the class-related ones, are quite different in the US and the UK.

    For example, I’ve never heard of a police officer or news reporter refer to those in jail as “gentlemen”, though you make it sound commonplace. Perhaps you are generally more deferential, e.g. I’ve heard ordinary Americans repeatedly addressing their interviewer as “Sir”, which would never happen over here.

    In England, the main use of “ladies” and “gentlemen” is for public loos (restrooms) and to address groups (“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”).

    The word “gentleman” is rarely used in any other context, but “lady” persists in three main ways: when it is actually part of a title instead of Miss/Mrs/Ms (Lady Araminta Fitzherbert), ironically, or to denote respect.

    The last instance is the socially tricky one because it sometimes works back to front. Lady Araminta would probably refer to one of her domestic staff as “the cleaning lady” and the titled wife of a diplomat as “the woman who was talking to Lord Ponsonby”.

    As for when to call a woman a “girl”…?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    The reference to ‘Gentlemen’ is popular in TV Dramas – picture the constable (policeman) in the witness box, reading aloud from his notebook;

    ‘Ahem – I was patrolling in the Blackheath area on the twenty-second of August when I happened upon a gentleman wearing a striped jersey. He was attempting to break the jeweller’s window with a brick.’
    ‘And is that gentleman in court today, constable?’
    ‘He is sir – that’s the fellow right there.’

    As to whether this archaic form continues in real life, perhaps someone associated with courtroom procedures could confirm or deny this, but on TV, it persists.

    Socially, if I was to hear someone described as a woman, I would feel no antipathy towards her, but should she be referred to as a lady, I would tend to credit her with a better appearance, status and manners than the woman.

    Is this a class hangover that’s unique to Britain?
    Andy (born 1960’s)

  • Kate

    I mainly encountered “young lady” in childhood, as in…

    Me: *knocks something over and runs away*
    Adult: GET BACK HERE YOUNG LADY!

  • Deborah H

    My parents married in 1944, and at Christmas time, the U.S. Navy ship that my father was assigned to hosted a Christmas party. My mother was both amused and angered at the wording on the invitation, which read,

    “Officers and their Ladies
    Enlisted Men and their Wives … ”

    She suspected that the wording was based on some archaic form of military address, but bristled at the implication that enlisted men were not married to ladies (because she absolutely considered herself to be a lady).

  • Cecily

    @Deborah: Or maybe the officers had a tendency to bring a girlfriend or mistress, rather than a wife!

  • PreciseEdit

    Thanks, Maeve. Thanks a lot! Now I can’t stop humming “Luck Be a Lady.”

    Of course, that song does note a few qualities of being a “lady.”

    Full lyrics to “Luck Be a Lady”: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/t/toadies/luck+be+a+lady_20231949.html

  • Priya (Mumbai)

    @Cecily I quite agree, esp with this paragraph:

    The last instance is the socially tricky one because it sometimes works back to front. Lady Araminta would probably refer to one of her domestic staff as “the cleaning lady” and the titled wife of a diplomat as “the woman who was talking to Lord Ponsonby”.

    While we were never taught the subtle differences in school, I distinctly recall my mum telling me that when you refer to someone as “that lady” it’s a little derogatory, and that “that woman” accords more respect. I think she drew this conclusion on the ‘cleaning lady premise’ that you put forth.

    Then again, I like Maeve’s description of a ‘lady’ being the female equivalent of a ‘gentleman’.

    In today’s world perhaps, the distinction is minimal and both words are decidedly an improvement on ‘babe’, ‘beeyaatch’, ‘broad’, ‘chick’, ‘female’, etc etc 😛

  • Matt

    Kate, I notice how girls (both younger children and teenagers) can be called “young lady” and I find this very patronising – a boy in the same contexts would not be called “young gentleman”.

    From my experience (I’m from the UK) it seems that “gentleman” is quite restricted in usage (often only as a polite way to refer to a man) while “lady” seems to be used in many varied contexts, sometimes by people who are simply talking about a woman who isn’t present.

    It also seems, as Maeve pointed out, that children seems to be taught to call women “ladies” – however they aren’t necessarily taught to call men “gentlemen” and it seems with this particular use of “lady” (like so many other uses) it is because people find something impolite about the word “woman” (but not the word “man”).

    People can also really misuse “lady” in a similar way to the examples of “gentleman” Maeve pointed out.

  • Amara

    A bit late, but I like the word ‘lady’. Maybe it’s my generation. I know a lot of young men who refer to women as ‘babes’, ‘chicks’, and much, much worse, but perhaps it’s also my age and my upbringing. At 20 (nearing 21), I’m really rather flattered when referred to as a ‘lady’ rather than a ‘girl’ or ‘young woman’. ‘Madame’ is even more polite, but forced and not flattering – when someone says ‘lady’ in a non-offensive context, perhaps without thinking it out, I’m flattered on two levels in that I was always taught to use ‘lady’ to be polite (I remember many times I was told off for referring to someone as a ‘woman’ rather than a ‘lady’ as a child, and even nowadays use that word more often in a context when referring to someone I or the people I am conversing with know or speak to, or when I might be overheard by the person or her companions… it’s a politeness factor once again) and at my age, the connotation of a grown and sophisticated ‘lady’ as compared to ‘girl’, ‘young woman’, possibly ‘YOUNG lady’ (which is always somewhat scolding), as I have spent much of my life known as… can’t fail to be a good one, no?

    I don’t know. I know some rather rough around the edges young people who still call women ‘ladies’ — and I don’t know why I think that’s good. It might be the degree of politeness, or the sign of how they were raised. Who knows? I mean, due to the age and area in which my parents were raised, I grew up calling men men and women ladies, and it’s not old fashioned or condescending. I was taught to be polite, and to respect the dignity of other people, especially, on some level, other women; and for the record, my parents are both on the female rights side of the field, perhaps due to my mother’s sheer titanic force of personality. I was taught that being a woman was no excuse for failure, playing the damsel in distress isn’t cute, if I don’t respect myself, nobody else will, that life and academic success is paramount, and that the most important goal of all is I am intelligent, happy and independent. Babies? Husbands? Nice bonuses, but my true love is academia and my parents obsessively support that and wouldn’t have it any way… but calling a lady ‘woman’ within earshot in public is still no-go.

    It all sounds a bit archaic and fusty in a day and age when it’s more acceptable to call a woman a whore and tell her she needs to get herself checked out for some nasty STD next time you see her than call her a lady or open a door… and yes, it -is- old fashioned, but it’s also a sign of respect. Compare ‘Did you see that brunette chick?’, ‘Did you see that brunette woman?’ and ‘Did you see that brunette lady?’… there’s a marked difference, isn’t there? I think it boils down to something including upbringing and politeness, but much more complex than the sum of its parts.

    And as for my own fondness for the word… maybe it’s a generational thing? If I’d been born in the hight of Feminism, maybe I’d have hated it… but nowadays, I think it’s a nice old-fashioned touch in the age of the rise of the Tucker Max-esque frat boy, and brings to mind that today’s women (or ladies) have different problems and just as big fish to fry as the feminists of yesteryear. (Who, if you can’t tell, I’m not a big fan of. I’m a feminist by another name entirely. In essence pro-female power and in reality frustrated and disgusted at the stupidity and ignorance of many feminists who have just compounded the whole problem and given women no real power BECAUSE THEY’VE BEEN TOO BUSY FREAKING OUT ABOUT SOMEONE CALLING THEM ‘LADY’ AND HATING MEN FOR NOT BEING WOMEN…regardless of the virtues or lack thereof of aforementioned man. Yes. Rant out, but if you call me out on this and give me some feminist bs for a reason, I will angrily, misanthropically and post-feministically (or something…?) kick your sorry arse. Sorry. End of.)

    Rant out!

  • Matt

    A late post, but I was interested in Amara’s comment. It seems that for some people, Amara herself included, referring to a man who is a stranger as a “man” is acceptable, but referring to a woman who is a stranger as a “woman” is not. If referring to a woman as a “lady” is a politeness factor than surely referring to a man as a “gentleman” is also polite, especially when referring to a man in public who is within earshot.

    It seems that, for some reason, people think “woman” in certain contexts sounds rude, but “man” doesn’t. However, if a shop assistant refers to me as “this man” I would think that sounds quite blunt and imploite – surely saying “this gentleman” would be better.

    I don’t have a problem with “lady” when used in this context, in the same was as “gentleman” would be used for a man. But what I dislike is when people talk about “men and ladies”, or when people blatantly misuse the word, as in “a lady beat her daughter”. And the term “young lady” really gets me – a boy in the same context would be condescendlingly called “young man” so why “young lady” for a girl? 100 years ago, people said “young woman” – if you read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion then you will see that Professor Higgins addresses Eliza as “young woman”.

    “Lady” has also been degraded as a word when “gentleman” hasn’t – not to the same extent at least. It also seems that for some people, it is difficult to know what word to use (whether woman/lady/girl) yet they don’t seem to have the same difficulty with words for men. I have also noticed how any groups of women can be called “ladies” when men are just “guys”, “fellows” ot whatever and not “gentlemen”.

    If people do not find “man” impolite, then what is it, in certain contexts, that people find impolite about “woman”?

  • dave witt

    There are some thoughtful and well written responses here and i agree with a lot of the article about the words in question but know little of Meryl Streep. By no stretch can I see Oprah as a lady, too ultra modern and a bit bossy and mean, but what saddens me is that people today are unsure what the terms mean and that some women are insulted if you call them “Lady”, or say “Ma’am”. I was brought up to be a gentleman at all times if possible and I have had a few instances where someone was insulted by my opening the door or addressing them as “Lady”. I always apologize, usually not too profusely, but by saying, “Pardon me. I thought you were a lady.” I think some of the state of women today in America and England is the reason men are looking to other countries for wives. I’ve never met a feminine “feminist”.

  • Lana

    I’m in my 60s and my frame of reference is the southern part of the US. When a man is addressing me directly as “Lady,” that seems rude. For example, “Lady, you dropped something,” or “I’ll be there at 8:00 o’clock, Lady.” It sounds more polite to say “Ma’am, you dropped something,” or “I’ll be there at 8:00, Ma’am.” I also would never address another woman directly as “Lady,” like “Lady, could you please tell me where to find the nearest post office?” It would sound more polite to say “Ma’am, could you please tell me where to find the nearest post office.” These are all examples of addressing one single woman as “Lady,” talking to her directly.

    However, when speaking to more than one woman, it is polite to address them as “Ladies,” as in “Ladies, please take your seats.” Also, when talking about one single woman in the third person, as in “I met the lady two days ago,” or when talking about a group of women, as in “The ladies of the First Baptist Church were all present,” it is perfectly polite.

  • Rissa

    Lana, I was reading these posts and I must say I agree with you. If someone were to call me “Lady” instead of “Miss” or “Ma’am” I would feel insulted. However, if my mother said, “I want you to meet the ladies from the club.” I would know that I was meeting a group of women who were polite, gracious, and educated. In my mind a lady is a woman who by virtue of birth and/or hard work has reached her goal of being kind to others, gracious in social settings, handling awkward situations while putting others at ease, being honest without hurting others, and actually being this “Lady”, not being an actress.
    If I meet a group of people, I know who the ladies and gentlemen are and I know who are the women and men. I believe everyone knows. I do have to say that some of my favorite friends are women, not ladies, but my lifelong friends, so far, are ladies.
    As I’m writing this, I’m also feeling that it sounds classist, but I think anyone could be a lady. It doesn’t cost a dime to be kind or to care about another’s feelings.

  • Rose

    Late post but, I’d like to share my opinion I do agree with most of you. I know that there’s different between Lady and Woman and I know that everybody could be a lady. Lady is a respect word for a respectful , polite and kind ladies. Who never ever lose that rank of politeness. A woman is a word for women who acting normally like sometimes she’s poilet sometimes she’s not you know what I mean and this goes for men too. I’ve rose for this. my parents taught me about that .being a young lady ^^. Thanks to them .

  • John R Jones

    I am curious if lesbians prefer to be called women instead of ladies. Many people including me prefer the term “lady” or “ladies”, but we know several lesbians who are members of female groups, oppose the word lady (or ladies) and are trying to change “ladies” to “womens” in the name.
    I don’t want to identify who or what they are involved in but is is like wanting “The Ladies Institute” changed to “The Womens Institute”.

  • Rowan

    I think feminists have objected to ‘lady’ on the basis that comes with implications of gender-oppressive behaviour expectation. Can you be a lady if you are not ladylike?

  • Ben

    Speaking of a lady or a woman which years ago the Good old fashioned women were real Ladies compared to today. And most of them did make a very Good wife as well.

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