The sex in our words

I’ve been thinking a lot about the casual sexism in my life, as I’ve mentioned. One pet peeve that has arisen: When a group of women is communicating, and they feel the need to use the word ladies constantly.

Okay, ladies, what do you think about…
Do you ladies agree?”
Ladies, let’s do this.

I’m not even talking about the stereotypical Okay, ladies, where shall we have lunch? No, it’s worse than that.

Okay, ladies, how are we going to address this global warming issue?
What do you ladies think about those whack jobs up in Oregon? Shall we bomb them, or do they have a point?
Let’s go feed some starving children, ladies!

Maybe it’s just because I work with only women now, both in my day job and in my freelancing gigs, but I grit my teeth every time I see the word ladies. First of all, I don’t think of myself as a lady.* But that’s not the only reason. If we were men, would we feel the need to mention our gender all the time?

Okay, gentlemen, where shall we have lunch? 
What do you gentlemen think about… 
Do you gentlemen agree? 

Not bloody likely. Maybe in the distant past, but guys these days don’t tend to talk like that. Though substituting dudes for gentlemen does bring to mind a voice somewhere between Keanu Reeves and Ashton Kutcher, so perhaps there is a precedent for gender-flogging amongst a certain subset of males.

I have not forgotten that I am female. Or that you are female. That we are all, in fact, female. I do not need a reminder.

And yes, I get that it’s kind of special that we are all female. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’re not there yet. We won’t be there until we can stop having stupid conversations about parental leave and periods and whether or not it might inappropriately arouse someone if I feed my kid in front of them. So yeah…best get comfy, because this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.

But I don’t think we help matters when we fly the ladies flag in situations in which our gender does not, in fact, matter. For example, if I am editing a piece on breastfeeding, and I am a woman who has breastfed, my gender is relevant.** I bring a special knowledge to the piece, through my gender and experience. If, however, I am editing a journal article on the comparison of Drug A and Drug B, my gender does not matter a bit, and I see no need to call attention to it. (Actually, I see no need to call attention to it in the first piece, either, unless my expertise is called into question.) Nor does it matter when we are deciding what color font to use in a project, in which order we should all review proofs, or — indeed! — where we should consume the mid-day meal.

I am a woman, yes. But first and foremost, I am a person. If you would not say men, gentlemen, dudes, or some variation thereof if the gender composition of the group were flipped, and if you would not feel compelled to throw in people if the group comprised both genders, do not say ladies.

I read somewhere recently that people feel this same way about the use of you guys and guys. Which I found interesting, given that I wrote a paper in grad school on the use of you guys versus y’all. Back then, usage seemed fairly split, and appeared to depend largely on where a person was born. (Above the Mason-Dixon line, you guys; below it, y’all.) Usage seems to have shifted in recent years, with more universal use of y’all (though I have not done any sort of formal survey to test that theory); the article I read postulated that this shift is because people are put off by the inherent sexism of you guys. Which shocked me — probably because I was born on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I have always preferred you guys. Partly because y’all sounds very Duke Boys to my ear;*** partly because another pet peeve of mine is when people misplace the apostrophe.**** But I have been trying to compromise by replacing you guys with you all — or writing around the construction entirely.

As I type this, I can feel a certain subset of people bristling at having to think so hard about mere words. I sympathize. I used to feel the same way. But words matter. Not because I work with them for a living (of course I think they matter!), but because what we say reflects what we believe. Sometimes it’s a subtle reflection, but it’s always there. Change your words, change your mind.

*To me, lady evokes connotations of floral dresses and tea and repressed sexual morals. I’m not the most open person sexually, and I certainly try not to be crass, but I have been living in sin with my baby daddy and our two illegitimate kids for several years now, which appears to have been enough to get me cut out of Grandma’s will. Prim and proper, I ain’t.

**I am not really up to speed on all of the cis/trans stuff, so I’m merely addressing what I know, which is the dichotomy of physically male and female. Forgive my ignorance of the rest. I’m not judging or dismissing…I just don’t know enough to speak to it.

***Does that date me? Okay, Britney Spears. Though that probably dates me, too.

****The contraction is of the words you all, not ya all — the apostrophe replaces the letters ou a and thus comes after the y. Please, take pity on the punctuation nerd. ::twitch::

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