Friday, October 20, 2017
Jessica Halem and Jen Manion, Why Do You Call Us Ladies? History, Gender and Manners in Public Life
It seems as if the term ‘ladies’ has made a comeback in public life. No matter where we are — in a small town or big city, in the gayborhood or a mainstream hotspot — strangers greet us the same way: “Hello, ladies;” or “What can I get you ladies?” And we are not alone. Hosts, servers, and salespeople everywhere address those they presume to be women, as ‘ladies,’ without a thought about the meaning or history of the term. People who are more masculine than your average cisgender guy; people who engage in public displays of queer affection; people who are femme, athletic, punky, androgynous, or professional are all addressed as ‘ladies’ now. The question is, why?
The term ‘ladies’ itself has a history that illuminates how power, privilege, and oppression have functioned throughout American history. From early modern times through much of the twentieth century, the term ‘lady’ signified women with power and authority over others by virtue of their race, class, marriage, or ancestry. A lady was a queen or head of household who oversaw subjects, children, servants, and slaves. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham notes, “Ladies were not merely women; they represented a class, a differentiated status within the generic category of “women.”” During Reconstruction, for example, married black women who didn’t work outside of the home and aspired to such status were socially condemned for even trying. A lady was a quintessentially normative white woman who set the standards by which other women were judged.
While the social and political criteria for addressing a singular woman as ‘lady’ remained intact for centuries, the plural version of the term proved more flexible. ‘Ladies’ became a polite form of address to a general group of women on their own or with men, as in ‘ladies and gentleman,’ a phrase that is still commonly used to this day. Even though ‘ladies’ could be used interchangeably with ‘women,’ it also retained an element of specificity throughout the nineteenth century. Nowhere was this more evident than in the difference between sex-segregation of spaces and the designation of certain areas for ‘ladies.’
Sex-segregation itself was routinized in American life by the state in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century carceral institutions, from almshouses and prisons to asylums. Voluminous reports documenting carceral life designated groups of people “females or males” and declared certain spaces for “women or men” — but never for ‘ladies.’ The Philadelphia House of Refuge, for example, had “male and female” departments. The only ‘ladies’ who set foot there were elite reformers who visited as part of their service on the ‘ladies committee.’
The emergence of ‘ladies’ rooms in the later decades of the nineteenth century signaled something different. Special spaces for ‘ladies’ in department stores, libraries, trains, and restaurants were seen as a way to carry a bit of the protective tranquility associated with the domestic realm into public areas. It matters that they were called ‘ladies’ rooms and not women’s rooms. ‘Ladies’ rooms were not intended for poor, black, immigrant and working women who already moved around in public; invisible to the protective gaze that followed and constrained elite white women. Under Jim Crow segregation, for instance, black women regardless of class were not allowed to use the ‘ladies’ rooms. In 1887, Massachusetts and New York were the first two states to pass laws that required employers provide separate restrooms for women. This extension of ‘ladies’ spaces to workers was an expansion of the protective ideal that rendered some women more precious and fragile than men.
For a prior related post, ladies in sports teams