Stella Mills of Wasps has voiced her complaints (https://www.rugbypass.com/news/i-looked-at-the-circle-of-players-around-me-and-every-single-one-cringed/) about the use of the word ‘lady’ as Wasps become the last of the ten Premier 15s clubs to shed the term in their title.
The real source of the problem is the English language, which is slow to pick up on the latest changes in social attitudes. ‘Lady’ or ‘Woman’?
Despite the growing need for gender equality, the words we use fail to keep up. We can still say ‘the Red Roses mastered the conditions well’ and ‘they’ve created a two-man overlap’; cricket uses ‘third man’ for women’s games, and nobody notices.
‘Man’ itself is a minefield, having two distinct uses, both ‘all human beings’ and 50% of human beings’.
How do we survive?
Female referees regularly address players as ‘Ladies’. There is no alternative. English doesn’t allow them to say: ‘Women, calm down!’ That is unthinkable. Did the Irish and English packs cringe when Aimee Barrett-Theron used the word to address them mid-match?
Neither they nor the coach Stella Mills quotes (‘Ladies, I just wanted to introduce myself…’) had an option. For them the word indicates respect. A great cricketer of the same generation as Stella Mills, Sarah Taylor, is happy to inspire her fellow players with: ‘Come on, ladies!’
Since the Second World War we have grown wary of using words that might give offence. But the process is always irregular. it’s very much a matter of generations; what is fine for grandmother is not for granddaughter, and vice versa.
For Mills the word ‘lady’ brings up immediate associations, all distasteful:
‘For me, it is a specific set of behaviours which women were previously, and are still to some extent, expected to demonstrate. They revolve around an idealised image of a woman, behaving in a ‘proper’ manner whilst being polite, graceful, and adhering to the general status quo. Basically, ‘ladies’ are to be seen and not heard.’
Sliding up and down
But these social terms slide up and down the scale of acceptability to an astonishing degree. An extreme example is the word ‘queen’. For us it at once indicates the first lady/woman of the land. It is directly connected to the Greek ‘guné, meaning ‘woman’ (gynaecology). But there is an English dialect variation ‘quean’ which means exactly the opposite, a woman at the base of society. You can look it up.
‘Lady’ too inhabits different rungs of the social scale. A lady-in-waiting at the royal court may well employ a ‘charlady’ to do her household chores. Yes, why not ‘charwoman’?
‘Woman’ derives from a doublet meaning ‘wife-man’. And ‘wife’ itself originally indicated ‘woman’!
As a man venturing into the world of women’s sport I have to be ultra-cautious. My webmaster (who is a woman) is careful to pick me up if my choice of words is unwise. But her position is not exactly the same as Stella Mills’, and therein lies the heart of the problem.