"Do you prefer women or ladies? " asks Charles Hollopeter, a Pasadena attorney.
Which is the proper word? He points out that there seems to be no standard. In Golf Digest, for example, women's professional records are based on tour statistics of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn.
At various golf courses and country clubs all score cards refer to men's handicaps and course ratings, while some refer to women's ratings and others to ladies' ratings.
"At La Canada Flintridge Country Club, where I play," Hollopeter says, "the score card refers to ladies' handicap holes and course rating which apply to members of the Women's Golf Assn."
"After dinner speakers invariably open by saying 'Ladies and gentlemen,' not 'Women and men'; likewise, members of the fairer sex may repair to the ladies' room--not the women's room. In the professions, woman seems to be the choice. Females are women attorneys or women doctors.
"Finally," he says, "it seems to me that the words women and ladies are not synonymous and therefore not interchangeable. Will you please put me straight?"
I certainly can not presume to set Mr. Hollopeter straight on a matter that the feminists have not managed to standardize in 15 years of power over the language.
They have turned us all from men into persons, but they leave us in the dark as to whether it is ladies that have done this to us, or women.
Obviously, the women's movement does not like the word ladies , since it seems to be patronizing, to evoke all the old assumptions of delicacy and dependency that women are trying to erase.
A lady may be educated, even powerful in the family councils, especially if she has control of the money; but she is not expected to do men's work; and she is expected to faint in a crisis.
Ladies are not, therefore, the equal of men, but their creatures. Expensive, well-bred, cultivated, beautiful, desirable, useful and good company; but not permitted to sweat, or to be sexually aggressive, or to take part in male powwows, or to make money.
If a lady enters the business world, she becomes a woman; though, once she has entered the board room, the gentlemen may censor their language on the excuse that "there are ladies present."
Lady athletes are women. They are certainly as aggressive and competitive as men, and a woman playing in a golf tournament is no more a lady than Martina Navratilova is a lady when she serves and volleys at a cowering opponent or Margaret Thatcher is when she sends the British armed forces to the Falklands.
And yet, if I were to approach a group of businesswomen or women athletes sipping drinks on a country club terrace I would not nod and say "Women." Unthinkable. I would say, "Ladies."
The word women accents women's biological differences from men. It asserts their equality in the biological equation. It makes them important and formidable. It identifies them as competitors.
The word ladies accents their dependency. They are appurtenances to men in society; desirable baubles. But they are something society needs. Refined, decorative, aesthetically sensitive, morally aware. They are the ultimate products of civilization.
Most women, I'm sure, like to be treated, in certain circumstances, as ladies, even though they may not be kept or be otherwise dependent on any male. It is just that they are looked up to by society as superior creatures.
Hollopeter is exactly right. The words women and ladies are not synonymous. Neither are the words ladies and gentlemen exactly the same in weight, but both perform much the same service.
They are often used in situations that are volatile, and it is thought that an appeal to civil conditioning might be useful:
"Please, let's try to remember we're ladies here"; or, "Gentlemen, in case of a knockdown you must go to a neutral corner."
As Hollopeter notes, no speaker would begin by saying, "Men and women," unless, that is, he was addressing a group of revolutionaries and deliberately trying to arouse their baser instincts.
It is true that restrooms are more often identified as ladies' and gentlemen's than by women's and men's ; perhaps this is because going to the restroom is essentially a physiological necessity, and in giving these retreats the more socially genteel names of the two sexes it is thought that the visits are made to seem less vulgar.
It seems to me it would be all right to call a lawyer a lady lawyer and a doctor a lady doctor, except that those are the names we gave them in the days between the suffragettes and the second women's movement, when women were just breaking into the professions, in small numbers, and were still thought of as quite unusual and perhaps a little amusing. Any name coming from that era, burdened with that prejudice, is bound to be anathema to women today.
My own feeling is that the word lady is obsolete as the generic word for a grown female, though it may survive in special circumstances.
I myself call women women-- even very young women, who especially seem to appreciate the recognition of their sexual maturity. (I often call older women girls. )
But in groups I will continue to call women ladies , and when I address an audience I will say "Ladies and gentlemen," and when a woman asks me where the ladies' is, I'll know what she's talking about.
Shall we join the ladies?