Ladies vs. Women – a distinction, a difference, a dialog

Jane Austen Lives

We just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I celebrated it, anyway, along with a bunch of other Jane Austen fans in a cyber-chat on January 28. There is something compelling about Austen’s writing, the way she can depict all of life in the doings of a small English village. Mark Twain’s back handed compliment is actually a testament to how her stories keep drawing the reader back for more: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Yes, Mr. Twain, we understand; you can’t keep yourself from reading her time and again.

Austen’s stories are character driven. She draws them so that we can’t help but recognize ourselves or see our friends, neighbors, family and co-workers in them. There is also the urge to be like them, to aspire, to dream of joining them in their lives 200 years ago. Oh, to be a gentleman of means. Oh, to be a lady of good family and fortune. A Jane Austen lady: what woman could hope for more?

Sweet Girls

When I started out as a lawyer back in the ’80s, there were a number of employment cases that exemplified the changing nature of the work force. One recurrent figure was The Old Guy Boss (or TOGB, for short). A typical set of facts might include the way TOGB spoke to women in the office, perhaps referring to them as “Girls” or similar terms. And as you can imagine these cases were about more than mere words, concerning discrimination and hostile work environments.

I remember one case our law firm had where TOGB had a habit of calling the women “Sweetie”, but did not use a similar term for men. When one of the women pointed it out to him and ask that he not do so any longer, he immediately apologized. She thanked him, to which he responded without thinking, “Sure thing, Sweetie.” That was not one of the best facts TOGB or his company could point to in the later-filed employment discrimination litigation.

What was wrong with it? It’s demeaning. Yet that practice alone was not the basis of the suit. Rather, when the records show that women miss out on promotions, are denied career-enhancing assignments, and are paid less than men with similar qualifications, then a history of demeaning comments is of no help to any company trying to justify its personnel decisions.

Words from the Pulpit

Happily, many employers have turned the corner on this type of demeaning behavior toward their employees. There are still many instances of job discrimination, of course, but this particular nastiness is not as prevalent as it once was.

So why write about it now?

I heard something the other day that brought back memories of that era of litigation. In fact, I’ve heard it too many times to count in recent years. It comes from the pulpit.

“The men are on retreat this weekend, but you ladies still have two weeks to sign up for yours and we have a few slots left …”

“The men’s group continues with its study on Thursday mornings. A new ladies’ Bible study is beginning on Tuesday …”

“While the men are going to the foothills for a day of mountain biking, the ladies will have their own activities over at …”

Men: not gentlemen.

Ladies: not women.

Words mean things. Women and men are words that denote generic classes of people, one male and one female. Gentlemen and ladies are much more restrictive words, and somewhat archaic in their meaning too.

In English society of centuries past, generally a “Gentleman” was a man who had significant landed property, often owning not only his own estate but also the surrounding farmland and nearby village that he rented to farmers and village tenants (think of Jane Austen’s landholders such as Mr. Knightley in Emma) and a consequent status as a member of the gentry (a step or so below the nobility). A “Lady” had a similar place in society, but always by virtue of the status of her father or husband; the word also had a slightly broader application, attaching to women in the nobility and the gentry both.

Here in the States, we don’t have titles of nobility. And while we used to have something similar to the gentry of England, that has passed as well.  Still, we adopted – and held to for generations – the use of gentleman and lady as terms to denote a status in society, one that is above the laboring class. Nowadays the words are far from their original meaning in daily use. Now they pertain more to a person’s behavior than her or his status in society: “She’s so ladylike” or “He’s a perfect gentleman” are more the way people think of the words.

Aiming Too Low

And that brings me to what’s wrong with what I’ve been hearing from the pulpit in announcements and sermons.

First, if the women are ladies, then the men are gentleman. A failure to use consistent terminology is confusing to those of us who know and appreciate the difference.

Second, it’s demeaning. Men get to be men, but women are expected by church leadership to be ladies.

Third, it’s doctrinally unsound. We are not called to enter God’s kingdom out of an expectation that we will behave in certain ways (e.g., that women will now behave like ladies). We are called into his kingdom despite the fact that we won’t behave appropriately much of the time (think of Paul’s description of his abhorrent behavior in Romans 7, or David’s confessions in Psalm 51 after what he did to poor Uriah and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11).

We are not Christians so we can now try to add behaving like perfect little gentlemen and perfect little ladies to our accomplishments. No, there is only One who is perfect and we are Christians because of what Christ has already perfectly accomplished for us.

Besides, a goal to be ladies or gentlemen in the church is aiming way too low. We already have a much higher status: we are children of God the Father, co-heirs with Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit himself dwells in us.

You couldn’t pay me enough to want to be a gentleman. And I am glad that my sisters in Christ are infinitely more than mere ladies.


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61 Responses to Ladies vs. Women – a distinction, a difference, a dialog

  1. Adriana says:

    ” . . . it’s demeaning. Men get to be men, but women are expected by church leadership to be ladies.”

    The funny thing is, Tim. As I’m reading this I’m feeling sorry for the men who don’t get to be referred to as gentlemen. I’ve never met a little boy who doesn’t light up with delight when I praise him for holding the door by calling him a “gentleman.” I’m not sure I’m ready to drop the term. Chivalry is timeless.

    When I use the terms “lady” or “gentleman” I’m thinking of a woman or man who embodies attributes of courtesy, selflessness, and grace. The point of using good manners is not to make others uncomfortable! On the contrary — it is to show others that we respect them! When I meet a person who displays these characteristics, it is an honor for me to tell my children, “Ms./Mr. or Such-n-such is a true lady/ gentleman.”

    I’m always shocked by the rudeness I see about me in the world. This past summer at the YMCA, I witnessed three 10-12 yr old boys nearly knock an elderly LADY to the ground as they shoved past her through the heavy doorway leading to the outdoor pool. She literally stumbled and not one of them looked back. My sons witnessed this.

    We may not need to behave in certain ways to enter God’s kingdom, but this mama’s gonna call down “hell-fire & brimstone” if I ever see my children display such unladylike/ ungentlemanly-like behavior to a stranger.

    • Tim says:

      Until recently, being a lady or a gentleman had nothing to do with manners. One could act like a perfect oaf and still be fully entitled to the use of lady or gentleman. It all had to do with one’s place in society. If you were a member of the gentry, then you were a gentleman or a lady no matter how badly you treated others. Good manners, though, could of course be found all up and down the ranks of society.

      About a century and a half ago, we started morphing lady and gentleman into identifiers for behavior. I think this does a disservice to people with good manners. Good manners don’t make us into gentleman or ladies. Good manners show we care about others. When our kids were young, I took to the habit of saying that they acted kindly when they would act with good manners toward others. But calling them a little gentleman or lady never entered my mind. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing from where I am, but it seems to have consequences in how we see our brothers and sisters in Christ.


      • Adriana says:

        I find it helpful to have respectful terms which are not explicitly Christian. If I want to acknowledge my Hindu neighbor’s courteous behavior toward my family, I may speak of him to my children as a “gentleman ” instead of a “man.” This is a simple way to show him respect and elevate him in their esteem.

        “…it seems to have consequences in how we see our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
        This all depends on the way a term is used. I’ve more frequently noticed the term “woman” abused. For example, when I was teaching piano lessons, one of the piano fathers yelled up to stairs to his wife, “WOMAN, are you ready to go yet?!”
        (Notice the interrobang.)

        This sickened me.

        On the other hand . . . (I do love Tevye’s way of thoroughly examining both sides of an issue in Fiddler on the Roof.) . . . on the other hand, Christ referred to His mother as “Woman” and I can’t imagine our Lord was being the least bit demeaning to her when he used that word.

        • Tim says:

          That use of the word “woman” is another language abuse that galls me, and in that case you can see how it reflects a relationship abuse as well. He might not have hit his wife with his fist, but he sure smacked her around with his words.

          And I love your Fiddler reference and how Jesus used the word “woman” for his own mother. That is really illuminating, Adriana.

        • Tim, this is really helpful.

          Adriana – The words man / woman and gentleman / lady in themselves are not the issue. Christian men should be gentlemen in manners and Christian women ladies, if those words denote characteristics consistent with the fruit of the Spirit. All too often though, they are laden with burdensome cultural connotations. It’s really the disparity that is indicative to attitude from church leadership. When men are called men but women are called ladies, there’s a certain bias that comes through. I think Tim’s right it communicates that behavioral conformity is the most important thing about a female in the church.

        • Tim says:

          EM, that sums up the whole post so well. Where were you when I was writing this thing? I could have shortened it up considerably with your well-stated words!

        • Adriana says:

          Amen. I agree completely. Thank you for adding your insights, EM.

  2. Great post! Thank God we don’t have to be ‘ladies’ or ‘gentlemen.’

    I find I’m still often called a ‘girl’, though no man my age would ever get called a ‘boy’. It’s tricky because some women like to refer to themselves as girls (‘girls gone wise’), but to me it implies naivety, childishness and a lack of confidence.

    Though I’m not sure that ‘lady’ is always equivalent to ‘gentleman’ because ‘lady’ also can have connotations of being a sexual object (I’m thinking of all the songs with some kind of variation of ‘hey sexy lady’) which ‘gentleman’ does not have (‘sexy gentleman’ doesn’t quite roll off the tongue). I’d prefer to be called a woman.

    • Tim says:

      Girl … lady … sweetie. They all are so subject to misuse. God made us men and women, male and female. He did not make us gentleman and ladies. Laura, I think your first paragraph points out quite well that the use of the words in the body of Christ mean something that is less than what God intends us to be.


    • Adriana says:

      I might have once been offended by being called “girl”, but the closer I get to 40 the more I view it as a compliment.

      I actually got carded recently!! (I think it’s the law to card everyone who makes an alcohol purchase in my state now, but still.) It was really thrilling.

      • Tim says:

        Then again, there’s the danger of being taken as older than one is. My wife and I are occasionally asked if we want the senior discount, usually by someone 3 decades or so younger than we are. My answer is fast becoming, “I’d love it, but I’m not of age yet.”

        • Sarah says:

          Senior discounts are tricky, because as a retail employee one is torn between possibly insulting someone, but also not wanting someone to miss out on a good deal. Such a conflict. I did occasionally very cautiously remark that seniors were entitled to a free soft drink at the Chick-fil-A I worked at, because, hey, I’d be upset if I could have been getting free drinks, and nobody told me.

        • Tim says:

          My wife has been asking for senior discounts since she turned 50. Me too.

  3. Jeannie says:

    I think sometimes those who use the word “ladies” just think it sounds more polite. And sometimes it does. If I go to the hardware store for widgets and the man I ask for help can’t find any, he’ll call his supervisor and say, “Joe, this lady’s looking for widgets.” If he said “woman” it would sound really weird — and Joe would probably tell him later to be more respectful. Maybe the people who refer to “ladies” in church just think it sounds more polite too. If it has that “pooh-poohing” connotations (you ladies just do your little thing over there), then I don’t like it, but sometimes it’s genuinely well-intentioned.

    This is a little aside, but speaking of ladylike: on Downton Abbey, Anna says, “I love you, Mr. Bates; I know it’s not ladylike to say so, but I’m not a lady and I don’t pretend to be” — and he replies, “You’re a lady to me, and I’ve never met a finer one.” (Heart flutter here.) I’m so glad the writers didn’t use “woman” in that scene! 🙂

  4. SJBeals says:

    Tim, I don’t necessarily mind the word “ladies” because in my mind it is a man trying to be a gentleman when addressing women. I usually assume that with the guys he is just being a guy. (I don’ t tend to assume the worst about my brothers in the church, but to me they do seem a little clueless. Classic men vs women stuff there? Probably.) What really irks me is this: We get a brochure for a Conference for Pastors and their wives, and the brochure highlights specific teaching/ sessions for my husband and then says “There will also be a ladies track, including special breakfasts, and activities “like antiquing.” and a day out shopping. To me, this is demeaning. Women who stand beside ministry men are not all about shopping.

    • Tim says:

      The man might very well be trying to be a gentleman. But why? Is that a model we want in our churches? I don’t see it as having biblical support. Instead, I see these things actually getting in the way of how the Bible tells us to treat our brothers and sisters.

      And about that brochure? I’d mail it back to the sponsors with a note asking when the women’s spelunking-and-the-word-of-God session was being held. That’s when you enter a cave and discuss 1 Samuel 24.


  5. Mary Anne says:

    As a woman who has grown up in the Deeeeep South, this is a loaded issue for me.

    My first impression of the word “lady” was “someone who never has any fun” because every time I was having any fun in my tomboy (another loaded term) way, or settling a quarrel in the backyard by punching someone’s head, some of my older female relatives—thankfully not my mother, bless her—would respond with “Act like a little lady!” QED: all my natural behaviours were wrong, somehow. Ladies had to be demure and quiet (and put up with teasing and abuse that a quick punch or two could terminate with extreme prejudice, immediately). Ladies had to be fascinated with all sorts of pursuits that were pure boredom for me.

    I’ve mellowed now towards the term, somewhat. I remember the first time a young man of my acquaintance (who was a “perfect gentleman” in terms of his well-mannered ways) said something in my hearing about how he considered me a “lady.” I felt a sort of pleased flutter that he thought so, because his good opinion was worth something and I knew he meant it as a term of praise.

    Now I judge on a case by case basis. Most of the men of a certain generation here either mean praise with the term “lady” or it’s simply a synonym for woman. But I’m picky about how I apply the term “gentleman,” because here it’s a judgment about manners. And peace to my poor late aunts and grandmothers, who were doing the best they knew with me. They loved me far better than I deserved; that I was more like a tiger cub than a fluffy kitten was not their fault. 😉

    • Tim says:

      MA, I can just imagine your younger self throwing a well-timed punch or two when necessary, and your older relatives in paroxysms over your “unladylike” behavior!

      The interaction between you and your young man friend sounds like a judicious use of the terms “lady” and “gentleman”. My issue, of course, is not when people use them to mean “well-mannered”, but when they use the word “ladies” to mean something about women that is not appropriate.

      I think when some in church leadership use it they mean that women are special, weak, not up to the same tasks as men. Frankly, an announcement that says the men are going rock climbing and the ladies are having tea builds on stereotypes not just in the activities but in the words. What if the announcement was about men rock climbing and women having tea? At least the verbal part of the stereotype would be avoided. But a “Ladies’ Tea” carries a lot of connotations that a “Women’s Tea” does not.

  6. Adriana says:

    Another thought, Tim — I’m looking forward to the day when women will no longer feel the need to grind their ax in the workplace with such vehemence. In proper context, being called “Sweetie” is not such a bad thing.
    (I say with gritted teeth: “TOGB sure did miss-label that one.”)

    • Tim says:

      When TOGB calls all the men by name and all the women Sweetie, or refers to the male work force as men and the female work force as girls, it speaks volumes. I think women go to work to work, not to be treated as less than their male colleagues. The rubber hits the road when TOGB’s attitude makes a difference in promotions and assignments, and unfortunately this is still an issue in today’s workforce.

      As an aside, if my daughter had a boss who kept calling her Sweetie, I’d advise her to put a stop to it. It’s her right under the law to be treated respectfully, and unless the boss is calling all the guys Sweetie too then there’s something going on beneath the surface that has nothing to do with getting the job done.

      • Adriana says:

        I see your point here. Absolutely.

        • I have two daughters who may one day be in the very situation you describe, so I’m thinking a bit more about this.

          My neighbor, a retired police officer, was recently fired for voicing a political opinion to an employee while on company time. He had to strain to recall the instance, because it only occurred once and briefly. In 25 years as an officer, he was never written up once for saying anything offensive. He suspected that the young woman who reported him wanted his hours. When he was let go, she immediately filled his spot.

          So in the event that your daughter is called “Sweetie” by her employer, how would you counsel her to handle it, specifically? Report it the first time? Give him the benefit of doubt if she senses it is just a bad habit and not meant to be sexist or condescending? Appeal to him first?

          I was somewhat sheltered when I was in the work force, so I greatly value your insight on this.

        • Tim says:

          I would definitely advise her to approach TOGB first, but to do so in a setting that is completely professional and one in which she is completely comfortable. If either of those are not possible, then I’d advise her to take it to HR first and let them deal with it.

    • Adriana,
      “Grind their ax”???? Are you saying it’s okay for the boss to call the women “sweetie” when he doesn’t use a similar term for the men? are you saying this would be ok if the women didn’t get upset about it? Why is it “grinding an ax” to ask to that people in the workplace treat each other with professionalism and respect? Imagine a female boss who called her direct reports (including the men) “cutie” or “honey.” Nope, actually, I can’t imagine that either!

      • Tim says:

        I’m glad you popped in, Keri! Did you ever see the movie The Proposal with Sandra Bullock? It’s played for laughs (and is really funny at that), but also shows what happens when the power is held by a woman over a younger male subordinate. The power imbalance leads to hard choices.

        And when it comes to Sweetie and Cutie and Honey in the workplace, unless the workplace is Candyland I can’t see the words ever being in context for proper use.


        • Adriana says:

          I consider ax-grinding necessary sometimes, Keri. For most women, globally, it is most certainly necessary!

          But I look forward to the day when women can put their axes down. If a man inadvertently calls a woman “Sweetie” and a woman feels annoyed but not THREATENED, then that’s progress. Is it right for him to call her “Sweetie”? No. Maybe it’s just a bad habit. Maybe he’s clueless.

          I live in the Midwest and many people in my area have southern roots. Words like “Honey” and “Sweetie” abound. It’s not unusual for a waitress to call my husband “Sweetie” right in front of me. As a matter of fact (I hesitate to share this b/c it seems so unbelievable in light of Tim’s last comment.), there was a lady we used to call “Honey” who sold shoes in a department store in town. I have no idea what her real name was. EVERYONE knew her as “Honey” b/c that’s what she called EVERYONE. She was very kind and a great salesperson. After a while I noticed she wasn’t there anymore. When my sister got a job at the department store, she learned that Honey had been fired. Maybe an embittered ex-TOBG blew the whistle on her — who knows? But I missed seeing her.

          Unfortunately as Tim pointed out above — “The rubber hits the road when TOGB’s attitude makes a difference in promotions and assignments, and unfortunately this is still an issue in today’s workforce.”

          I’m glad he brought this worst case scenario to my attention. As I mentioned above, I started to think about my two daughters potentially dealing with such nonsense and I came to a point of absolute agreement with him about how such an issue should be handled.

          And one more thing (Heavens! I’ve said enough for a month today!), this whole conversation has me slightly unnerved about the words I use right here on this blog. In my offline life I use terms of endearment without reserve. If I’ve caused offense by doing so here at anytime, I am sorry from my heart.

        • Tim says:

          Good point, Adriana. In contexts where the positions are either equal or neutral (among friends and acquaintances, the server at a coffee shop speaking to customers, interwebz friends commenting back and forth, etc.) then these can be terms of endearment. Case in point: You’ve never given an ounce of offense (and I suspect you would have a hard time being able to even if you tried!).


  7. nmcdonal says:

    I appreciate the word pickiness, Tim, and I agree with the strange distinction from the pulpit. But I also imagine that if the Pastor had used the terms, “gentlemen” and “women”, we’d be even more irate. In other words, I think either way this gets spun in the direction of sexism against women, and not men. In my opinion, society’s sexist against men in some ways and against women in others. I think the pulpit reflects both.

    • Tim says:

      I think you’re absolutely right, Nick. The sexism against men and women is manifest in some congregations, and the body suffers because of it.

      • Sarah says:

        I don’t really think there is a sexist against men vs. sexist against women. Those are two sides of the same coin. We call it patriarchy, because it’s set up to privilege men (and it does), but men suffer from it all the time.

        Patriarchy lets men off the hook with things like “boys will be boys”. This substantially damages women because it means we can’t seek redress for things like sexual harassment. But of course in the process it also insults men, treating them as incapable of controlling themselves. Toxic concepts of masculinity especially harm male victims of abuse, because men are never to be weak or vulnerable.

        Us feminists are not unaware of these facts, and we are absolutely working to change it. Equality for women will benefit men too!

  8. Aimee Byrd says:

    This is enlightening for me, Tim. My grandmother always called me a “young lady” while I was growing up. And I affectionately call my Bible study group (made up of mostly seniors) my “Pilgrim ladies (Our church is Pilgrim Presbyterian). I just thought of of it as a fun term of affection in the ways I’m speaking of, but you make some good points of why we want to be careful with our words.

    • Tim says:

      It sounds like your grandmother and you are both careful with the words you use, Aimee. My beef is when distinctions are thoughtlessly drawn, because they can then lead to inappropriate actions as well.

    • Mary Anne says:

      Most of the time, if I heard “young lady,” it meant I was in some kind of trouble! It was one of those certain indicators, like being called by your first, middle, and last name by a parent or authority figure. NOTHING good could come of it. 😉

      • Tim says:

        Mary Anne, sometimes when my dad wanted my attention he went in birth order, and since I was the youngest of four that meant I heard my brother and sisters’ names first. It was really bad when he got to the dog’s name before mine.

  9. cathyallen says:

    This has been an interesting discussion, thank you, Tim. I think you might get a kick out of the old statement that used to make the rounds (from the ’70’s, I think): Grandmother was “A Lady,’ Mother was “One of the Girls,” I am “A Woman,” and my Daughter is “A Doctor.” Just a little humor, there (very little!). P.S. My mom raised me to be a lady…

    • Tim says:

      CA, I love that quote! As a child of the 60s who came of age in the 70s, I remember those days well. I distinctly remember when young women were still called Chicks, even (or especially) by their long haired boyfriends.

  10. KSP says:

    I have a whole lecture I devote in my course on the English novel on the term and idea of the “gentleman.” It includes, by the way, my pointing out the etymological connection in the Latin root between that word and many others, including genitalia. 🙂

    The term “ladies” as typically use in church grates on me, too, Tim.

    Great post.

  11. You make such a great point and I never noticed the “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” distinction talked about ever and that men are “men” but never “gentlemen” these days but they SHOULD at least be able to strive for it.

    Mark Twain’s quote scares me a bit. oh my. He was an odd man though, wasn’t he? I’ve never read Jane Austen but I’ve read Mark Twain.

    • Tim says:

      I’d rather that men not strive to be gentlemen, or anything else for that matter (and likewise that women not strive to be ladies). In Christ there is no striving to achieve any status at all, since he has achieved everything for us and given us the greatest status there is: children of God, amen!

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  13. Hi Tim, I’m smiling as I read your post. I think I’ve identified the problem with the term “ladies”. I actually think that the term “ladies”–due to generational and cultural changes–has become a homophone that means one thing in one context and something else in another. Like, consider this: There’s no dessert in the desert for those who desert. The term “desert” in the first instance means something different than the “desert” in the second. Likewise, it’s one thing to use the term “lady” in the pejorative–like a construction worker yelling, “Hey, lady!!! Take it easy round the scaffolding!” or even the “ladies tea” at the local church. Just the thought of “ladies luncheon” or “ladies tea” sends me into a tizzy. But when I think of “lady” in terms of manners, I don’t even think of the other contexts the term is used–just like you wouldn’t think of the Sahara Desert when describing how a military buddy deserted his post.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the dialog, Halee. I am so glad you came by to visit!

      One of the things about “desert” (sand), “desert” (leave your post) and “dessert” (yum!) is that all three are different words, not just different depending on the context. Ladies, though, is the same word that might take on different shades of meaning depending on the context, like that construction site one you bring up.

      When we get to “ladies” and “women”, though, we are definitely using different words regardless of context. Different words have different shades of meaning even if speaking of words that are essentially synonyms, and as you can see from this post I’d say that “ladies” and “women” really aren’t synonymous anyway.


      P.S. Everyone here should go read Halee’s thoughtful piece at Her.meneutics: Hey Lady, Etiquette is In Again. That’s where this dialog started, and her words there are well worth your time!

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  15. Kathy Harris says:

    I found my way to this post today from Bronwyn Lea’s blog. Funnily enough just today I received an email from one of the young (28yrs) pastors at church. He wrote to myself (also a pastor) and two other women in leadership all of whom are 20 years his senior and he addressed the email “Hey girls”!! WHAT??! He did receive a polite but firm email in response saying how inappropriate and offensive this was!
    But love this post and totally agree. Unfortunately it’s not always men who use these terms but often other women who use ‘ladies’ when women would be far more appropriate! *sigh*

    • Tim says:

      I am glad someone was able to enlighten your young colleague, Kathy. The only setting where I can think of “Ladies and Gentleman” always being appropriate is when it’s followed by, “Boys and Girls, children of all ages … welcome to the circus!”

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