There’s girls, there’s women and there’s ladies*

March 17, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Posted in cycling | 21 Comments
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(It’s a bit of a departure, this one. I discuss the meaning of some of these words, and wonder a bit about women and cycling. It’s quite long; I’d get a cup of tea, if I were you. )

So! I’d noticed myself getting irritable at the use of ‘ladies’ in tweets like these:

gabby day and TWC

I’m worried about this word. Its connotations are bad, for me. Ladies are perfectly-behaved, delicate creatures in twinsets and pearls, or bootylicious babes in bikinis (as satirised by Flight of the Conchords so perfectly here). I can’t identify with either of these groups. I’m not that old, yet; I swear quite a bit and laugh like Sid James; I occasionally wonder what it would be like to have a cleavage. I’m not much of a lady.

But maybe it’s just me? I asked my twitter friends what they thought.

we don't mindNevertheless, some people agreed with me:

ladies fragility

bird on a bike

So there’s some ‘chivalrous sexism‘ associated with the term, at least for some people. Is there a real difference in meaning? One thing to try is substitution. Substitute the equivalent term for men, and see if the effect is different (e.g. funny, demeaning, ridiculous). (This is similar to Caitlin Moran’s ‘Are the boys doing it?’ test, and also related to @Ellyblue‘s The Bike Test, question 3.) This works for the word ‘girls’: if you’re going to talk about ‘Team GB’s golden girls’, does ‘Team GB’s golden boys’ sound right? If not, you probably shouldn’t say ‘girls’, either. (And I know there’s alliteration in ‘golden girls’, but ‘golden boys’ is as common a phrase.) Does this work for ‘ladies’?

ladies & gentlemen

But the connotations are different. ‘Gentlemen’ is often used to denote good, upstanding behaviour, especially in sporting contexts. See this example by Mark Cavendish (thanks to @mmmaiko for the spot):


Would Marianne Vos say ‘Amazing to have a race full of real ladies today’ in a similar situation? I’m not sure she would. So the meanings are different; the words are not equivalent.

But! I hear you cry. Even if we decide that men calling women ‘ladies’ may give the wrong impression, what about women calling each other ‘ladies’? Those tweets from Gabby Day and TWC again:

gabby day and TWC

These interest me because they use both terms – ‘women’ and ‘ladies’ – in the same tweet. Does this mean the terms are interchangeable? Linguists understand the meanings of words as being at least partly ‘constructed’ through their use; the dictionary definition of a word may not accurately reflect the way it is currently used, as communities of language users unconsciously decide on what words mean, by using them in particular ways. Looking at usage can give you ideas about the connotations that words carry – the difficult-to-pin-down subtleties that people convey (whether they mean to or not) by choosing one term over another.

A twitter search returned a whole HOST of tweets using both terms in the same tweet. I looked at tweets that were (as far as I could tell) written by women, back to 01 March. (Only 35 tweets, but it’s a start.) ‘Ladies’ was most commonly used by women as a term of address (12 tweets):

ladies as term of address

Do we need to address ourselves as a group at all? As Caitlin Moran suggests in How To Be A Woman, can’t we all just be ‘the guys’?

In some contexts it can be wise to avoid making a gender-based distinction at all. The (male) correspondent who asked the owner of this business writing blog how to address a group of females in a work email was advised, gently but firmly, that ‘colleagues’ would be fine. Some of my twitter correspondents made a similar point:

man's cycling


nick & opiumia

The inequalities and discrimination faced by women in professional cycling are clear. We also know that women are under-represented in cycling at an amateur and leisure level. Assuming we want to encourage more women into cycling, it seems logical to address them as a group, and try to cater for their needs. But might we actually be unwittingly undermining this aim by doing this?

Going back to my twitter search, the next most common usage of ‘ladies’ by women (10 tweets) was as a tongue-in-cheek way to include the author in the group referred to:

library ladies

Here, the term ‘ladies’ almost seems to negate the message: women are on the list of influential, powerful people, but referring to them as ‘ladies’ feels chummy and non-threatening. Is this assumed to be the reason that women don’t take part in cycling to the extent that men do? ‘Ladies’ are expected to be uncompetitive, to minimise their achievements, to emphasise that they are ‘just one of the girls’.

rosie posie

‘Ladies’, in this sense, doesn’t really describe many of the women I know and admire.

Of course, I may just be weird. Never mind being a ‘lady’ cyclist, I don’t even identify that strongly as a ‘woman’ cyclist. (To be frank, I’m not sure I particularly think of myself as a woman at all: my strongest self-identification is probably ‘bit of a twit’**.) I like to ride my bike. I’d like to be able to do it on a comfortable saddle, in clothes that fit. I’d like to ride it with people I can have a laugh with. I am a bit crap: I’m nervous, and lack skills, and am a bit lazy. I want to be inspired to do better.

Maybe if we concentrated less on what we assume ‘women’ or ‘ladies’ need, and more on what newbies, or scared-but-kind-of-want-to-have-a-go types, or experienced-audaxers-that-want-to-have-a-go-at-racing, or I-could-probably-get-to-work-by-bike types might need, we could end up with a ‘cycling’ that subdivides into different groups of ‘the guys’, each of which naturally includes some women. Then I wouldn’t be flipping through Cycling Weekly, looking at the pictures and going ‘Men, men, men, men, men, WOMAN! Men, men, men, WOMEN!’*** (And this is a publication where 1/3 of the writers in their ‘Meet the Team’ feature are women.)****

So here are the cycling publications I want to see:

alt mags

And then we can all find our little niche, and be with ‘the guys’ who really ARE like us.

* The title of this post refers to this song. Country & Western really does have a song about everything.

** This may be a matter for my therapist, rather than this post.)

*** This did make my small sons laugh, though

**** @Ellyblue’s excellent Bike test is relevant here, too: although the answer to her first question, ‘Are women present or represented at all?’, is ‘Yes’, two pictures in the whole magazine is slim pickings. If women aren’t represented ‘doing cycling’, they may not even consider it as an activity they can take up.


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  1. Well, I just bike. But it sure would be nice to see more female bike commuters to work.

    • Thanks for commenting! I think a lot of us feel the same way. When I used to commute by bike, I always felt that just doing it was the most powerful way of getting people to think about it – my colleagues saw that I didn’t have too many problems, and wondered if it wasn’t more straightforward than they’d been imagining. So you’re probably already converting a few people 🙂

      • I have a plot…well guess what? I’m going to be profiled by my employer for over 8,000 employees who will see the front of our intranet, on my cycling lifestyle and bike commuting. They profile employees for a variety of reasons: a unique job role, volunteer work, unusual client-work gig, etc. I’m hoping it’ll be after Easter….more relevant to people to convert. 🙂 Right now, it’s been snowing.

        And it helps the person who interviewed me, is by sheer coincidence an internal marketing person, is a bike commuter too!

        • Oh that’s great! Well done. What a terrific idea. Good luck with the crusade!

  2. Well done. I completely enjoyed reading this. It’s a complicated issue, eh? I really had fun with all the links to other blogs and silly songs and such.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m sorry I couldn’t put your observations in – there was so much that ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. You’ll note that your two intuitions about how you use the term – as an address, and to talk about a group of which you are a member – were borne out in what I found in my search.
      I’m glad you liked all the links – thanks for following them – I like putting them in but most people don’t follow them 🙂

  3. Interesting piece.

    I wonder, if the answer might be a degree of reclamation of “ladies” – making it a proper equivalent to “gentlemen”, and usable in the same contexts.

    • Thanks for that! I think this is a REALLY interesting idea. Note Tom’s use of the word ‘crip’ – very in-group – he can call himself that, but I probably couldn’t. I think for this to happen with ‘ladies’ it has to be adopted consciously as a reaction to the way the term is used in the mainstream – otherwise it will continue bringing its associations/ connotations along with it. See the movement to reclaim the word ‘slut’
      We’d have to ensure ‘ladies’ had some new, VERY different associations for it to work.

    • I see it used this way a lot in feminist spaces — it’s a semi-ironic/reclaiming usage. I don’t personally do it, because I don’t feel that the connotations are different enough to make it clear which is meant. Especially in sport-related places, since it’s still in heavy use unironically in things like school team names — the “Tigers” and the “Lady Tigers” (note that it’s not the “Gentlemen Tigers”), etc.

      • Oh, thank you for that! That’s very interesting. I haven’t come across ‘ladies’ used in that ‘reclaiming’ way before. Maybe sporting contexts will follow suit, then, eventually?

  4. I was struggling to think of a neutral term Cavendish might have used – the only thing I could come up with was “Corinthians”, in the sense of the Corinthian Spirit.

    • Yes! I like that a lot. ‘Sportsmen’ doesn’t work, obviously. I think otherwise you’d have to modify it to talk about behaviour being ‘sporting’ or ‘honorable’ instead.

  5. Thought-provoking and entertaining as ever AB!

    I tend towards using neutral words, especially at work – such as folks, guys, colleagues, idiots (only joking!)

    Also, different cultures may view this differently ? Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory (controversial in itself) would say power distance etc will impact on acceptability and use of words used to describe/address people.

    Not sure. Anyway, please carry on with your thinkings – ’tis most interesting.

    • Thanks for commenting! Very interesting. I agree about the ‘neutral terms’ – personally I think this (or no terms of address at all) is the way forward. I don’t know Hofstede so thank you for that – sociolinguistics also focuses on distance, power and also the desire to maximise or minimise the *perceived* distance between speakers in e.g. politeness theory, and you’re right that this is done differently in different languages/ cultures. I think there’s some of this going on in the use of ‘ladies’ by women – desire to minimise perceived distance so we all (supposedly) feel ‘on a level’. But because the word brings its connotations along with it, this can backfire. As John the Monkey suggests, we either need to reclaim ‘ladies’, or find a new term.

      • My own view, for what it’s worth, is that “ladies” is right lexically – it’s just freighted with meanings that make its use problematic, even if it’s used without those in mind.

        • I agree. Maybe we could campaign to restrict the use of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ to Tweed Run participants only…?

  6. Nobody mentioned toilets. What’s all that about? Ladies and Gents.

    • Haha! Went in a pub once that labelled the loos ‘Male’ and ‘Female’. Wonder how you tell? Do you have to look underneath or something?

  7. I always write up club results as women’s, first woman, etc. I’m not actually sure that most of my female colleagues are that bothered. It’s a subtle thing, but worth being tediously PC about I think 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting! Good for you. I think few women are likely to be bothered by being called ‘women’, but some might be bothered by ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’, so your approach makes sense 🙂

  8. […] rewrite cycling culture, and to do that we need to recognise clearly what is absent from it. Then (I’ve argued this before) we can progress to a place where women’s-specific magazines and advice and events are redundant, […]

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