There’s girls, there’s women and there’s ladies*March 17, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Posted in cycling | 21 Comments
Tags: biking, cycling, ladies, women
(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:
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.
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’?
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:
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):
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:
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:
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’.
‘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:
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.