A few months ago, I was on a cross-town bus headed towards the East Village. When we got to Astor Place, a young couple boarded. The girl – young, blond, and barely 21 – did not have enough money for the fare. As she scrounged through her purse and her boyfriend emptied his pockets, I leaned across the aisle and offered her some coins.
She enthusiastically thanked me and paid her fare. As the bus plunged ahead down 8th Street, I gazed out the window, pleased with myself for my good deed. The girl was pleased too, and I overheard her remark to her boyfriend, “How nice of that lady to give me her change.”
Wait a minute. How nice of that lady? The compliment stung like an insult.
As an undergraduate student at University of Illinois in the early 90’s, my Peoria vernacular was soon adapted to the wave of political correctness that flooded the Midwestern education system. “African American”, “Asian”, and “Native American” were all terms I quickly adopted. I will never forget the reaction from my cultural studies class when I proudly announced that my boyfriend was “Mexican”. A brown-skinned girl seated next to me looked at me as if I’d declared that I enjoy public lynchings. “It’s Mexican-American,” she corrected. Suddenly I realized that every word I uttered was being weighed in the minds of the students around me – one small slip, or absence of the word “American”, and I was a racist.
Although I tried desperately to adjust my speech, there remained a category of terms that I never fully embraced. In my women’s studies class, we were taught that we were women, in spite of the fact that I was 19 and still felt very much like a girl. A friend of mine who had left the heartland to pursue a career at Smith reported back to us how great it was to be a “Smith woman”. Those of us left in the cornfields snickered at her new phrase. No matter how un-PC it was, we were girls, and we were proud of it.
Now, nearly a decade later, I still think of myself as a girl. Other people, however, do not share my sentiments. Since the bus ride, two other people have called me a lady. One was a mother in Whistler who asked her son to “get out of the lady’s way”, and the other was a guy in Vegas who sidestepped me en route to the slots ("Excuse me, lady"). Apparently the term “lady” is not favored by a particular region, gender, or age group. Everyone uses it, and lately, everyone seems to be using it in reference to me.
I don’t know what upsets me the most about it – the docile connotation of the term, or the fact that it makes me feel fucking old. A lady drinks tea with white gloves, not tequila shots. A lady goes to bed in curlers and an eye mask, not wearing the same outfit she danced in for three hours at Irving Plaza. A lady does not use the F-word with reckless abandon, nor does she hang out on Avenue C. Remember these things, dear friends, the next time you call someone a lady. You just might not know who you’re talking to.