Some may ask why I prefer to be called a young woman instead of ‘young lady’. Some may even ask ‘but is it not the exact same thing?’ No, it is not – at least not to me.
Why in the 21st century are we insisting on using language that so obviously has connotations of how some people should behave due to their supposed gender and class? Unless we are at a formal event, it is rare to hear people refer to men as ‘gentlemen’, otherwise it is just ‘guys’ or ‘men’ but even in school settings girls are referred to as ‘young ladies’ (whereas boys are more likely not called ‘young men’).
The term lady does not offend me. It is, however, the connotations associated with the word serves to remind me of my supposed place. Lady is a loaded term that demands women and girls behave ‘ladylike’, a word harkening from an age where chivalry and station defined a set of behaviours for all, most especially women who need to act and speak and behave in a way dictated by patriarchal norm.
But what does that even mean? Docile? Quiet? Dutiful? The word lady instils an idea of what patriarchal structures have long expected women and girls to be, this of course, while boys get to be boys. While some will argue that it is a mere form of respect assigned to girls and women, to me ‘lady’ is a symbol of chivalry. And chivalry is nothing more than apologetic patriarchy, an exaggerated set of manners which implies at its heart that women are weak. It implicitly and explicitly communicates to us the inequality that society via patriarchy would have us live our lives, inherently giving cis-gendered men the power to assert their kindness or the venom over women (and transgender persons).
This sense of respectability in language has also been used as means to reprimand women who dare to speak up in a manner that many wouldn’t consider ladylike for putting someone on the spot or it not being ‘the right time or place’; all codes of ladylike respectability. In recent news, this is apparent in how UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Priyanka Chopra uses respectability via her privilege and power as a global superstar to silence a woman who has less social currency than she does globally. Chopra does this via genteel markers of ladylike and girl-power performativity. When faced with detrimental facts and probing questions, Chopra uses a very patriarchal tactic to avoid the question, while simultaneously shifting the focus to a case of niceness over accountability.
In every other day-to-day occurrence boys are not inundated with language that demands anything of them. Boys are not reprimanded to sit gentlemanly, to close their legs or to be quiet and hold their tongues. The words ‘young gentlemen’ are not hurled at boys in classrooms as a reminder of what society expects them to present themselves as, indeed it is a phrase that is foreign to our ears.
Boys are encouraged and expected to behave as boys do, whatever that means, and girls are expected to fall into ladylike roles of servitude, motherhood and wives at an early age. Girls are prepared to play these roles when they should be climbing trees, playing soccer or whatever their hearts’ desire – just like one of the boys.
I am a young woman, refer to me as such. ‘Woman’ carries far less connotations and leaves how I act, what I do and how I say what I mean entirely up to me. Woman does not require any tongue holding, sugar coating and most certainly no internalised ideology of who I am and how I am supposed to things.
Young girls and boys alike deserve the freedom to be just that: young girls and young boys; free, unencumbered. They deserve to live their youth as they wish – without any guidelines that dictate what is expected of them.
We deserve to become young men and women who break down generational narratives – which threaten the lives and safety of young girls. We – young men and young women deserve to give the next generation a world in which they are not shackled to old ideas of what women may do and what men may do.
Young girls deserve a world in which they are free to do whatever sparks joy within them, not a world in which their interests only revolve around things associated with their genders. How can one’s interests solely revolve around their gender? Surely not all boys like football and not all girls like to play with dolls.
What is gender anyway but a social construct?
Nadine Dirks is a writer and activist who currently works as a Communications and Advocacy Associate at Nalane for Reproductive Justice. She is a social justice, women’s health and rights advocate and a Black consciousness fighter.