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This ‘Lady’ Is Definitely for Spurning

The irrepressible Norman Cousins has once again engaged my sword, unworthy as it may be, in expunging from the English language yet another hideous usage.

This time Cousins is indignant about what he considers an inappropriate use of the word lady .

Already bearing the wounds of my vain fight against the substitution of the word person for man (as in “person hole covers” and “person overboard”) I hesitate to enter the field again against what might be vigilant feminist troops, thirsting for more blood.

However, Cousins’ complaint seems unlikely to offend feminists; on the contrary, I should think it echoes their own distaste for the word.

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What Cousins specifically disdains is “the expression lady instead of the name of a woman who happens to be someone’s wife.”

By way of illustration he cites Paul Laxalt’s introduction of Nancy Reagan at the recent Republican Party convention. “He concluded his flowery remarks by saying ‘And so I now present the President’s lady.’ ”

Cousins argues: “I should have supposed that this 19th-Century circumlocution would have been snuffed out long ago by the growing respect for the dignity of women. Not so. As personal testimony, I cite as another example a reference to my wife at a public dinner the other night. The chairman of the event, calling attention to the presence of certain persons, introduced ‘Mr. Cousins and his lady.’ Obviously he didn’t remember or know that her name is Ellen. Or I will meet casual acquaintances who, wanting to be polite and not confident of their knowledge, will ask, ‘And how is your lady?’ (Is a woman ever asked, ‘And how is your gentleman?’ ”)

In “Sexual Politics,” Kate Millett excoriates the word with characteristic vigor, writing that “the Victorian doctrine of chivalrous protection and its familiar protestations of respect, rests upon the tacit assumption, a cleverly expeditious bit of humbug, that all women were “ladies"--namely members of that faction of the upper classes and bourgeoisie which treated women to expressions of elaborate concern, while permitting them no legal or personal freedoms.”

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So the word is evidently anathema to feminists. But there are situations in which the word woman will not do. A male is instructing a group of women in aerobics. May he say, “All right, women, jump in place”?

When a man and a woman are seated at a table can the waiter ask, “And what for the woman?” Absolutely not.

Fawn Hall, Ollie North’s loyal secretary, allegedly turned down six figures to pose for Playboy in the nude. Her attorney explained: “The money did not tempt her. She’s too much of a lady.” In that context, what other word would do?

The most offensive use of the word ladies I have ever seen was during World War II in Washington. We Marines received an invitation to a Marine ball for “Enlisted Men and Their Wives, and Officers and Their Ladies.”

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Certainly that was the use of ladies that Millett denounced. It reduced enlisted men’s wives to the level of wenches, and elevated officer’s wives to the level of ladies in the lyric poems. I understand that practice has long since been discontinued in the military.

Ever since Kipling we’ve known that the colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.

Perhaps, though, the President’s wife is unique. She is traditionally the First Lady, and, being human, she undoubtedly gets used to the title. Perhaps she likes to be introduced as the President’s lady. I do think that Mrs. Reagan has enough clout that if she didn’t want to be introduced as the President’s lady she damn well wouldn’t be, especially by a Republican senator.

Obviously, the senator could have introduced her as Nancy Reagan, or Mrs. Reagan, or the President’s wife, though perhaps the latter two might make her seem too much an adjunct and possession of the President. All things considered, I think he would have done well to introduce her simply as Nancy Reagan, indicating that she is a person in her own right.

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I don’t blame Cousins for being irritated by people who refer to his wife as his lady. I would have the same reaction. My wife is my wife.

But I certainly wouldn’t want to say, in public, that she isn’t a lady.


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