Last fall, at a reading for Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, a 50-ish audience member questioned the thirtysomething authors’ ever-so-casual usage of the word “ladies.” To this woman (who turned out to be tireless second-wave activist Laura X, creator of the Women’s History Research Center), the blithe use of “ladies” ran counter to everything she and her generation of feminists had fought for—and against.
But to the authors, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, and their peers, the lady words can spill forth with ironic glee.
In fact, a playfulness with language is characteristic of this generation’s feminism, which first glinted in the media’s eye in the early ’90s. Way back when (around 1991, that is), a disparate group of young women in the diy/punk subculture gave voice to a new feminism: riot grrrl, they called it. At the same time that many an earnest young collegiate feminist was self-righteously asking her dormmates, “Oh, do you mean the woman in your study group?,” riot grrrls were reclaiming the positive traits of previously denigrated girlhood and adding an important element of ferocity. Some of the grrrls, like Allison Wolfe, lead singer of the all-girl punk-rock band Bratmobile, never chose to become “women.” “In my women’s studies class in my first year of college,” Wolfe says, “I would always use the terms ‘girl’ or ‘lady’ in reference to females, and I can’t tell you how often I was corrected in class by other females. Finally I just stood up and said, ‘Hey! I’m still in my teens (barely), and “girl” is what I choose to call myself. Isn’t this about self-representation?!’”11. From an interview in the online zine Walk the Plank (http://pages.hotbot.com/arts/dadaducks/BratmII.html). Note also the early usage of “lady” and the direct riot grrrl–lady connection.
But as the ’90s sped by and riot grrrl went further underground, grrrl lost an r—and its edge. As the g-word became more widely adopted and popularized by girls and women who had little involvement with feminist activism of any sort, the riot grrrls’ original three-r spelling slimmed down to two rs. For some—such as the online diarist Haley Hieronymous—the development was a sign of waning politics:
A note on terminology here. The word in riot grrrls is “grrrls”, not “grrls” or “grls.” As in, grrr. That’s three, count ‘em, three r’s. Not two, not one. Gr sounds kind of pathetic doesn’t it? The word “grrrls” is generally excised from “riot” nowadays, and riot grrrl as a movement can arguably be considered over.
Of course, there are plenty of grrls out there, falling in step with womyn with a cute i/r switcheroo. There’s grrl.com and grrlnet and so on. As far as I can tell, the difference between grrrls and grrls seems to be the difference between feminist politics and, uh, having none.2
2. http://www.fish.com/~hale/politics/feminisms/thirdwave.html, June 1999. However, it’s well worth noting that this re-spelling is often done unintentionally, a result not of apathy but a lack of semantic authority. Furthermore, the “correct” three-r usage does not guarantee that the term is being used “correctly” in the ideological sense. One journalist described mary-kateandashleymagazine, the typographically challenged Olsen twins vehicle, as “harness[ing] grrrl empowerment” (http://www.inside.com/jcs/Story?article_id=28018&pod_id=7); setting aside this publication’s almost uniformly snarky tone, he appeared to be serious.
So it came to be that here in future-shock 2001, “grrl” is surprisingly prevalent as a synonym for girl or woman. Those extra rs are found in the most unlikely of places, especially on the Internet. In fact, the web is quite the hotbed of grrl activity, which makes sense, as web users have been quick to adopt not only cutting-edge/alternative culture but also slang that is more often grammatically horrific than it is clever. Type “grrl” into any search engine and you’ll get hundreds and hundreds of hits, from nonfeminist porno sites (“grrl worship at analzone.com”) to commercial female-focused sites (weddings.gogrrl.com) to quasifeminist sites (GrrlGamer, WebGrrls). Though there is sometimes a shadowy acknowledgment of a certain sassiness, if not outright feminism, invoked with the grrl appellation, for the most part grrls on the web have little in common with riot grrrls or feminists of any name.3 3. For example: “Hi, I’m Wendy and I’m a Bowler. This page is dedicated to Women bowlers. I am not what you call a Feminist, but I do believe that Women deserve the recognition that they have earned. Does that make me a grrl bowler?” (http://www.bright.net/~jimsjems/wendy.html). For proof of this, you need only venture over to http://Rightgrrl.com (a website for self-proclaimed pro-life “conservative feminists”) or http://GodsGrrl.net, a website with “views and opinions about ‘Christ.’”
As riot grrrls have grown up and “grrl” has become thoroughly defanged, a new word has slipped in to take its place in the feisty feminist lexicon: Who’d’ve thunk it, but now we’re ladies. Of course, “lady” is hardly a dusty word. It may have been banned from mainstream, politically correct usage,44. According to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, “Except in wry contexts, lady is obsolete for woman, just as gentleman is obsolete for man.” The NPR Style Guide is more curt: “Do not use as a synonym for woman.” but it’s been kept alive by a postfeminist ethos that embraces traditional images of femininity; certain retro subcultures, like swing and rockabilly; and Christian organizations and conservative groups. What’s different now is that “lady” is being taken up not just by self-consciously old-fashioned gals, the jump-jive-and-wail set, or antifeminist conservatives who believe that ladies should be seen but not heard—but by critically informed feminist and queer women who are not the least bit traditional or demure.
Most women of a certain age, even those who weren’t involved in second-wave feminist activism, steer well clear of “lady” and all it connotes—being refined, polite, well-spoken, and reserved.5 5. In the backlash 1980s, a guerrilla theater group called Ladies Against Women traveled around the country, dressed like drag queen Phyllis Schlaflys, satirizing the conservative right. Among the points in their “Ladyfesto”: “Repeal the Ladies’ vote. It is suffering and not suffrage that keeps us up on our pedestals. And if God hadn’t wanted us up on pedestals, He wouldn’t have made us shorter than our husbands,” and “Weed out uppity women through the establishment of the HULA Committee: the House Committee on Un-Ladylike Activities.” In dramatic contrast, women in their 20s and 30s find this image of ladyhood to be pretty remote, and thus the current casual usage is a lot less about reclaiming a negative word than it is about finding fun, alternative terms for “girls” and “women.” The word may have echoed throughout many young women’s childhoods (“Settle down, ladies,” urged our teachers; “How can I help you young ladies?” queried condescending store clerks), but by the time we came of age, ladyness had been pretty well defused as a behavioral expectation, if not a form of address. “Ladies First,” the 1989 Queen Latifah/Monie Love duet, prefigured the reemergence of the term with some good ol’ reclamation.
Nowadays, the women who are talkin’ ‘bout ladies are likely to be glam-dyke-punk-sassy-queer-riotin’grrrls who redefine ladyhood with every move. The subtext of the new lady is a heavy dose of irony and a metaphorically arched brow and quick wink.
Traditional definitions of “lady” hold few surprises.6 6. Unlike those for girl, which reveal the little-discussed tidbit that in Middle English gurle or girle referred to a young person of either sex—hmmm, another usage to reclaim? The word is some 1,100 years old, originating in Old English as hlaefdige, loosely translated as “kneader of bread.” For most of that millennium, “lady” designated actual social rank—the feminine version of “lord”—or was used interchangeably with “woman.” Since the 17th century, “lady” has been used appositively to describe women in traditionally male professions (lady author, lady doctor), although it was in the 19th century that this usage really took off.7 7. Fowler, the notoriously stodgy grammarian, declared in the early 1900s that the adjectival form of “lady” was a cumbrous designation—his idea of the proper gendering of nouns was to add “ess,” giving us such quaint terms as authoress, teacheress, and doctoress.
In Manifesta (published in 2000), Baumgardner and Richards define lady or ladies thusly: “Casual, alternative term for a woman or women, not only those who adhere to prissy, white-glove, upper-crusty stereotypes. For example, ‘Do you know Nomy Lamm? That punk-rock lady is so damn smart.’” It’s no coincidence that they explain lady in a punk-rock context—because these days, that’s where the grrrls, I mean ladies, are.8 8. There are ladies all over the place, but geographically speaking, they seem to gather in high concentrations in the Pacific Northwest, from Seattle to Olympia, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. An informal survey of feminist culture—zines, small presses,diy music, art, and punk rock—confirms that ladies have taken hold: Sleater-Kinney’s 1999 song “Ballad of a Lady Man”; Ladyfest, the riot grrrl reunion gathering in Olympia, Washington, last summer; Inga Muscio’s zine article “Manifesto for the Categorical New Freedom Lady”9;9. “Manifesto” was originally published in the dateless first issue of the now-defunct Steelhead, which by my best estimate was in 1996—making this a relatively early appearance of the refigured “lady”; a version of the article also appears, as “Womanifesto for the Categorical New Freedom Lady,” in Muscio’s 1998 book Cunt. Ladies Art Revival, a “feminist-fueled distro for film/ video and other art.” Queercore references to “lady” tease out the implied irony and gender play: Mr. Lady is a lesbian-run record label with a roster chock-full of queer and feminist bands (see “And Kitty Makes Three,” page 72); Kaia Wilson, Mr. Lady co-founder and dyke rocker extraordinaire, titled her solo album Ladyman. Meanwhile, since the late ’90s, “Hello ladies” has become an ever-more-frequently uttered greeting and written salutation, and feminists from San Francisco to Seoul can be heard extolling the virtues of the kick-ass ladies in Le Tigre.
The appositive form of lady—disdained by 19th-century grammarians and most 20th-century feminists—is also creeping back into parlance, albeit with an even heavier dose of sarcasm than the plural noun requires. “But I’m just a lady driver,” says one extremely capable magazine editor to a male police officer when receiving her umpteenth speeding ticket. Muscio, in Cunt, urges us to become “lady predators.”1010. And yet the feminine appositive, which is especially rampant in the sports world, has to work a little harder to claim subversive value. After all, many collegiate women’s athletics teams continue to be referred to in all seriousness as the lady versions of the “real” male athletes—the Lady Razorbacks, the Lady Volunteers—an ongoing reminder that female athletes are never just athletes.
But why stop there? The archaic forms of lady surely deserve resurrection as well: ladyly (adv., of or befitting a lady), ladyling (n., a little or young lady), ladykind (n., female portion of a group; loosely, women), and my favorite, ladyfy (v., to make a lady of). All this ladyfication is well and good, but it also raises a thorny question: When this once-reviled word is gleefully invoked by the least ladylike women, does it work?
Irony is a tricky thing. Language reclamation often begins as a sort of inside joke—a subcultural or small-scale attempt to claim hurtful or derogatory terms. The words become empowering within the group but still retain some of their ugliness when wielded by those outside—for instance, the epithet “cunt,” when snarled by an angry man, is worlds apart from the joyful embrace of pro-woman sexuality that accompanies cunt’s new place in feminist parlance. And, as happened with grrrl, words lose their liberating force when adopted by a mainstream far removed from the original moment of creation/reclamation—they become hollow, no longer signifiers of insiderness but rather another element for confusion. Are you a lady (wink-wink) or a lady? Only time will tell.