When I was in college, my own grammar guru used a grammar test in all of her classes. You had to pass the test at some point during the semester, or you failed the class. The test was about a style manual she wrote, and the manual contained more than one hundred rules for various grammatical issues.
Several of the issues were, in my college-minded opinion, stupid. Why was she so hung up about the use of hopefully as anything other than an adverb? Who needed to know what an anacoluthon was, anyway? What was her problem with lady?
During the years since my graduation from college, however, I’ve come to determine she was right about almost every one of those rules: they are important for various reasons. And the lady rule smacked me right in the face a few weeks ago. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here’s my little lesson about grammatical chauvinism.
The rule was (and is) about using lady as an adjective to describe just about any type of profession or activity: lady doctor, lady lawyer, lady singer, Lady Panther (for a sports reference). By adding the adjective, it seems as though the writer or speaker is trying to differentiate between a lady doctor and a regular doctor. It’s as if the lady doctor is not a real doctor, per se, but instead a female pretender.
At the time I was in college, I thought, “OK, I get it. It does sort of seem that way. But surely, no one means it that way. What’s the big deal?”
It turns out it is a pretty big deal. And I found out by being referred to as a lady teacher. Not a teacher. Not an English teacher. A lady teacher.And somehow, the argument took on new meaning.
Would the person who referred to me as a lady teacher have ever referred to one of my male colleagues as a gentleman teacher? No. No way. Men who teach are teachers to this person. Women who teach are lady teachers. And that’s a problem because it differentiates the job we do only by our gender.
So let me just remind you: Women who are doctors, lawyers, singers, teachers or Panthers are just that. You can say, “My doctor is a woman,” but it would be best to avoid saying, “I see a lady doctor.” The connotation is ugly, even if you don’t mean it that way.