Let me preface this by saying that, normally, I am not an angry person. I am a self-proclaimed pacifist, and it is rare that I get too riled up about anything.
That being said, I, like everyone else, have my pet peeves, and one of them — the use of the word “lady” in reference to women’s sports teams — has been seriously exacerbated by the onset of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament
Baylor has the Lady Bears, Tennessee boasts the Lady Vols and LSU claims the Lady Tigers — and those are just among the Elite Eight teams. Although this particular usage is far more prevalent south of the Mason-Dixon Line (I will not bother to hypothesize as to the reasons behind this phenomenon), the impression that I have is that most people are not bothered by the word when it is used in this context, and most people do not really know why it might be offensive.
Well, here’s the breakdown:
First of all, just look at the dictionary definition of “lady” — which I think is lame but critical in understanding this concept. According to merriamwebster.com, “lady” means “a woman of refinement and gentle manners.”
Whether or not these terms accurately describe the athletes on women’s teams, these are not adjectives that, as an athlete, you really want associated with your game. I mean, according to this definition, these women should excel at balancing books on their heads and selecting the appropriate fork for a given course — not hitting treys or breaking down defenses and driving to the hole.
Again, I want to stress the point that being a “lady” and being an athlete are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Of course these players can be polite and courteous before and after the buzzer sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that. But during the game, it’s a different story.
The connotation brings to mind images of relative helplessness and social, not athletic, superiority. It conjures up pictures of women being rescued from dragons, or, at the very least, women who wouldn’t care to defy their traditional place in society. At its most negative, the word could lead both spectators and commentators to take these women less seriously than their male counterparts.
When one witnesses the accomplishments and behavior of women on the floor, most would agree that they are appropriately unladylike. Consider Minnesota’s Janel McCarville, the Golden Gophers’ star forward who was a first-team All-America pick last year. Before her Sweet 16 game against Baylor, McCarville stared down the Lady Bears’ (aaahhhh) entire starting lineup, and, by the end of the game, she played a role in a small altercation on the court.
Well-mannered? Not that day. Effective? You bet. McCarville averaged 16 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season.
Which brings me to my next point — the word “lady” suggests a secondary status for women’s teams at schools that use the term. The men’s teams are simply the Vols or the Tigers. No modifier needed.
While Title IX has helped NCAA teams make great strides in helping facilitate equality between men’s and women’s programs, I would argue that “lady” sets the programs that use the word back about 30 years.
It seems particularly inappropriate that so many elite women’s hoops squads are still known as the “lady” version of the school’s team. I didn’t see the men’s teams from Baylor or Tennessee anywhere when I filled out my tournament bracket, yet no one goes around gentrifying them. I have yet to hear them be called the “gentlemen” Vols or Bears. Seems counterintuitive to me.
Mercifully, Michigan and most of the Big Ten has managed to keep up with the times and has avoided using this term, opting instead for the more equal and fitting men’s and women’s modifiers. I am personally grateful. The Big Ten exception is, of course, Penn State, whose Lady Lions made it into the NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions, however, finished last in the conference.
But even when schools specifically avoid “lady,” it is not uncommon for announcers, particularly those who are men, to still throw the word around and not think twice about it.
I know that I cannot convince anyone else to go crazy every time they hear “lady” or any of the other inherently sexist terms that are used to describe women athletes. But, seriously, just listen carefully to exactly how pervasive this terminology is and think about the way that it affects the overall portrayal of women in sports.
And if you do decide to get mad about this anti-feminist word, don’t be scared to be “unladylike” about it.
Megan Kolodgy can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.