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A Consensus of Opinion on a Perplexing Question

By Mrs. Margaret Deland

Mrs. Burton Harrison

Miss Sarah Orne Jewett

The regret has, of late, been made very manifest in polite circles as to the fast-disappearing usage of the old-fashioned and courtly word of "lady," the consensus of opinion being that the word should find its ancient and rightful place in our speech. Upon this renewal of attention to the word have followed discussions of the perplexing question of the proper use of the term "lady" and that of "woman." It has seemed most fitting, in view of the plural use of the word "lady" in its title, that The Ladies' Home Journal should meet these tendencies of popular thought in a discussion of both phases of the question. This it seeks to do in the contributions which follow.


Any discussion which makes us reflect upon the value of words is helpful, and the question under consideration -- when it is right to use the word "woman" and when "lady" -- ought to set us all thinking. In considering this question, we must, of course, go back to the beginnings of both these words to get at their primary reason for being. One authority traces the word "woman" back to wifman or webman: the person who stays at home to spin -- as distinguished from the word weapman, who goes abroad to fight. The suffix man is, of course, generic, and includes both male and female. Lady, primarily, signifies one who has to do with a loaf or bread -- one who kneads. So it would appear that, to start with, both these words meant that the person so named was a worker. By-and-by, however, new meanings begin to grow around these primitive and simple ideas. Woman meant merely an adult female of the human race; lady meant some one who was, as we say, "well born," and, consequently, well-bred; in other words, "Lady" grew to mean a woman, plus education, refinement, dignity and culture.

     But even when this is clear to us the question at once arises, how shall we discriminate, how shall we decide at first glance whether the "adult female of the human race," who, perhaps, brings our clothes home from the wash, or she who rolls by us in her fine carriage, is entitled to the name of lady? The fact that the first "adult female" is a washerwoman, and that the second is plainly rich enough to ride in a carriage, has nothing to do with that plus which makes the word "lady" differ from the word "woman." To be sure, on the surface, we would infer that the woman who bends all day over a washtub has not had the chance to acquire that "education, refinement, culture and dignity," which unquestionably go to make up our understanding of the term lady; on the other hand, the woman in the carriage has, evidently, leisure, and consequently the opportunity at least, to cultivate these beautiful and noble qualities, even if they have not come to her in virtue of being born to them. But such obvious inferences do not help us in deciding which term is appropriate for either, for we all know very well that carriages do not of necessity carry our four adjectives, nor do washtubs exclude them; so what are we going to do?

     We must have some general rule to follow, and, fortunately, custom has made one for us: First, that a woman, when referred to in connection with her occupation in life, should be spoken of as a woman. If she is in a shop, she is a saleswoman or a forewoman; if she brings our washing home to us, she is a washerwoman; if she goes in her carriage to visit her patients, she is a medical woman. It is perfectly exact to describe her as a woman, plus her business, whatever it is. I think we know this instinctively when we remember how it offends us to hear the word saleslady or scrublady or the like.

     Secondly, custom has suggested that when we would refer to such persons not in reference to their occupation, we would, for the sake of courtesy, speak of them as ladies. It may often be inexact, because those things we found constituted the plus which makes the lady, as distinguished from the woman, may not belong to these particular adult females. But, after all, it is not our business to judge; furthermore, the use of the term is kind, and, consequently, courteous. One seldom goes amiss in being kind.

     This use of the term "lady" is plainly courteous. Even when the street car conductor cautions us," Don't get off, lady, till the car stops," or the cash-girl wails at us, "Here's you change, lady," and we feel half impatient and half amused, we hardly know why, even then, we do realize, I think, and appreciate, that it is meant courteously. "Woman, here's your change," would be distinctly unpleasant, even though strictly true, and not meant to be impolite.

     There is, however, another term which is coming more and more into use, which saves us either of these extremes. I mean the old, dignified, non-committal word, "madam." "A conventional term of address," the dictionary declares it to be, "to women of any degree." It is courteous, and, because it is conventional, it is exact.

     The fact is, we have so cheapened the beautiful word "lady" by using it without meaning, that I think many of us prefer to say "woman" whenever we can. And certainly this word, at first used to designate one who labored, then as merely a distinction of sex, has grown in dignity and value. How much we mean when we speak of a friend as a "fine woman," and what a curious and subtle condemnation would lie in the phrase "fine lady"!

     I think, however, that general usage sums the matter up, and we come to understand, as I said before, that in speaking of the "adult female of the human race," in relation to her occupation, we must say woman -- a woman artist, a woman writer, a scrubwoman; and in speaking of her as an individual, we may, with courtesy, say "lady"; while in directly addressing her we may, with courtesy, propriety and truth, say "madam."

Margaret Deland.


Alas! the poor, beautiful old word, "lady," so wedded with high thoughts of chivalry in mediŠval times (how could a knight have bound his "woman's" glove upon his crest?), alternately so caressing, so reverent, so noble, so exalted, as Shakespeare uses it, has, indeed, fallen from its high estate, and become a toy for mockers to kick about in the dusty arena of society. Who does not know its abuses? One of the drollest of these was invented by the newly-emancipated negroes of the South just after the war. By way of asserting their recent dignity they made it a point to speak of a woman of African descent and previous condition of servitude as "a lady," while any other woman was a more or less "white lady," thus easily and effectually making a new category of "colored persons." To-day, the saleslady, the washlady, and their kind have swelled the ranks of the pretenders to such a degree that the foreign house-servant, lately landed and installed, does not hesitate to announce to her mistress a "lady" from the dressmaker, and a "lady" to clean the house.

     But, so far as I know, we have not attained to the English affectation of a "lady-help," who is quite on a par with that other absurdity of the English newspapers, the "paying-guest." It was in England, too, the other day, that the clergyman of a rural parish changed the style of his "mothers' meetings" to the "meetings of lady-mothers." If one could send into limbo all these pretentious phrases (not forgetting the worst of them, the "lady-friend") there might be some hope of bringing again unto its own the word "lady," dear to us from association and tradition.

     But how can this be done so long as our social fabric is perpetually upheaved by the great seething mass of imported aspirants to be our "fellow-citizens," who occupy places subordinate to us only until they dare assert themselves our equals or superiors? How are we, who yet do not willingly relinquish our claim to the title, to use it?

     One must needs, indeed, fashion a phrase with nicety that contains the word under discussion. There are some surroundings that imperiously call for it. How, for instance, could Mrs. Gaskell have delighted the world with "Cranford," if, instead of the "ladies upon the sofa" disturbed by the little hand-maiden in her attempt to get out the tea-tray underneath, the gifted author had described the "women" upon the sofa? Again, "The card-table was quite an animated scene -- four ladies' heads with niddle-nodding caps all nearly meeting in the middle of the table in their eagerness to whisper loud enough." Substitute for the above "four women's heads" and the fine impression of the picture flees at once. And again, we are told that a dish called "little Cupids" was "in great favor with the Cranford ladies." What interest would it have been to know that little Cupids were enjoyed by Cranford "women"?

     Jesting apart, one hesitates to apply the word "woman," as it is now so recklessly used in newspaper descriptions of the class who lead gay society, to the dear and aged saint who sits apart enthroned in her family circle enjoying her afternoon of life. Around her is the magic ring of purity and reverence that enshrined the "lady" of Comus, and the title is her due.

     In the earlier days of our republic, when class distinctions were less a matter of feverish moment than they seem now to be, what was the "lady" whom all delighted to honor? Was it not she who stood out upon the background of her own domestic circle rather than upon that of her "set" in society, the simple-minded, God-fearing, self-respecting wife, mother and daughter, of whom I have many an example in my mind's eye as I write -- so serene in her own claim to place that she could accept those with whom she came into contact without fear that her position might be injured? That is my idea of "a perfect lady" -- rather an old-fashioned one, I fear -- not the "perfect woman," which she would have been the last to believe herself entitled to be called.

     Sometimes, in a crowded gathering of modern fashion, when I see the curt, business-like manner of some of the "women" quoted as models for the rest, in their dispensation of hospitality, I hark back in memory to the "lady" I once admired, and wish she might be duplicated a thousand times over for the benefit of these, our contemporaries. Then, indeed, the fit among us might once again be ladies, attended upon with deference by all, and a millennial reign of good manners, dictated by good feeling, might set in. So far as what we call the "lady born" is concerned, if heredity confers anything, it is simplicity of manner and avoidance of all affectation and boasting; the Royal ladies who of European dynasties strike every one who has the honor to come into contact with them in private intercourse, as wonderfully unpretending, courteous and considerate, and the greatest people with whom a properly-accredited American meets abroad are invariably the least burdened with pretense of importance.

     It would never enter into my head to think a person of great wealth and possessed of a fine establishment, a lady, if she could turn in her own house from a beaming recognition of some star, of contemporaneous fashion to bestow a frozen greeting upon a social makeweight, or a poor friend of other days who had not kept pace with her in progress up the ladder of society.

     To lay down a law for the use of the word in the present condition of American society would, I think, puzzle the most ingenious makers of social codes. For the time it must remain a matter of intuition when and where to apply the graceful and stately old courtesy-title of "lady" that I sincerely trust will one day again "come unto its own."

Constance Cary Harrison.


One summer afternoon the heart of a small boy (who was on a steamer off the Massachusetts coast) was filled with joy at the sight of many small sailing vessels of every shape and rig. He seemed to possess an amazing knowledge of them, and gave much information to his mother and her friends.

     "Why isn't that a yacht?" the mother asked once, timidly. "How do you know a yacht?"

     "How do you know a lady?" answered the wise small boy after a moment's reflection.

     Perhaps one can best reply to the question in hand in some such way as this. Yet it seems to me that the proper use of the word "lady" is, to quote the definition of the "Century Dictionary," to describe a woman who belongs to that level of society which is marked by "good breeding, education and refinement."

     I remember well being rebuked in my childhood for the use of the word gentleman by an old friend, who kept carefully to the standards and discriminations of her youth. I was speaking of a person of much worth whom she also heartily admired. "But, my dear," she added, "that is not the way to describe him. He is not a gentleman. One may be most gentlemanlike and yet not be really a gentleman." It cheapens our praise to use words in their wrong places, and the words lady and gentleman, which everybody understands clearly enough, with their derivatives, ladylike and gentlemanlike (or gentlemanly), have slipped into common and careless use until they often seem like worn coins that have lost their first value. To deny the title of lady is almost to accuse a woman of an entire departure from the beautiful traits which are ladylike and should be every woman's standard. The ideal is so admired that we have come to have a fashion of according it to every one; appointing everybody a lady by brevet, as one may say.

     Perhaps in the old times it depended a little more upon what a woman had or represented whether the world called her a lady or not, while it depends more in our time upon what a woman is. I always like to know what definition Dr. Johnson gave of such words as this in his famous dictionary, since he was not only a famous man of letters, but an English citizen of the best conservative sort, who liked dignity and rank and was most humane in his personal relations to his neighbors. He defines a lady to be:

     1st, A woman of high rank; the title of lady properly belongs to the wives of knights, of all degrees above them, and to the daughters of earls and of all higher ranks.

     2d, An illustrious or eminent woman.

     3d, A word of complaisance used of women.

     We can see from Dr. Samuel Johnson's last definition that even in his time the word was used by courtesy, and we can only remember that it is a matter of education to use words in their proper and unexaggerated sense, where it is impossible to lay down strict rules of speech. There are rules for the use of adjectives, and yet people speak of an awful umbrella or magnificent lemonade, and one grows quite used to hearing them, and takes the worn coins of speech at their real value of worn and cool or delicious, or whatever the umbrella and lemonade really were!

     We may safely decide that in the mere discrimination of sex one may always use the word woman with much greater propriety and elegance. Spokeswoman, forewoman, saleswoman are certainly better words in themselves than their counterparts of spokeslady or what one hears still oftener saleslady. Woman is certainly the proper term in such cases; the personal distinction should be made secondary. We should rather hear any one say; "A lady who has been spokeswoman at the club," or "a lady who was saleswoman at Messrs. So-and-so's," than "a spokeslady" or "a saleslady." But we must never forget that since common usage bestows the title of lady by courtesy upon women, while one should not use it foolishly or carelessly one should not deny its use in an arrogant or wounding way. We must neither claim it by arrogance and pretense nor forget to be guided by courtesy in giving it. A little thought will teach us good taste and dignity in the matter, and help us to separate what is historical in the use of such a word from what is common politeness at the present time, as well as what belongs to mere classification in business or general matters from what is social and personal. We must recognize, too, as has been already said, that all ladies are unfortunately not ladylike, nor are all ladylike persons ladies, though courtesy expects a woman to be ladylike if courtesy grants the title. The "true lady" exists in all our imaginations and is recognized by every one at sight.

     We might follow this idea and say that a lady should instinctively feel at home in the best society, in spite of shyness or lack of ease in making friends. "There are coarse ladies and fine ladies," said a very great person once, "and I may be a coarse lady, but I am a lady." We also must grant that there are bad ladies as well as good ladies, which seems to make clear the fact that we all have an ideal of what a lady should be.

     Once I was spending part of a rainy day in the famous People's Palace in London, where there was just then a remarkable collection of paintings. Near where I was standing a poor woman stopped with her little son before a beautiful portrait.

     "Oh, who's that, mother?" cried the little boy with charming enthusiasm.

     "That's a gentleman," said the mother with equal pleasure in her voice, and they stood looking and looking at the fine face, and the boy was entirely satisfied. Perhaps in this country one would not be so likely to have heard just that answer. An American might have said, "Oh, I don't know who he is!" but the truth remained that the words exactly told the truth, "That's a gentleman"; and since nobody's eyes could help seeing the same thing the touch of reverence in the speaker's tooe [tone?] could not but be pleasant to hear.

     And this reminds one that a noble look and fine traits of character are very often matters of inheritance. There are certain horses that come of a race noted for swiftness and intelligence and a certain refinement of looks and behavior; why should we not expect to see men and women who take social rank and personal value for the same reasons? Thoroughbreds who go upon four feet may be bad-tempered and possessed of many faults, and fall below the standards which we expect of their race, but they are none the less thoroughbreds, and we can sometimes say the same of men and women.

     I should like to say, in ending, that there is something quaint and pleasant to me in a fashion of speech which has prevailed in our country of late years. When I hear some one call suddenly, "Lady! show your ticket!" or, "Lady! did you give me your check?" or, "Pass on, lady!" I remember in the old ballads:

          "The ladye ran to her tower head,"


          "Sweet William to his lady said,"

or young Tamlane who says,

                    "Lady, let a-be!

          What gars ye pu' the flowers, Janet?"

     Wherever we can add to the politeness and considerateness of every-day life we are doing a right and pleasant thing. If now and then, through courtesy, our good old discriminating word is misapplied, it may, after all and in many ways, do more good than harm.


"When Lady: When Woman" appeared in The Ladies' Home Journal (April 1895): 4.
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Mrs. Margaret Deland: Margaret Wade Campbell Deland (1857-1945) is characterized by Blanche Colton Williams in Our Short Story Writers (1929) as a writer of religious novels and short stories, notably John Ward, Preacher (1888) and Old Chester Tales (1898).
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Mrs. Burton (Constance Cary) Harrison: Mrs. Burton Harrison (1843-1920) was an author of novels, plays, stories, essays, and other works.
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after the war: Harrison refers to the American slaves, freed as a consequence of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
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Mrs. Gaskell ... "Cranford": Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) published Cranford in 1853. The incident of the tea-tray under the sofa appears in Chapter 1. The card table scene and the description of "little Cupids" appear in Chapter 7.
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"lady" of Comus: "The Lady" in John Milton's Comus (1637) exemplifies her virtue by resisting temptations to pleasure.
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Dr. Johnson ... famous dictionary: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) published his dictionary of English in 1755.
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the famous People's Palace in London: Now Queen Mary College of London University, this building began as a Philosophical Institute in the mid-19th Century.
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in the old ballads: "The ladye ran to her tower head," ... "Sweet William to his lady said": The first is from a traditional border ballad, "Edom O' Gordon." Gordon is a "traitor" who demands that the lady, who takes refuge in her tower, come out to "wed" him and betray her husband. This stanza describes her taking shelter when she realizes Gordon has come to the town.

     The ladye ran to her tower head,
     As fast as she cou'd hie,
     To see if, by her fair speeches,
     She cou'd with him agree.

The second line probably comes from a variant of one of the ballads about Sweet William and Lady Margaret, a pair of unhappy lovers.

young Tamlane who says, "Lady, let a-be! / What gars ye pu' the flowers, Janet?": These lines are from a variant of the ballad, "Tam Lin," Child Ballads 380, which tells the story of Janet winning the heart of the knight Tam Lin:

          She hadna pu'd a rose, a rose,
             A rose but barely ane,
          When up and started young Tam Lin;
             Says, 'Ladye, let alane.

          'What gars ye pu' the rose, Janet?
             What gars ye break the tree?
          What gars ye come to Carterhaugh
             Without the leave o' me?'

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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College

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