athletes · stereotypes · training

Why Putting “Ladies” on the Locker Room Door Is a Disservice to Women

Women-Bathroom-SignIn 1992 when I moved to London, Ontario, I took a membership at Gold’s Gym so I could continue with the demanding weight-training routine I had established as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gold’s was close to home and had all the free weights I needed.  I liked the atmosphere in the gym and felt, for the most part, that they took the women who trained there as seriously as they took the men.

But there was one thing that nagged at me each time I went.  Where the sign on the door of the men’s locker room said “Men,” the sign on the door of the women’s locker room said “Ladies.”

This may seem like a minor thing to some people, but it really bothered me for a few reasons.

For one thing, if you’re going to go with the old-fashioned nomenclature for the widely accepted gender binary, then “Gentlemen” would be the contrast category beside “Ladies.”

But we don’t see “Gentlemen” in the gym (or anywhere much, for that matter, besides “gentlemen’s clubs,” which, last I checked, were a fancy name for strip clubs).

More than involving an asymmetry in the application of categories, we should be concerned about locker rooms for “Ladies” because the word “ladies” has a disempowering effect.  It calls to mind “ladies who lunch” or ladies who need gentlemen to throw down coats over the mud so they (the ladies) can ladies room signhave a clear, mudless path to the horse-drawn carriage and not dirty their fine silk shoes.

It sort of has the same impact as the color pink (see my discussion of pink here). Harmless in itself, but heavy with social meaning and a fairly Victorian ideal of femininity.

This isn’t the message or image we need as we enter the gym to do things that make us healthy, strong, and capable.

Sam has blogged about ladylike values before. She talks about the mismatch between ladylike values and athletic values. She lists a few clashes:

  • Performance clothes aren’t “ladylike” (tight and no petticoats).
  • Acting confident and commanding, as most sports require, isn’t especially ladylike either.  Ladies are quiet (unless gossiping) and should really just sit politely and look pretty.
  • Lots of sports require physical contact with others, and that’s definitely not ladylike. Where is our modesty, for goodness sake?
  • And what about spitting and so forth? You can read Sam’s blog post if you want the details of bodily excretions and how they figure in some sports

I agree with Sam when she says: “I think we women athletes may need to say goodbye to our inner ‘ladies’ and channel our inner ‘bad girls.’”

But a locker room for “Ladies” doesn’t encourage us to do this at all.

Back in 1992, I wrote a letter to the gym that outlined something along these lines, about how “Ladies” was disempowering and “Women” was empowering, and how on the list of all the places in my life that I would appreciate a default attitude towards me that takes my power seriously, the gym is definitely up there.

I was reminded of that letter recently by a friend whose summer tennis club still has “Ladies” and “Men’s” categories.  She was going to suggest to the board that the asymmetry be removed so they would have the “Women’s” category and the “Men’s”.  It astonished me that this would still be an issue anywhere in 2013.

My friend wondered whether I still had a copy of the letter so she could reference it.  I do not. It was so long ago that it probably went out with a stack of floppy disks that require MS-dos to open the files.

I’m happy to say that my gym actually took my letter seriously and changed the sign.  And my friend reported to me yesterday that her club found her argument for the change to “women” convincing.

Language has subtle and covert power over our social attitudes towards all sorts of things. Seemingly small changes that help to re-shape social messages about who is dainty and who is strong can have a positive impact on everyone.

For many (may I say “most”?) of us, when we engage in our athletic pursuits, we aren’t interested in being ladies.

17 thoughts on “Why Putting “Ladies” on the Locker Room Door Is a Disservice to Women

  1. Love this!
    Here’s a thought experiment :
    Imagine in response to your letter,they changed the men’s sign to gentleman. Better yet, gentleman on one and women on the other.

    Not such a small thing, eh?

    Words matter

  2. Subtle and covert indeed. So much so that i would venture that most of us don’t even notice. And we should, because the insidious nature of this kind of social conditioning drives our thinking and our attitudes in ways we need to be much more aware of. Thanks for making me think more critically!

  3. First, I have to tell you that I now have the song “Ladies Who Lunch” earworming me. (Not a completely bad thing but amusing nonetheless.)

    Second, thank you! Thank you for pushing to make what some would consider an insignificant change to help empower others, as well as yourself. I’m not the most athletic of people, but I still want to be empowered in my journey in life.

  4. Great post. I started back at playing soccer 10 years ago, in an over-35 league. At the time it was called a ladies league. If any group deserves to be called women, soccer players do (I don’t know who doesn’t). We prevailed and it is now a women’s league. I had a discussion with a British man a while ago who was surprised that the term lady would make me at all uncomfortable. It still takes me back to being a 10-year old tomboy, for whom ‘lady’ meant a long list of ‘don’ts’ and restrictions, intended to contain and surpress my energy/ spirit.

  5. I agree with you– I would much rather see the neutral ‘women’ on a locker room door than the loaded term ‘ladies’.

    A female friend of mine, however, brought up the idea that the word “woman” doesn’t have entirely neutral connotations. She was asking me for suggestions on a better term to use than “women”, because it sounded weird to her and her friends. (Maybe this is the case especially for young women. Didn’t it take all of us a while to learn to refer to ourselves as women, not girls etc?)

    I suppose “woman-identifying human beings” is too long for a sign. 🙂

  6. For men, I can’t see that it really matters – put “men”, genetlemen” or “bastards” on the sign, and we wouldn’t really care except the lattermost designation would likely just make most of us laugh. It’s very different though for those who face prejudice and aren’t really allowed to be who they are. Sergio Garcia shouldn’t be making jokes about Tiger Woods eating fried chicken, but it just wouldn’t be as offensive for somone to joke about inviting Sergio over to eat paella, and it would be even less offensive to make a joke about a British person eating bangers and mash. The greater the prejudice against a certain group of people, the more words matter.

  7. Do you remember the controversial and ground-breaking novel “The Women’s Room”? It’s a non-trivial issue, words matter.

  8. Interesting post! I feel like I am both, in fact my nickname is “Lady ___”, so at first I was shaking my head… but by the end, I was nodding. I am a lady, but not in the gym, not when I am lifting weights. That’s when I want to channel the inner power… which is definitely not ladylike! Thanks for making me think, I love when great writing changes the way I see things.

  9. I would venture to think that the use of “lady” over “woman” is more meaningful among women themselves. Individually, I would never distinguish either word. They both mean “person of the female gender” to me.

    This doesn’t remove the possibility of what “ladies” means to other people. But I would be interested to see how many people are sensitive to this distinction in order to get better context for this post.

  10. As I have commented before, I chose bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction after breat cancer and I do not wear breast forms. I use an online forum for support related to breast cancer. It is one of the big, trusted websites. Nowhere on their website do they acknowledge that some women opt out of reconstruction and do not wear breast forms. No mention of what to speak with your surgeon about, how to interview a surgeon to get the results you seek, just, ‘Some women reconstruct, others wear breast forms’. And there is quite a bit you need to understand and prepare for if you want a flat chest, not all surgeons know how to achieve this, so women need to know what criteria to use when looking and speaking to their doctors. Luckily, the site is quite responsive to its users. I brought up the discrepancy, and they are creating content to fill in the lack. But talk about body image and conformity issues. 25-45% of women have immediate reconstruction and I am being generous with the higher number. That leaves many women out in the dust, oh but they are wearing breast forms. So they are covered. Literally. Well not all of us and if I have anything to do with it, we will uncover ourselves and be the badass women we are.

  11. SO SO glad to find your piece on the inappropriacy of the word ‘Ladies’ on locker room doors; even gladder that you gained a victory. But surely, also, in this day and age, the word shouldn’t be anywhere else either? Let’s not start up a new inequality for non-athlethes! I’ve been banging on about this ‘lady’ nomenclature (great word, eh?) on my own blog. It would be great to have an expression of solidarity from you folks in return! The blog is; the post is entitled ‘What (older) women (don’t) want: Paula Coston lists a few things’. See especially point 3 in my list!

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