Leonard Pitts Jr.: How I got in trouble with ladies


Who would have ever thought that the words “lady” and “ladies” would be offensive to feminists. 

Let me tell you how I got in trouble with ladies.

No, not “the” ladies. Not, in fact, female human beings, period. Rather, I’m talking about the word itself, “ladies.”

Years ago, my editor was a female human being named Emily, to whom I filed a piece that used the L-word as a synonym for women. Em hit the roof. It took me a while to understand why.

For me, “ladies” connoted nothing more sinister than genteel women, the feminine counterpoint to “gentlemen.” Used in conjunction with that word, I suspect it wouldn’t have bothered Emily. But used on its own it had, for her, a whiff of paternalistic condescension, i.e., “You ladies ought not trouble your pretty little heads with politics.” I made the change.

I’ve always considered that moment a master class in sexist language and how the words we choose can say things beyond what we (consciously) intend. But I never thought I’d take a refresher course.

That’s what the last couple of weeks have amounted to, however. Em is long gone, but a number of female (and male) human readers have gladly taken on her role. My first sin, as they saw it, was a column on the GOP convention in which I wrote that the only thing standing between us and the apocalypse that is Donald Trump is “a grandmother in pantsuits.”

It was intended as a light joke about how thin is the membrane separating us from disaster. It was read, at least by some women, as diminution of an accomplished woman. I’ve gone over it a dozen times in my head and, while I appreciate my critics’ sensitivities, I think they’re misplaced. It was, again, a joke, i.e., not meant as a serious assessment of Clinton. Were it Barack Obama running against Trump, I’d have said the only thing between us and disaster was a jug-eared guy in dad jeans.

As a feminist, I was at first appalled to find myself guilty of sexist language. Now I’m amused. I suspect the three months till November and the (please, God!) four to eight years of a Clinton presidency are going to provide numerous refresher courses for men like me, men perhaps a little too sanguine, a little too smugly assured of their own enlightenment. Language is about to become a minefield for us.