Dear Bitter Butch,
I work with someone who, I am sure, thinks of himself as a “nice guy.” He regularly addresses women in late middle age as “young lady,” including me (we are both in our mid-50s). He thinks he is being gallant. I would really like to help him to understand that this is a microaggression, but I don’t want to make things hostile. Any suggestions?
Not A Young Lady
Dear Not a Young Lady,
For those reading this who think this is no big deal: this is a big deal. Calling middle-aged women ‘young lady’ in a gallant fashion says the following things:
- I am going to compliment someone who is obviously not young ‘young,’ because your only worth is based on being young.
- The reason your only worth is based on being young is that being young makes you attractive.
- Being attractive to men is the only reason women exist.
He is also saying that anyone past the age of 19 (which is STILL pushing it for using ‘young lady’) cannot be attractive, because middle-aged women are categorically unattractive.1
What really, really enrages me about these situations is this: HE is he one creating a hostile climate with his condescending sexist bullshit, but because he’s doing so from the comfortable position of power and privilege he holds, you’re the one who has to worry about ‘making things hostile.’ Because men like him are so accustomed to just waltzing through the world being condescending assholes to people without ever having to face any consequences. So when you DO call them on their shit, they genuinely feel attacked out of the blue.
Make no mistake: I am not telling you not to worry about this and to just tell him off. You have to do this dance because you live in a very real world in which women have to deal with sexism in delicate and anxious ways or face very real repercussions. If you do not get fired for “creating a problem,” you will at the very least have to deal with his huffy “how dare you call me on my adorable gallantry” poutyface making things uncomfortable for weeks or months.
So. I’m going to give you specific advice that makes me want to hurl but will hopefully get the job done.
But for the record: I PROTEST. I think it should be as unthinkable to pull this crap as it would be to say “nice tits,” and I’m sure this gallant fellow would never dream of saying THAT.
Here’s how I suggest dealing with him when he pulls this crap on you:
Laughing. “Young?” you say. “Honey, I’m probably older than you and I’ve earned these gray hairs. You may call me ‘distinguished madame.’” Make it a joke; look haughty.
If he persists (and I’m guessing he will), you can say: “No no no! We’re about the same age, and if I’m a young lady you must be a young man and let me tell you — neither of us are.”
Or, if you are desperate and he appears to be a bit sexually uptight: “You’d better never say that to a woman unless you’re giving her a good spanking.” I like to do this sort of thing to men who are sexually uptight because then every time they start to say whatever dumb shit they were going to say, they blush and run away.
If you keep making him uncomfortable every time he says it, he will eventually knock it off.
If he says it to customers? Other coworkers?
You can go the earnest route: whispering to him, “You know, I think you don’t mean for that to come across as condescending at all, but that woman with the AARP card didn’t seem to like that very much,” or: “You know, a lot of us associate ‘young lady’ with being scolded by our parents or teachers! Did you notice she laughed sort of uncomfortably?”
You will notice that none of my advice is at all educational. It is all pointed at just making him shut the fuck up.
There is a reason for this.
Any man who, in 2015 and who is younger than, say, 80, that continues to say this to women and doesn’t notice us wincing and gritting our teeth and rolling our eyes? He has no interest in being educated. And as a passionate advocate for saving one’s energy and breath, I say dood’s already a lost cause.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at email@example.com
It is also shitty to call young women ‘young lady’ as it reminds them that no one in the entire universe takes them seriously in case they had forgotten this for a fraction of a second. ↩