Post #3: How women refer to other women, what they might prefer to be called

In my last post, I discussed the words that women would use to describe themselves. In this next post, I am excited to expand to many more of my questions. The first of which: “How would you refer to a group of strangers in their ___’s who identify as female?” This series of questions included three different general age groups: 20s, 30s, and 40s. These questions came from my original query, how old is too old to call someone a girl? As a 19 year old, I have thought about this question many times. It comes up in daily life as we group ourselves and others together. In my experience, people of different ages and generations often disagree.

Therefore, I will be examining the results from these three questions using two perspectives. First, examining how women talk about other women, I will use a chart showing how participants of all ages answered as a group, and then another chart showing how participants in the target age group answered. Second, I will return to the data from the last post and look at the words that women of the target age group would refer to themselves. The group of strangers questions allowed only for three answer choices (“girl”, “woman”, and “lady”), but as those answers were most common across age group, I don’t believe the fewer choices for respondents makes the data incomparable.

First, I am looking at the question, “How would you refer to a group of strangers in their 20s who identify as female?”

refer to 20s ALL AGES

How one would refer to a group of strangers in their 20s. All participants.


Almost half of respondents agreed that they would refer to the strangers as women. Only 32%, on the other hand, would call them girls. A whole 20%, 112 participants, would refer to them as ladies. For comparison, only 17 participants self-identified as ladies in the first question.

I thought that perhaps the percentages of 18-29 years olds who would call other females in their 20s “girls” would diverge more from the chart with all responses, seeing as the observer is of a similar age to the group observed.


refer to 20s UNDER 30

How one would refer to a group of women in their 20s. Participants under age 30.

However, the results were very similar. I must always keep in mind the biases of the data, and how women under age 30 make up a large majority of my participants. Their presence in the data may have shifted the chart to favor the response of people that age. Looking at a chart using data from only participants that are aged 30 and over, I see that it did. Without women under 30, the percentage of respondents calling these strangers in their 20s “girls” and “women” are almost equal; 39% and 40.6% respectively.

However, my main point here is to compare what respondents under 30 called themselves and what they would call strangers perceived as their peers. One may think, in general, you might categorize yourself and people your age the same. However, the data does not match. When referring to strangers, women 18-29 years old are 20% less likely to use the term “girl” than when referring to themselves. I am using data from participants who are potentially aged 18 and 19 as well, as my age group options were 18-22 and 23-29, but speaking as a 19 year old person, I do not feel like my 20s are very far away, or that people in their 20s are that much older. I do not think that the possibility of the strangers being older could be the sole reason to not call them “girls”. Even more interesting, the large percentage of those who would choose “ladies”. The percentage of people under 30 who chose this was almost identical to the main group, 20.42% of under 30 compared to 20.40% from the results of all participants. There is a stark difference between this and the number of respondents under 30 who would call themselves ladies. Less than 2% of respondents said they would use “lady” for themselves.

As analyzed in my previous post, the words that women would use first to describe themselves. Participants under age 30.

I repeated this regarding the participants in their 30s.

There is a stark contrast between the chart below showing strangers in their 30s and of the chart showing strangers in their 20s. Using the data from all participants, 81.6% would refer to female-identifying people in their 30s as “women” compared to the 49.1% that would refer to those in in their 20s as “women”. This fits with my personal experience as well.

How one would refer to a group of strangers in their 30s. All participants.

However, the number drops down to 59.4% when examining how respondents in their 30s would refer to strangers in their 30s. Before I could make any claim, I was interested to know if the statistic for this question was incredibly influenced by the large group of respondents under 30. It was, of course. If one took out responses from participants under 30, 63.4%  would refer to the strangers as “women”. This is very close to the answers of the age group when isolated. The most obvious possible reason for the change is that since strangers in their 30s are older than that young majority, they are more likely to label them with the term “women”. They may be perceived as “women” rather than “girls” as 50.6% of participants under 30 perceive themselves to be and 30.5% of under-30s would refer to strangers in their 20s to be.

How would you refer to a group of strangers in their 30s. From participants in their 30s.

How would you refer to a group of strangers in their 30s. From participants in their 30s.

The data of how participants in their 30s would refer to themselves could not be affected by participants outside that age group, though, and so it is interesting that the portion that would refer to themselves as women rises back to 78.1%. Comparing the charts of referring to oneself and referring to strangers close to one’s age, the rise in percentage of respondents who chose “woman” or “women” is made almost entirely by the decrease in percentage who chose “lady” or “ladies”. Looking back at the charts referring to respondents 18-29 and female strangers in their 20s, this happened there as well. So, the word “lady” is very important.

How participants in their 30s would refer to themselves

How participants in their 30s would refer to themselves.

When referring to oneself, the term “lady” is not common among any age group that I surveyed. However, many said they’d refer to strangers with “ladies”.

At the beginning of my project, I did not expect the word “lady” to be used much at all. When considering my own language now, though, I realize I use it unconsciously– when carefully choosing my words, I almost always would switch “lady” out for “woman”. In my initial research for this project, I found that the word “lady” has been prominent in conversations of language and gender.


In Robin Lakoff’s 1972 book, Language and Woman’s Place, she spent much time reflecting on the word “lady” and the connotations it had for her. This book was one of the first in-depth scholarly examinations of language and gender, and was a great resource for me as I started this project. Lakoff, however, compares the use of “racial epithets”  to the use of the word “lady”, saying they are placeholders or replacements for racial slurs or words like “broad” (Lakoff 1972, 52-57). The word “broad” does not offend me, and simply sounds like an antiquated word that could only be used jokingly today. Lakoff also observed that “lady” was used  to undermine the seriousness of a woman or a situation, and it was used as a euphemism when “woman” seemed to imply sexual or sensual connotations.

With this comparison, one can infer she was not usually the biggest fan of the word “lady”.

Looking at my data taken 47 years after the publishing of the first edition of Language and Woman’s Place, the situation seems to be different, but still possibly similar. The participants in my survey were not all sociolinguists or women’s studies scholars, and so like me they may have not previously considered their use of the word “lady” and its placement in our language and respective dialects. I wouldn’t have expected them to, and I wanted an accurate recording of the language they might use when referring to strangers, without self-censorship. Age was important, but the question turned out to have more information than simply at which ages respondents find it appropriate to call female people “girls”.

Later in the survey, I had participants imagine themselves in the opposite situation. I asked, “if you were in a store, and a woman your age there needed to get your attention, how appropriate/acceptable would the following forms of address be?”  I also repeated the question but with a person your age who is not a woman. I structured the answers on a Likert scale, having participants report whether a particular name is extremely appropriate, somewhat appropriate, neither appropriate nor inappropriate, somewhat inappropriate, and extremely inappropriate. The following are the words the participants evaluated:

    1. Honey
    2. Lady
    3. Little lady
    4. Miss
    5. Missy
    6. Ma’am
    7. Woman
    8. Young lady

This list is different from the others I used in the beginning of the survey because I wanted to add titles that do not often act as categories/names for women (at least in my dialect). Therefore, “miss”, “missy” and “ma’am” appear on this list. The first can be a woman’s courtesy title, e.x. Miss Jane Doe, but can also stand alone. For me, “miss” and “ma’am” feel the most appropriate and familiar, as those are the ones I use in my customer service job. However, I am very interested in participants’ responses to being addressed as “lady”.

To be addressed as “lady” was somewhat inappropriate or extremely inappropriate to many, 43% and 11.2% respectively, when coming from another woman. The feelings surrounding “lady” in this context are not as strong in this context as I might have supposed. When being addressed by someone who is not a woman, a larger portion of participants deemed “lady” as inappropriate; 33.7% said it is somewhat inappropriate and 28.1% said extremely inappropriate.

The structure of this question places “lady” as a direct address; imagine saying “Hey lady, you dropped your keys.” It is different than the indirect reference of a group of people, and it may feel like singling a person out. I have called my peers “ladies” when shouting something out on the soccer field, but I wouldn’t call a single teammate a lady.

In the end, any discussion must consider general rules of manners in the US. Are these labels meant to give respect to strangers? As Lakoff discussed in her book, “lady” has many connotations. When we talk to/about strangers, is the language more formal since there is no relationship between oneself and the strangers? To me, use of the term lady seems negative, or at least indifferent, when referring to strangers. Just as there are differences between use of “lady” today and in the past and between different generations, there are differences in the use of “lady” between varieties of American English. This is a topic I will continue to develop in my final reflection, my next blog post.


  1. iragostino says:


    Your topic is very interesting. I especially like how you are now looking at how women refer to other women. I think it would be interesting to ask how women refer to those older vs younger than them (which you may already be doing for all I know). Comparing the differences in what women call themselves and how they refer to other women might also be very interesting. For example, when someone calls me “ma’am” I am often thrown off (for want of a better phrase); I feel very odd to be referred to thusly, so it intrigues me how common such interactions are.

    If, at some point in the future, you decided you wanted to expand your research, looking at what men call women (depending on the age of the woman or just generally) could be interesting. Or, perhaps, asking women how they respond to being called different things by men vs other women. (For instance, I know some women who don’t mind being called “girl” by other women, but feel uncomfortable when a man does so)

    Anyway, I am interested to see the final result of your research! I hope your research continues to go well!

  2. lecochrane says:

    Your findings about ‘lady’ are very interesting, especially given the amount of research that has been done on this word, beginning as you say with Robin Lakoff’s. The discrepancy between those who call themselves ‘lady’ and those who use it as a term of address may be partially explained by your point that ‘lady’ is less of a category word than ‘woman’ or ‘girl’. But the appropriateness question unpacks this further. ‘Hey lady!’ sounds almost euphemistic, as if it would be used in a context when the speaker is using it in place of something rude. “Ladies” on the other hand can be used somewhat facetiously and/or to create solidarity.

    It would be useful in a follow-up study to look at what happens when there are narrower choices (for instance, if participants had to label themselves either ‘woman’ or ‘girl’).

  3. I agree that it is odd that there is a significant cohort of women who do not prefer to be called ladies but will call another group of women ladies. The example that comes to mind, for me at least, would be referring to a group of older women. If I were describing them to someone, I would probably call them a group of old ladies. Perhaps that is inappropriate, but I think it’s a perspective that might be useful to consider, if you haven’t already.

    I also find Lakoff’s interpretation interesting given that “lady” has been used as a status symbol in England (and I’m sure there were some Americans at one point in time that were respectfully called lady).