Ladies and Gentlemen: Yes, there’s Gender Inequality in Social Ritual: Guess Who’s the Higher Gender…

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Yes, there’s Gender Inequality in Social Ritual: Guess Who’s the Higher Gender…

(c) 2011,  Davd

When a speaker addresses the audience with “Ladies and Gentlemen”, [s]he is putting the women first in more than just word-order. The phrase is used and has been used so much that it is not really heard by most listeners; but it is ritually and historically important. By addressing the women of the audience as members of a Ruling Class and the men as middle-class, speakers attest that for decades, since long before there was a latter-20th-Century “second wave of Feminism”, women were claiming and many men were half-accepting, the gender inequality that prevails in Canada, the Anglophone Commonwealth, and much of the United States today: Ladies First.

I have heard “Ladies and Gentlemen” conventionally spoken for over 60 years, since i was a small boy. My mother drilled Ladies First into my “manners” starting when i was of kindergarten age or younger. My father held doors open for her and waited her to pass through first. All these are rituals of inequality, and all not only deny but contradict “patriarchy”: They are more nearly matriarchal than egalitarian.

Ladies and gentlemen are not equals semantically: The social equal of a “gentleman” is, by a very simple transformation, a “gentlewoman”. We do not see that word often—because English-language social ritual places women above men (perhaps excepting the Ruling Class of societies that have one). In Spanish, for instance, one often hears “Señores y señoras”, which is a recitation of parallel, equal male and female references… and in Spanish, muy hombre (very much a man) is a serious compliment. (In Feminist English its equivalent might be an insult, given the misleading Feminist stereotype of men as violent and women as not, and the systematic disadvantaging of men in “family law” today.)

Ladies are the social equals of “Lords”. This is explicit in those Canadian courtroom rituals where a judge is conventionally addressed as “Your Ladyship” or “Your Lordship”: and referred-to as “Her Ladyship” or “His Lordship”. We do not see nor hear the judiciary addressed nor referred to as mere gentlefolk.

That, in turn, goes with the origins of “court”. Kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, earls and baron[esse]s have courts. Gentlefolk have not; they have houses and some have substantial houses—but not courts, no great halls in which to hear and judge disputes and accusations. Nor do gentlefolk have the authority to judge—that, obviously, is the privilege of a Ruling Class, to which gentlefolk do not belong. (In the United States, which is a republic, there are courts but they belong explicitly to the public rather than to members of a real or putative ruling class; and the judges of either gender are addressed as “Your Honor”. Criminal cases are brought in the name of “the people” rather than of “Her Majesty”.)

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, then, implies that the Lady is of a crucially higher social class than the gentleman. She is, the phrase implies, entitled to judge him! She is entitled, a-fortiori, to go ahead of him through doors, to be bowed to [which bow may be acknowledged by a mere nod of the head], and to remain seated while he walks to her chair, bows, and offers his hand to be shaken—which offer she is entirely free to refuse.

It might be worth observing that there is a women’s analogue to the bow—the curtsey. I recall my sister being taught to curtsey to adult women when she was a young girl. Grown women, so far as i have read, curtsey only to the Queen. Men bow to women of equal or higher rank and to some men of higher rank—which puts some ambiguity to the women being of equal rank…

These deference rituals, in which men symbolize inferiority to women, are collectively and customarily called “Good Manners”1. It is not rare for men who refuse to act out their ritual inferiority, to be accused of having Bad Manners.

Is it anything but consistent, that for decades many men have referred to their wives, when present and when
not present, as “the Boss”? Before 1970, i can recall a few women making the complementary reference to their husbands as e.g. “my lord and master”. In this century, never.

When men referred to their wives as “Madame2” and “My lady”, and women referred to their husbands as
“sir” and “My lord”, those were balanced deferential rituals—or one might say, humility rituals. Humility is a virtue; and reciprocal ritual humility can be a good thing.

When the reciprocity vanishes, as it has “in Anglophone America”, the humility becomes humiliation and the ritual deference becomes too real. There is plausibly a connection between “Ladies and Gentlemen” and the bias in favour of women in legal disputes both civil [especially divorce] and criminal [especially accusations of sexual and violent abuse]. Ritually, the connection definitely exists: Ruling Classes enjoy preference in courts for the simple reason that courts originated as (and many radical democracy advocates will argue, still are) Ruling Class territory to which commoners come as inferiors and to some extent as strangers3.

It would seem on the surface at least, that Feminism has powerfully exploited this ritual gender inequality and to a substantial extent, converted it into a real inequality—which inequality they can become outraged if asked to acknowledge4.

I never heard a speaker open an address with “Lords and gentlewomen.” I do not wish to. I would not mind at all, hearing the men in an audience .. along with those women present who do believe in gender equality .. boo some “Ladies and Gentlemen” speaker off the stage.


1To forestall quibbling, i will note that the sentence above does not state that these deference rituals are the whole of “Good Manners”.

2This French word means Lady or Queen in recent usage and literally, “My Mother”… and “sir”, a designation of nobility in English, is the contraction of “sire” or [when marriage was normal and adultery and divorce rare] father.

3It might be worth observing that members of a Ruling Class are often, and if one did the research one might find usually, privileged to strike commoners. (In Japan the privilege included summary killing.) Could it be that the law turns a blind eye to violence by women against men, because of women’s ritual treatment as Ruling-Class?

4Letter from “Jane Doe”, a clergywoman, to the author.


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About Davd

Davd Martin (Ph.D., 1966, Sociology) has been a professor, a single parent on a low income from a small commercial herb garden, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. His men's-interest essays and blogs have appeared on "The Spearhead" "A Voice for Men", and "False Rape Society", as well as this site.
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One Response to Ladies and Gentlemen: Yes, there’s Gender Inequality in Social Ritual: Guess Who’s the Higher Gender…

  1. Father Marker says:

    I would like to argue that the habit of deferring to women first has its roots in the words of Jesus.

    Luk 9:48 KJV – And said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.

    The tradition as you’ve obviously shown is that the greatest should be named first and the least named last. Jesus inverted this order so when I hear someone address the crowd as such I think of what Jesus said. Now given that the society we live in now has its roots based in a strongly christian society a couple of hundred years ago it would be fair from my POV to believe that the order of address is based around that paradigm.

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