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A lady (not a lawyer)Retired Justice Markandey Katju published a blog post today entitled “Lady Lawyers”. In typical Katju blogging fashion (whenever not causing a media storm about judicial corruption), it's a trip down memory lane starting with his time as a lawyer in 1970 Allahabad. Katju is trying to make a valid point in his post: he writes that in 1970 the percentage of “lady lawyers” in the courts was close to zero, now it's 5%. (Achche din.)

Characteristically, Katju also pats himself on the back a bit for when he was Allahabad acting chief justice and started a toilet, washroom and big halls for “lady lawyers”, named after the first “lady lawyer” to have practiced in the court after the ban on “lady lawyers” was lifted in 1924. Later, as chief justice of the Madras high court, he set up a creche.

So far so good. But one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way, and not just in Katju's blog post but also in mainstream newspapers and websites, is the repeated use of the phrase “lady lawyer” or, a tad better, “woman lawyer”.

Why the phrase is so wrong is partly encapsulated in this gem of Katju's:

For ladies no doubt it is not easy to be a lawyer, as she has also to look after her family and home. But to the credit of lady lawyers they are bravely doing their job both of running a law practice, and looking after their families and home.

The stereotype that a woman “has to look after her family and home” may have been cool in the high courts in 1970 and the offices of the Mad Men era, but that kind of attitude and use of words like “lady lawyer” are a symptom of the cause of why the courts still have that fantastically improved 1 to 20 female to male ratio that Katju modestly celebrates in his blog.

Here are some more reasons of why “lady lawyer” is awful:

1. Lady lawyer, denotes a different type of lawyer. Not a normal lawyer, no, but one who is a lady. Like divorce lawyer, or corporate lawyer, the defining characteristic of the lady lawyer becomes that she is a lady.

2. Ladies, other than Gaga, are graceful but also silly, frivolous little things. In a time gone by, ladies have been known to be good for lunching, watching their gentlemen husbands play polo or cricket, or gossiping idly of womanly things while the men withdraw to the smoking room with their cigars and talk of politics and Stuff That Matters.

Having a career, playing competitive sports, or, God forbid, not getting married and not having children, were certainly not pursuits fit for a lady and you'd be appropriately shunned by polite society and other ladies.

While all ladies are women, not every woman can be a lady, for a lady is the type of women that behaves as a gentleman would expect her to.

And back in the day, gentlemen certainly expected more grace than a woman besting a man in a battle of wits in the courtroom.

3. A “lady something”, unless said in jest and/or we're talking about toilets, fashion, gynaecologists or private parts, is generally either patronising or intended as abuse by men. Take “lady driver” or “woman driver”, which are rarely used in a complimentary fashion by men (who are statistically more dangerous drivers than women). Even the acting profession and airlines have moved with the times, using gender neutral terms such as male / female actors and cabin attendants, rather than actress and stewardess.

4. It is grammatically strange, if not inaccurate. Could you say “man lawyer” or “gentleman lawyer” or “boy lawyer”? The gramatically correct phrase are “female lawyer” and “male lawyer”, unless “lady lawyer” is now entered the lexicon as a compound noun much like “woman driver” or “gentleman caller”?

Some, such as Jeremy Clarkson, might claim this is political correctness gone mad. I disagree.

We are talking about professionals here and a lawyer is a lawyer is a lawyer, irrespective of gender. And if we are talking about issues of gender inequality or toilets, and specifically need to refer to the gender of counsel, then talk about lawyers who are women and female lawyers, not about ladies.

Katju can be forgiven for his use of “lady lawyer” because 1) he hails from another era and, I'm certain, doesn't intend any harm by it; and 2) he is Markandey Katju.

Other, modern-day lawyers, should actively see to it that the term doesn't become fashionable again.

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