Is Being Called a “Man” Worse than Being Reminded Your Place is in the Kitchen?
Franklin C. Annis
Recently, 1st Lieutenant Virginia Brodie authored an article featured at Task and Purpose entitled: “Hey! You Shouldn’t Address A Bunch of Marines As ‘Gentlemen’ When the Group Includes Female Marines”. In this article, she reported feeling excluded as a female Marine when her commander addressed a formation using the term “gentlemen”. 1stLt Brodie suggested the inclusion of the language “Ladies and” to prevent this feeling of exclusion of female Marines. While her suggestion may seem straight forward, it presents issues with the complexity of the English language and historical usage of terms that may be valuable to maintain within the military.
In this article we will examine the etymology (origins and meaning) of the words: man, gentleman, and lady. We will go on to discuss issues surrounding the need for brevity, the feeling of inclusion, and intent of the current language. So on to three brief definitions and then we will get to the heart of the problem.
English historically has had no neutral pronouns. (i.e. He is a Marine; She is a Marine; But no “it” is a Marine). In Old English, “Mann” was a base term used to describe both genders. To specify a male, you used the term “Werman”. To specify a female, the term “Wifman” was used. Today, English has evolved to simply refer to males as “men” and females as “women”. However, the use of “man” to refer to individuals of both genders (e.g. “mankind”) continued well into the 20th century. (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018a)
The term “gentleman” originated in the 12th century in the French term “Gentilz hom”. It originally used to describe a male of noble birth. However, this term quickly evolved to associated with any male of virtuous conduct. It is this virtue-based definition of gentlemen that was adapted and utilized in the United States Military Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in Article 133. The article lists “acts of dishonesty, unfair dealing, indecency, indecorum, lawlessness, injustice, or cruelty” as antonyms for gentlemanly behavior. Additionally, the UCMJ specified that the term “gentleman” currently applies to both sexes.
The term “lady” comes from Old English word “Hlæfdige” that literally refers to the process of kneading bread. This term comes directly from a woman’s domestic role. The term than evolved to a woman that was the subject of chivalrous love. Later this term became connected to women of high social status and manners. Eventually in the late 19th century, it became a term that could be applied to any woman. (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018b).
The U.S. Military has an exceptional history of adapting to integrate minority communities within its ranks. While we strive to be inclusive and supportive to all the wish to serve the Republic, with the introduction of new groups, our tradition and policies must be adapted to ensure justice and good military order. The full integration of females into the combat arms is just one of many integrations in the history of the U.S. Military. And yet again, it is time to examine our traditions and culture to determine what needs to be changes and how to balance the preservation of tradition with needed adaptations to integrate a new group.
In 1stLt Brodie’s situation, there are a few solutions that come to mind that should be carefully considered and a unified vision should be established before moving forward. It would be harmful to make rash changes that may conflict with the ultimate goal fully integrating females into the Marine Corps. The conflicts I immediately see are ones surrounding the brevity of language, the feeling of inclusion, and the intent of the language.
While adding a couple of words to a sentence may not seem like much, the addition of “Ladies and” to all announcements goes against the principle of brevity in communication. While this isn’t necessarily an issue in the garrison environment, it is hazardous in combat. Service members should seek to be brief, clear, and concise in their language. With the origins of the term “Lady” connected with a woman’s domestic role in the kitchen, it may not be the best term to capture the warfighting spirit of our current generation of female military members. This may suggest that a single gender-neutral term be found to replace “Ladies and gentlemen” to re-enforce the need for brevity in communications. 1stLt Brodie recommended utilizing the terms “Marines” or “Warfighters” for this purpose.
1stLt Brodie felt excluded by the term “gentlemen” while it actively applied to her under the UCMJ. This might be a case for the need for education on what terms are being used by the Marine Corps and how they are being used. Just because this term ends in “man”, certainly doesn’t mean it has to apply only to males. This goes back to the concept that “man” is originally a gender-neutral term. Maybe if the military published and distributed guidance on how this term is to be viewed closer to the gender-neutral origins of the word “man”, 1stLt Brodie might not feel so excluded. I also question the desire to have a separate term applied to a sex that is trying to be viewed equal to male officers. Having the separate term of “Lady” might do more to separate 1stLt Brodie due to her sex than having her seen as part of the larger singular unit. The same questions could be raise if we still need to use both the term “Sir” and “Ma’am”. As the sexes become more equal, it might be time to use a single term for our officers. Why constantly call out the sex of an officer if it doesn’t impact their ability to accomplish the mission?
The use of the word “gentlemen” by military leaders may be intended to re-enforce the belief that military members should act out of virtue. Every time the term gentleman is used, it is a reminder that we exist within value-based institutions and we are all expected to live in accordance with these shared values. While 1stLt Brodie recommended the use of gender-neutral term of “Marines” or “Warfighters”, I question the larger impact of what might be lost if we do not constantly re-enforce the virtue-drive nature that we wish to see in our service members. And if your first thought is “I didn’t know that is why the term gentlemen is used,” maybe it goes back to the point that we need to have clear reasons and provide education on the language we use within the military.
So, we are faced with some hard questions. How do we adapt to the use of gender-neutral concepts in our language when English doesn’t historically have this language structure? Should we use the current “masculine” terms and save the historic use of language in the military that has existed since the birth of the Republic? Or are we going to create a whole new gender-neutral language for the military? Are we going to lose the virtue-focused nature of some of our current terms, and what would be the cost? We will need to find answers to these hard answers and do so in a way that we are truly moving forward towards our intended goals on full integration. But whatever way we chose to go forward, the ultimate goal is to make good choices that will help to unify our organizations and an eliminate the alienation that 1stLt Brodie and others like her feel.
Online Etymology Dictionary (2018a). Man (n.). Retrieved from:
Online Etymology Dictionary (2018b). Lady (n.). Retrieved from: