Beyond Words: The Lady Thing
(from March 2011 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine)
By Marshall Chapman

I’ve always had a lot of conflict around the Southern lady thing. Whenever I see restroom signs that say LADIES and MEN, I become offended. LADIES and GENTLEMEN doesn’t bother me. At least the playing field is level. Also, LADIES and GENTLEMEN has an elegant, showbiz tone I find somewhat appealing. (Ladies and Gentlemen! Lend me your ear!) As for restroom signs, the egalitarian WOMEN and MEN is my preference. LADIES and MEN drives me to distraction . . . and, in some instances, to deface property.

One time I was at this really nice function, and, after I’d been there a while, I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. So off I went in search of the restrooms. Once there, I noticed the door to the women’s room facing the door to the men’s in a little recessed area just of the hallway. I also noticed that the sign on the women’s door said LADIES, whereas the one on the men’s said MEN. And it was in that moment that something inside of me sort of snapped, and before anyone could stop me, I whipped out my black Sharpie and scrawled an international forbidden sign over LADIES. Then underneath that I wrote,


Thank goodness no one saw me do this, other than my good friend Kimbo Harrelson who, over the years, has grown accustomed to my occasional outbursts and often finds them amusing, which only serves to egg me on.

Gender disparity in restroom signs never bothered me growing up. It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I began to even notice such things. Maybe because I started writing my first book right about then, I became more sensitive to words and their power. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words never fail to drive me to distraction and, in some cases, to deface property.

Believe it or not, I was raised to be a proper Southern lady in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So I grew up hearing all the things proper young ladies to-be hear, like, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything,” “Cross your legs at the ankles when sitting, and keep your knees together!” “Never wear white after Labor Day,” “Ladies don’t sweat; they glow,” “Never chew gum in public,” and “Don’t point!” There’s plenty more where those came from, and the truth is I tried. I really did. But it just wasn’t in the cards for me to be a lady.

So the next time you see LADIES and MEN restroom signs, just remember: “WOMEN is what we are; LADIES is an assumption.”

Peace and love.