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'I looked at the circle of players around me and every single one cringed'

By Stella Mills
Wasps' Maud Muir scores her sides second try during the Women's Allianz Premier 15s match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Wasps FC Ladies at Sandy Park (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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I distinctively remember the chairman of a previous rugby club walking over to our team and saying “Ladies, I just wanted to introduce myself …” – I looked at the circle of players around me and every single one of them cringed; some rolled eyes, some raised eyebrows and others looked to me as if to say, “Is he serious?”.

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After Premiership team Wasps Ladies made the decision to rebrand to Wasps Women, I think it’s about time that we explore how the word ‘ladies’ is used in women’s rugby, and why it’s important that we leave that term behind.

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My specific gripe with the word stems from the associations which come with it. When you say the word out loud, what comes to mind?

For me, it is a specific set of behaviours which women were previously, and are still to some extent, expected to demonstrate. They revolve around an idealised image of a woman, behaving in a ‘proper’ manner whilst being polite, graceful, and adhering to the general status quo. Basically, ‘ladies’ are to be seen and not heard.

The irony comes in the fact that those behaviours are worlds apart from traits which we as rugby player’s exhibit.

When I plough into someone with the brute force and strength I bring to the pitch, the word ‘lady’ is so far from my mind, it essentially does not exist in my vocabulary. Every time I see a strong, fearless woman work relentlessly to counter ruck and win back possession of the ball the last possible word I would use to describe her is “ladylike”.

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So why is it that we still use the term “ladies” to describe women’s rugby teams? With a few notable exceptions, the term ‘gentlemen’s’ team has been dropped at rugby clubs the world over.

Before you brand me as a snowflake, just remember that language such as this carries a lot of weight behind it. The language we use is not supposed to be static. Like all things, it is supposed to evolve and change with us.

Language plays a considerable part in how we view and frame things in society. If we describe women’s rugby as ‘ladies rugby’, we automatically frame the sport as something which it is not.

Speaking on this, Flo Williams, founder of the Perception Agency, said: “Language is so important in sport, and in a sport like women’s rugby when the title leads you to think of being ladylike or feminine before your ability, I think using the word ladies holds us back.”

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Looking ahead to the future of the sport, Williams went one step further to say she would like to see the use of gender dropped from rugby, unless it is absolutely necessary: “When talking about the Gallagher Premiership, pundits don’t have to use the prefix of “men’s” so why can’t we do that in the women’s game? I would love to see just the use of the club’s name when people talk about women’s rugby. People know players in the Prem 15s are women and men don’t play in that league, so why do we constantly need to refer to this?”

She so rightly pointed out that when fans are shown a reel of Emily Scarratt running with a ball in an England kit, you don’t need to point out she is on the England Women’s rugby team:
“People have eyes, they can see it’s not Owen Farrell”

On the surface the name change for Wasps might seem small, but in my opinion, it is long overdue and a much-needed change. A change which I hope other grassroots clubs might seek to adopt themselves.
In the words of my good friend Matt Merritt “It costs very little but achieves so much”

The move sees Wasps become the last Premier 15s side to rebrand into a women’s team, leaving the old-fashioned term firmly in the past. The decision has been welcomed by the women’s rugby community, with many praising the club for its efforts:

Looking at this from a comms perspective, it’s a simple fix. Continuing to use words which possess connotations and are non-progressive, restricts your brand (or team in this instance) from moving with the times. The team’s name is the first thing people use when having a conversation about that team. Right from the off, we must ensure that we are portraying women’s rugby as a serious sport, and this starts with dropping the term ladies from our vocabulary.

Some might say that the chairman described at the start of this column may have had good intentions, as often the word ladies is assumed to be a polite greeting when addressing a group of women. To that I would say we are not stuck in the 50s anymore, times have (thankfully) moved on, and with that our language needs to evolve to reflect that.

It isn’t modern or progressive to be using the word in the context of a serious sporting environment. By doing so you instantly box the sport in as a hobby, rather than a high profile, elite game.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word lady is defined as: “A polite or old-fashioned way of referring to or talking to a woman”.

To me, that says it all. It is an old-fashioned term, an outdated phrase which isn’t fit for purpose in the women’s sport’s world, especially given the male equivalent was dropped years ago.

The words we use matter, so start framing my sport as a serious one and stop using the word lady.

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'I looked at the circle of players around me and every single one cringed'

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