In my current Rogue Trader game, an offshoot of the Warhammer 40k setting, the GM asked me if I knew why he was referring to my character, clearly a woman, as “Lord Captain”. My immediate response was because “Lady Captain” sounds stupid. The GM further elaborated that the setting is sexist and Ladies would be considered of lower status than Lords and that it would be a traditional title but, yes, mostly because it sounds stupid.
And that got me thinking, a dangerous prospect at the best of times. Why is it that Lord Captain is so much more natural than Lady Captain when it comes to a title? Shouldn’t a feminine title be preferred to subvert the “male as better, female as worse” stereotype? Should I be shying away from a feminine title?
After a bit of thought, here’s what I found bouncing around in my head. The term Lord isn’t seen much in modern usage. These days, if someone is called Lord it’s assumed to be an indication of rank or class. While it is the masculine of the two terms, there aren’t really any extra connotations there. It indicates authority, control and ownership. It’s so far removed from everyday use that it’s a special term.
Lady, on the other hand, is in everyday use and indicates femaleness before any other trait. It’s a polite term for a woman, and not necessarily a woman of a certain class or title. It does not indicate authority but it certainly brings to mind a certain degree of propriety or decorum (ie. lady-like), but it is a term that can be applied to any woman in the modern use.
What this means is that when I hear the term “Lady Captain”, I hear an unnecessary gendering of my character whose gender was never in question anyway. A reminder that my character is distinctly a woman first and then a captain second. The term “Lord Captain” conveys that my character is a figure of authority above and beyond that expressed in the term captain. And it doesn’t feel gendering because the term isn’t used commonly as a gendered term.
For a different example, we have the title of “Prince” in the World of Darkness Vampire games. Prince is the masculine, princess is the feminine. But the head of all vampire cities is called “Prince” regardless of gender. This isn’t exactly sensible: the setting has ancient female vampires who have held cities since the dawn of time. And yet, the term is Prince. Why? Because a princess is associated with pink and frills and tea cups and tiaras. Not serious politics. It’s a perception that the feminine is not serious so of course the title given cannot be Princess, right? This is a more classic example of the problem of gendered titles.
This got me to thinking about alternatives. We don’t need to do away with gendering, but it can help sometimes too. So here are some more thoughts on the matter.
“Sir” and “Dame” have fewer problems because “sir” shows up constantly in regular interactions and generally just indicates a deference to a man despite being the correct title for a knight. “Dame” sounds more archaic and formal in that context, but it still sounds like authority first, at least to me.
High ranking titles like Earl, Duchess, Baron, Countess and so forth have largely been decoupled from their power imbalances. While it’s possible to assume that a Duchess is slightly lower rank than a Duke, it’s unlikely to become an issue within a game. If you hear about a fighter pilot called the Red Baroness you aren’t going to assume that they are worse than a pilot called the Red Baron. There is just the extra context that the pilot is also female. Gender isn’t ignored, but the authority is presented prior to the gender.
Genderless titles are not just the masculine version of a title being reclaimed. Lords are not genderless, they are masculine and thus the title is not appropriate if you want to avoid the potential for mis-gendering a character. A lot of genderless titles have strong male implications because of the history of who traditionally held such titles, but the titles themselves do not indicate gender. Some examples include: ranks (ie. Captain, Lieutenant etc.), Counselor, Senator, President, Chief, Tyrant, Doctor, Minister, Professor, Mayor and many others.
There are clearly options available when trying to find a series of titles for a character. Do I have a ready solution for “Lord Captain” within my Rogue Trader game? Not at this point. The setting doesn’t really support calling my character any other title. I suppose my character could get it into her head that she wants to be called by a different title now and it won’t really be debated (she can, after all, blow up a planet). But it would be an out-of-character decision applied after the fact, not something the character naturally wanted.
There are no universal solutions to these kinds of problems. Every time a title comes up in a game, it’s going to change. In some places a gendered title will be appropriate while in others it will seem weird and out of place. I don’t like having to use masculine titles as neutral titles but, sometimes, it’s just easier. None of these are the right choice. None of these are necessarily the wrong choice. But if you ever find yourself choosing a masculine title purely because it “sounds less stupid” than a feminine title, you should probably ask yourself why you can’t do better.
 This doesn’t hold much water when you are talking about a setting in which someone has the power and authority to blow up a planet. No one cares what you call yourself, they care that you can blow up a planet, societal gender norms be damned.
 Apart from the religious one, which isn’t really applicable here.
 After searching the etymology of two words a bit, I found that the word Lady has historically been used outside of rank and title wherein the word Lord really hasn’t been. It’s a strange pairing of titles to beginning with as they were never equal in use or meaning even when they were accorded peerage.
 In theory I could call myself whatever the hell I wanted to and the setting technically supports that. At this point, though, the game has been running long enough that a change would cause a certain degree of confusion that just isn’t worth the trouble.