What's wrong with being a lady?

In Sunday's paper, there is a column where parents write in with their parenting question and the staff give their responses followed by an 'expert' giving their 'expert' opinion. More often then not, something about this column causes me to kvetch to my family at lunch after church (it's kind of a tradition), but this past Sunday's column was so over the top merely orating to my family didn't seem quite enough. The question was something along the lines of, "My mother is always telling my daughter to act like a lady. I don't know what to do about it. Help!" Every single respondent then agreed with the writer that this was a totally horrible and completely out-of-line thing for a grandmother to say to her granddaughter and then proceeded to give suggestions as to how to make it stop.


I read it again, thinking I surely must have missed something, but no the column remained unchanged. Evidently being a lady is a totally abhorrent thing to be much less wish upon an unsuspecting young girl. I suppose being a lady would be a problem if you define lady as a brainless doormat who hasn't had an original thought in many years, but that is certainly not how I would define what lady means. I come from a long line of extremely strong and opinionated women who would have very much considered themselves ladies. It was a term of honor and not one to be looked down upon.

What we need in this world are more ladies (and gentlemen... but that will have to wait for another post), not fewer. Being a lady is something to aspire to, but to think this way, you need to have a right idea of what being a lady means. So without further ado, my own personal definition of what it is to be a lady.

  • A lady has great self-respect. She expects others to treat her with the respect she knows she deserves.
  • A lady is comfortable with being female. She is not embarrassed by it, nor does she wish she were a man. She accepts herself for who she is and appreciates it. She knows that being different in type and being equal in worth can happen at the same time.
  • A lady knows that she is capable of many things, and in fact, does many things well. These do not have to be traditionally feminine tasks; she is multi-talented.
  • A lady is sure of herself enough to not need to point out all that she is capable of doing to those around here. That would be bragging and ladies have no need to brag.
  • A lady is intelligent and thinks for herself. This does not mean she does not listen to other's opinions and weighs them carefully... she does, but you can listen politely without necessarily agreeing with someone. It also means that she avails herself of educational opportunities when and where she finds them.
  • A lady is polite. Politeness is concerned with the well-being of others and making them feel listened to and appreciated. Politeness is not a sign of weakness.
  • A lady dresses appropriately. I know that people like to say that clothes don't really matter, that we are a casual society now, but they still do. How one dresses conveys a lot about the value that is placed on an event or gathering. Admit it, you are aware of when someone wears something inappropriate or so revealing that it makes others embarrassed. Dressing well is not a matter of the pocket book, but a sense of rightness. It's both dresses and heels and work boots and jeans. It just depends on the situation.
  • A lady knows how to move and sit and walk in the clothing she is wearing. This means she can keep her underthings, well, under, and she can walk in the shoes on her feet. (My own personal pet peeve, which my daughters [and their friends] are probably heartily tired of hearing me go on about is the ability to walk in heels. The heel comes down first. If you cannot do this and must stalk along as if your shoes are too heavy to lift off the ground, your heel is too high. You may think you look good standing there, buy pray you don't have to move because it looks just a tad ridiculous.)
  • A lady stands up for herself and others.
  • A lady is not a matter of socio-economic status. It is a matter of attitude and self-worth. I have been friends with some very wonderful ladies whose economic situations were less than ideal. 
Let us take back the term lady and raise it back up to the high status it used to have. Strength, politeness, and self-worth should never go out of style.


Kelly said…
You know, my first inclination was to agree with you, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided it depends on what prompts the grandmother to say this. I'm a bit younger than you and I grew up in the south, and during my childhood I heard that said about several things that wouldn't really be acceptable today.

For example, a girl who was very athletic and spent a lot of time playing softball.

A girl who wasn't as concerned about her appearance. "Would it kill you to put on a dress once in a while or a little make-up? Be a lady!"

I could absolutely see a grandmother today saying "I can't believe you wore flip-flops to your cousin's wedding! Be a lady! You should be wearing pantyhose and heels!"

Also, this was used a lot as regards posture and general etiquette. "Sit up straight! Put your legs together! Don't chew with your mouth open! Be a lady, don't act like some 7 year old boy at the table!"

I can see where with today's less defined gender norms, grandmother's ideas about what is ladylike behavior is clashing with what is perfectly acceptable for a lady in younger generations. But I agree with you that the term "lady" shouldn't be considered pejorative.
Ann said…
I agree with Kelly. My other issue is that the grandmother should not have made the comment in the first place. That's not a grandma's role. She should step back--like a lady--and let the parents do the scolding.

As Kelly suggests, the word "lady" can sound a bit dated and sexist--a stereotype, really, that's hard to interpret nowadays. The examples you cite could all be covered by the phrase "thoughtful person."
Lucy said…
I'm 41. I was never admonished to "be a lady" growing up. We were skirts a lot because we were Christian, not because it was lady like. I always strove to be a lady though, I read enough about ladies in books to desire that genteel character and demeanor that commanded respect and courtesy from those it encountered. So I read a lot of books on ladylike deportment (and E., the foot comes down all at the same time, not heel first ;-) (ref "Secrets of Charm" by Robert Powers - though I'm going on memory).

I absolutely urge my daughters to be ladylike, in everything it means to me. (And the boy is encouraged to act like a gentleman). Etiquette, thoughtfulness and appropriate behavior are all hallmarks.

FWIW, I'm an engineer and my daughters play softball.

I'm completely with you on this one E., and not at all above quibbling over details :-)

An argument could be made that the grandmother overstepped her role, but then shouldn't the rebuttal have been regarding her rudeness, not the content of her comments?
Ann said…
Yes, probably someone should have complained about the grandma's barging in like that. I would have yelled at her about both things--her language and her barging in uninvited. Unfortunately, I wasn't there to weigh in!

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