When you hear someone called a “lady,” what comes to mind? A dignified woman? A prissy one? Does she wear pearls? Cross her legs? Is she someone you want as a friend? Someone you want to emulate? To avoid?
“Lady” is a charged term. I know.
Do We Care About “Ladies” Any More?
Back when I wrote about wearing pearls, here, one of the Privilege[d] Anonymous wrote to say that I wasn’t one. Wasn’t a lady that is.
“You are so WRONG! I just keep thinking you must be a fake because of the things your (sic) write about. Pearl studs and a simple strand of pears (sic) is understated, preppy, old money, elegance. Where did you hail from? It took your son’s friend to come to the East Coast South to learn to dress like a lady… No offense intended, but you could not be more wrong.”
And I haven’t forgotten. It bothered me, despite the typographical errors. Even now, children grown, career had, family fortune faded, I hope to be a lady.
Wait. What is a lady, after all? Why do we care? Given the emotional charge, I am going to bet that ladyhood can still matter. However, I do not think we can locate its meaning without some deconstruction. Without some stakes in the ground.
Random Internet sites say ladies can’t wear wrinkled clothes, they don’t like airport searches, and they don’t have dirty hands or feet. Silly and as easily ridiculed as those statements may be, they point to a larger issue.
My thesis is that the term “Lady” has become so colonized by different interests that we need a revolution if we are to continue to use the word.
1. arch. A woman in family relationship, either daughter or wife, to a lord. “Lord,” defined as a man given a title and land-holding by his king. Lords were the upper class, ladies the women of that class. (The Apocryphal Privilege[d] Dictionary)
In the centuries since the term originated, lordship, the signs of upper class status, and the role of women have all changed beyond recognition. The constants which originally defined “Lady,” floated, leaving the term itself vulnerable to misuse.
I hope that there’s still reason to aspire to being a lady. I hope social class status brings with it certain standards of behavior and taste, but I also wish that women weren’t held to different standards than men. I wish the term gentleperson had prevailed in place of “Lady.”
When Social Class Was Rigid, And Lords Were Lords
Centuries ago, it was easy to keep track of who was a lord. Whoever the king said was a lord, that’s who. Eventually, it became possible to enter the upper class in other ways, at least in America. ‘All men are created equal’ meant you too could become a lord. Of sorts. George Washington decided against an aristocracy for the United States. Thanks, Mr. Washington.
Centuries ago, it was also easy to keep track of who was a lady. Married to a lord? Done. Have a castle? You’re probably a lady. Horses? Optional. Pearls? Depends on the plundering abilities of your father, or husband. But once America did away with lords, the idea of an American ‘lady’ entered free fall.
What Do You Mean, No Lord?
If being a lady means belonging to the upper class, now, several centuries after the American Revolution, women are ladies independent of their father, or husband. Took a lot longer than freeing men from their fealty to the king, but there you go. It was tough to participate in revolutions before birth control.
So this is where we have to use another charged term. Feminism. We have to say it. Whether one feels feminism is a good thing, or not, one cannot deny that women may now determine their own position in class structure. Women don’t have to enter the upper echelons attached to a man. It’s 2010. I’m not talking here about feminism and private relationships. That’s your business. I’m talking about social class. The two things are separate.
If You Can’t Find Her Title, Look For Her Necklace
So if we aren’t ladies because of our men, what’s left? Is a lady simple a woman with a lot of money? They say class in American can be bought. But here I wonder, do we even want to tie the concept of a lady to the usual class parameters – income, wealth, education, background? If not, and I vote not, we should look for over-reaching principles.
I vote not to tie the concept of lady directly to the concept of upper class precisely because the concept of upper class in America is still in free fall itself. Can class in America be bought? Is America a meritocracy? Are education, sophistication, good manners required? Or are we all about power? Those are bigger questions than I am qualified to answer. Everything I say here is true. I don’t know if it matters. Let us say that the upper class is privileged, and leave it at that. For now.
Let us say that ladies act as though they have learned what privilege can teach. A privileged upbringing should enable us to live up to some sort of ideal. Because if amassed resources don’t move us towards who we believe we should be, then wealth creation and privilege are nothing but greed. I don’t want to live my short life believing that human beings organize their societies all around greed. Even if it’s true.
Is ladyhood about the stuff, then? Yes, and no. One of the results of privilege is often a discerning style, a taste and aesthetic. The desire for beauty sits in our human core. As soon as we can eat, we paint. Or sing. Or dance. Sometimes even when food is hard to come by. Aesthetics do matter, and we hope that a privileged experience of all kinds of beauty develops our larger understanding.
Ladies should appreciate the spirit that moves people to art, and should look to broaden, deepen, and refine their love of things beautiful. The ladyhood aesthetic translates to clothing, and house decor. Ladies, in my opinion, should have a sensibility for style. I could be wrong. But let’s say I’m right.
There are two problems with style and ladyhood.
- Personal taste is just that, personal. Of course, I will always feel that my taste is best. It is a certainly a marker of my upbringing. I apologize in advance. High WASPs like to apologize prophylactically.
- It’s a huge leap from preferring Modigliani to Matisse to the idea that ladies, by definition, must wear matching pearls. Pearls in their beauty I applaud. Pearls as a signal of a certain set of political and gender role beliefs I do not care for quite so much. Lists of ladies’ style often pretend to be about taste, or associated social class, but slip in too many gender expectations.
The principles of “ladylike” remain inferred, unstated. To define ladyhood, let’s take a risk and say some things out loud.
A lady acts the way someone who has no excuse for bad behavior or bad taste ought to act. And the taste part should run a distant second to behavior. Aesthetics, as the brilliant blogger Anna has said, are not ethics.
How Do Ladies Behave When They Don’t Have A Castle Any More?
I suggest that the primary marker of ladyhood ought to be consideration for the human social contract. A deep understanding of the balance between social context and beliefs on which you will not compromise. When interrupting a speaker is a necessary statement of your self, and when it’s just rude. Good manners are important, protocol only matters when and where protocol is called for.
- Consider others’ feelings, particularly those less fortunate than you.
- Respect the mores, values, and protocols of the cultures in which you find yourself. There may be several.
- Try to do the best job you can at any task you undertake. No matter the reward.
- Develop an aesthetic. Seek out, support, wear, hang on your walls, the best creations of your fellow humans.
- Deserve the resources you amass.
What Does Not A Lady Make?
Political affiliations do not a lady make. The concept of ladyhood ought to have weight beyond politics, beyond what have, quite frankly, been conservative definitions of women’s roles.
Being a good person does not a lady make. You can be a good person without respect for the social context, or a honed aesthetic. But not, in my opinion, a lady. It’s much more important to be good. But good is a bigger question than lady, and one I’m no more qualified to address than anyone else in this life.
Wealth does not a lady make. But you knew that already.
I applaud the concept of ladyhood, especially when we understand that one can be deeply, achingly good without ever approaching “Lady.” I fear the concept of ladylike. Ladies can take power. No fair using the threat of not being a “lady” back us down from years of progress. No fair co-opting a term, one that could have broad meaning, in order to further sectarian goals. Or we risk implying that women are forever, de facto, lower class citizens.
Image: My maternal grandmother. Was she a lady? As far as aesthetics, yes. As far as the rest of it, she tried her best. We all fail to reach our ideals now and again, or else they aren’t ideals.