54 responses

  1. Delia Lloyd
    August 4, 2010

    Nice food for thought, LPC. Thanks for this! (BTW: here in the UK, "lady" is the term du jour for referring to women of all classes (except when it's capitalized to refer to a Lady as you note above.) People rarely use the word "women" which is much more common, I think, back in the USA.

    Delia Lloyd

  2. Tabitha
    August 4, 2010

    Fabulous post. I actually know a few folk who live in castles but then I live in Scotland, so that's not much of a stretch but now I'm thinking, hmm, are they ladies? And yes they are but not because of their bricks and mortar but a myriad of other things including your 1 to 5.
    I think it has to do with how you walk through the world.My father always taught me to treat a streetsweeper ( we used to have them, now it's done by machines) exactly the same way as anyone with a title whom I might come across at school. It was a very wise piece of advice.

  3. Mrs. Lynch
    August 4, 2010

    Thoughtful post. I think the media has killed the idea of a lady and the only one we naturally think of is Jackie O. It's all about attitude, how she carries herself and treats others.

  4. Muffy
    August 4, 2010

    I think this might be one of my favorite posts! Well, I always say that, don't I? I think we should all aspire to be ladies, as you suggest. Might make the world a more tolerant place.

  5. Susan Tiner
    August 4, 2010

    This is perfect. You probably wouldn't agree with generously sharing and teaching your aesthetic as being part of the social contract, but as a life-long student, I've learned a great deal from ladies who do.

  6. DocP
    August 4, 2010

    Interesting subject and lots of food for thought. Sometimes the admonishemnt to "be a lady" is code talk for accepting traditional gender roles and repressing competitive, entrepreneurial and sexual appetites. That has no place in the 21st century.

    I don't pretend to know anything about current sociological research, but I remember when I was in college, for a married couple, the husband's occupation and education weighed MUCH more than the wife's in determining social status (which is probably slightly different than social class.) For example, a female physician married to a school teacher would have the social status of a teacher, whereas a female teacher married to a physician would have the social status of a physician. Has this changed or is it only single women who effectively determine their own status? I have an example among my close friends that suggests that it has not, but a single example does not necessarily generailze to populations.

    Finally, your anonymous critic has demonstrated he/she is clearly not a lady (or gentleman.)

  7. frachellea
    August 4, 2010

    What a charged topic, definitions, and that of “lady” on top of it. Whatever the term, there will be competing factions clamoring to be owner and final arbiters of to whom and what the term may be applied – whether it be a social, political, artistic or cultural construct. Definitions are important. The nuances are endlessly fascinating. The precision afforded is one of the great joys of language. As is its fluidity and mutability. Competing interests, to be sure.

    I especially cottoned to your statement – “No fair co-opting a term, one that could have broad meaning, in order to further sectarian goals.” In the end, what a thoughtful update on the Golden Rule.

  8. Suburban Princess
    August 4, 2010

    We need to accept that in NA there is a difference between a Lady and a lady. Someone can live in a trailer park with little more than two nickels to rub together and still be a lady. Some of the richest people we see would not be considered ladies.

  9. Kate
    August 4, 2010

    Now, you see, I'm a little confused. It all seems to come down to the man making his lady a ''Lady'' with money, privilege and what have you. What happens if, as with my family, it's the lady who comes from the upper class family? My Mom's side of the family are old money Boston, whereas my Father's side came over from Ireland without a potato to their names. I've been thinking about this for a while now.

  10. Lorraine
    August 4, 2010

    I always thought that the saying "A lady is never unintentionally rude" kind of summed it up.

  11. La Belette Rouge
    August 4, 2010

    When I think of "lady" and/or ladies who wear pearls, I think of a restrained beauty. I think of women who have good manors and do not need to be the center of attention in a crass or needy kind of way. In my mind, "ladies who wear pearls" and women who have an appreciation for subtlety. Subtlety has incredible beauty. It just isn't as obvious or as instant as a blinged out gal.
    Lovely post.

  12. Lily Lemontree
    August 4, 2010

    Wonderful post LPC on a topic I find most interesting! Loved your five excellent points and I am curious to see how your commenters will respond to this post, I will definitely check back for what I am sure will be a great discussion!
    Funny, in some 'enlightened' circles we encounter an almost derogatory taste to the word 'lady' (in the lower case) as opposed to the word gentleman which receives pretty much the same reverence it did 50 or 100 years ago.

    Awhile back, I was asked to do a guest post on another blog with the definition of 'ladylike behaviour' as the subject matter and while in my own humble opinion, I believe the defining qualities of a lady are more internal make-up and a little less external appearance, I was surprised to see and hear that it was still of general consensus that being a lady had more to do with white gloves and not applying your lipstick in public (important points to be sure, but I am pretty positive Paris Hilton and her gang could wear all the white gloves they want and I would still be slightly hesitant to refer to them as a ladies-LOL!) and less to do with their meaningful interactions with the world at large.
    As always, a pleasure to be enlightened by your posts!

  13. Marcela
    August 4, 2010

    Very interesting post. I always thought being a lady had more to do with good manners, education, sensitivity to other person's ideas, ideals, feelings, and not to what a person wears (which changes so much from culture to culture).
    The post anonymous commented on was the first one I read from your blog and the one that made me want to keep reading more and more (I spent a couple of hours going through your posts). What caught my attention was not so much when I where I should wear pearls and how, but the ladylike way in which you write your posts and the class you show when replying to comments which-like the one from anonymous- are less than nice. You are a lady, and I am thankful to you for writing this blog and sharing your knowledge and experiences with us.

  14. DaniBP
    August 4, 2010

    Wonderful post. This is something I think about quite a bit: thank you for adding to my internal dialogue on the subject!

  15. Belle de Ville
    August 4, 2010

    Another excellent post. I am in agreement with Belette on how restraint and subtlety are traits of a lady.

  16. LPC
    August 4, 2010

    Delia – Thank you. I wonder why they don't use woman?

    Tabitha – Very wise indeed.

    Mrs. Lynch – The media, yes, as a reflection I think.

    Muffy – Oh I am so glad you like it.

    Susan – It's not that I don't think of sharing aesthetics as part of the social contract per se. It's just that I never thought anyone would honor me, at least, by listening. I have said before that this blog is sort of a High WASP garden sale, all the odds and ends, in case anyone is interested since I'm done keeping the tribal secrets.

  17. LPC
    August 4, 2010

    DocP – "Sometimes the admonishemnt to "be a lady" is code talk for accepting traditional gender roles and repressing competitive, entrepreneurial and sexual appetites. That has no place in the 21st century." Precisely. That is very curious, and saddening, about the effect of the husband vs. the effect of the wife.

    frachellea – Beautifully written. That's very true about definitions overall.

    Suburban Princess – There you go.

    Kate – See DocP's comment. Only you know the impact in your family, of course.

    Lorraine – Agreed.

  18. LPC
    August 4, 2010

    La Belette – Thank you very much. The one twist would be to imagine a culture or an event where everyone is unrestrained, where that's the sign of honoring the mores. In that case, I'd say a lady supports the community. Albeit, I agree, not needing to be the center of attention.

    Lily – You are the expert. I bow to you and thank you for your comment.

    Marcela – Thank you so much. You are very kind.

    Dani – Thank you. You are very welcome.

    Belle – Thanks! But I may cut loose if that's how I honor my host:).

  19. SouthernProletariat
    August 4, 2010

    Growing up in the Deep South, I frequently heard the phrase "act like a lady" from my mother. As such, and as an American, I assign "lady" to refer to the behavior of a female versus the actual caste in which she was born into, such as it refers to in the European "Lady" sense.

    The great thing about our society is that it is fluid. Physical surroundings, dress or family are not the entire classification of the person – Rather the character, manners, and grace with which they treat their fellow man is the ultimate test.

  20. Artful Lawyer
    August 4, 2010

    Interesting question. I have too many varied thoughts to leave a long answer so I'll leave a few shorter ones.

    I think of a Lady as both polished in appearance and in behavior, politeness and kindness to others. My long time best friend's mother is most definitely a lady – she is well educated, well bred, polished, gracious and kind. She also lives in skirts, Ferragamos and has had the same pageboy bob forever, so she looks the part too.

    I am so sad to say – my mother is NOT a lady. On purpose – she is loud, can be rude and crude, and can be very cutting and unkind. All very definitely on purpose, out of defiance and likely some insecurity. It doesn't matter what she looks like when ugly things can come out of her mouth. I am sorry to have to say it but God knows I had to live with it for years…

    I don't know what I am – have always felt bumbling and uncouth, though I probably am not (spent years at Good Catholic Girls School (branch of which Caroline K attended), wear natural fibers, Austin Reed and loafers, have had same pageboy bob forever, am afraid to be offensive or unkind).

    I went on a law firm interview as a law student once, and took an instant dislike to one firm. Because the male attorneys laughed at in-jokes through my interview and told me that immigration law would be a good place for me (pink collar? IDK), and because, waiting in the silent, tomb like, plush lobby (all dark wood walls, white area rugs and Chinese vases) I heard two older, uptight legal secretaries or paralegals discussing the women partners. They concluded with approval that one, "Elizabeth," was a "TRUE lady." The setting, rude men, and rather worshipful tone (thank goodness she wasn't a FALSE lady) all turned me off very severely. That firm is barely still in business today.

  21. sue rosly
    August 4, 2010

    I agree that the term "Lady" has become colonised by different interests making it possible to attach any number of meanings to the term.
    I'm not sure that I agree with the notion that because the upper class is privileged it follows that a privileged upbringing should enable [them] to live up to "some sort of ideal". Isn't that a restating of "noblesse oblige" ? It's a tricky area. And living up to some sort of ideal surely isn't the sole province of the upper class?

    I appreciate the distinction you make between a good person and a lady, but I'm not convinced that a "honed aesthetic" and "respect for the social context" are the two points that set them apart.

    It's all in the definitions as you say.

    As usual,a thought provoking post.

  22. materfamilias
    August 4, 2010

    You've done some really useful parsing of this term, but it will never be one I enjoy or feel comfortable using — too laden with a history of women being given their status by their affiliation with men AND too tied to social class. My family have been middle class for the past several generations and working class before that. . . yet I recognize the behaviours, the manners, a respect for others and for oneself that you describe as inherent to almost every family member I can think of.
    Because I think words do matter, I'm unlikely ever to describe someone as "a real lady" but I wish we could come up with a term that did this work without assuming class and/or gender were the most likely associations of thoughtful, considerate behaviour.

  23. materfamilias
    August 4, 2010

    Back to add that we see the problem even more clearly when we try for other ways to express a certain kind of behaviour and come up with "classy"– implying behaviour indicative of someone from an upper-class (rather than lower) background. Our language is permeated from way back with the assumption that those who work for a living, especially at manual labour, are much less likely to behave "nobly" or in a "genteel" manner.

  24. Aleatha Parker-Wood
    August 4, 2010

    I am, myself, a bit torn on what it means to be a lady, and how that relates to social class. But as ever, you show a degree of grace and poise in your writing that either makes you a lady, or puts you well on your way.

    Sue: I think that living up to an ideal is the province of everyone, but that the higher up you go, the more resources you have to live up to that ideal. For instance, it's a lot harder to be gracious or generous when you're struggling to eke out a living working two minimum wage jobs, and coming home exhausted every night. The body has to be fed before the soul.

    There's an excellent little book on social class in America by a man named Fussell. It's written in a light style, but he has an anthropologist's eye for behavior. He talks a lot about things like status seeking in the middle class, the idea of noblesse oblige, and why money is not the same as class. It did a lot to give me insight into American social structure. I think his idea of a lady has a lot in common with yours.

  25. LPC
    August 4, 2010

    Southern Proletariat – I know the South uses the term to define proper behavior for a woman. I'm uncomfortable with it, I admit, largely because I don't follow a lot of the strictures. Being from the North, and then California, even worse:).

    Artful – No, your mom wouldn't fit my definition of a lady either. I'm sorry. And glad that the hateful law firm got its just desserts.

    Sue – I don't think that living up to an ideal is the sole province of the upper class. But I feel that if I can't buck up and behave well, given everything I've been given, how can I expect it of others? Thank you for reading. And giving me your thoughts in return.

    Mater – I am trying to parse this so that 'noble' might come to mean its higher level form, and 'genteel,' especially for ladies, be removed from the concept of virtuous altogether. I'm not selfless in this. I want to retrieve the idea of women being able to take power, to speak up, from the prison of "If you do that you are not living up to your privilege."

    Aleatha – Thank you. Writing this blog has clarified many thoughts and feelings that used to just swirl around, getting in the way of any of the goals I articulate here. I have heard Fussell's name. I should look it up.

  26. The Preppy Princess
    August 4, 2010

    This is spot-on, and such a great topic, I could read this kind of thing all day long, when written so well!

    The distinctions made in both the post and the comments point out the varying approaches to, and impressions of, ladylike comportment and ladies.

    Exceptionally well done Miss LBR!

  27. SouthernProletariat
    August 4, 2010

    LPC, I didn't phrase myself correctly then…to revert to a country phrase: Following the rules (strictures, as you said) no more makes you a lady than being born in a barn makes you a mule.

    One can follow all the rules of dress, manner and bearing, but if it masks a hateful, spiteful, vindictive person who bends and manipulates the "rules" to belittle and slight others…then I think that person is no lady. On the other hand, I think we have all known those who rise above their immediate surroundings in life to act with grace, manners and decorum- although I would argue that it is becoming rarer. I hope that explains myself more clearly.

  28. LPC
    August 4, 2010

    Southern – Understood. Thank you so much for coming back. Very gracious of you.

  29. Andrea
    August 4, 2010

    This subject is one of great interest to me, because I was raised in a place where most of us were privileged, and many of the ladies were very tough cookies indeed. Blue of blood, deceptively delicate of appearance, careful in dress, sophisticated in their tastes and manners, thoroughly educated, and usually astute in their business dealings, they were not fragile as they sometimes looked. They displayed great strength of character, and quite often this was founded on deep if private faith.

    Whether bearing tragedy with silent courage, stoically enduring pain, or uncomplainingly working like stevedores, they all showed strength. Many of them were country women, hunting women, horsewomen, and that means they did hard physical labor and did not hesitate to become filthy. I knew no snobs among them. Well-bred though they might have been in ordinary circumstances, they could also call upon an extensive obscene vocabulary, and the same cultured ladies who might organize a charity ball or bear a broken hip without whimpering could educate a Marine drill sergeant in the extreme reaches of English invective if a beloved horse or hound was endangered.

    They had guts. I loved them. I hold their memory as inspiration when times are hard.

  30. She Wore It Well
    August 4, 2010

    I don't think it has anything to do with clothes and style, has a lot to do with mannarisms.

    I once met a lady who was homeless due to misfortunes later on in her life, but she was a lady – had manners, was polite, sweet, charming and all those things. Even if she she wore ripped clothes and hadn't bathed in months.

  31. Deja Pseu
    August 4, 2010

    So much to chew on here! (oops, was that unladylike?) Seriously though, I want to give this post the thoughtful response it deserves, and will return on the morrow!

  32. Caroline
    August 5, 2010

    Interesting topic. The ladies in my life are those for whom consideration of others is their guiding principle. I have a dear friend who is a titled Lady (from the UK). We have been doing volunteer work together for many years. She treats all people, including those less fortunate, with dignity and respect. She doesn't complain and isn't afraid of hard work. She has a strong and deep Christian faith. She has beautiful manners.

    She dresses like a lady too, with taste and self respect and reserve and an appreciation for the beautiful things in life. She is never showy and ostentatious; that would be rude and tacky.

  33. Pigtown-Design
    August 5, 2010

    My mother, a very refined woman of a certain age, used to say, just because she's a woman, doesn't mean she's a lady.

  34. metscan
    August 5, 2010

    Something one has inside that shows outside. That is my definition for a lady. Thank you for a lovely post.

  35. Jill
    August 5, 2010

    You are a Lady, I'm a Broad.

    Oh, how I make myself laugh!

  36. Worthington
    August 5, 2010

    LOVE love love LOVE this post. You are so right, 100%.

  37. Anonymous
    August 5, 2010

    I would like to be a lady, as long as that includes being accomplished and equal to men in my profession.

    I dress like a lady, I think. But I worry I swear too much and laugh too loudly to actually be considered a Lady.

  38. Elizabeth
    August 5, 2010

    I was brought up to be a "lady" – which had nothing to do with what I have or don't have and everything to do with how I behave. And believe me, we didn't have much except a tradition of respect and honor. The rules were all about how to treat others kindly, to be polite, and to respect my own dignity without taking myself too seriously – mostly it's all about the other people. BTW, no real lady would ever write "You are so WRONG!" You may have misunderstood or written something in error or even been having a bad day, but you were not "WRONG!" Even if you were.

  39. MrsWhich
    August 5, 2010

    I think my husband won my heart when he first called me "Lady."

  40. Anonymous
    August 7, 2010

    Wealth/privilege does not equate with being a classy individual, a lady or a gentleman. One who exhibits a positive self- regard/demeanor, who is kind, generous, and gracious, has a style of their own, and is educated (formally or self-educated)is an individual of substance. It is how one carries themself that defines whether or not they are a lady or a gentleman of class. You are definitely a lady.

  41. LPC
    August 7, 2010

    Andrea – I like the sound of these women.

    She Wore It Well – I'd think the not bathing might cause some issues? Simply in terms of impact on others?

    Deja – :).

    Caroline – Taste, self respect, reserve, those are all traits I too associate with ladyhood.

    Pigtown – And there you go.

    Mette – You are welcome. Thank you for commenting.

  42. LPC
    August 7, 2010

    Jill – You make me laugh too. I'm happy to be a chica:).

    Worthington – Thank you so much.

    Anon – I think in the right company, if that's how everyone else is behaving, you can swear and laugh loudly and be the epitome of a Lady. What I'm hoping is that it's about the social CONTRACT, not about a blindly applied set of rules. Make sense?

    Elizabeth – Respecting your own dignity without taking yourself too seriously is a great way to put it. I agree.

    Mrs. Which – Aw. :)

  43. lisa
    August 9, 2010

    Very thought-provoking and articulate post with an exploration of what the term "lady" has meant in varying contexts. I agree with you that the notion of "ladyhood" seems to be associated with notions of class and aesthetics.

  44. mise
    August 9, 2010

    I'm late to this party, with apologies, but one sure sign of a lady to me is the ability to rise to the occasion. And, indeed, to revel in it.

  45. Cathy in Keswick
    August 11, 2010

    I was born in 1968 – at the beginning of 1970s feminism, and there's a funny story in my family: My mother and grandmother (both Atlanta-born, highly educated, well-read, liberal to the core, and always opinionated :)) threw a lovely party for my 5th birthday. One of the guests was Korean, and I'm told she came to the party in traditional Korean dress, quite beautiful. The child hardly spoke during the whole affair, except for "please" and "thankyou," and barely participated in the games. Afterwards, the two hostesses gushed over the girl, saying how wonderful she was, how sweet, and how she was "such a lady." My response: "Well, if that's what being a lady is, I don't want any part of it!!"

  46. LPC
    August 31, 2010

    Lisa – Thank you so much.

    Mise – Never underestimate the power of rising to the occasion.

    Cathy – I think that's how many of us have felt, all the while still wishing some of the concept could be preserved.

  47. ShabbyChick
    March 24, 2011

    Well, I have very specific ideas of what makes a lady. I think of Queen Elizabeth. Audrey Hepburn. Laura Bush. Kate Middleton. Phyllis, a dear friend of mine who recently passed. And who can forget Jackie O? The consummate. Especially in the days following the assassination. Her poise. Her grace. Her courage in the face of great sorrow. She said not a word publicly. With head held high she walked behind the riderless horse. She never smoked in public. She even died graciously. Being a lady is simply ALWAYS BEING APPROPRIATE. In dress, in manner, in speech. Polite and dignified. She is not immodest in her dress or behavior. Not loud and brash. Not contentious, argumentative or overly opinionated. Never trying to be the center of attention (though a real lady often is). It’s her grace that makes her stand out, and that is beautiful to others. She always knows just what to say in any given situation. She writes thank you cards, and notes “just because”. She is thoughtful. She is soft spoken. She loves to laugh, but not too loudly. She is a good mother (those who have children) and affectionate. She makes a great friend, because she values her friendships. She is not sloppy and would never wear her pajamas to Walmart. She doesn’t clomp around loudly in her heels, but is delicate, elegant, understated. Completely feminine, NEVER MASCULINE in her walk, attire or mannerisms. So you see how very rare a true lady is these days! Being female does not make one a lady. We can learn so much from those who are (and were)….why don’t we?

    1:20 pm
    Lisa said...

    To an extent, my point in this post is that it ought to be possible to be a lady, meaning dignified, moral, responsible, appropriate, and gracious, without being ladylike, meaning, feminine in a culturally-determined way. For example, I’d say Eleanor Roosevelt was very much a lady, although not ladylike per se. I think the two concepts, lady vs. ladylike, diverge.

  48. ShabbyChick
    March 26, 2011

    Lisa, Thank you for your thoughts! I don’t know enough about Mrs. Roosevelt to comment. I agree that a lady certainly is all of the things you mentioned. Dignified, moral, responsible, appropriate and gracious. I believe the greater test comes when it’s not so easy to be those things. This is her proving ground. Many an otherwise fine lady shows herself to be nothing more than a common broad when she, in a fit of anger, would open her mouth to let fly a string of cursings that would make a sailor blush! It’s like throwing a can of paint on a Monet! A lady is not one on the outside only, but on the inside…in the heart…where it matters. Self control, virtuousness, purity, and decorum must also be on that list. Without those, she is a whited wall. Pretty to look at, but not one a man would want to live with for very long. These qualities are not gender exclusive, either. The same must also be said for a true gentleman…sadly, those are rare today, too.

  49. Michelle
    May 6, 2011

    I know many women with money who are definitely not ladies. These women might be well dressed and nice looking – but lack grace, dignity and kindness.

    I think of my own mother as a lady. She is quite beautiful. But its not her beauty that makes her a lady. She has a quiet reservedness. She is kind, thoughtful, gracious and just lovely. Such a beautiful person inside and out. I think of my Mum as a true lady.

    3:45 pm
    Michelle said...

    ps. I didn’t mean every woman with money! I meant a couple I know who have money. I also know women with money that are ladies. What I meant is its about personal qualities.

  50. Anne
    November 2, 2011

    I enjoyed the post and comments, and am surprised that no one has quoted Margaret Thatcher, who said that “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell someone you are, then you’re not.” While difficult to define, you know it when you see it.

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