I approach today's topic with dread because it slices very close to the bone. Also, I tried to have a light philosophical conversation on the topic the other day and it did not go well. A very old incision in my psyche began slowly to bleed.
Today's topic is "the lady."
We are all men and women, but from very early in human history we have separated men and women into categories. I suppose it is natural to do that; we put all creatures into categories. We have distinguished categories of angels. And it may even be helpful sometimes to continue to distinguish between different kinds of men and women: by nationality, for example, or by age. Other categories (class, sexual orientation) are not so helpful, for they not only distinguish but divide.
The terms "lady" and "gentleman" spring from class division. Bluntly stated, a lady was a woman whose father did not work with his hands, and a gentleman was a man who did not work with his hands. For the fine shades of who was or was not considered a lady in Britain in the early 19th century, read Jane Austen. Elizabeth Bennett was most definitely a lady because her father owned land and the family (more or less) kept up the standards expected of a landowner's daughters.
In republican America, Louisa May Alcott proudly rejected the class assumptions inherent in the word "lady": Jo March declares in Little Women that she believes in "men and women" not in "ladies and gentlemen." Her heroes and heroines are well-educated, highly moral folk who are willing to work for a living and hold their heads high among their richer relations and friends. Henry James, however, continued to use the expression "lady", although his "lady" of Portrait of a Lady was not the daughter of a landowner, but merely a woman of sterling character.
But who determines what a woman of sterling character is? No doubt this is a hotly debated smoking room topic to this very day. In the ancient world, a woman of sterling character was one whom nobody talked about by name: the mother of the Gracchi is known solely as "the mother of the Gracchi" for that very reason. In the modern world, a woman of sterling character was once one whose name appeared in the newspaper only when she was born, was married and died. In Christian circles, she was (or is) a woman who obeyed her husband or at very least never made him look like an ass in public.
I have my own ideas about what a woman of sterling character is, but they are not necessarily the same as the ideas I held when I was 21 and met a man with very pronounced ideas on the topic indeed. The man in question was absolutely sure I was "a lady" and took great pains to make sure I always was so.
Readers of this blog often write of their frustration and dread of controlling men utterly determined to get them into bed. So far I don't recall anyone writing in of her frustration and dread of a controlling man utterly determined to (A) make her conform to his ideal of The Lady and (B) make her marry him. It surprises me because most of the women who read this blog are young, traditional and/or religious, and it strikes me that a young, traditional and/or religious man is most likely to behave like that. He has it in his head what a Good Woman is (the opposite of "all those sluts out there"), and by God he's going to get her.
I have in a box somewhere a dozen letters in fine masculine script, written with an excellent pen, exhorting me to be a lady. They are very flattering, and they quite turned my twenty-something head. The mix of fulsome praise and roguish nagging would probably make me vomit today, but at the time it merely made me blush, shake my head and roll my eyes.
In the end it proved effective, and I found myself obeying a man who laid down an awful lot of rules. I was not allowed to wear blue jeans. Ladies did not wear blue jeans. I was not allowed to get fat. Ladies did not get fat. (NB Married people usually put on 10 pounds after they marry; I lost 20.) I was not allowed to walk the quiet, crime-free two blocks from the bus stop to my parents' house after dark. Ladies did not take risks. I had to wear elbow length gloves everywhere I went in broad daylight. Ladies did not get sunburnt. I had to carry a parasol for the same reason. (Yes, a parasol.) I was not allowed to use bad words, ever, even when I dropped something on my toe. Ladies did not use bad words.
He was twenty-three years old. I very much doubt he is like that now. At least, I hope not: when the worm turned, he suffered very much. And when the worm ran away, one of worm's pals gave her a pair of blue jeans. I look terrible in blue jeans now, but at the time they symbolized... What? Freedom? Self-determination.
B.A. says that a gentlemen is a man who never unintentionally gives offense. This means a man who is so aware of how his actions and demeanor affect others that he never makes a social mistake. He puts everyone at his or her ease unless, for some good reason, he needs to give someone a set-down.
I do not know what a lady is. I just know that the concept can be used as a whip to make a woman strive to turn into something she is not: a precious porcelain statue, an angel in human form, corporeal vanilla ice-cream. I am very uncomfortable with the term; I wish we could merely distinguish between good manners and bad.
And why bring all this up today? Because I know not only young women but young men read this blog and I know that some traditional young men--without first considering what John Paul II said in Dignitatem Mulieris--are working out their own anthropologies of The Lady.
At least, I think they are. Because the word cuts so close to the bone, I am not the best judge of what young men are doing when they talk about ladies or make pronouncements on female dress and behaviour. I told myself that the other day when, while walking down an ancient street with my husband and a young friend, the young friend suddenly turned to me and said, "I never imagined you would own a pair of blue jeans."
The knife of male expectation can cut both ways. Both women and men are hurt when men set up impossible standards of womanhood they glean not from Christianity or real life but from the prejudices and restrictions of a vanished age.
As I love to warn you all, some scars never heal.
Update: Welcome readers of The Crescat! Regular readers should know that Kat is giving away a copy of The Closet's All Mine, the American version of Anielskie Single/ Seraphic Singles. So if you are Single and can think of something you love about your Single state, toddle on over there and tell her what it is for a chance to win the prize.