Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Lady

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.


Jam said...

Hm, it is strange that this blog doesn't attract more questions of the "my boyfriend gave me a chapel veil for Christmas" variety. Or "my boyfriend insists on wearing a fedora even though it makes him look like an utter tool."

I grew up using the term "lady" as a polite synonym for "woman". E.g. "The lady at the counter said they were all out of Pepsi" - "Did you see that lady who kept calling the stewardess?" - "There was a lady looking for you, I don't know her name" - etc.

I have been called "lady-like" by men on two occasions that I remember. Once, it was slightly complementary; the second time it was in frustration. Both men were atheists, FWIW. Both times it had a connotation of being fussy or holding an unrealistic moral standard. So in the end I took it as a back-handed compliment.

Anonymous said...

I love B.A.'s definition of gentleman.

Elizabeth said...

I'm not sure I could define it satisfactorily, but when I spend time with my boyfriend's friends (who are all English, university educated and to my knowledge, atheists), they apparently significantly modify their vocabulary and jokes because I am a 'lady.' According to my sources, when I am not with them, there is a whole lot of bad language and risque jokes, but whenever I'm around, they are perfectly lovely. I suppose that's one major upside of being called a lady - no profanity or inappropriate jokes!

Seraphic Spouse said...

So is it just you, or do they always modify their language when they are around women? Is there one rule for you and another for other women?

There is a definite upside to being considered a lady, and a definite downside when you are not. The question is, who gets to decide who is a lady and thus deserves the lovely treatment versus the women who are merely women and thus do not?

theobromophile said...

A lot of the older definitions of "lady", as well as the one your ex tried to foist on you, are dehumanising.

The parasol, gloves, no-name-in-the-paper business is meant to turn you from a person, with emotions, personality, and quirks, into a doll. I dated a man whose idea of a perfect woman was basically an animated doll, and it was all sorts of wrong. Many of the outdated definitions of "lady" amount to the same - heavens, people afford more latitude in personality to their cats than some weirdos allow to "ladies".

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.

The risk was not that you would be mugged, but that you would be able to get there safely. Having gotten yourself from work to your parents' home independently, you could have had a bit of self-confidence and the drive to take that independence and self-sufficiency elsewhere, and that is a very dangerous thing - for a man who wants to run your life for you.

To a controlling man, that is a risk that no lady should take. Do not ask me how I know these things.

Young Canadian RC Male said...

Hey Seraphic. This is a good post you wrote on expectations of the opposite sexes. This paragraph I have to comment on:

"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...."

I'll say I'm not part of the controlling men who want (A). I seriously know better than to act like the foolish hooligans I always heard about "shacking up" with women in my university years. Plus if I want a woman to have sex with me, I want it to be meaningful, purposeful, and not just something in the heat of chemical or romantic passion. Really, sex is procreative and unitive together. Separate those aspects, tied to marriage, and we are nothing but objects. (I have to get Theology of the Body! I'm sure JPII talks about this more.)

Also, while I realize we men aren't to be control freaks and demand whatever that guy did in his letter (parasols and no jeans and elbow length gloves? WHAT THE???? We are so not living in Victorian England Here!!!! Someone's caught in a timewarp and that's unnaceptable in this modern day what he's demanding!), practicing Catholic men and women should share one equal standard of each other: That they will be truly invested in raising the child in the Faith, including teaching them about the Mass, basic tenets of the faith,prayers, etc. (as indicated in G.E. the Vatican II doc stating parents are the #1 educators in a person's faith life,) actually adhere to their religious obligation by Church law, and ensure they are raised with Catholic morals. Neither partner should adopt an attitude of just going for sacramental occasions and Christmas and Easter and trusting the Catholic/Separate schools will teach their kids everything about the faith and they'll come out knowing their faith and be ready to evangelize the world (actually the opposite happens in separate systems. There's a famous Fulton Sheen quote on this effect).

Finally, B.A.'s idea of what a gentleman is, isn't ideal for all men. Maybe it's a Scottish thing, but there are men who would fail horribly if this was their idea of being a gentleman. Those with Asperger's Syndrome (named after psychologist Hans Asperger) have great difficulties with social nuances and cues and will make social mistakes, including unintentionally giving offense when they are simply stating things bluntly or as of fact. Perhaps you should suggest to your B.A. to look up what the syndrome is in the DSM-IV (or the internet) and ask him if any of his friends fit the profile. He just might find a gent or two that likely has it and maybe it'll give him an intellectual wallop at supper tonight, as in a "well I never though of that. Interesting ...".

Anna said...

Finally, B.A.'s idea of what a gentleman is, isn't ideal for all men. Maybe it's a Scottish thing, but there are men who would fail horribly if this was their idea of being a gentleman. Those with Asperger's Syndrome (named after psychologist Hans Asperger) have great difficulties with social nuances and cues and will make social mistakes, including unintentionally giving offense when they are simply stating things bluntly or as of fact.

Maybe, maybe not. People with Asperger's looove rules. Most are capable of learning manners and applying them. They may not understand the purpose behind them necessarily, but they can learn them.

I also love B.A.'s definition because it encompasses an understanding what love is. There are certain behaviors that lead to the flourishing of human beings and show respect for their dignity and happiness.

Seraphic said...

Theobromo, I don't have to ask because I can guess.

Canadian RC, I don't think B.A. came up with that definition. My money's on Noel Coward.

Anna, that is very interesting. And I am reminded by that character on "The Tory of Relativity" Hilary loves so much.

Seraphic said...

Sheldon! That's it. Sheldon on "The Theory of Relativity."

Maggie said...

Is it called a different name in other countries? I had no idea! In the US we watch The Big Bang Theory (with Sheldon, the Apsergers' physicist, and friends)

Sheila said...

I think a lady is a woman who always tries to be polite and respectful to those around her. Nothing more.

But I also think trying to be a lady is the business of the lady herself. To others, every woman is a lady and deserves to be treated as such.

I feel ill when I hear men say, "Well, we treat *you* well because you're a lady. But some women don't deserve that because they're not ladies." Or, "I will wait for a women who deserves respect before respecting women." Thus, of course, putting the entire burden on the woman, while you reserve the right to be a total cad to anyone who doesn't follow YOUR rules for what a woman ought to be.

I actually know a lot of guys like that. It's pretty sickening.

Seraphic said...

Whoops! No, it's "The Big Bang Theory" here, too. I always make that mistake.

Sheila, I agree.

MaryJane said...

I've actually been surprised by the lack of women asking for advice about nasty controlling Catholic men, too! I guess it's something to be thankful for - that maybe there just aren't as many of those guys as we think there are? Or perhaps it's just that the girl in the situation doesn't really see him as controlling until she gets out, b/c the whole time she is busy beating herself up for not being lady-like enough, or Catholic enough, or Traditional enough, or whatever. (That was my experience, anyway.) It's only looking back that one can say, "Dear God, what was I THINKING?!"

I have a single friend who recently started talking with a man 1.5 years younger than herself. She is finding it positively refreshing since the men who were (several years) older consistently insisted upon giving advice and issuing correction. It has been my experience that older men tend to be more controlling, but your story of the 23 year old goes to show me it can happen at any age.

The issue of being a lady is delicate one, to be certain. I believe that a true gentleman treats all women like "ladies," regardless of how the lady acts or considers herself. That is to say, he's kind to everyone, and acts with common courtesy towards the cleaning lady and the grandmother alike. (A man who bothers to comment on inessentials like jeans is well out of the realm of kindness. A gentleman knows better than to mind a lady's business!)

I suppose the flip side would be that a lady is one who treats everyone with common courtesy as well. The only problem with that is that she can actually be in serious danger should some creep misunderstand courtesy for interest. Thus, I think ladies have a right, and even duty, to be cold at times.

Domestic Diva said...

I’ve dated a controlling man who was utterly determined to make me conform to his ideal of the Lady and make me marry him. He wasn’t as extreme as your ex, Seraphic, but it was no fun all the same.

Your ex sounds to me like he was very concerned about the external appearances, and little concerned with interior attitudes. I don't know if you ever shared his rules with anyone else, but when I told some friends about my ex's rules, they were pretty horrified...giving me the perspective I needed to end the relationship. No, it wasn't me failing miserably...it was him having unreasonable demands. Shudder.

I believe a lady is virtuous, first and foremost, regardless of money, work, notoriety, ancestry. Virtue is objective; some of the criteria mentioned here are completely subjective. A lady is also gracious, kind, thoughtful, and generous...unless demonstrating those qualities puts her in danger. Then she respects herself enough to protect herself.

I like Sheila's observation that it's the lady's business to be a lady, and that we should treat all women as ladies.

Really appreciate the insights from this post and comments...

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

It really does frequently strike me what terrible struggles you endure in this process of coming out of the liberal/feminist matrix. It seems to me that your obsession with male/female relations is a result of this painful emergence from liberal feminism to sunny uplands of The Real.

It gets easier. Particularly if you don't think about it so much.

Make jam. It is a time consuming and feminine activity that will ease the pain a great deal.

Seraphic said...

That's an interesting analysis, Hilary, but it happens to be wrong. And dreadfully patronizing.

I've just received an email from a reader thanking me for discussing the subject. She did NOT marry the controlling guy with fixed rules about what a lady may and may not do. But she appreciates that someone else understands what she experienced.

I'm glad you're enjoying making jam.

Kathleen said...

Being a "Lady" is about being receptful and courteous, not only of others but of ourselves. Example, a lady may dress modestly in the office, because showing tomuch skin may make her coworks uncomfortable but also because she knows she's more than just a skin.

Adam's Rib said...

I think a lady is a thoughtful woman who uses her femininity for the good of others, i.e being thoughtful in general, but especially in ways that men tend not to be. I agree with the previous suggestions about kindness and generosity too.

I also think she is the kind of woman who inspires other women to virtue, and in a visible and tangible way, seems to uphold virtue and femininity.

I'm not talking about a perfect kind of woman here, we all have our moments of goodness, but a woman who recognises this as important and something the world needs, and strives to do this, she is a lady.

Jim said...

The character Jamie Sullivan, as portrayed in the movie "A Walk to Remember," is about as good an example of a true Lady as I can think of. I don't have time right now to list all the characteristics, but she had them all--watch the movie and you will see what I'm talking about.

I am also extremely fortunate and blessed that God gave me a Lady as my wife. Many times I am totally in awe of my wife.

theobromophile said...

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.

Perhaps this is because many of us run so fast and far away from men who do (A) that they never even get close to (B). Kind of hard to court a girl who is glaring at you with contempt and rage.

I think a lady is a woman who always tries to be polite and respectful to those around her. Nothing more.

I'll add the caveat of "within social interaction that she chooses." Miss Manners has stridently declared that no lady out to "handle" or otherwise bend over backwards for a man on the street who is rude to her. As someone who has attracted more than her share of garbage from total strangers, I've found that the most ladylike thing is to throw most definitions of "politeness" out the door.

(But one example: Saturday night in a T stop. I leaned my head back against the wall, eyes open, and a young man walked up to me and said, "Don't sleep in here." Me: "I wasn't going to." Him: "So where are you going to sleep?" My response contained at least one expletive, but he scurried off, unlike the dense people who do not get normal social signals to leave you alone - had they understood those signals, they wouldn't say those things in the first place!)

Emily said...


I've always thought of a lady as a woman who is kind, generous, selfless, respects herself, respects others, and controls her own strength so as not to bend the bruised reed. She does not seek to be the center of attention (something which, by the way, elbow gloves and a parasol are pretty sure to make you...stupid man), and she has a particular concern for the little and the least. She embraces life, and especially the call to spiritual motherhood. Exactly what that looks like is going to be different for different women. Jeans, successful careers, and traveling through Europe by oneself are not deal breakers. Neither is being voluptuous, funny, and intelligent. Promiscuity, self-absorption, pettyness, deceit, cruelty, and wearing items likely to be found in a street-walker's closet probably are.

As for where that definition comes from...mostly Edith Stein, Gertrude Von Le Fort, and John Paul II. I think they have the best things to say on this. Although, they don't talk about ladies and gentlemen. They talk about authentic femininity...which is more the way I like to approach the question. I'm not so much interested in whether or not I'm being what the culture currently defines as a "lady" as I am in being the woman God made me to me. And when it comes to defining these things, I'm big on not being more Catholic than the Church. The Church says good, holy women don't sleep around, do nourish and nurture life, and can pursue whatever career God calls them to. So I say that. The Church doesn't say good, holy women must stay at home, wear long skirts, and chapel veils. So I don't say that. It's taken me a while to adopt that policy, but I'm an awful lot happier since I have. Much more free.

I'll also add that most of the good Catholic guys I know would give you a similar definition. I just haven't run across that many uber-controlling traditionalist types. Most of my friends are just thrilled I'm not wearing plunging necklines and 4 inch heels.

Lastly, B.A.'s definition of a gentleman is taken from Newman and his "Idea of a University." Good stuff and good for B.A. for adapting it.

Happy thinking!

healthily sanguine said...

Haha, did anyone else enjoy the delicious ;) irony of Hilary's comment? This entire post has me a bit nonplussed, as the topic at the beginning was "The Lady" but quickly turned into "The Lady, as denoted by some guy" which to me makes no sense in the first place. Just as men learn to be men NOT from women but from other men, so ladies learn to be ladies from . . . big surprise, other ladies! In college, I didn't stop wearing my red sweatpants with writing on the behind because my guy friends told me not to, but because looking around me, I saw older college girls wearing more modest forms of casual wear (which influence was strengthened by that all-powerful subconscious question, "What would my mom say?"). That's also why you hear over and over to pray to the Blessed Mother for guidance about things, and why we call her Our LADY and strive to be like her, because even if you don't have a good human mother for a role model, at least you have her! So to any guys who would like to tell me their definition of a lady, I can only say, "Who asked you, anyway?"

healthily sanguine said...

Oh, and since we are throwing around banter about chapel veils, my friends gave me such a hard time for suspending my chapel veil wearing because my last boyfriend did NOT like it (though, to be fair, he never asked me to stop wearing it)--and in hindsight, they were right! Soon before we broke up, I started wearing my head-covering again. So the chapel veil symbolized . . . freedom? Self-determination? ;)

some guy on the street said...

Thinking about it a second time, I recalled this exchange from Lerner & Loewe's mostly-fantastic adaptation of G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion

Rex My manners are exactly the same as Col. Pickering's.

Audrey But he treats a flower girl as if she were a duchess!

Rex And I treat a duchess as if she were a flower girl.


Of course, Rex is portraying the foolish noble, and not the noble fool --- Olivia rather than Feste, or what you will. I fancy his democratic impulse has indeed some merit, yet clearly Pickering is closer to the proper way of things, for there is at least one person 'iggins will never treat like a flower girl, and that is 'isself. Excuse me...

I'll just close with some etymological irrelevance, to note that one talks of womanhood and womanliness much as one talks of boyhood and boyishness (I've never heard of girlhood, and girliness just sounds wrong... ), they are things that simply happen to us (some of us), or natural manners --- but when it comes to persons who are ladies, one talks of her ladyship, which shares a suffix with worship and kinship. These latter sorts are things accorded, and have to do with offices or places held by persons accorded them. Ladyship is, when not an address, the deliberate attention to acting as women ought; nonetheless, as pertains to a man, as gentleman, he does like Col. Pickering treat all women as he treats a lady, and indeed as befits a lady.

healthily sanguine said...

Also, throw those ridiculous letters out, Seraphic! It's beyond comprehension why you would want to keep them.

Seraphic said...

Well, they are on a different continent from me...

Lena said...

I agree with Sheila and Maryjane.

At least those letters are on a different continent. They sound icky. It sounds like you were in some odd time warp marriage.

Elizabeth said...

Seraphic, they are computer programmers so I don't know if they ever encounter other women! Seriously, though, I think that down here (i.e. England), it essentially comes down to whether you go along with the hard drinking, swearing culture or not. I also find that in general, foreign women are treated with more respect that British women, perhaps because we are not assumed to be ok with some of the problematic elements of British culture (the drinking).

Alexandra said...

Oh my goodness. I literally cheered out loud when I read this post of yours. I've heard so many definitions of 'lady', some of them by well-meaning men and others by women whose standards are impossibly high. I just think that the term 'lady' has too many connotations that I'd rather not get embroiled in.

If I (eventually) have children, I'll absolutely raise them to be good and holy men and women. But I don't think I'll be telling my daughters to "act like ladies" any time soon...

Christine said...

Sorry I'm late here - now catching up on reading now that the fall semester is over.

I like how BA defines gentlemanly behavior. It reminds me of the definition I acquired as a teenager from the movie "Blast from the Past:"

A lady or gentleman (in behavioral definition) is someone who makes sure, to the best of their ability, that everyone is comfortable.

To me, this isn't just making sure everyone at your party has a drink in their hand, but trying to create an environment, wherever you are, that makes people feel at ease and (like BA said,) not offended. (Unless of course, a gentleman needs to set a rogue straight.)