When I graduated from high school, an older woman (possibly a relative; I don’t recall) gave me a copy of this little pink book, How to Be a Lady. In theory, it was branded as a guide for contemporary etiquette, but it was mostly full of advice like: “A lady always wears pantyhose to church and never dons a pair with nicks or runs.” “A lady always crosses her legs at the ankles.” “A lady never initiates a date with a gentleman caller.” “A lady never swears or uses vulgar or graphic language.” “A lady knows when it is appropriate to drink using a straw.” And all that sort of vapid thing. Basically, it came down strongly on all the anti-lady things that I loved doing: never wearing pantyhose to church, sitting like a young bro, calling boys, using an ample dose of vulgar language (especially gratuitous sarcasm and potty humor), and never knowing when the moment called for a straw.
This book came to mind during a recent conversation in which a man I know told a prospective date that she needed to “act like a lady.” This injunction—much like that pink book—has never sat well with me.
“Acting like a lady” holds a lot of social currency in the South, the region I hail from. Aside from, perhaps, being a mother, being a lady is the most important thing a Southern woman can be. Best I can ascertain, being a lady means that you are polite, demure, coy, submissive, well-groomed, and super-boring. A lady knows how to host a perfect brunch and how to keep quiet at a dinner party when volatile subjects are being discussed and how to make cute handicrafts out of some old rickrack and sequins.
When a man tells a woman to “act like a lady,” he is asking for conformity to a rigid (albeit arbitrary) code of gendered behavior. Specifically, she should be quiet, mannerly, and easily controllable. She should not express a desire for sex. She should not make crude jokes. She should not enjoy a drink (at least, she should not say that she does). She should not run or shout or climb trees. She should avoid wearing pants too often. She should wait for instructions from a man before acting. She should not express her opinions too vociferously, and she should never argue with an authority figure. She should keep her emotions and her thoughts under control at all times.
I loathe this injunction, in any form, because all I want to be is a decent human being. I don’t want to be told to be a lady, anymore than I want men to be told to be gentlemen. I want people to be upstanding humans, first and foremost.
I acknowledge that there are certain virtues of ladyship, but they are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender: Be polite and kind to others. That is all that we need to say to each other.
You can tell me when I need to be polite and kind. You can tell me that I need to acquire a sense of decorum. You can tell me that I need to shape up and act like a decent human being. But don’t tell me to be a lady.