Ladies and Gentlemen – huh?

I recently engaged in a conversation with my six and seven year old grandchildren.  It was a simple conversation about my Grandmother, who would have been their great-great-grandmother.

My grandmother lived with us for several decades and was a wonderful, enormous part of my son’s growing-up years.  Her name was Esther, but everyone called her Nan – shortended from Nanny.  It’s challenging to find any one adjective to describe this extraordinary human being who lived through almost ten decades of social and world change, but our entire family most often defaults to “she was a lady!”

I was trying to describe her to my grandchildren, something I do very, very often, weaving her into whatever is happening today as a way of keeping her alive for this next generation.  Rolling along on a story about parties we’d had and how my parents and grandparents were (almost always) part of the social gatherings, I started to say that she was a lady, a REAL lady – and had to stop short.  Neither one of my grandchildren would have had a clue what I was talking about.

Grace-Kelly-black-white1-300x285What is a lady?  For that matter, what is a gentleman?  I tried to plow ahead, struggling for descriptives as I shared things like how beautifully coifed she always was, how she always sat with her back straight and her legs crossed at the ankles, if they weren’t bent in a lady-like way off to the side.  I shared how she would never curse (side note – don’t use the word “curse” unless you’re ready to explain that too!).  I shared how she would never discuss anything that had to do with her body functions, even to the point of whispering, when the toilet paper ran out, in the lowest voice possible, “you need more t.p. in the bathroom.”  I was trying to describe a time and privileges that were almost entirely restricted to those who lived a white, middle or upper class life, the social strata in which I had grown up.

Not surprisingly, my young grandchildren find Harry Potter more rational and easier to comprehend then the concepts and behaviors I was describing.

I confess (but quietly, so no one thinks I’m very, very antiquated myself) that I like having the person I’m with treat me like a lady – whatever that means.  I like having doors opened for me, my coat held for me to slip into, and I swoon when the men at a dining table stand when I get up to go to the bathroom.  I am perfectly capable of doing all of those things for myself, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know that, but it’s awfully nice to have someone taking that care of me.  Of course I was also raised in a time when we were encouraged to believe a prince would fall in love with us, marry us (because there was no other option for life-choices!) and carry us away to a kingdom far far away.

I understand that for those who don’t wish to have their gender define how they are treated this kind of treatment would be teeth-clenching and infuriating.  But it doesn’t make me feel helpless.  It doesn’t make me feel submissive or diminished.  It just makes me feel cared for in a particular way – a way I was raised to believe was important and a measure both of my being ladylike and the person I was with being a gentleman.

But that’s all about me.  What does the rest of the world think (aka – Google search).  So I went looking for articles about “being a lady.”  My first find told me “Being female is a matter of birth, being a woman is a matter of age, but being a lady is a matter of choice.”    And the article goes on to list 10 qualities that establish one is a perfect lady – things like number 8:

A lady is well-dressed. She knows how to select clothing that is modest, age appropriate, within her budget, and perfect for the occasion. dior2She is well-groomed, practices good hygiene, and maintains her health. She understands that her personal appearance – the way she chooses to dress, groom, and carry herself – communicates instantly to others who she is.

Or number 10:

A lady manages her home and the needs of her family. She creates a welcome, peaceful, loving, and nourishing environment – a safe shelter from the storms of life. Her actions reflect whom she has chosen to be rather than base them upon the opinions of others.

hmmm.  I could feel my furry slippers, comfy pants and loose top morphing into the perfect appearance for a lady, and I could remember the struggle with girdles, garters and bullet-shaped bras (interestingly now very much in vogue!).

Trudging ahead, less enthusiastically, with my Google search, my next find was a wiki page that outlined (with photos) the 24 steps required to be a lady.  This one included essential instructions like not talking with your mouth full, cutting food into small portions, never wearing clothing that was too revealing… get the idea.

And I thought about my beautiful, free-spirited, fabulously inventive, curious, kind, loving grandchildren to whom I had so wistfully described what it meant to be a lady and I had to stifle the urge to quickly drive to their home, sit them down and frantically explain to them that it was a different time with different standards of behavior and that they will be able to pick and choose how they wish to be treated and what they want from the others in their lives without any preconceived notions of “the right way.”

Nostalgia is a lovely thing – it let’s us look back at a time that was, perhaps, not so very great and somehow make it feel better than whatever we are living today.  It’s easy to forget the world that surrounded the world we’re envisioning.  Being a “lady” was a term used almost exclusively for middle and upper class white women.  Women of color did not, historically, have doors held open for them.  Working class and poor women could not, typically,  keep their homes or choose their clothes in a way that would have qualified them as “ladies.   And those perfect ladies of, say, my mother’s generation, were often miserably unhappy and unfulfilled in their narrowly prescribed roles.

That’s what, I believe, is so dangerous about the cries for the good old days, and good old values.  Those values and behaviors masked a tremendous inequality, a restrictive time where women were forced to fit into narrowly defined roles, where the freedoms we enjoy today were (mostly) restricted to the males and where being a lady was restricted to white middle and upper class white women.  It was a patriarchal world – even moreso than today – where a woman’s highest achievement was a beautiful home in which her husband could entertain his important clients.

So I will continue to enjoy having doors opened for me and being treated like a lady, but I’ll put it in better perspective now.  My grandmother was an amazing human being who epitomized the very best social behaviors of her time.  What made her truly extraordinary is that well into her 90s, she embraced the life I was leading and the changes time had wrought – without nostalgia for the good old days.  But then she had been there and she knew she wasn’t going back!  Neither, I hope, are any of my grandchildren.  Freedom is both the freedom to and the freedom not to – something we’re a whole lot closer to realizing today than we were when men were men and women were ladies.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is ultimately what it’s all about.




3 comments on “Ladies and Gentlemen – huh?

  1. I really enjoy this. I must say I am the type, when crossing paths with a woman I always let her have the right away. I almost always offer my arm to an elderely woman before guiding her along a cross walk to safety upon the sidewalk. I always hold the door open for a woman behind me and Ive been before, approached with hostility by a jealous boyfriend for always apologizing to his girlfriend and any other woman in the room whenever I blabbered out a swear word. One time, leaving work earlier in the day, there was an elderlylady crossing the lobby with her wheeled-walker, slowly approaching the door I was to exit. I waved at her, told her to take her time and held the lobby door open with a genuine smile. As she aproached the door she told me something along the lines of “Chivalry is not dead. Thank your mother for me?”
    I find nothing wrong with this. Not because I am male, but because I try my hardest to follow integrity.
    I was a hostile rough neck to say the least of my adolesence phase. People feared me and I thought thats what mattered.I thought I was a “man” But the thing with fear is, people will be nice to you until you stumble and trip in a weakspot. When that happens, they stand in line ready to kick you when youre down. Stereotypically, men were roughnecks,men were tough, men didnt cry.
    I left my teenage years and into adult hood understanding how horrible and ugly fear really was. Love is different. Love people and they will line up to pick you up when you fall down and then gladly brush you off. To this day I strongly believe in brotherly love. And knowing how violent I was,I know now, I had no flaw of having enemies anymore. Why? you might ask? Because love absorbed every pore, nook and cranny of my body and mind knowing that I could not get hurt if I followed loving means. Loveis power.Love is integrity. Real men arent measured by how fast they can throw a punch, real men are measured by doing the right thing. (Integrity) Me being “Chivalrous” might earn the term gentleman. But I call myself a man. Because I am not afraid to be gentle and not afraid to love any and everyone.
    Thats my lifes story so far at least.I may be a gentleman just like how a woman is called a Lady, but at the end both man and woman are known as adults. A real man and woman show compassion, love and integrity.
    I applaud you for pointing out what you did about your wonderful relative.

    To me, real men and women are all about doing whats righteous.

    To my friends and family

    Now It comes from my Grandma, she is fulll of love
    she taught my Dad to say it, and my Dad says it to all of us.
    for examplde, when were happy “I LOVE YOU” its a re-enforcement
    when we walk out the door
    I love you, and you leave the home feeling significant to an extreme level
    when we fight, at the end of the fight someone storms upstairs while the other is in the living room, as the person stomps up the stairs we say “I love you”
    when its said after an argument, it makes everything feel like we are healed and still care
    you know?
    Idont just say I love you to be cute
    its to reenoforce your dgnity
    its to make you happy
    to feel appreciated
    to feel significant.There is no bullshit mean when I say somethig serious like I love you

    Had a convo with a good friend about the subject. once agian, to my friends and family, I love you!

  2. Well written. I strive to be a gentleman to ladies and other gentleman. Its so nice when others understand that you are being nice and not patronizing. I remember in the 1980’s in a business setting I offered to open the door to a woman who was probably in her 50’s. She told me “I have been opening my own door for decades!” And declined my offer. I feel sad for her. Sometimes people confuse kindness for weakness–big error.

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