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.
What 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. She 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…..you 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.