Our writers’ group met the other night – four of us who have been friends long enough to say whatever needs to be said, and not take offense. We sat together reading each other’s work and trading comments. Ruth had written a beautiful devotional on Esther. At one point she referred to her as a “young lady.”
“I would take that out,” said Donna. “Young woman is better.”
“Agreed,” said Sara, “I hate that word. It’s so patronizing.”
I shrugged my shoulders as Ruth looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think I started my email to you the other night with ‘Hello, ladies!’” We laughed. But it sparked an interesting discussion.
Apparently “lady” is often construed as someone who can’t be taken seriously. You know . . . the privileged, helpless sort of prissy miss in pink ruffles who’s more concerned about her nail polish than world peace. We all knew that wasn’t what Ruth meant, but there’s no denying that lady carries with it some distinctly negative connotations for many people.
Sara, a contemporary novelist, said lady reminded her of something from Pride and Prejudice. Donna, a professor of Women’s Studies, pointed out that “Ladies’ Studies” wouldn’t convey nearly the same import.
On the other hand, Ruth explained that her father wanted his daughters to be decent young ladies, meaning basically, women who carried themselves with purposeful decorum and respect. For instance, as far as he was concerned, young ladies should never chew gum.
Immediately I heard my Grade Six teacher in my head. She always said the only difference between a cow chewing its cud and a young lady chewing gum is the contented look on the cow’s face. Even back then I thought it was somewhat sexist. How come the “young gentlemen” were exempt from this adage? Nevertheless, I promised myself that while chewing gum I would make a conscious effort to look happy.
Attitude, not accessorizing
Personally, I think Ruth’s father had it right (except maybe for the gum part). In my mind, a lady is someone who conducts herself in a mannerly way toward others. She is not rude, unduly loud or irritatingly pushy. That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover. It has to do with attitude, not accessorizing. Not all women are ladies, but all ladies are women. I don’t apply it just to the female gender; I would define “gentleman” with the same criteria. If I refer to someone as a lady or a gentleman, I mean it as a positive.
Okay, not always. If I’m sitting at astoplight and the woman in the car ahead of me is texting when it turns green, I may very well blow the horn and shout, “C’mon lady, let’s get moving!” (Distinctly unladylike behaviour on my part, right?)
Later on, thinking of our discussion, I wondered how one simple word could evoke such varied responses, which led me to consider where my own feelings about it originated. Of seven dictionary definitions listed, none exactly matched my own. The only manners mentioned are those associated with women regarded as being of a superior social status.
I asked my best friend how she felt about the term. She doesn’t like it either!
So I may have to rethink my use of the word. I learned long ago in academic writing to replace generics like man and mankind with people and humanity. We no longer have waitresses, stewardesses or actresses. They’ve been replaced with servers, flight attendants and actors. It’s not that hard really, just a matter of practice.
I concede that my vocabulary needs updating. Still, would a kinder, gentler world be so bad? It goes back to what used to be called common courtesy – things like saying “excuse me,” when you walk in front of someone; holding a door open for the person behind you; offering your seat to someone elderly or in obvious discomfort; and the generous use of polite words like please and thank you. Sadly, common courtesy is quite uncommon these days.
Seems to me the Bible is full of references to letting our gentleness be evident to all, being humble, putting others ahead of ourselves. Manners may be cultural, but aren’t they still a good vehicle for being a decent human being? Maybe I’ll start a one-woman campaign to bring back “ladies and gentlemen.” As for those fellow writers of mine – they’ll always be ladies in my heart. And you know what I mean by that.
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