What is a Lady?

I have a hard time conceptualizing myself as a woman. Generally speaking, I feel decidedly female and vaguely adult, but more of a girl-woman hybrid than a fully-fledged woman.

And there’s no doubt about it: I am NOT a lady.

Because in my mind, ladies are both aware of and concerned with social norms. They value manners, comportment, and appropriateness. They always send thank-you notes, know exactly when to transition from appetizers to dinner at parties, and have undergarments appropriate to every possible fashion situation. Ladies have been doing perfect winged eyeliner since age 10, carry small purses, and exude quiet elegance.

Again: Me? Not a lady. Not in the least. I enjoy belching. I have belching contests with my dad and husband. I have to restrain myself from belching loudly in public, and sometimes do it unconsciously before I realize that I’M NOT AT HOME. My handbag is relatively tidy, but it’s large enough that I could crawl inside it to take a nap. Feeling obligated to write thank you notes irritates me, though I couldn’t tell you why since I value gratitude above nearly everything else in life. I don’t own a strapless bra, instead choosing to wear my regular, soft-cup bra with the straps tucked into the cups. Seriously.

And I’ve realized that I do all these things because ladylike behavior makes me feel claustrophobic. None of the individual actions or traits that I think of as ladylike is even remotely negative, but taken as a whole they reflect the philosophy that women should be subdued, prim, regulated, and ornamental. Women should enforce and personally follow all manner of social norms, regardless of how bizarre or impractical they may become. Women should be contained.

And while I seldom beat my chest and scream at the top of my lungs while standing naked on a crowded boulevard, I rebel against the notion of containment. I won’t be kept quiet, I won’t refrain from doing things I enjoy just because they’re “unladylike,” and I won’t follow antiquated rules about behavior. I’m polite, but I won’t be proper. I’m respectful, but I won’t be timid. I’m stylish, but I won’t be held to anyone else’s standards of beauty, fashion, or personal grooming.

And yet, I have used “lady” as a term of genuine endearment for my girlfriends for ages. And despite shunning the associated behaviors, I am drawn to the physical trappings of the lady archetype. I love heels and pencil skirts, pearls and shawls, 50s silhouettes, brooches, and scarves. The aesthetic appeals to me independent of its implications, but I also enjoy the juxtaposition that dressing in ladylike outfits creates. I dress like a lady and act like me, laughing silently, even though I’m quite sure the observing world fails to see the irony.

I imagine that my personal definition of “ladylike” may be quite different from yours. So I’m curious: What is a lady to YOU? Do you wrestle with, rebel against, or embrace the idea of being a lady? Do you consider yourself to be a lady?

Image courtesy ytfelmi.

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  • Being ladylike is something I aspire to, but in all likelihood will never achieve. My dresscode ranges from ultrafeminine to teenage bloke and my manners seem to mirror that. I would consider that to be a lady, it would take a long time to get ready for the day, which would then consist of not doing very much in order to stay looking perfect. My ladylike role model Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way. Perhaps the day of the lady has been left in a byegone era for good?

  • A lady is one of strength and dignity…..she is confident of who she is….and confident of what she believes….she is joyful and loves life (not always constrained)….yet, dignified not necessarily in dress but in stature and wisdom. She can discern when to laugh, when to cry….her strength comes from deep within.
    She is confident in pearls and sandals…can pull off pencil skirts and denim…because she know who she is and that equals STYLE.

    • Anonymous

      Thankyou,your thoughts of being a lady,blessed me!

    • Samantha L.

      I LOVED LOVED LOVED YOUR DEFINITION OF WHAT A LADY IS. A Lady is confident in who she is, respects herself & in turn respects others..she’s also a rebel who walks in wisdom. She’s many things & who she represents demands respect & gets respect!

  • I don’t think of this explicitly in terms of being a lady. I don’t dress like a 50s icon, and I curse like a sailor (less so as I’ve been living in the South, though — when in Rome). However, I think I do have a core of reserve that some people would probably think of as “ladylike”. I dress rather covered up, I am fairly careful about being “out of control” in public — i.e. I don’t drink much unless I’m with only people that I absolutely trust — and I have always instinctively refused to degrade myself in search of male attention. Even in my semi-wild college days I was always the girl who walked home under her own power from frat parties, while some of my friends passed out and sheepishly crawled in the next day, not remembering what they had done. For me ladylike is more about hanging on to your essential dignity no matter what you’re doing than about any specific combination of clothes and etiquette rules. I’m the kind of person who won’t go along with racist/sexist jokes just to avoid being tagged as humorless, things like that.

    • Bubu

      “ladylike is more about hanging on to your essential dignity no matter what youโ€™re doing” – I think Cynthia summed it up perfectly. I aspire to that definition of lady, and by and large I think I get there.

  • Kath

    The kind of “ladylike” I was taught about wasn’t anything to do with handbags or makeup, but more to do with having a certain kind of class. Basic manners, not engaging in antisocial behaviour, self-respect. It’s the female term for observing the same social attitude as everyone is expected to, including men. They then get called gentlemen for the same things.

    It’s not about not going out and getting drunk with your mates if you want to, but rather not ending up in a police station covered in your own (or someone else’s) vomit at the end of the night.

    It’s not even about sexual repression. It’s entirely possible to be a ladylike prostitute. You get to charge a lot more if you can pull this off, too.

    A lady knows her own worth.

    • Denise

      Well said!

    • Samantha L.

      Good answer lol..good answer

  • Perhaps our society needs to redesign the meaning of the word lady to conform to a more modern standard of the term.
    As much as I love to watch Mad Men and their faithful portrayal of the American life in the 60s I cringe at the thought of having to lead the Betty Draper lifestyle.
    I particularly liked how you said: ” Iโ€™m polite, but I wonโ€™t be proper” or as my hero Hercule Poirot once said: ” All one really needs are the good manners the rest is just silliness and snobbery!”

  • Isabel

    I don’t think of a lady in those traditional terms. I think of a lady as someone who is kind and polite to others, respectful of herself and others. I don’t see it in terms of manners and containment. Instead I see a lady as something to aspire to, someone who is gracious, kind, respectful, speaks her mind and has a strong moral compass. The same applies to being a gentleman. It is what I’m trying to teach my children to become.

    • I’m with Isabel. “Lady” and “ladylike” are not the same to my mind, either. “Ladylike” implies carefully precise behavior, with a bit of primness. That does not make a lady. A “ladylike” woman isn’t necessarily a lady.

      • Sal

        Interesting distinction!

    • Samantha L.

      Wow it’s so many great perceptions on here lol that I find it so hard ta only agree with one. I loved your response Isabel. I agree & then some. I would also like ta add that a lady doesn’t spill all of her beans outta da bag! She knows how to keep a secret with open ears lol…some do anyway lol

  • eek

    I think you can be a lady and still like to belch ๐Ÿ™‚ although I consider myself a cool chick over anything else ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Your strapless bra is killing me. How hilarious. I don’t own a strapless bra either though I don’t wear strapless things so it isn’t a concern for me, lol. I have recently acquired a bra that will convert to a racerback though and that makes me feel far more equipped for the world (though I have yet to use it that way).

    A lady? I want to look nice when I go out (my definition of course), I believe manners are very important, and being considerate toward others is a imperative; however, I’ve been known to enjoy a hockey fight, to suggest to strangers to use the word ‘please’ with a clerk, and had our ceilings painted the same colours as the walls.

    A lady? Probably not, though I suppose being yourself kind of precludes you from being able to be labelled most of the time. Call me what you want, I’m going to watch the hockey game. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Tibz

    I’ve noticed that I particularly delight in the irony of dressing up in more stereotypically girly-girl outfits, because I am not one. On the other hand, I also take appearing more ladylike as a license to act less ladylike, because I feel that my appearance acts as a buffer.

  • anya

    My cousin is by all definitions a lady. Sweet, slender, polished and groomed, impeccable style and and above all, never speaks to loudly, never laughs violently, smiles sweetly. I stand my ground and don’t accept crap treatment but she brushes off sweetly and never mentions other people rudeness . Her anger never manifests in public. She doesn’t complain. She’s a lovely person and friend, and i struggled to be like her, but I accepted I’m not that quiet and prim, it’s not in my nature. My parents tried to make me a lady, but what stuck is a cold politeness, a way of delivering even the most acid line in a composed matter-of-fact manner. At least I don’t scream:). And clearly i like the lady aesthetic a lot. Oh well

  • This is such an interesting, thought-provoking post. I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a lady, mostly because my definition of such lines up with yours: A lady is demure, feminine, constrained, dresses conservatively, and behaves appropriately in every social situation. I do not. I am tattooed, opinionated, and have an affinity for dressing wildly inappropriately (such as donning a vintage prom dress to fetch take-out, as I did yesterday.) I also enjoy a stiff drink and dirty joke every now and then.

    I do occasionally like to channel a more ladylike approach to dressing by donning pencil skirts and feminine dresses. And I enjoy the contrast my tattoos and wild hair generates when I dress more ladylike. I like fighting against stereotypes and seeing how people react. But personally, I couldn’t care less about whether I’m considered a “lady” or not. I’m me, and have no desire to be labeled or fit neatly into one category of woman.

  • Ekatherina

    Sally, thank you so much for posting this! Your opening here about knowing that you’re very much female and at least somewhat of an adult really resonated with me. I’ve been struggling with the feeling of not being “womanly” for months – I personally don’t feel the least bit “womanly” and I sure as hell don’t feel “elegant” or “ladylike” and it really bothers me.

    I think I associate the word “lady” with more of what it means to be “elegant” – a topic that has already been hashed out on the blogosphere (I really liked the way that Peter Lappin on Male Pattern Boldness described it!) I think that what elegance is to having style is analogous to what social norms are to being a lady – using social skills rather than style tools to foster the persona that you want to exude, and I think that having elegance definitely lends itself to being “ladylike”. And I do think it is more of a persona than anyone actually being a “lady” – we all belch and fart, we’re all superbly flawed and we don’t always have the time or money to buy strapless bras and it isn’t always practical to carry a pocketbook that your wallet can’t fit in. But if one can carry off these things gracefully and stay comfortable in her own skin and femininity, then that is elegant and that is ladylike.

  • Kylara7

    I adore this post because it captures some of my thoughts towards the concept of “lady” very eloquently. I also bristle at the “lady” label because to me, it carries the association of a demure woman who “knows her place” and is decorative and demuring above all and will always consider how to cater to others not only in matters of politeness but at the expense of herself…or at least that is what I absorbed from the culture and from my older relatives growing up. But that’s not me…I’m polite and have manners, but I am not demure and decorative (unless I feel like it) and I am not self-sacrificing and obliged to put the needs of others always before my own.

    I reserve the right to act like “me”, and to take parts of any gender role that fit me at the moment; I see no disconnect between wearing pearls and a ballgown at a formal event and belching on the coach in my sweats in front of the TV (I also am a champion belcher and sometimes forgot I am in public too…hilarious that you mentioned this!). I tend towards casual nongendered styles (jeans and T-shirts, sportswear and sneakers) in 90% of my life and resent being told I should fix up to go to the grocery store or “Smile!” on the street….I am not here to decorate your world. However, I do value good manners and civility, which includes knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut and when to employ blatant confrontation. And part of my will never grow up and will continue to snort at fart and poop jokes into my dotage ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Nique

    Great post. I have been known to have quite the potty mouth, and this post reminds me of the many times I have heard my mother say, “Nique, that’s not very ladylike” after I have dropped an f-bomb. And I have always thought, “So what?” in response to her.
    I would guess that there aren’t too many “ladies” in our generation anymore. For some reason, being a “lady” seems to have gone out with the 1970’s.

  • Jen

    I agree with pretty much everything you said. No ladies in this house.

  • Rad

    Interesting post. I also have always thought “lady” like had to do with propriety, but that many women have re-appropriated the term for fun purposes. I am definitely not a lady, because I rebelled against any attempts (mostly by my mother) to control my enthusiasm and large personality by referring to what “ladies” do. You’re gonna need a better argument than that to contain me!
    (Also, I challenge you to a belching duel!)

  • Gail

    I have been reading your blog for awhile and have really appreciated your wit and fashion tips. โ€œWhat is a lady?โ€ She is someone who is kind and elegant. What she wears is irrelevant. I think we associate clothing with the perception of being a lady, yet I have known women who wore jeans and t-shirts and were considered ladies. The idea of manners and acting appropriately are associated with being a lady, but I donโ€™t find that concept to be stifling. I believe that true manners show thoughtfulness and consideration for others. I donโ€™t think of a lady being timid. Strength and determination are traits I do associate with ladylike behavior. Having a voice and expressing ones opinion is important, but I believe that your voice can be heard when expressed quietly and with purpose. Princess Diana, Mrs. Onassis, and Audrey Hepburn were all famous role models of what it means to be a โ€œLady.โ€

  • For one thing, I’ve had Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” stuck in my head all morning now. Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Moving on, though, I think that my personal definition of “lady” is a little less constrained than yours. I totally agree with much of what you say: comportment, societal norms, etc. A lady acts “correctly” and knows what fork to use at dinner. However, I think there’s more than that to being a lady. I think a lady is, simply, an elegant, classy woman. I certainly am not a lady most of the time, in any sense of the word, nor do I aspire to be one like the “contained” version you invoke. But do I want to be an elegant, classy dame generally? Hell, yeah. Maybe my definition is looser than most’s because of my upbringing: I went to a pretty famous all-girls school where we were told, the first or second day of kindergarten, that we as a group would be addressed as “ladies,” not as “girls” or “little girls” or what have you. I remember, at the early age of five, being deeply impressed that we were grown-up enough to deserve the title of “ladies.” And, sure, you can definitely argue that this has the trappings of the finishing school world, but I saw it as a marker of maturity.

    Um, I wrote a lot. But you really got me going…

    • Just what I was going to say, I bet everyone has been humming this all day… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIfxBthfFkg

    • spacegeek

      Funny–I tell my 5 year old daughters when they do something particularly gross (like “See Food” in their mouths at dinner) that “A lady wouldn’t do that.” And I sometimes substitute “A princess” for “A lady”. Haven’t thought much beyond that, though your post is food for thought. No time today to ponder further however.

  • Same. I am definitely a female-girl-woman ;), but am most certainly not a “lady.” I curse like a sailor, think farts are hilarious, love shoot-em-up movies and roll my eyes at most anything lovey dovey. But on the outside, I’m a skirt-wearing, heel-hoarding, makeup-loving girl!

  • Miss T

    The best compliment I’ve ever received was to be called “a lady”.

  • The word ‘lady’ definitely dredges up a posed, elegant, chic personality. Someone who is polite and well liked, but can get things accomplished by through her social clout and her ‘connections’. I think it would take a certain amount of ‘zen’ and an ability to sort of roll with the punches to keep a cool demeanor that I’m not sure I could ever obtain.

  • Diana

    I think of the term “lady” in much the same way you do, and to me the term conjures up an image of someone who is always impeccably groomed, unfailingly polite, restrained but still confident, and who always knows the right, political, polite thing to say. I most definitely do not think of myself as a lady or ladylike, even though I certainly do aspire to some ideals of class and elegance, and I’m OK with that.

    Growing up, my mother always entreated us to act and be more “ladylike,” which I think in some ways has put me off the whole idea. To me, it often seems as if stereotypical ladylike behavior can be a mask or a public persona.

  • Diana

    Oh! Forgot to add: I dated someone once who used to send me emails beginning with “hey lady,” which I and my friends for some reason found unbelievably hilarious. I do on occasion refer to my girlfriends as “lady” or “ladies” but for some reason “hey lady” just seems like something an eight year old would say!

  • I think I avoid the term lady because I associate it with my eccentric relatives. While they were certainly polite and ladylike — at least most of the time — they were also cold, calculated, cruel and unpleasant people. The overt emphasis on good manners hid a genuine inability to relate to or empathize with others. I think as our society has become more intertwined, more imaginative, and more individual, compassion is seen as an acceptable substitute for manners. We are all rude sometimes, even accidentally, and most of us have friends who will love and forgive us nonetheless. On the flip side, one of the difficulties of modern discourse is that not everybody who has given up manners has embraced thinking of others compassionately instead. This is why we have so much vitrol in the public sphere at the moment — my mother might think the same way as certain conservative elements but she would never say these things because, by God, she was a LADY.

    I also have an irrational hatred for thank you letters — both giving and receiving — because I had writing difficulties as a child and it was literally painful for me to write longhand, but I was forced to write many thank you notes for every little thing. On the plus side, I can bung them out quickly now like nobody’s business but still? HATE.

  • I like to think of “lady” as something I can access when need be. Honestly, I probably am a bit of a lady by nature–I wear jeans and flip-flips, and I swear and I’m down-to-earth, but I was an extraordinarily prissy little girl and still am in my own way, and I love thank-you notes and updos and social graces. When I was a little girl I aspired to be a lady, and in fact thought that the word “woman” had a slightly dirty tinge to it, and there’s all sorts of feminist things I could write about that when I have time!

    I think the trap is that when you’re a lady people expect that *you* expect to be treated in a certain way. And usually they oblige, and there’s a certain privilege that comes with that. But oftentimes it just means that you’re playing into their idea of what a *woman* should be, you know?

  • Jen

    I could go on for pages, for hours, about this! I am the granddaughter of two exceedingly different women. One who strove to fit into each stereotype of her day. To the point of discomfort for all those around her. She is a tall, thin woman who stoops to seem shorter. She would never allow me to finish the food on my plate, but encouraged my brothers to take seconds (ladies never stuff themselves). She forced out thank-you notes for every gifting occasion. We had to kiss each relative at family gatherings-even if we barely knew them. Our other grandmother was the one who encouraged us to say what was on our minds at all times. She was a working mom when moms stayed at home. She never minced words with anyone. I learned every “bad” word I know from her. If being a “lady” means growing up to be just like my grandmother who spends all of her time worrying about perception, and is miserable, then no thanks. I would rather be decidely un-ladylike and carefree. My much more fun grandmother always looked stunning, was never out of place, had a crowd to follow her everywhere, and broke every rule she could. That, to me, is much more desireable. Well, that and swearing like a Ukranian Grandmother!

  • Annika

    A lady is someone who has grown up, left the girlishness behind and found her strength in being a woman. She has confidence and wisdom and can be put into any kind of company or situation without losing her demeanor or integrity. A lady has class, she makes no one feel inferior ( she should not be confused with the rich b**ch ). She exudes quality and strength inside and out.

    • Barbra

      This is wonderful! I think you’ve summed it up perfectly.

    • Marie

      Exactly! This is a great description. When I think of the word “lady” I picture Aubrey Hepburn in her pearls and updo, but it’s not about appearance and a demure personality, it’s about class, respect, integrity, and a touch of femininity.

  • Rebecca

    Despite growing up hating to be told to be more ladylike, I do consider myself a lady. I associate “being a lady” with having class and grace–but mostly in public. Sure, I cuss, drink beer, wear grubby sweats, and belch in my own house. But I think being a lady means knowing how to act with grace in social situations–and not necessarily conforming to strict norms. I was an elected official and because of some controversial votes I made, I received a great deal of hate mail. I was interviewed by the paper and it was hard to respond to this with grace–but I did, and that’s what makes me a lady. Remaining calm in an emergency; staying composed when people shout rude things on the street when I really want to flip them off; staying sober enough to walk home on my own; not smoking/blowing cigarette smoke in others’ faces–all those things make me a lady. My friends think it’s because I’m a Southerner who wears dresses and loves to bake pies in vintage aprons and makes the best mint juleps–and sure, those things don’t hurt the image–but I love knowing that I am a lady, through and through.

  • A lady is the female correspondent to a gentleman. Therefore, she is polite, courteous, caring – not so much chained down as gracious from the inside out. She cares about manners not because of “them” but to make others comfortable – her focus is on others, not on herself.

    A lady might well be found working in the garden covered with manure … she is not necessarily only in the house, working quietly with her embroidery hoop.

    A lady is a lady because of who she is on the inside, not because of what she looks like on the outside.

  • Interesting conversation! I had no idea that we had wildly opposite definitions of what it means to be lady-like, Sally. I do not view it as being prim, contained, subdued and ornamental. Cynthia took the words out of my mouth and put it so well:

    “For me ladylike is more about hanging on to your essential dignity no matter what youโ€™re doing than about any specific combination of clothes and etiquette rules”.

    I associate being lady-like with a sense of dignity, good judgment, a positive and open attitude, a loving spirit, inner strength, a strong voice and lots of tact. In my book, you can be lady-like with short hair and trousers. I aspire to being a lady by about a million percent.

  • I’m much like you and feel that people view me as more ladylike than I am or want to be. I surprise people when they get to know me…and I like that. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Anne

    Hi Sally, Well if you evaluate me on the basis of my entertaining skills and lingerie assortment, I guess that makes me a lady. I always thought being a lady meant that you were intuitive about people and social situations and confident in your power to attractive positive attention toward your self (guilty again) I really see myself, as one of the other posters mention, as a Dame, especially now that I am well past my 30’s. I channel Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. I have always been the gal pal that can keep up with the boys during sports, but also clean up well enough to present to bosses and mothers. I drink gin, and bourbon, nothing with an umbrella or that’s found on the “Cocktail menu.” I swear like a sailor, but believe fervently in the importance of handwritten correspondence. I am plain spoken and sugar coat nothing to nobody, but I also know that the most important component to our lives is our relationships with others. Here is one of my favorite Dame Quotes: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Does that fit anyone else?

  • Anne

    Oops, definitely not a lady. They don’t make errors.

  • Though there are some ladies I admire for their modesty and more I don’t consider myself a lady. I am too honest, blunt and I also enjoy the occasional robust belch and lifting weights without gloves. I don’t care about the calluses. I think I occasionally wrestle with the fact that I don’t aspire to ladydom, perhaps because my grandmother is such a lady and I am not. But the quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history,” is one that always rings true to me.

    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge Spring Necklace giveaway

  • alice

    I’m with Cynthia and Isabel on this one as I don’t think being a lady is in any way prim or constraining. That said, I do associate “lady-ness” with a sort of propriety of behavior and exercise of self control, at least in public. To me it’s less about adhering to a set of arbritrary rules than about behaving in a manner that is considerate of others around you. In my experience also, people listen more if you don’t shout your (strongly held) opinions at them and therefore treat those opinions with more respect even if they disagree. I think it really does boil down to respect; being a lady means you have respect for yourself and for others.

  • Oh yes. Being ladylike. I’m most certainly not… I’d definitely do belching contests if the men surrounding me (except for my brother I guess) wouldn’t think it’s gross ๐Ÿ™ I got complimented for my dirty laugh though ๐Ÿ˜€
    But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I at least *knew* how to be a lady (a proper one, not one who just “wings” being a lady). Of course, I can behave myself in most given surroundings and wouldn’t stick out of the elegant crowd, but… Well, me and my boyfriend have gone to several super-duper elegant restaurants. That is kind of our “thing” on city trips and we do sometimes celebrate important things that way, for example my university graduation. In this one restaurant, they even had an extra waiter just to sweep your bread crumbs off the table. And while all that is really nice, the first time around we both felt like a giant mishap waiting to happen. We didn’t even know one thing on the menu, as it only was in French and English, and while we speak both languages, they are not our native language. And we didn’t dare to ask, LOL! The second time around, it went a lot smoother, but these definitely were the moments where I wished I at least knew how to carry myself like… Well, like Kate Middleton did on her wedding day, with perfect grace and poise.
    But then again, maybe I wouldn’t be such a bad-ass poker player then. And tell you what, poker is a lot more fun than poise ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Kathleen

    Totally agree on the โ€œwomanโ€ part. Iโ€™m 30, a wife and mother, a lawyer, a home owner, etc…. and definitely more “girl” than “woman”. When does that change, Sal? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sal

      Man, I wish I knew.

    • JennyDC

      Round about 42, seems to me. I’ve definitely been feeling more “woman” than girl in the last year. And neither marital (single) nor childbearing (none) status have changed. Maybe it has to do with really knowing yourself and feeling comfortable with that, even if I can read menus in dim restaurants anymore.

      • JennyDC

        Dang. Meant to say “even if I CAN’T read menus in dim restaurants anymore.”

        A lady always edits?

    • Kathleen, do you want it to change?

      • Eleanorjane

        What I’ve found scary is being referred to by others as a ‘lady’ i.e. a Mum telling her toddler to ‘look out for the lady’ when about to collide with me. When did I get old enough to be a lady in that sense!

        Also, people moving from ‘Miss’ to ‘Ma’am’ in posh shops, hotels etc. A sad moment…

    • Anonymous

      Ha ha! I’m 51 and sometimes feel as if I still haven’t achieved that idea of “womanhood,” and that makes me think that maybe we just need to redefine “being a woman” to be how we each see or define ourselves!

      I am a woman! I like to wear girlie clothes as much as I like to wear overalls or yoga wear. I like knitting, sewing, museums, basketball, going out to eat, skiing, hiking, and camping, having fruity cocktail or a beer straight out of the bottle. I’m a scientist, an artist, a teacher, and much much more.

      To me being a lady has more to do with the grace with which we interact in the world, and less with being “prim” and “ladylike” in terms of proper behavior as defined by society or someone else!

  • MelD

    Difficult (there was a recent vehement discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about ladies v. women…!).
    My granny, who will be 95 next week, is definitely a lady. Her role model was always the Queen, 10 yrs her junior, but they are very much of a type, despite the chasm in social class. So ladylike. For a long time I assumed all grown-up women were ladies, that’s how I was brought up, “thank the nice lady…”. But now I would say that though my mom is independent and fun-loving and has always worn heels and make-up, she is a bit of a feminist and somehow, I don’t think of her as a lady, even at 70!
    For myself, I’m sorry not to have been brought up with that British feminity I saw in my English friends who all had dressing tables and were encouraged in their feminity, wearing fashionable skirts while I grew up in an American-abroad culture with a uniform of jeans and shirts.
    And yet, now that I am in my mid 40s, I feel I have grown up and choose to display girlishness more than anything more feisty that I grew out of in my 20s. I don’t like to swear or drink and take pains to dress and behave in an appropriate manner wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, smile and be kind, considerate and polite to people (strangely, this seems rare). I am not a stiff, Prussian “lady” like my mother-in-law, who is too snooty to do her own housework, but I am grateful she brought her son up to be a gentleman, a very gentle and caring but manly man, so if he thinks I’m a lady, it’s a compliment I’m glad to accept.

  • Sally,
    When I think of ladies, I think of women who can steer themselves with confidence through any personal and social situation and if you’re looking like a lost little lamb, they will put an arm around you and help you have a good time. They have loads of charm, tact and intelligence. They tend to make people around them feel good.

    I still write hand-written thank-you’s and I dress up for people’s parties, dinner out and when I go shopping with friends. I’m not sure if I’m trying to be a lady or just showing my respect.


    • “…women who can steer themselves with confidence through any personal and social situation and if youโ€™re looking like a lost little lamb, they will put an arm around you and help you have a good time. They have loads of charm, tact and intelligence. They tend to make people around them feel good.”

      that’s the definition i was brought up with. there’s an element of natural leadership – including on moral/social issues (ie. when Diana touched the children in the AIDS ward). that’s the only part i’d add to Cynthia’s rightly popular definition. steph

    • I love your definition of a lady. Well done.

  • I love your “vaguely adult” comment. Nice to know I’m not the only one.
    Lady, first makes me think “young lady” which was either high praise or a prelude to scolding. But then I think lady bug and lady bird as in beautiful and sweet.

  • Interesting!

    Ladylike isn’t something I have ever thought about much (adult, on the other hand, something I’m still not quite feeling…), but I think I must come across as somewhat ladylike, as I’m fairly quiet, accommodating, polite (or I strive to be) and non-confrontational. I’ve had people apologize for swearing or being crude in my presence, which makes me suspect that I must at least give the impression (however false) that I don’t swear or indulge in crucified myself.
    I guess I’m fine with being ladylike as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my life (also, I’ve never sent a thank you card in my life.)

    • Holly

      I have had that experience too when a bunch of guys are all talking and then they apologize for swearing or talking crude. It always makes me feel uncomfortable because I take it as a reminder that they view me as a girl/woman before being viewed as another person standing around talking. To me being a lady means being female before being human.

  • My indian heritage depicts being a lady as very reserved, unspoken, with a gift of servitude. Needless to say, I break all the rules and run far away from anything having to do with my culture. I am my own person and I define myself not by where I come from or the fact that I am a woman. I define myself as someone who is strong, resilient, tough, and puts excellence above all things. That being said, as an adult now, I realized the error of my ways.. I shouldn’t have shunned EVERYTHING because now, I struggle to answer questions about my identity and background. Who I really am at the core. There was a point to all this but I went off on a rambling rampage. Basically, I miss the lessons from my grandmother. The strict eye of my mother. It taught me to something. There are standards of social behavior that I do not know. I am too rough around the edges and I long for poise and handling things with aplomb and grace. I wish my conversation was more formal and professional. But alas, I am who I am. I need to accept myself or no one else will.

  • SarahN

    I embrace the term. I aspire to be a ladyperson. There is so much rudeness, vulgarity and slovenliness in the public realm, and I’d like to be the antithesis of that. To me, it means elegance, grace and class rather than prescribing an enforced set of behaviours. I don’t associate it with having to be constrained or repressed in any way; it’s about expressing yourself, but within the realm of appropriateness. I agree with Cynthia’s comments about personal dignity. To Diana’s point, our views on the subject can certainly be influenced by upbringing; if Mother was always admonishing you to “act like a lady”, it’s understandable to want to rebel against the concept. When you come into your “lady-ness” as an adult, it’s more authentic and can be viewed simply as a way of being in the world.

    • Agree with everything SarahN said!

  • Sal

    Posts like these and the conversations that follow always amaze me, mostly because you folks always introduce ideas and perspectives that seem so natural and obvious, but that I’ve somehow overlooked.

    For the record, no one ever told me to “act like a lady.” Not even my fairly fussy southern-bred grandma. My rebellion against my ideas of ladylike behavior is entirely my own. And now I wonder even more from whence it sprung.

    But it makes perfect sense that those of us who shun the idea of being or acting like a lady might be those who had lady-behavior drilled into us as kids. And that those who see ladylike behavior and “being a lady” as a self-contained set of positive traits encompassing respect, elegance, dignity, and class had positive lady role models growing up.

  • Whew! What a thought-provoking post!
    For some reason, I bristle at the thought of the concept of “a lady” and “ladylike” behavior to the point that I can’t think of it as a positive thing. Although, as you pointed out, I still use the term “lady” as an endearment – weird! To me, the traits of being a lady are rooted in the contrast against men – a lady is demure through repression, dainty/fragile in physicality, wears clothing that is socially acceptable as properly feminine, and has a general attitude of striving for perfection in social and aesthetic practices. I also spent several years in a relationship with and then as a good friend to a man who was thoroughly dedicated to the idea that everything should be and thus was perfect (even when the reality wasn’t even close to it!) and was also subtly yet completely misogynist, and I think that experience really soured the idea of perfection for me. From an academic/critical standpoint, the concepts of the lady and the gentleman really smack of privilege and heteronormative values, and personally, I have never had, or really wanted, any of the attributes traditionally associated with a lady, so I never use the term in a serious way.

  • The first thing I think of when I hear the word “lady” is the Little Britain skit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrxGhChXVts

    I guess I have always kind of used “lady” interchangeably with “woman”. When I was a kid there was the playground lady and the lunch lady and ladies at stores who would yell at you when you were horsing around. My mom’s friends were ladies – “Ladies are coming over tonight so we should stay in the basement.”

    Now that I’m an adult I refer to my friends as ladies – “I’m meeting the ladies for drinks.” Or strangers – “Some lady cut me off on the freeway!” Or just generally, like, “ladies deodorant.” I think “lady” is kind of a silly old fashioned word which makes it fun to say. I guess I don’t have a lot of lady baggage!

  • Holly

    This totally resonates with me. My tag line as a teenager/young adult was always “no one ever accused me of being a lady!”. Usually said while trying to out compete guys somehow.

  • Su

    My family is O L D Bostoninan, so one of the first things I remember hearing is “Act like a lady”. To me, it is not just deportment (though that is part), but treating others with kindness & good manners at all times. Most “Ladies” wear little or no make up (thankfully!), and in deference to others, wear only light scents. I try to live up to all of that.

    I tend to be quiet by nature, but I’m also extremely stubborn ( a very NON ladylike trait!), and I’m not easily pursuaded to change who I am or what I think, Much to my parent’s dismay.

  • Hmm… I’ve much more associated “lady” with phrases like “lady of the house” & a certain level of adult responsibility combined with graciousness & hostessing, rather than anything prim or prissy. Being a fine lady is something I aspire to — I want to treat people as a lady would, with consideration & generosity, while maintaining my own composure in all situations. Not saying I get there, but it’s a pleasant aspiration!

  • I was one of those little girls who scavenged in the basements of my family members to decorate my bedroom like an old fashioned hotel room, complete with a wash basin on my nightstand (that I actually used, much to my mother’s dismay) and calling cards on my writing desk. Movies like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women were staples of my life. I aspired to be as adventurous as Anne and Jo March, but as proper as Mrs. March (Marmee) and Meg March. I guess I’ve always been intrigued by the foregone art of prim and properly behaved women. And if one of my friends were to read this, they might be surprised. I guess all women are multi-faceted. Curiosity evolves into the inevitable exploration of different kinds of behaviors, and I feel like I’ve only recently settled into what might be normal behavior for me: Ladylike with a shocking mix of “crazy broad” thrown in.

    I think a lot of stubborn women (like me!) feel a bit like bucking traditional ladylike elements, because of the claustrophobic feeling you described. I feel like that sometimes. But I think because I am often bothered and shudder when I see what I perceive to be rude or ghastly behavior from women (and more often men) whom I encounter, I try to be appear to be as ladylike as I feel, as a way to show strangers and acquaintances the respect I have for them. I suppose it all depends on the respective environment. But when it comes down to it, dressing nicely and having manners isn’t about trying to live up to an expectation for me. It’s more about showing others than they are worthy of respect.

    Anyways, I could go on for quite a while on this topic! But let me just say, I only found your website last night, and stayed up in the wee small hours of the morning reading some of your archived posts. Great stuff!

  • I can sooo relate to your take on it. I am no lady, but I admire so many of those “lady like” traits I like your assumption that lady is not only female but grown up. Maybe that’s my problem: I never completed growing up. I like to just be me. On best behavior but certainly my innate sense of brazen-ness and uncouth behaviors disqualify me for the role of lady.

  • rb

    I think the definition of “lady” has evolved. I consider myself very much a lady, despite my occasional lapse with the f-word. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I value politeness and consideration.

    I try to be a good listener. I honor my committments. If I say I’m going to be somewhere, I’m there, and on time.

    I tip well.

    I dress modestly and appropriately for whatever occasion is at hand.

    However, I’m no one’s doormat. I’m also a successful career woman and an equal partner in my marriage.

    But I am definitely a lady.

  • Marsha Calhoun

    Really interesting question. I used to go out with a guy who used the term in place of “women” (I think women scared him; he didn’t seem to like them much as individuals, and he certainly didn’t treat them very kindly), so I suppose I am predisposed to like it. To me, it means a woman who is aware of herself but not full of herself, a woman who choses to direct her influence in a positive manner regardless of social standing (whatever that is – maybe socio-economic class?). For some reason, the notion of competition seems antithetical to my idea of what a lady should be, unless the goal of the competition provides a win for everyone involved. Consideration (and cultivated awareness) of others seems essential; you can’t be a lady if you don’t give a damn about anybody but yourself and your closest friends and family. I also don’t think you can be a lady if you are not kind, if you are not respectful of others (this is where the “how you dress” bit comes in; a lady doesn’t wear a bikini to her sister’s formal wedding even if she does look great in it; see above qualities for the reason). A lady cares about herself and others, and follows considered principle rather than fashion or popular trend (but she can, of course, be dressed fashionably – she just knows herself well enough to choose what is right for her in all things, including dress). I guess a lady is a philosopher; so is a gentleman.

  • I too make a distinction between lady and ladylike. I act exactly like the previous commenter just before me — rb — but wouldn’t refer to myself as a lady. Not sure why.

    You might enjoy Lisa’s post “What Makes A Lady?”

  • I think of “lady” as the female version of a “mensch”.

  • Kate K

    I use “lady” as a term of endearment too! I would have figured that EVERYONE would have posted this conversation from Blast from the Past but it seems as though no one has:

    Troy: He thinks I’m a gentleman and you’re a lady.
    Eve: Well, consider the source! I don’t even know what a lady is.
    Troy: I know, I mean I thought a “gentleman” was somebody that owned horses. But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.

    I’ve always liked this concept of a lady. Sure, it’s simplistic (refreshingly so!) but I think it’s pretty accurate. It’s true to the old-fashioned idea of a lady but still has a very modern edge to it.

  • lilli

    i am a lady and a tramp and everything in between.

  • anya

    This is such an interesting discussion. I like how many of you mention belching. I can’t belch easily and it’s sometimes hurtful, cause my nanny would repeat me a hundred times a day ladies don’t belch. Also, i can’t drink water fast(especially in public) because i make some gulping noises, and my nanny again said that is gross. My parents , unlike the nanny were pretty libertine with their manners, and they’re only concern was my tendency to over talk, like with their guests at parties. I was fascinated by adults conversations, so I wanted to take part in them. But, no, little ladies should eat their dessert and play with the dolls. I hated dolls. I liked people. I liked having my opinion.
    As a side-note, i talked about a couple and said he’s a gentleman and his wife is a saint (she is my dentist) and my boyfriend said: you realize nobody is gonna say this about us! (he referred mainly to my witty dry humor)

    • Eleanorjane

      Yeah, about the belching in public – PLEASE don’t! I find it utterly revolting and I’m sure I’m not the only one…

  • Julia

    One of the best girl-power songs I can think of is “Video” by India.Arie, and my favorite lines are “Am I less of a lady if I don’t wear pantyhose?/My mama said I lady ain’t what she wears but what she knows.” I frequent this blog and like many of your readers, love fashion/clothes, but I think what she (India) is really getting at is pertinent whether or not we’re pantyhose-wearing gals. A lady is confident. And especially confident in being whoever she wants to be, and not conforming to any one definition for that word. I guess in my book a lady is someone secure enough in herself that she brings other people up, not down. It doesn’t mean she’s super-proper and always uses the right fork, or that she constantly beams sunshine to the outside world. But she walks tall and it happy with who she is. Hope that’s not too ambiguous ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Becky

    Such interesting comments!

    It looks like for most women, they consider “being a lady” to be unappealing if they feel it’s about being constrained by Society or other people’s opinions of them.

    Whereas, they consider “being a lady” appealing if they feel it’s about expressing inner strength and self-respect.

    I imagine that people who are naturally boisterous gravitate toward the first definition.

    Maybe people who are naturally quiet or reserved (like me) gravitate toward the second definition. I associate being a lady with inner strength, respect for self and others, and generally taking the high road. For me, true ladies are role models that I can admire and imitate because they show me a way to be powerful and self-respecting without violating my essentially quiet and sensitive self.

    Beause of this, I feel like I can be entirely ladylike in muddy jeans and a tank top, covered in sweat, wielding a chain saw. I think it has something to do with self-control. In my mind, one strives to be a lady like one strives to be a master of the Tao; careful because you care (i.e. care-ful), not because you’re afraid of what other people might think.

    To me, being picky, frowny, cold, or judgemental disqualifies one from being a lady. Ladies are emotionally secure, and are accommodating to others because they’re thoughful, not because they lack self-worth.

    That said, I have plenty of women friends who’d rather die than “act ladylike,” and I admire them and think they’re awesome.

  • Sal

    Several people have brought up the idea of making those around you comfortable, which isn’t something I’d landed on myself. But it has come up often enough that it’s clearly part of a broadly-held view of lady behavior!

    I certainly believe in being respectful and aware of social situations, but the idea of taking responsibility for the comfort of those around me … can’t say I dig that. I mean, at the extremes this likely means don’t wear a bikini to your sister’s wedding (to use Marsha’s hilarious example), don’t ask how the divorce is going, don’t point and stare. Be aware that how you act, speak, dress, and react may impact others. And that I consider to be common courtesy, an essential part of being an adult. But on a more mundane level? I don’t want to be vigilant about how comfortable other people feel around me. Their comfort is THEIR responsibility.

    Besides, even if I took it upon myself to try to make others feel at ease, that doesn’t mean I’d succeed. Long ago, I came to terms with the fact that I can’t influence what others think of me, can’t change other people, can’t force anyone to do or believe anything. I can control my own actions and reactions, and that’s my domain. So aside from things like making sure party guests have full glasses, making sure ill friends have chicken soup, and making sure family members know how to contact me when I’m on vacation, the prospect of tending to the comfort of others holds little appeal.

    Those of you who have brought up the issue of comfort, can you give me some examples? I’m curious what kinds of behaviors you’re thinking of that attend the comfort of others.

    • rb

      I’m sure I have made people uncomfortable before, but I think the polite thing to do is to strive not to.

      Certainly if you know someone well, it’s OK to have a lengthy civilized debate about touchy subjects like religion or politics or even one’s sexual history. But unless you’re a Real Housewife, you wouldn’t bring up these subjects with perfect strangers while you’re at someone else’s dinner party.

      (You can probably tell what I watched on TV last night. )

      That’s an example of making others comfortable, but it also falls under the catgegory of Not Making a Fool of Oneself.

      • Eleanorjane

        “I donโ€™t want to be vigilant about how comfortable other people feel around me. Their comfort is THEIR responsibility.” Yes, to some degree I agree with you, but I think we also ought to make sure we’re not discomforting someone by doing something or not doing something that we’re easily able to change.

        My take on the Christian perspective is that we should “…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Of course, I’m not perfect or even particularly good at that, but it’s a goal to aim for. I am quite empathetic by nature and do generally try to make others as comfortable as possible by the way I act (without compromising my essential qualities).

        For example, I’m an extrovert, but the girl I share an office with is an introvert. I make sure that I don’t chat too much during the day to distract her from her thoughts. But I do make sure that I chat with our boss’s PA who is an extrovert who doesn’t get that much people contact.

        A great topic to discuss… ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Marsha Calhoun

      Other people’s comfort – yes, a challenging topic! And certainly not black and white, either. As I consider this, I notice that I am quite positive about wanting others to be comfortable; for me, this is an expression of (dare I say it) love, of regard for my fellow creatures, and I feel responsible for maintaining an awareness of them as individuals enough to be able to gauge their comfort level, just as I hope everyone will do for me. I don’t need to assure myself that I never inadvertently cause anyone any discomfort, but on the other hand, I truly dislike the idea of doing it deliberately, and I would think that no lady would do such a thing. I think that saying that other people’s comfort is their responsibility is rather overlooking the fact that we all impact one another in so many ways (that’s why good manners, or etiquette, is so important). How can you reconcile your admonition to “be aware that how you act, speak, dress, and react may impact others” with the idea that their comfort is their responsibility? It is also the responsibility of anyone who impacts them (as I wish the kid across the street who wars up his motorcycle at 4:30 a.m. could figure out). That’s why I say it’s not black and white – you can’t draw a clear, unmovable boundary between thee and me, or describe exactly what our responsibilities to each other are for all time, only in the moment. It’s a balancing act between being true to yourself, considering the other person, and having enough personal insight to know the difference between acting, speaking, dressing, and reacting with personal authenticity in good faith versus doing the same to cause a reaction that might cause discomfort or force your beliefs about how things should be on others. Awareness of context seems awfully important here. Forgive me if I’m a bit wordy and somewhat vague; I’m trying to figure this out as I go. Whew!

    • alice

      I think your sentence sums it up actually:

      Be aware that how you act, speak, dress, and react may impact others.

      There’s a limit to what we can do to make others comfortable of course, but having that simple awareness and thoughtfulness is enough to qualify one for lady-hood, in my opinion.

      • Marsha Calhoun

        Yes, this entry says what I was trying to say. But better.

    • Annika

      My take on “making others comfortable” is that a lady has an inner feeling of self worth, she knows herself and is perfectly happy to be who she is and thus has no need to judge others or put them down. It is very common that people try to make themselves feel better by trying make others feel worse. Rude, snide comments about other peoples looks, education, money or interests. A lady would not do that. She has no need to feel superior even if she might be.

    • I think there are definite differences between “making others comfortable” to your own detriment, and simply having a healthy awareness of, and general goodwill towards, your fellow people. In academia, especially in my generation and older, there’s a lot of talk about how women faculty get stuck with a lot of administrative scut-work even though they’re technically the same status as the men. I certainly see that with one of my colleagues, who can’t close her door and have it stay closed and gets bogged down with everyone’s needs, but I have another colleague who is deliberately fluffy-headed about practical things so no one trusts her to do them, and therefore she gets plenty of time to herself to do research, and yet another who is outspoken and will just say “talk to the hand”. But we are all very aware of the “woman who can’t say no” dynamic even if some of us aren’t as good at diverting requests.

      I would say that being ladylike does not require being a doormat in that unhealthy, obsessive pleaser kind of way.

  • You can be considerate, thoughtful, and a hell of a class act without being forced into that “lady” box. There are some “ladylike” behaviors that should just sort of be normal (keeping one’s legs together when wearing a skirt for one!), but really other behaviors (thank you cards, being a good host, no excessively loud bodily functions at a nice dinner) are appropriate for both genders. Why keep manners to just one gender? Men can be just respectful, graceful, polite, and accommodating.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that the term “ladylike” is a bit sexist and old fashioned. Why not just “thoughtful, considerate, classy human being”? I mean let’s take Mae West for example. She was a bawdy, outspoken, rule-breaking broad, but man was she a class act.

    • When men do these things, they’re called “gentlemen.” I don’t have a problem with that. I’m a fan of fine gentlemen, having married one & calling several others good friends ๐Ÿ˜‰

      When I teach writing, sure, we discuss the need & place for gender-neutral terminology. But that’s usually when one form is diminutive of the another (such as actor/actress). Lady & gentleman are equal, at least by the dictionary definitions.

      • QuiteLight

        I agree with Trystan, and I believe a few other posters who equated ladies & gentleman.

        I, too, am with a gentleman, and I know he considers me a lady. From the outside, I doubt those would be anyone’s first choice of descriptors for us (both very tall, long hair, tattoos & piercings of varying visibility, motorcycles), but our friends wouldn’t hesitate to use those terms.

        Dignity, poise, self-control, essential manners and above all, governed by kindness as much as possible. The rest is details.

  • This vague concept of “lady” explains why I describe myself to others as ‘rough around the edges’, and yet in some people’s eyes, I would qualify as a lady.

  • Lola

    I was always very much against the idea of behaving “ladylike”, mostly because my aunts and great-aunts (yessss, I had 6 mean, mean great-aunts!) tried to teach me the “right”, socially acceptable behaviour (which meant acceptable in their eyes)…blagh.
    So I became a rebel, refusing to become like a lady in any respect, and behaved more like a tomboy. But later (in my 30s) I realized that behaving “ladylike” is not at all the same as carrying myself like a lady, being entirely aware of my intrinsic worth, never accepting to be treated disrespectfully by mean people (including mean, old “ladies” or aunts or great-aunts). Now, I AM a lady. Not just “ladylike”. Even when I belch. Insert evil grin here… Hugs, Lola

  • There is so much difference in looking “Ladylike” and acting “Ladylike”. I think the manners of a lady can make even a person in jeans and a tee “ladylike”… but I love dressing in a full skirt, pumps and red lips to look “ladylike”, but I still swear like a sailor, put my elbows on the table and generally disregard proper times to eat. Dinner can be at 4pm or midnight, and sometimes that dinner can be cereal.

    I think a Lady can be a number of things, but generally I think it’s perceived as something skewing towards the feminine gender stereotype.

  • After reading this post I realized that I don’t have any idea what I think a “lady” should be … other than some cliche image of women in hats drinking tea. My brain often blanks on social norm topics. I suspect this is because I’ve had my fare share of experiences where I felt (or was flatly told) that my attire, behavior, or choices were not acceptable or fitting for some reason. I never judged all the rules and expectations as much as I resented being called out for not playing along with them.

    But I love how AP makes me think, so I noodled on the subject for a couple of minutes. In my mind, a lady is a woman who stands a little straighter because she owns who she is, not because she must have proper posture. A lady has a quiet confidence that makes people take notice when she walks in a room. A lady recognizes that humility can be accomplished without being submissive, and arrogance is foolish. A lady is a woman who has that little something you just can’t put your finger on. Come to think of it these are actually many of the qualities I would use to define a gentleman.

    All of the pearls and manners who-ha is entirely relative so I can’t come up with anything on that front

  • firefly

    I agree with you Sal! I’m not a “lady”, and don’t particularly wish to be, but I think that term is still connotative of grace and elegance, and I think the term is still a compliment. However, I think that because so much of being a lady is restraint and always being “perfect”, I wouldn’t want to be one. On the flip side, it also means being always dignified and composed, which is something I would consider good in any body.

  • CC

    Oddly enough, I did indeed have lady-like behavior drilled into me from a fairly young age. However I am a lady. And I am happy with it. I am modest, polite, proper, and generally self-effacing. This is me. However, I don’t feel like anyone should be required to be something they are not. For instance, I have taken a lot of criticism over the years because I am not loud, extroverted, wild and crazy, what have you. This frustrates the daylights out of me because to me in my ladylike ways, it is impolite to criticize people for being who they are. ‘If you don’t have something nice to say ‘and all that. Why should we be forced into someone else’s mold or idea of who we should be. How very narrow-minded and egotistical to think we know what is best for someone else.

  • Love this. This is something my mother and I argued about constantly when I was growing up–I was loud, crass, hated sitting with my legs closed, and just overall was not a girly girl. I rebelled against that because her version of “ladylike” was all about image and perception–a game I didn’t want to play.

    Nowadays, I don’t know that I see “ladylike” as being the same as I did before. I often use “lady” as a term of endearment for my friends–not sure why or where I picked that up (it certainly isn’t an original concoction). To me, being ladylike is being a woman and embracing it…whether you’re a woman who burps a lot (like me) or a woman who’s always perfectly manicured. Ladies (even in the historical sense) were also intelligent, educated women (at least I think so…I could be wrong), and I think that is also something I see as a ladylike trait.

    Loving all these thoughts and comments…learning a lot, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Casey S.

    I tend to be suspicious of pretty much any word that is used to police the behavior, dress, or carriage of women. I see the word “lady” as a term applied to reward women who behave according to the rules, and which can be, conversely, withdrawn or withheld at any moment to punish women who don’t toe the line. It’s sort of the opposite of “slut” in that way, and, frankly, it’s on equally shaky grounds with me. Call me kind, or decent, or honest, but please, not a lady.

  • Not remotely to self-promote, but I wrote a post on this because I had such strong feelings how the term should and should not be used, and about the political and gender history issues behind it.

    Here. http://amidprivilege.com/?p=1178

    • Lisa, I already promoted you above with a link to that post :-).

  • Of course, everyone’s definition of a lady is relevant to their experience. To me a lady never gossips. She may not be a fashion plate but she is clean, well groomed and does not fop about in public in PJ’s and no underwear. She helps the elderly reach items on grocery shelves, high or low. She smiles at little children who annoy their parents and waves to the kids in the last seat of the school bus who are trying to get her attention. She is honest and cares what other people say, she listens. She has a great deal of class but knows no class distinctions. She looks at you when you speak and puts her cell phone on silent.

  • I absolutely consider myself a lady- sailor mouth, tattoos and all! To me, being a lady is being the best version of you that you can. Ladies don’t do things half way; if we are going to dress up, we’re going all the way. When we throw a party, even the napkins are festive. If we clean out the closet, even the old hangers have to go. Being a lady means never half-assing it, but always giving it that feminine touch. I’ll totally out-belch one of my uncles….. but I’ll remember to say excuse me ๐Ÿ™‚

  • MelD

    I do think there’s a generational thing going on here, as well as a cultural one! But it’s very interesting to hear different opinions – even very opposed views. Personally, “lady” is a positive word for me and something aspirational, even if it is a bit old-fashioned – 30s style if you like (in my mind, anyway!). What some people describe, the 50s vamp style with red lips and nails, isn’t really very ladylike in my book!
    In any case, I still think it’s more an inner thing and behaviour than what you look like. And I don’t think it should matter if you’re wearing jeans or a wedding outfit or other everyday clothes – it’s a certain presence or shine in a woman who’s a lady.
    Oh, and she certainly wouldn’t belch or pass wind!!

  • Becky

    I thought about this some more and can sum it up this way: to *act like* a lady is wretched – it’s being controlled by other people’s beliefs about how you ought to behave. Some people seem to feel that acting ladylike involves simpering, or being a doormat, or being submissive, or ashamed of your body. Ew.

    To *be* a lady is lovely, if that’s what you choose to be.

  • I strive to be a lady everyday…..My definition of a lady comes from the move Blast from the Past:

    “short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.”

    and manners “good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them”

    LOVE that movie. But I so agree with the definitions, its just a matter of treating people with respect and making them feel comfortable ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • Cel

    My boyfriend’s pet name for me is “lady” and I used to argue with him about it years ago when we first met. “I’m not a lady!” I cried. Well, I guess that’s changed hah. I think being a lady is just… being comfortable with yourself, being pretty and feminine and happy and alive.

  • QuiteLight

    While I mentioned earlier that I define being a lady as “Dignity, poise, self-control, essential manners and above all, governed by kindness as much as possible. The rest is details.”, I am aware that a lot of people are obsessed with the details. (e.g. Restrictive social conventions, female submissiveness.)

    When I do get accused of being “unlady-like”, I light up, because I get to say: “Depends on the Lady!”

  • I’ve already given my two cents here but just wanted to let you know I’ve included this post in my weekly links roundup. Thank you for the material!


  • C

    Cool post.

    I define a lady as a strong, principled, wise, kind, and polite woman. But I think a lot of what is called “ladylike” behavior is just silly. I aspire to be strong, principled, wise, etc. . . but I wear shorts under my skirts so I can sit cross-legged or put my feet on the dashboard when I’m wearing a skirt in the car. I hate that ladylike behavior is reduced to “keeping your knees together.”

    Because of this, I like to think of myself as a gentlewoman. To me, it means the same thing but doesn’t have the same connotations.

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  • Ever since I was really young I’ve always wanted to be “one of the boys” yet I didn’t want to dress like such. I have always felt like I’ve made my own style and mixed it with my personality. Though I LOVE the way “ladies” look, all perfect, not a single imperfection to the normal human eye. But for myself? I think it would last two minutes and then off with the heels! Down with the hair! And the make-up might be a tad bit smeared. My definition of a lady is someone who is themselves, inside and out. Someone who doesn’t care what the world thinks about them (or at least makes the world think she doesn’t care). I still want to be “one of the boys” but dress like a girl, and be girly in some way, but still belch and have spitting contests. I’m not afraid to dress nice, and still get dirty! They made washing machines and soap for a reason! A lady is strong, bold, beautiful, but not afraid to grub it out.

  • Rona

    I am a rockabilly chick……rebellious lady!

  • Tam

    Being a lady is a bit of a prickly pair in today’s day and age. Personally, I have been through various stages, the short skirts and cleavage on display, the Tomboyish jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, the take charge power suits and clickitty heels, the carefree do what you like and don’t care what others think and I have had many personal cringe worthy moments of inappropriate dress and behaviour. Looking back on these less than appealing moments I have come to realise that no man (or woman for that matter) is an island and the way others see you and the way you see yourself needs to be integrated into a happy medium between the 2. In our modern age it is possible to be a lady and still retain your sense of self and it’s down to today’s women (us) to redefine out dated societal expectations and bring some vintage ladylikeness into a modern society that doesn’t know when too much is too much. Aspire to be someone that you could look up to and admire and not someone you will regret having been a few years down the line and you are already on the right track.

  • Laura

    There’s a line in “My Fair Lady” with which I disagree, “What makes a lady isn’t how she speaks but how she’s treated.” I disagree because that allows whether one is or is not a lady to be determined by SOMEONE ELSE…in this case that ‘someone” is strongly implied to be a man.

    How one is treated does not a lady make. How one ALLOWS oneself–and even more to the point, how she allows OTHERS to be treated, that makes a lady.

  • Kathleen

    I’ve always heard I’m a girly girl, a lady etc… since my childhood days… I remember grandma and some aunts commenting “she’s a little Jacqueline Kennedy” when I was 4 years old. I won’t deny I’m very feminine, I never had the habit of cursing and I love fashion, make-up, nails and all…. but that doesn’t make me restrained or anything like that… I was a fine overall student, started working early, always had responsabilities and my childhood was a lot of fun, playing with my brothers (even if I didn’t want to dirt my dresses). So, for me ladylike is a very nice compliment. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Hey

    I have never been considered ‘girly’ and in fact, have a lot of tomboyish traits and habits. However, I still aspire to be a lady. Not because society has asked me to be, but because I believe there is a power and dignity that comes from being the lady we were designed to be. Women who stand out for decades and decades, are the ones that always carried poise (ie. Audrey Hepburn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Princess Diana, … Even Madonna) that stood the test of time. It’s about having a standard for yourself, not just one you can reach, but one you can constantly attain to, because will keep you striving for greater things throughout your life.

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