The concept of ladyship that we subscribe to today is about as far removed from its actual employment as a tree is from a frog. And that may be a bit of a harsh way to put it, but it’s arguably true.
In 2013, Sara Sheridan wrote incredibly briefly (and not all that in depth) about the history of Ladyship for The Huffington Post. In her article, she makes a keen observation about people’s response to the word Lady, noting that:
Women today are ambivalent about the notion of ladyhood and while for many the word holds an allure that they worry might not be politically correct, in others it provokes outrage.
Unfortunately, Sara’s words ring true even in 2017; even today, when people hear the word ladylike their responses tend to fall into one of two categories: The lovers and the haters.
The first group swoons at the thought of the perfect, elegant woman with impeccable manners (and bemoans the fact that the concept has flow right on out the window in the modern era). It’s here that we get articles extolling the virtues of Ladyship, describing what exactly they think one needs in order to be considered a lady in the modern era; ranging from Elegance, Manners & Poise to What is ‘lady like’ means and how to be– from So how do you become a Lady to What it means to be a lady– and beyond, articles can certainly be found all over the internet.
Members of the second group, on the other hand, practically begin frothing at the mouth almost instantly; some in this category seek to redefine being a Lady as doing whatever you want– implying a giant “fuck you” to anyone who has a problem with it. But most are simply content to drudge on about how Being a Lady is Limiting, archaic, and needs to be done away with in a civilized society- asking “how this term even exists in the 20th century“.
Very few people, in my experience, tend to be indifferent to the term and its related derivatives. But regardless of what camp people sit in on the subject, what I’ve found undeniable over the last few years is this: People have quite a strange (and not exactly accurate) view of what a lady actually is- and what “being a lady” actually means; over time, we’ve completely butchered its meaning and forgotten what it once stood for.
Most people think it’s about having the right dress, the right hairstyle, the right clothes- or they confuse it with irrelevant personality traits and goals; it’s about being quiet, being submissive, and not making a social splash. And yet to put the emphasis on these things ultimately detracts from what it actually means to be a genuine lady; it transforms the whole concept into a shallow, vapid caricature of its true purpose. And yet if being a lady isn’t about any of that, then what on Earth is it about? The answer lies in its definition and historical employment.
Ignoring its uses as a ranked title in Monarchies, the terms lady and ladylike (or, alternatively, ladily) have historically been used (as early as the 1400’s) to refer to “a woman whose manners and sensibilities befit her for high rank in society“. And perhaps unsurprisingly, if you were to look up the modern definition of a lady it would read along incredibly similar lines. To understand this, however, you have to understand that high ranked societies throughout history have almost always had certain (sometimes strict) rules which govern the behavior of the members within that social rank. Specifically these rules defined what behavior is appropriate (or inappropriate) in any given circumstance, when interacting with those of equal status and rank as you.
This is what we know today as Etiquette; the French coined it (and eventually perfected it in the courts of 17th Century Versailles), and and no one quite did it like the burgeoning Middle Class Victorians (though whether you view that as good or bad is another matter entirely)… But the idea of Etiquette- or Social Grace- isn’t just a Western concept. It dates back practically to the dawn of human civilization; since the beginning of Human social history, societies around the world have always harbored rules about appropriate behavior. And the goal of these rules has always been to preserve the health of the community, facilitate social cooperation, and lessen tension between community members- and generally make life more pleasant for all involved.
There were certainly historical flaws in its employment. For instance, various social classes often had far difference ideologies about etiquette- and were often treated far differently by other classes. But when you examine the history of ladyship, it becomes quite clear that the core foundation still ultimately boils down to two things despite any flaws: Manners (or behavior toward others which reflects polite consideration, kindness, and respect) and Etiquette (or a code of social conduct meant to facilitate positive interaction, based on cultural ideas of social acceptability); as Nancy Mueller puts it:
“Etiquette provides the form or structure within which good manners operate“.
This concept still has value in the modern era, too. It’s not necessarily a relic of a forgotten past, with no current application. In fact, that’s far from the truth; with the appropriate application of modern values and the correct approach to rediscovering its original meaning and intent… It becomes incredibly valuable in a world that seeks to treat others with respect and equality.
With the application of modern values… The ultimate goal isn’t vain selfishness– nor is it inherently viewing yourself as being above others. Instead it is a modest, humble selflessness; put simply it is about understanding that social etiquette and manners have value in society, and respecting both yourself and your fellow Human Beings enough to view them as equals worthy of employing that etiquette towards.
It is about reducing social stress and conflict by treating others with the dignity and respect that each person inherently deserves– and doing so largely through participating in behavior that is considered polite and socially acceptable.
There are still strict criteria around ladyhood: a lady must be well-presented, she must behave with propriety and show concern for others (or, put the old fashioned way, have good manners) […] Ladies today must have integrity. – The History of Being a Lady
While matters of appearance certainly factor into it in some regard (after all, showing respect to your peers also means respecting yourself, and respecting yourself means caring enough to take some measure of pride in your appearance)? It’s not all about how you look. Likewise, it’s not about how confident you are or whether or not you’re a leader. If any of these things play a role at all, it’s a negligible one.
More correctly, the requirements that people tout for ladyship now a days are not real requirements. They’re byproducts of genuine ladyship at best- and vapid caricatures of ladyship at worst; in the end being a lady isn’t about you at all, but about how you can best serve and treat others.
Where this disconnect between what we think a lady is and what a lady actually is came from, I have no idea… What I do know, however, is that it’s high time we got rid of this strange ideology that a lady is some sort of superior, vapid, and fragile creature- as opposed to what she actually could (and should) be: Someone who values her fellow Human Beings, understands the value and purpose of social grace, and learns to employ it out of respect and consideration for others around her.
And that, in my opinion, is a far more valuable trait than people give it credit for.