What it Really Means to be Ladylike

Ever since I began researching Beauty (and later Febas), and its role as a spiritual Virtue in Irish Polytheism, I’ve become sort of entranced by the idea of ladyship; I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last year, and I’ve come to several conclusions about it. Most notable among these conclusions, is that the concept of ladyship that we subscribe to today is about as far removed from its historical employment as a tree is from a frog.

When you hear the word ladylike, your response probably falls into one of two categories: You either swoon at the thought of the perfect, elegant woman with impeccable manners (and bemoan the fact that the concept has flow right on out the window in the modern era)… Or you begin frothing at the mouth almost instantly, and start screeching about misogyny and the patriarchy; very few people, in my experience, tend to be indifferent to the term. But regardless of what camp you sit in, 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.

Articles like this one claim that a lady is [a woman] who stays calm and focused, is charming, and are what a grownup woman should be“- adding that “being a lady isn’t about being bitchy and better than others. It’s about being nice and forgiving and warm. It’s not about being someone else or trying to act; being a Lady is about bringing out your positive attributes in public so others can see them“. Despite saying that, however, its main “requirements for being a lady” focuses on good hair, good makeup, and confidence.

This one mistakes simply being a powerful, confident, capable Woman for being a lady, and is a bit all over the place; it starts with stating that the perks of being ladylike includes “[putting on] makeup and wearing beautiful clothes confidently. [Being] free to do whatever without depending peoples or parents to make choices; in career, finding the best dress, financially independent and etc.” before moving on to assert that the truly ladylike out there are “[women who] have achieved their success in their career; who started from ‘zero’ to [become] someone they dreamed of. They have been blessed with their hard works and patience throughout their life“. And regarding their behavior, they look to the Bible; ultimately they conclude that a lady is “a woman who [is] very brave, courageous and [has] excellent discernment, wisdom and leadership skills” as Abigail is in the Bible.

Despite being chalk full of problematic statements concerning currently unrelated topics… Other articles, like this one, start out on the right track. But it, too, devolves very quickly into claims that a lady is “[a woman] who knows who she is and who she wants to be more than she craves popularity or the approval of people with lesser values than her own“.

And from what is arguably the Feminist camp, there appear to be two mentalities. The first is echoed in articles such as this one which attempt to define the requirements necessary to be a modern lady as “be yourself, stick to your guns, speak your mind, eat what you want, and do what you want” (the implied, here, is a hearty “and fuck everyone else”)… And on the other side of the fence is a more Radical Feminist ideology, with its idea that “being ladlyike is limiting“- considering it a tool of oppression meant to keep Women docile and controllable.

Very rarely do they ever pay attention to the behavior that makes someone a lady- and when that does get the spotlight, it’s hardly a positive one; the traits they focus on are either vapid or have nothing to do with ladyship… And pretty much all of them miss the mark entirely.

Even the author of the first article I linked to wrote a second one , going on to write (about what she apparently considers my criticism* of her article): “Maybe I could have made more clear why dressing elegantly, being nice, and putting on makeup / doing your hair might have something to do with being a lady […] All the prepping up is supposed to make you feel good and being confident. I was taught that if you look good you also feel good. And feeling good is what everyone should aim for. As I wrote, being a lady is to bring out the best in you so you can be your best for your own sake. Not to make use of the society and the advantages you get from behaving and dressing accordingly. It’s to give you all the chances to do what you want to do“… And despite the fact that I have actually talked about this exact thing several times (that looking good makes you feel good- and that it’s something that shouldn’t be dismissed quite so carelessly), she still misses the mark once again when it comes to ladyship.

But if being a lady isn’t about hair or makeup, or being stylish and elegant and graceful… If it’s not about getting what you want out of life, or feeling good about yourself and giving yourself a nice pat on the back at the end of the day… If it’s not about being independent, or confident, or brave, or focused, or powerful… It isn’t about leadership, about “bringing out your best for your own sake”, or even about the social benefits… Then what on Earth is it about?

The answer to that, is that the core foundation ultimately comes down to two things: 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“.

Ignoring its uses as a ranked title in Monarchies, the terms lady and ladylike (or, alternatively, ladily) were used to refer to “a woman whose manners and sensibilities befit her for high rank in society” as early as the 1400’s. Now a days, if you were to look up the definition, it would read along incredibly similar lines; “a woman of refinement and gentle manners; a courteous, decorous, or genteel woman“- and for ladylike: “behavior appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman“. To understand this, however, you have to understand that high ranked society throughout history has almost always had certain (sometime strict) rules which govern their behavior; rules which define what behavior is appropriate (or inappropriate) according to your social rank. You also have to understand that throughout history, lower classes often emulated (or attempted to emulate) these behaviors of the upper classes. Hence definitions such as “manners and sensibilities [which] befit [a woman] for high rank in society“.

This wasn’t only true only of Western world, however. The concept of manners and etiquette- or social grace and appropriate behavior- dates back practically to the dawn of human civilization; the first written records of what we would consider an Etiquette Manual was a document written by Ptahhotep, an Ancient Egyptian Vizier, in C. 2400 BCE. This document, The Instruction of Ptahhotep, is what is generally considered a Wisdom Text- or a document, usually written by someone of social standing, which is meant to instruct people on the common social (and religious) behavior, duty, and morality of their culture. So while the concept of being a lady is quite a modern one in the grand scheme of history, the idea of social grace is not a new concept at all.

In other words, if you look back through the history of the term- and the history of etiquette itself- and begin to analyze it thoughtfully, with regards to how it was actually employed? Then it becomes quite clear that being a lady isn’t about you at all. Instead, it has to do with your behavior towards others; recognizing that your behavior, your words, and even (yes) your manner of dress sometimes, impacts people other than yourself- and understanding how it makes them feel. Furthermore it is about treating each person with the dignity and respect that a person deserves- and doing so through participating in behavior that is considered polite and socially acceptable; it is about understanding that social etiquette and manners have value in society, and respecting your fellow Human Beings enough to view them as worthy of employing that etiquette towards them.

The ultimate goal isn’t selfish. It is selfless; it is to reduce social stress and conflict by making others feel comfortable and assured. This inherently requires traits like compassion, gratitude, humility, and other related traits- which is why I have no qualms with these traits actually being listed as requirements the few times they actually are… And quite frankly, defining ladies as things like “[women] who know who [they are] and who [they] want to be more than [they] crave popularity or the approval of people with lesser values than [their] own” (such as the third article did) is anything but; it is egotistical, snide, and full of superiority complex- all of which are completely antithetical to being a lady.

Focusing on things such as confidence, focus, and good hair isn’t much better, either; while they often do go along with it in some regards, they are definitely not required to be a lady. In fact, these things have little- if any- connection to being a legitimate lady at all. Instead, the connections that these sorts of traits have to the concept of ladylike behavior is superficial at best and are more often byproducts of practicing social grace- as opposed to being the “requirements” they’re usually touted as.

Take the idea that a lady must be confident, brave, or have leadership skills, for instance. While that’s a common assertion, one doesn’t actually have to be or have any of those things in order to be considered a lady… But all of those things are well attested psychological byproducts of knowing how to effortlessly navigate society- which is exactly what and appropriate knowledge of etiquette and manners can give you; when you know exactly what to do in any given situation, it is very easy to lead people, be confident, or even make the brave moves required. Arguably, however, none of that factors into it at all in terms of behavior that one must outwardly express and participate in, in order to be a lady.

Then there is the issue of appearance. This, too, is not necessarily a real requirement, but it is a byproduct in its own right, because the primary purpose of manners and etiquette is to prevent yourself from causing offense to others during social interaction by basing your behavior off of what is considered socially acceptable and polite behavior… And being repugnant to those around you is generally considered rude (and possibly offensive or disrespectful). Ergo, washing frequently, smelling nice, and generally looking put together according to minimal standards are a part of being a lady. But it’s not all there is to it.

In a similar vein is the stereotype of “good Women” being quite and demure. This too is more a side effect than a requirement; the fact of the matter is that it’s generally considered rude to be overtly loud in public spaces. Furthermore, being loud or speaking animatedly can be seen as a form of violence, aggressiveness, or hostility in some areas. As a result, proper social etiquette generally dictates that you speak in an obviously calm, reserved, and relatively gentle manner. When you do that for long enough, it tends to become a secondary nature of speech- which, no doubt, lends itself to being considered a trait of being as opposed to a byproduct of adjusting your behavior to reflect social etiquette and manners.

Despite all of this, however, the rules aren’t steadfast. How you get there can vary wildly from France to India, to the Amazonian Rainforest- and from the Edwardian Era, to the Victorian, and even the Byzantium. This is because the rules of etiquette and social grace hinges on three main things: First, it is reliant on the culture the person is participating in, and their rules for social etiquette. Secondly, it is reliant on your era. And finally, in recent times we’ve also discovered that it’s relatively reliant on generation, too. As a result, what may make you a lady according to one may, in fact, make you crass and vulgar according to another.

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 is: Someone who values her fellow Human Beings, understands the value and purpose of social grace, and goes to great lengths to learn and 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.


* Some users apparently feel as if I am unfairly targeting them, criticizing their writing, or am otherwise being instigative. This is because their works are linked to in this post, and my writing disagrees with the bulk of theirs.

I want to make it clear that while I do disagree with their definitions and certainly think that we- as a modern society- have both demonized and romanticized Ladyship to such a point that we’ve lost the actual point of it… This post was never meant to be a direct call out, attack, criticism, or instigation (or anything else) of those whose posts are linked here. They were simply people who had written on the subject; the purpose of linking to and discussing them here is to illustrate modern definitions, concepts, and ideologies surrounding Ladyship as a backdrop to discuss how it differs from its actual purpose and definition.

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2 thoughts on “What it Really Means to be Ladylike

  1. Very thought provoking! I loved it Anna. It’s a topic I never explored but always made me wonder. Thanks for the deep
    Historical research. To me the things that really strike me of a person that’s not lady like have always been:
    – body language. I have traveled widely in poor remote areas of Asia and found really lady like women. This has nothing to do with class or education. It’s more about how you move and carry yourself. More than confidence it’s awareness. Awareness that how you move has an effect on others like you said. When you have the body language of a chimpancee, you loose all your ladyship brownie points in a sec.
    – way of talking. I can detect this now in any language I don’t speak. Chinese, Japanese, or any Indian language. It’s a way to take the time to speak words properly. Not rushing them or diminishing them. Not being a snob but not being trashy either.
    – way of dressing. It’s about not shocking or offending others. Not being out of place. Dressing with modesty and for the occasion and not attracting attention for the wrong reasons. Not being lady like is going to a wedding dressed like you are going for a coffee on a Saturday afternoon with your friend.

    I remember this particular real estate agent that showed me a house. She wore a simple cheap wrap dress. Fit flop sandals. Her hair was not done, zero make up. You would have never said she’s a real lady from her photo (that day or even in her business card) but they say she moved, the way she talked… paused and gentle, kind and funny at the same time. We crossed paths on the bus again and I recognized that way of carrying herself.

    You could say it’s more about the how than the what. I have also known real bitches that are very lady like 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “It’s more about the how than the what” is about the most concise way to put it; it’s not really about what you do- or that what you do is perfect and follows all of the “rules”- but about how you do it, and whether or not it is done in the spirit of kindness and respect for your fellow humans.

      Thank you for your wonderful comment!

      Like

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