The Other L Word
Several years ago there was a cable television show called “The L Word.” The word was “lesbian” and it was about a group of them in Los Angeles and just followed their lives, loves, and turmoils. It was pretty much a soap opera, so there were a lot of the latter. It was my favorite show at the time. And of course the subject was even more controversial then than it would be now, in the day of same-sex marriage. But recently it occurred to me that there is another controversial “L” word, at least in some circles. This one is “lady.”
When I was growing up, there was nothing very controversial about the word “lady.” It had two basic meanings. One was just a synonym for “woman.” The other was “proper” woman. To me it was just a respectful way to refer to any woman.
But by some point in my teens I must have started to make a distinction, because I remember telling the mother of a friend that she might not be a lady, but she was quite a woman. Her husband did not like that remark, but I definitely meant no disrespect by it. Quite the opposite. I meant that she was down-to-earth, and said what she meant. I think I even meant that she was not “ladylike” in a traditional sense. And that was just fine by me. So I guess I was ready for what happened to the word “lady” ten or so years later. By then, women’s liberation was going strong and a lot of feminists were taking aim at this “L” word. I guess they thought of it as a four-letter word in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. They saw it as a way of making women irrelevant by putting them on a pedestal so that men could pay meaningless respect to them while essentially ignoring them. A sort of honorary title that conferred no actual status. And I saw their point. I saw the word as a way of brushing women aside, like the practice of referring to a woman as Mrs. John Jones instead of by her own name. For that matter, like expecting her to change her name in the first place, just because she got married.
For a long time I was fully on board with the four-letter-word interpretation of “lady.” My wife and I were both feminists, I perhaps more aggressively than she. Women should be treated as equals and expecting them to be ladylike just meant keeping them out of the rough-and-tumble real word that belonged to men. Making them useless, in other works, for anything but sex, child bearing, and keeping house for their husbands. I thought women belonged in the corporate boardroom, in the military front line, in Congress, and in the White House. I still do. The ones who want to be there, that is.
I think what modified my view was realizing that I am a woman myself. Being transgender can help a person see things from two sides. The feminist side is fine for feminists, and I still identify as such. But should they try to impose their values on all women? Wouldn’t that be like male chauvinists trying to make everyone live by their values? Can we really liberate women by making them accept our set of standards rather than someone else’s?
So what does all this come down to for an individual woman? Basically, just that. Being an individual. Going through her life her own way. Not letting anyone tell her either to be a lady or not to be a lady. And not letting anyone define the word for her. Who says being a lady has to mean being put on a pedestal of irrelevance? Or getting married or having children or working or not working? Who says it has to mean deferring to men? It can just mean comporting oneself with style and elegance. Our own idea of style and elegance. Treating people politely. Even adopting some traditional elements of being ladylike, as long as they feel right for us as individuals. At present I rather like thinking of myself as a lady. Maybe that self-image will feel right to me from now on. I hope other women will feel free to make a similar choice. Or not to. But not because I say so. Only if it feels right to them.