Feminists of the '60s and '70s rejected the term lady because it reflected "the marginality and powerlessness of women." When they rejected the word, they rejected the behavior as well, and the attitude, the manners, and the style of dress that characterize a lady were considered corsets that restrict women's freedom. Being a lady (or a gentleman) is what some call the first lesson in sexism.
But right along with the rise of the new domesticity, we're seeing a retro fascination with the old rules of etiquette, with being a lady and saying lady.
Publishers released a slew of etiquette books in the last year alone. "We're living in an age of anxiety that's a reflection of the near-constant change and confusion in technology and social mores," said author and New York Times contributor Steven Petrow. Hit shows like Downton Abbey provide an escape into a bygone era of polite speech and social formalities. Websites like The Art of Manliness, with over 100,000 subscribers, indicate that the interest in etiquette isn't gender-specific.
Then, there's Kate Middleton, the icon for a renewed sense of ladylike living. The Duchess of Cambridge and American pop culture "princess" Kim Kardashian have drawn comparisons since their weddings in 2011, which were held just four months apart. Every aspect of their weddings were compared—the venue, the menu, the wedding dress, and the amount paid for the wedding. We saw similar coverage this summer with the birth of their babies, George Alexander Louis and North West. Journalists and bloggers have compared Kate and Kim's looks, their rise to fame, their fashion sense, their pregnancies, and their manners. Regardless of the category, it's Kim K that always comes up short. People admire Kate Middleton's for her composure, grace, elegance, dignity, and discretion—in other words, for "being a lady." Her present popularity flies in the face of what feminism taught us about being a lady.
Kate Middleton's rendition of being a lady, as well as having daughters of my own, has me rethinking of my longtime dismissal of ladylike status. I have thought this way for most of my life, at least on a subconscious level. I grew up on the Louisiana border, deep in East Texas, and part of that culture insisted on proper decorum befitting a lady. My mother would say that a lady always had to look her best—even if she was just taking out the trash.
I rebelled against this in every way. I wore pajamas to class and very little makeup. I spoke my mind boldly and unapologetically—sometimes verbally and sometimes in print for the school paper or during my stint as a string reporter for the town paper. I laughed at crude bathroom humor (and, while I'm being honest, made more than a few jokes of my own). By the age of 15, I paid most of my own bills, determined to not be dependent on anyone. I broke all of the ladies' rules, and if anyone ever mentioned it, I'd smile and say, "Well, good thing I never claimed to be a lady!" I thought ladies were mealy-mouthed, repressed, and superficial.
Now I wonder, what if I've been wrong? What if, in tossing out everything stereotypically related to being a lady, I threw out a great deal of good? I don't seem to be the only person questioning this. In fact, I think the public's positive response to Kate Middleton on the whole indicates that while we may recoil at the idea of "being a lady," we are drawn to it when we see it. It turns out that etiquette isn't just about legalistically following a set of seemingly arbitrary rules, but about behaving with poise and confidence while treating others well.
Now, both the manners associated with being a lady and the term lady seem to be making a comeback because, as some academics say, "rebellious young women [are] tired of their choices limited to being ''pigs'' or ''whores'.'
We live in the very kind of world the flower-power children of the 1960s wanted—a world free of objective standards, but we're finding it's not the utopia they envisioned. Instead, we've fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where anything goes (especially online), where vulgarity wins the primetime spotlight and people like Snooki (and Kim K, for that matter) become pop culture powerhouses by "virtue" of public drunkenness and sex tape videos.
I don't want to live in a world where neither my daughters nor I are free to speak our minds, but I do want to live in a world where we, myself most of all, refrain from doing so because of kindness. In an age of oversharing—our minds, our lives, and our body parts—it's easy to see the appeal of the Downton Abbey era and the manners of Kate Middleton.
It remains to be seen whether or not the surging interest in etiquette is a rudder large enough to correct our course or if, like the Titanic, we read the signs far too late. But then again, Kate Middleton has not always been a lady; if she can learn it, maybe we all can. In the meantime, I guess I'll keep crass humor to myself and try not to laugh (too hard) at the lady who farts during yoga.