"I don't want to be a lady!" I shrieked in my father's face, and at the time I meant it.
My idea of a "lady" looked mostly like my grandmothers, and none more than Grandmama.
Grandmama, with her iron self control. Grandmama, the one adult whom I never, ever dared try. Grandmama, from whom I never heard the words, "I love you," to me or anyone else, even as a response when someone else said it first. Grandmama, who I can't remember ever laughing, though I know she must have.
I still don't want to be a lady like that.
But what I failed to realize as an angry teenager was that there is not just one way to be a lady. Grandmama's borderline inhuman self control and impeccable manners are inarguably ladylike - so long as the ones arguing can agree on terms rooted in reality - but Grandmama was not the be- all and end- all of what a lady is.
After all, I had other grandmothers; and as much as Grandmama was a Grand Dame of the South, so too were Granny and Mimi.
And weren't Granny's gentleness and faith ladylike? Weren't Mimi's beauty and charm ladylike?
I came to realize that the key was to gracefully accept and emulate the best of my grandmothers, and to improve upon and surpass their flaws - just like any other part of my heritage.
To use beauty and charm as valuable tools, as my Mimi did - but without relying on them as a crutch. To know how to be gentle, and to pray in times of trouble as Granny did - but without the years of abuse it took her to get there. To know the value of manners as Grandmama did- but to know when to put their shield aside and be vulnerable, as I never, ever saw her do. That's the kind of lady I try to be.
And it's paid off.
Though I work in a male-dominated field, I've never seen the rampant misogyny about which the feminists love to shriek. And while I have encountered misogyny, it was never from the men from whom I was told to expect it. The most workplace misogyny I ever saw or experienced was from a gay man working in a grocery store bakery.
In almost two decades of retail and blue collar working experience, and in a lifetime of interacting with others, I have found that nothing earns a woman more respect and goodwill than when she acts like a lady.
So what do I mean by that?
Not sleeping around, for one. (At first I thought it was just the place where I was working, but now I think it's that people are Just That Way, at least post 1960s "sexual revolution"). I've had a few friends and acquaintances who are undeniably sluts, no matter whether you consider that a pejorative or not - women who either engaged in casual sex or bedded men not married to them. I don't know that any of them fully realize how much respect they lost from others by their conduct.
Is it really so difficult to keep your legs closed?
And then there are women - too many of whom are handed a microphone - who deny biological reality - women who insist that they are the same as men, women who venerate the word "equality" and pervert its meaning at every opportunity. It is prudent to avoid these women as the threats they are, but it's horrifically amazing to see the sheer hubris of a woman who can fail physical ability tests again and again, then insist that standards be lowered, and then to refuse to admit that she wants the standards lowered because she wants a title she hasn't earned!
But then, why wouldn't she, when she's been told all her life that Girls Rule, that she's Special, that she can do and be whatever she wants? What chance do biology and reality stand against a lifetime of ideological coaching and the looming shadow of every single societal institution?
She may find it reassuring that she can steal the title, but it won't earn her the respect of the men with whom she works. If she ever gains the least scintilla of humility and wants to earn their respect, the only way for her to do so is through admitting her fault, years of hard work, staying quiet unless and until she has something of actual value to contribute, and helping others without any expectation or demand of recompense.
In other words, the opposite of what got her there in the first place.
Seeing how many of them there are and the lofty heights to which they can climb in any organization they infest (largely in administrative roles, you'll note), it's easy to get discouraged. An ambitious woman who happens to have integrity and self respect might be forgiven for considering adopting their methods and rationalizing using those tactics by telling herself that she's just playing the game to win.
My dear, it's not worth it.
The women who sleep their way to the top, or those who get there by backstabbing, stealing credit, lying, or plying whatever diversity cards they hold - unless they're psychopaths - they're miserable. These are the ones who make up those statistics about SSRI use and depression, and who make up the stereotype about Millennial spinsters or divorcees and their cats and box wine.
They're hollowed-out husks of people, with shallow, screaming eyes when you look closely (and you won't be able to look closely for long; there's something uncanny about them). They're pathetic creatures, and there's somewhere between little and nothing in them worth emulating.
But when a woman carries herself with self respect; when she's polite, hardworking, and sincere; when she honestly acknowledges both her strengths and her faults, and takes them into account; when she thanks those who offer her help in the same spirit in which it was offered, even when she didn't need it; when she refrains from gossip, especially malicious gossip; when she does her best to take care of those around her even when she doesn't particularly like them; all of these things are ladylike, and every single one of them earns respect.
And while it may be difficult, every single one of them is achievable even in toxic work environments. Sometimes it means keeping your head down and your mouth shut; sometimes it means using knowledge strategically; most often it means knowing when to leave. (The time to leave, by the by, is always before you're trapped or tricked into doing something unethical or illegal- because if you let them maneuver you into that, you're seating yourself under a sword of Damocles.)
Wisdom and good judgment are also ladylike.
A woman is an adult human female; being a woman is not an accomplishment, since all it takes is being born that way. But to be a lady is to choose to be a good woman, to be the best woman that you can. Continually making that choice is worthy of respect.
Turns out I'd rather be a lady after all.