Not gonna be a lady — too many danged rules
“Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow.” ~ Common saying in my right-on-the-Mason-Dixon-line childhood.
I remember every single detail of it, down to exactly where we were in Jefferson Junior High, Columbia, Missouri, 1969—pretty much everything but what date it was.
Dates in school were irrelevant except for how they pertained to vacations. Otherwise time was an endless stream of sludge where I endured the torture that constituted my legally mandated public education.
I remember the dark honey beige bricks with their slick, gleaming autumn-leaf glaze, the yawning gymnasium to the left, where I either had already or was about to fall off the balance beam and where I stopped at 400 situps because I was bored. I remember that the stairs descended into the bowels of the locker rooms and that we were clustered at the top, slightly to the right, in what is like a balcony in my mind’s eye. We were, to a one, dressed in the supremely comfortable but universally hideous gym suit, in dark blue — shorts and short sleeves all in one piece. There were girls who looked like young goddesses in them – and then there were the rest of us. Short and pudgy even then, with no real sign of the muscle beneath – I looked like a Damm (troll) doll in mine.
We were just in from the outside; the fresh air and activity had filled our young, strong bodies with energy, but we were well trained in the rules for girls – we stood about in some semblance of order, waiting with at least feigned patience for the teachers to let us descend the stairs and get on with the torment of the group shower, where we judged and evaluated each other’s bodies with all the cruel cynicism of a buyer at a slaughterhouse.
And then the boys poured in, leaping, shouting, bouncing, smacking hands with each other, laughing those honking, braying hoots that can only be produced by a young adolescent male. Instantly, it was as if a dam had been released, and we began to laugh and bounce and jostle and play, just as the boys were doing.
The gym teacher, name long lost to me, pinned us with a baleful stare and announced loudly, “Now girls, let’s be ladies!”
I felt a howling maelstrom of rage well up in me — nearly wordless, but comprised of every single time I had ever heard “That’s just for boys” and “you can’t do that, you’re just a girl” and “girls aren’t allowed to do (whatever)” and every other enfuriating, demeaning, diminishing, invalidating, freaking smothering thing they had ever told me about how boys – and then men – would get all the freedom and fun whereas we would always be caged behind the rigid bars of being a “lady.”
Loud enough to be heard, devil-take-the-hindmost, I felt a growl build in my throat, erupting out of my mouth with all the force of 14 years of outrage: “I am not now and will never be a lady!”
And I never have.
Now, my mother was comfortable in her lady shoes. She was right at home there, and never saw it as a limitation. But to me, then and now, being a lady is something to be avoided. When men – even ones I like (and there are many) attempt to call me a lady, I reply that I “avoid that like the plague – too many rules.” In my experience, there were many rules for “ladies,” all of which were designed to tailor us for the approval of men – among them:
Don’t laugh too much or too loud.
Don’t ever allow men to know you’re intelligent, ladies, it upsets them so when you appear to try to outshine them.
Don’t get angry (we don’t look beautiful when we’re angry, ladies!)
And a big one – don’t have opinions, ladies, because everybody knows that men don’t like ladies with opinions!
Every stinking rule seemed designed to render me powerless, keep me from having the same freedoms, the same rights, the same standing in the world as men. It was aimed at teaching me that the only purpose in my life was to recreate myself in the image in which men would cast me. It was about making myself small, and quiet, and as unobtrusive as a very plain couch in a rather more ornate slipcover.
I sure as snot didn’t see men recreating themselves in an image designed to please me.
I realize that there are men – and women subverted by the patriarchy – who are offended to the core by most all that I am and most all of what I do. They glower when I let out a hoot of laughter you can hear across the floor at work. They give me a flat stare when I go head to head with some conservative male with no more worry that I’ll offend him than any other man would have.
One coworker (male) looked like he had swallowed a snail when I told him my granddaughter was taking martial arts (“can’t she do something more ladylike, like dance???”). It went from an aquarium snail to an African Giant Snail when he found out I was doing it, too, although to his credit, he at least looked resigned when I earned my red belt (just shy of black) at age 56.
The thing is, I am a person first, and thus cannot be shoved into any category not of my choosing. So yes, sometimes I will wear some gorgeous outfit with somewhat civilized shoes. I’ve even been known to wear makeup, because I’m playing, not because I’ve consulted the “Ladies’ Playbook.” I’ve also been caught wearing overalls in public, love man-style cargo pants, and like to talk about the days when I could do three sets of 12 on a seated rowing weight machine and slam back 180 lbs. I do this because it’s who I am, but I also do this because I determine my place in the world; I refuse to have my power, my role, my value, my very self defined or diminished on account of the body into which I was born.
This is dedicated to Katherine Turnbow Peil, fierce, glorious, brilliant, gorgeous woman whom I met when she was just taking wing. I loved you then, I love you now and I am so very proud of you.