I try to multi-task, and fall on my face every time. Sometimes literally. Last week I was working on my newsletter while I was chatting with customers, and I left the beginning of my message off the first version I sent out. For those who missed it, what you read below is the first part of what I wanted to say about the conflict between being a lady and being assertive.
Piaget says that children do not move from one phase of development to the next until they experience too much discomfort in the stage where they are. I like to say that I thrive on change and that I am fed by being in environments where I must grow. At least I said that until I moved from the comfort of Charlotte Country Day School to the chaos of Juvie Prison. When I made that move, I moved way outside my comfort zone and modest adjustments to my behavior were inadequate to meet the challenges of juvie. Small adjustments I made to my teaching certainly helped me adapt to teaching adjudicated boys, but it was my very survival inside the walls of that place that lead to a deeper and more valuable growth experience for me. You see, even though my mother was raised in a Communist home and was extremely liberal, her goal for me was to be a Lady.
From the time I was very young, I was molded into the tight confines of lady-like behavior. Almost every instruction I received from my mother stated with the words, “A Lady doesn’t…” Listed below are some things a Lady does NOT do:
Cross her legs
Eat with her mouth open
Contradict her elders
Raise her voice
Appear too smart
Call a boy
Sit with knees apart
Call attention to herself
Wear tight clothes
Wear revealing clothing
Lead when you are waltzing
Talk about money
Engage in sex before marriage
Stay single, especially if a doctor wants to marry her
I’m sure there were other rules, but these sprang easily to mind. From time to time I have forgotten these rules, but they are deeply ingrained and make me feel uncomfortable when I violate them.
Since I wrote this list, I have been offered some additions from friends.
A lady doesn’t spit
Apply lipstick at the table
She doesn’t smell bad
She doesn’t smoke
And she doesn’t defy authority.
Thank goodness that last rule has been smacked down smartly this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. As she was attempting to read a letter written by Loretta Scott King, critical of the nomination of Beauregard Sessions for Attorney General, she was silenced by heinous Mitch McConnell: “She was warned…and nevertheless she persisted.”
A former CD student, Laurie Goldman Smithwick, has created a tee-shirt with this meme emblazoned on it. (If you want some, here is the website: http://spattyco.bigcartel.com/product/nevertheless-she-persisted) I just bought two!! (Debating on whether to send one to my granddaughter who is frequently warned and nevertheless she persists, much to her parents’ displeasure.)This line by McConnell has turned into a rallying cry of women everywhere. We have been warned since childhood to “Behave!”, but as we all know, well-behaved women rarely make history.
Women have been silenced and marginalized forever, ever since Eve took the rap for encouraging Adam to move from innocence to experience in the Garden of Eden. Literature, too, is full of examples like Hester Prynn with her scarlet A. And nevertheless, both of them persisted.
When Abby was a very young child I took her to see the recent release of The Little Mermaid. She loved every minute of it, singing along with that little crab, Sebastian, “Under the Sea…”, and scorning the unpleasant, fat, middle-aged woman, Ursula (cautionary tale to younger women…This is what 50 looks like!), while I grew angrier and angrier. There was the beautiful young woman giving up her tail, the thing that made her who she was, and her voice, in order to be attractive to the prince. She was warned, but nevertheless she allowed herself to be maimed and silenced to get the prince. She did NOT persist.
While the credits were rolling, I asked Abby what she thought the underlying message of the movie had been. She said cheerily, “If you want something badly, keep trying and you can get it.”
I couldn’t argue that point, but I also wouldn’t let the argument rest. I washed her little brain but good with my feminist rhetoric, while the mothers seated around us in the theater hurried their daughters out of the theater. Now Abby’s theater company, Asheville Creative Arts, is preparing a show for the Asheville stage (Magnetic Theater, April 7-10), which is a retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. (http://ashevillecreativearts.org/purchase-tickets/ ) Little Red’s mother warns her not to leave the path as she heads to her grandmother’s house, knowing that as Red grows into adulthood, she will inevitably leave the safety of the path and make her own, sometimes dangerous, choices. A lady never disobeys, and she never leaves the path. As my friend Ellen Phillips has remarked, being assertive and bold isn’t necessarily unladylike!