Manners and social usages,


Next Section || Previous Section || Table of Contents

Page 415 { page image viewer }

The number of questions asked by correspondents on the subject of the proper use of the familiar words lady and woman, and of the titles of married women, induces the reflection that the “woman” question is one which rivals in universal interest those of Nihilism, Irish rebellion, and the future presidency. It is not, however, of ultimate importance to a woman what she is called, as arose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it is of importance to those who speak of her, because by their speech “shall ye know them,” whether fashionable or unfashionable, whether old or young, whether welt-bred or ill-bred, whether stylish or hopelessly rococo!

Nothing, for instance, Can be in worse taste than to say “she is a beautiful lady,” or “a clever lady.” One should always say “beautiful woman,” “clever woman.” The would-be genteel make this mistake constantly, and in the Rosa-Matilda style of novel the gentleman always kneels to the lady, and the fair ladies are scattered broadcast through the book, while the fine old Saxon word “woman” is left out, or not properly used.

Now it would be easy enough to correct this if we could only tell our correspondents always to use the word “woman.” But unfortunately we are here constrained

Page 416 { page image viewer }

to say that would be equally “bad form.” No gentleman would say, “I am travelling with women.” He would say, “I am travelling with ladies.” He would not say, “When I want to take my women to the theatre.” He would say, “When I want to take my ladies.” He would speak of his daughters as “young ladies,” etc., etc. But if he were writing a novel about these same young ladies, he would avoid the word “lady” as feeble, and in speaking of emotions, looks, qualities, etc., he would use the word “woman.”

Therefore, as a grand generic distinction, we can say that “woman” should be used when the realities of life and character are treated of. “Lady” should be used to express the outside characteristics, the conditions of cultivated society, and the respectful, distant, and chivalric etiquette which society claims for women when members thereof.

Then, our querist may ask, Why is the term, “she is a beautiful lady,” so hopelessly out of style? Why does it betray that the speaker has not lived in a fashionable set? Why must we say “nice woman,” ‘clever woman,i’ “beautiful woman,” etc.

The only answer to this is that the latter phraseology is a caprice of fashion into which plain-spoken people were driven by the affectations of the shabby-genteel and half-instructed persons who have ruined two good words for us by misapplication. One is “genteel,” which means gentle, and the other is “lady,” which means everything which is refined, cultivated, elegant, and aristocratic. Then as to the term “woman,” this nomenclature has been much affected by the universal sans-culottism of the French Revolution,

Page 417 { page image viewer }

when the queen was called citoyenne. Much, again, from a different cause, comes from our own absurd want of self-respect, which has accrued in this confusion of etiquette in a republic, as for instance, “I am a lady–as much a lady as anybody–and I want to be called a lady,” remarked a nurse who came for a situation to the wife of one of Our presidents. “I have just engaged a colored lady as a cook,” remarked a nouveau riche. No wonder that when the word came to be thus misapplied the lover of good English undefiled began to associate the word “lady” with pretension, ignorance, and bad grammar.

Still, no “real lady” would say to her nurse, “A woman is coming to stay with me.” To servants the term “lady,” as applied to a coming guest, is indispensable. So of a gentleman she would say to her servant, “A gentleman is coming to stay here for a week;” but to her husband or son she would say, “He is a clever man,” rather than, “He is a clever gentleman.”

We might almost say that no women talk to men about “gentlemen,” and no men talk to women about “ladies,” in fashionable society. A woman in good society speaks of the hunting men, the dancing men, the talking men. She does not say “gentleman,” unless in some such connection as this, “No gentleman would do such a thing,” if some breach of etiquette had occurred. And yet no man would come into a lady’s drawing-room saying, “Where are the girls?” or “Where are the women?” He would Say; “Where are the young ladies?”

It therefore requires a fine ear and a fine sense of

Page 418 { page image viewer }

modern fashion and of eternal propriety always to choose the right word in the delicate and almost unsettled estate of these two epithets. “Ladylike” can never go out of fashion. It is at once a compliment of the highest order and a suggestion of subtle perfection. The word “woman” does not reach up to this, because in its broad and strong etymology it may mean a washer-woman, a fighting woman, a coarse woman, alas! a drunken woman. If we hear of “a drunken lady,” we see a downfall, a glimpse of better days; chloral, opium, even cologne, may have brought her to it. The word still saves her miserable reputation a little. But the words “a drunken woman” merely suggest whiskey, degradation, squalor, dirt, and the tenement-house.

It is evident, therefore, that we cannot do without the word “lady.” It is the outgrowth of years of chivalric devotion, and of that progress in the history of woman which has ever been raising her from her low estate. To the Christian religion first does she owe her rise; to the institution of chivalry, to the growth of civilization since, has woman owed her continual elevation. She can never go back to the degradation of those days when, in Greece and Rome, she was not allowed to eat with her husband and sons. She waited on them as a servant. Now they in every country serve her, if they are gentlemen. But, owing to a curious twist in the way of looking at things, she is now undoubtedly the tyrant, and in fashionable society she is often imperiously ill-bred, and requires that her male slaves be in a state of servitude to which the Egyptian bondage would have been light frivolity.

Page 419 { page image viewer }

American women are said to be faulty in manners, particularly in places of public amusement, in railway travelling, in omnibuses, and in shops. Men complain very much that the fairer sex are very brutal on these occasions. “I wish women would behave like ladies,” said a man at a matinée. “Yes,” said his friend, “I wish they would behave like men.” Just then a sharp feminine elbow was thrust into his chest. “I wish gentlemen would not crowd so,” was the remark which accompanied the “dig under the fifth rib” from a person whom no one could call a lady.

In speaking to a servant, either a lady or a gentleman will ever be patient, courteous, kind, not presuming on his or her power. But there should always be a certain ceremony observed, and a term of respect to the person spoken of. Therefore a mistress will not say “Have the girls come in?” “Is Lucy home?” She will say: “Have the young ladies Come in?” “Is Miss Lucy at home?” This sort of dignified etiquette has the happiest and the most beneficial result on the relations of mistress and servant.

In modern literature the terms man and woman have nearly obliterated the words gentleman and lady, and we can hardly imagine a more absurd phrase than the following: “I asked Mary what she thought of Charles, and she said he was a beautiful gentleman, and Charles said that diary was a lovely lady; so it was quite natural that I should try to bring them together,” etc., etc.

Still, in poetry we like the word lady. “If my lady loves me true,” is much better than “if my woman loves me true” would be; so there, again, we have the

Page 420 { page image viewer }

contradiction, for the Anglo-Saxon rule of using the word “woman” when anything real or sincere in emotion is in question is here honored in the breach. But this is one of the many shadowy conflicts which complicate this subject.

The term “lady” is like the word “gentry” in England–it is elastic. All persons coming within the category of “gentry” may attend the Queen’s Drawing-room, yet it is well understood that birth, wealth, association, and position give the raison d’être for the use of such a privilege, and in that carefully guarded English society the wife or daughters of an officer in the navy or in a line regiment whose means are slender and whose position is obscure would not be justified in presenting themselves at court. The same remark holds good of the wives and daughters of clergymen, barristers, doctors, authors, and artists, although the husband, if eminent, might attend a levée if he wished. Yet these women are very tenacious of the title of lady, and no tradesman’s wife would deny it to them, while she would not, if ever so rich, aspire to be called a lady herself.

“I ain’t no lady myself, but I can afford to have ’em as governesses,” remarked a Mrs. Kicklebury on the Rhine. She was not at all ashamed of the fact that she was no lady herself, yet her compeer and equal in America, if she kept a gin-shop, would insist upon the title of lady.

A lady is a person of refinement, of education, of fashion, of birth, of prestige, of a higher grade of some sort, if we apply the term rightly. She may be out of place through loss of fortune, or she may have

Page 421 { page image viewer }

sullied her title, but a something tells us that she is still a lady. We have a habit of saying, as some person, perhaps well decked out with fortune’s favors, passes us, “She is not a lady,” and every one will know what we mean. The phrase “vulgar lady,” therefore, is an absurdity; there is no such thing; as well talk of a white blackbird; the term is self-contradictory. If she is vulgar, she is not a lady; but there is such a thing as a vulgar woman, and it is a very real thing.

In England they have many terms to express the word “woman” which we have not. A traveller in the rural districts speaks of a “kindly old wife who received me,” or a “wretched old crone,” or a “sonsy lassie,” or a “neat maid,” etc. We should use the word “woman,” or “old woman,” or “girl,” for all these.

Now as to the term “old woman” or “old lady.” The latter has a pretty sound. We see the soft white curls, so like floss silk, the delicate white camel’s-hair shawl, the soft lace and appropriate black satin gown, the pretty old-fashioned manner, and we see that this is a real lady. She may have her tricks of old-fashioned Speech; they do not offend us. To be sure, she has no slang; she does not talk about “awfully jolly,” or a “ghastly way off;” she does not talk of the boys as being a “bully lot,” or the girls as being “beastly fine;” she does not say that she is “feeling rather seedy to-day,” etc. No, “our old lady” is a “lady,” and it would be in bad taste to call her an “old woman,” which somehow sounds disrespectful.

Therefore we must, while begging of our correspondents

Page 422 { page image viewer }

to use the word “woman” whenever they can, tell them not entirely to drop the word “lady.” The real-lady or gentleman is very much known by the voice, the choice of words, the appropriate term. Nothing can be better than to err on the side of simplicity, which is always better than gush, or over-effort, or conceit of speech. One may be “ignorant of the shibboleth of a good set,” yet speak most excellent English.

Thackeray said of George the Fourth that there was only one reason why he should not have been called the “first gentleman in Europe,” and that was because he was not a gentleman. But of the young Duke of Albany, just deceased, no one could hesitate to speak as a gentleman. Therefore, while we see that birth does not always make a gentleman, we still get the idea that it may help to make one, as we do not readily connect the idea with Jeames, who was a “gentleman’s gentleman.” He might have been “fine,” but not “noble.”

As for titles for married women, we have only the one word, “Mrs.,” not even the pretty French “Madame.” But no woman should write herself “Mrs.” on her checks or at the foot of her notes; nowhere but in a hotel register or on a card should she give herself this title, simple though it be. She is always, if she writes in the first person, “Mary Smith,” even to a person she does not know. This seems to trouble some people, who ask, “How will such a person know I am married?” Why should they? If desirous of informing some distant servant or other person of that fact, add in a parenthesis beneath “Mary smith” the important addenda, “Mrs. John Smith.”

Page 423 { page image viewer }

When women are allowed to vote, perhaps further complications may arise. The truth is, women have no real names. They simply are called by the name of father or husband, and if they marry several times may well begin to doubt their own identity. Happy those who never have to sign but one new name to their letters!