LOUISE O'NEILL: When someone describes me as ladylike, I am always deeply offended

A few years ago, unable to get a taxi after a concert at the O2 arena in Dublin, my friends and I decided to walk back into town. 

It was a slow process due to the hoards of other concert-goers who had also failed to hail a taxi and I could hear the two young women ahead of me having a frantic conversation.

“I’m bursting,” one told the other, dancing anxiously from one leg to the other, “I can’t hold it any longer.”

With that, she stopped at the side of the street, crouched down, and relieved herself, trying to ignore a group of young men who were passing her.

“That’s fucking gross,” one of them shouted at her, his face twisted in a grimace, while the rest of his friends laughed. 

We all kept walking, the young woman soon forgotten, but ten minutes later I noticed the exact same man urinating against a wall.

I pointed the irony of the situation out to my friends, expecting all of them to find it equally ridiculous, when one said, “It’s not the same. It’s so much worse when it’s a woman.”

To be clear, I think urinating on the streets is a disgusting thing to do whether you’re male or female but I was interested as to why she found it completely unpalatable when it was a woman doing so.

And then she said it.

“Well, it’s not very ladylike, is it?”

There are few words that I find quite as annoying as the word ‘ladylike’.

I’m not a huge fan of ‘shrill’ or ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ either, but at least with the aforementioned words, you know that you’re being shamed and insulted to your face.

The term ‘ladylike’ is hiding in plain sight, pretending to be a compliment, while actually being an incredibly gendered word that attempts to police female behaviour.

When someone says to a woman “that’s not very ladylike”, what they’re really attempting to do is to control her.

Because, when you think about it, what does being ladylike actually entail? It usually describes a woman who is demure, well behaved.

A woman who remains quiet, who is inoffensive, who stays in line.

A ladylike woman never needs to be told to cover up or to close her legs or to lower her voice or to try not to use so many swear words or to stop laughing quite so hard at an inappropriate joke.

She is docile, meek, unassuming. Her opinions are never too controversial and even then, she would rarely talk about politics in ‘polite company’.

She has a ready smile. She never makes a fuss. She never complains. She is, above all else, pleasing to men.

When someone describes me as ladylike, and they have done so in the past, I am always deeply offended. Ladylike women never made history.

Ladylike women will never change the world.

Ladylike women will never strike the match that will set this patriarchal society on fire and watch it burn to the ground. And I intend to do my best to do all three. 

I don’t have children of my own so I know it’s easy for me to say this – but I would urge parents to refrain from telling their daughters to be ladylike because I’ve seen this term hold women back in many different ways.

Women whose sex lives were dysfunctional, but who were afraid to talk about with anyone in case they seemed ‘crude’. 

I had friends who were incredibly athletic in school but who quit sport because they didn’t want to be seen as ‘aggressive’ or ‘masculine’, despite the joy they derived from rugby or football or camoige.

I’ve heard people slam women who pump iron or lift weights because they’re building too much muscle and sweating profusely and it doesn’t look attractive for a ‘lady’ to do so; again ignoring the huge physical and psychological benefits those women are reaping from their fitness regimes.

I’ve watched as female friends have been passed over for promotions and pay rises that they worked so hard for because ‘nice girls’ don’t boast about their achievements or draw attention to their accomplishments.

Some people are still slightly dismayed at a woman who is openly ambitious and driven and prioritises her career above else because apparently it’s not ladylike for a woman to fight for what she wants or even to believe that she deserves to succeed.

It cannot be denied that this is just another obstacle in our path to shattering that ever-present glass ceiling.

Of course, good manners are still important and something to be encouraged but why use the term ‘ladylike’, or indeed the term ‘chivalrous’? Manners are not gender specific.

We should all be kind, and decent, and respectful of one another.

We don’t need to tell people to be a lady or a gentleman; we just need to tell them to be a good person.

People, men and women, can hold the door open for each other or pay the bill at dinner, that shouldn’t automatically fall to the man.

And while I think chivalry is also an outdated term that seems to imply that women are helpless and in need of protection and puts pressure on the men in their lives to provide that protection, I don’t think it is weighted in the same historical context as the term ‘ladylike’.

With ‘ladylike’, we are attempting to create a standard of behaviour that all women, despite their personal preferences, should adhere to and the weight of that is undeniably oppressive.

All people, regardless of gender, should be able to express themselves in whatever way feels natural to them.

I don’t want to seen as a ‘lady’, I want to be seen as a human being.

I want to be seen as the individual that I am, with all my flaws and faults, and still be accepted.


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