4 months ago


Selected Writings & Artwork by Harriett Copeland Lillard

Thoughts on being a Lady

Thoughts on being a Lady At a time when being considered a lady is decidedly old-fashioned, I find myself still firmly convinced of its validity and importance. This belief puts me at odds with my own feminist views and certainly with those of my more radical sisters. But it has occurred to me that this dissonance is caused by a failure to define terms and a sometimes off-handed and quick willingness to discard any attitude that might reflect a time when women were considered of lesser value and functioned in a purely auxiliary position in relation to men. I owe a huge debt to my sisters who, acting on the radical fringe, have raised the consciousness of us all, both male and female. Without their courage, we would still be sunk in the kind of sexism that reached its zenith in the fifties, an era from which most of us now concerned with feminism sprang and the era which formed our earliest attitudes about ourselves as women. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA It is interesting to note that our daughters generally are much less actively concerned with feminism than we are. They have grown up with these ideas as part of their mental vocabulary and don’t think about them much one way or the other. Nevertheless, the ideas are there; the attitudes are implanted – the awareness exists, and I feel a real sense of pride in them when, confronted with sexism blatant or subtle, their hackles start to rise and their heels dig in. They will not be moved. In a way, I feel sorry for them because they missed the passion and pain of living through a revolution – the excitement of defiance, the absolute conviction of right, the courage to storm the barricades, the sense of comradeship and purpose so long denied to women. Well, the battle isn’t over; many questions remain unanswered. It is a deceptive calm. The general tenor of society is more conservative now, more materialistic and acquisitive, less concerned with dignity and real freedom, ideas of the spirit and personal growth. That is only natural after two decades of cultural upheaval. I suppose we all needed a rest from that kind of inquisitory intensity. So while we concentrate now on Rolex watches and individual security, time quietly gathers itself and readies us all for the next storm. Our daughters will be well-prepared; perhaps they missed the pitched battle, but they will be stronger than we in many ways, better able to cope at the negotiating table, less passionate and more rational. Their convictions are more a part of their very person, deeply ingrained from early childhood. It is not something about which they had to become aware first, with all the questioning, guilt, ambivalence and delay that we experienced. They are ready, whether they know it or not. Let the world beware. With that defense of feminism, I now reverse myself, back to a question which might seem to have all the relevance of discussing the comparative merits of a Model T and a Jaguar. Any discussion of such an intangible idea as “being a lady” must, by its very nature, be subjective. We each define and understand the term based on our own life experience. For this reason, I make no attempt to define it for anyone but myself in the light of my own feminism and background, and thus relieve the dissonance I often feel when I hear the word. All I ask in return of my sisters is that they listen carefully with love and understanding and humor intact, resisting the impulse to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As women we have a rich commonality of experience that is important and worthy of exploration, that we are only now beginning to give voice. The word “lady” may be obsolete, but the qualities it implies for me are timeless. This is an exploration, not a manifesto. First, let us think about the verb “to be” which appears in the phrase, “to be a lady.” The verb itself implies passivity, a willingness to be acted upon, rather than acting itself. It might help here to think of the difference between the terms “to fuck” and “to be fucked”… the first infers a direct 85

Thoughts on being a Lady masculine action; the second, a feminine acceptance of someone else’s action. Such a passive reactionary behavior is absolute anathema to a feminist and is symbolized for many of us by the “to be” verb, signifying being, rather than doing. It has lead me on occasion, with friends of likemind, to try to eliminate the verb entirely when discussing ourselves. This leads to some interesting convolutions of the English language, but also to more powerful, direct means of expression. Consider this: In various circumstances we are asked to introduce and tell something about ourselves. These are the responses, first in the traditional, then in the non-traditional form. Compare. “I am Harriett Lillard. I am a wife, lover, mother of four children, cook, manager, student, writer, housekeeper and am 44 years old.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA “My name is Harriett Lillard. I wife. I love. I have given birth to four children. I mother. I cook meals, manage the family finances, and keep house. I study fashion design and will work in Dallas or elsewhere after graduation. I write as a personal means of expression. I have 44 years of life.” I particularly like the last sentence, which is the grammatical construction used in Romance languages to express age: in this context, the “have” implies attainment, owning something which is valuable. The construction, “I wife,” is the use of a noun as a verb, but doesn’t it actively define what I do rather than what I am? Just as the sentence, “I mother,” conjures up mental pictures of maternal activity, rather than a passive, Madonna-like pose. The separation of mothering and giving birth is important too, since they are two distinct female functions. I do not like to use the more common expression, “I have four children,” because of the implication of possession. I do not own my children. Of course, this is an exercise in semantics, but it is important in pointing out the difference in active and passive expression. Let us proceed – from the buzz verb “to be” to the buzz noun “lady.” This is a very heavily freighted word, carrying with it connotations as negative as the word “nigger” to a black man or as a positive as the title Lady Jane Grey to a social dowager. It can be as cutesy as, “Well, just look at the little lady!”—we always get this at about age 13 when we first get breasts – or as patronizing as the Ladies Auxiliary, which is usually some useless appendage of a predominantly male organization. It is often disparaging, as when a greasy cab-driver in New York City yells “Hey, lady!” in combination with an obscene gesture just before he runs you down, but just as frequently it can be used as the highest compliment, “She’s a lady.” I think the problem begins to occur when the word “lady” is used as a form of address, to indicate size or age, or to substitute for “woman.” In fact, it has become a euphemism for “woman” which is a sexy word, bringing to mind breasts and vaginas and menstrual cycles and passion and birth – all those female mysteries. “Lady” just sort of blots all that out, like putting on talcum powder, and leaves us sweet and soft and smelling good – asexual and non-threatening. Witness this scenario: A group of females standing together, waiting to be seated at a restaurant. The maître d’ comes up and says, “Right this way, ladies.” They may be high-powered executives, but they are immediately reduced to good little girls trotting behind the head man. Now the opposite scenario: Same group, same restaurant, same maître d’. He says, “Right this way, women.” Suddenly we’re not good little girls, 86