11 months ago


Selected Writings & Artwork by Harriett Copeland Lillard

Thoughts on being a Lady

Thoughts on being a Lady Looking back, I can see that all of these admonitions had a common denominator – developing the element of self-control. They were administered along with generous doses of Southern-fried Baptist theology. So to break any of these commandments, either maternal or theological, was a defiance of both Mother and God – hell on earth and hell in the hereafter. I persevered, somehow. That I was not decoding the same messages she was encoding escaped her attention until it was too late. Because of this intense programming, I entered adolescence with a sense of my own worth as a person and the faint glimmerings of possibilities – perhaps more than most girls of my generation. I was never addressed or treated as a child. I was never encouraged to mother dolls or have friends my own age, nor did I have many toys – I could put all the toys I ever had in a medium sized trash basket. I did have books. I read a lot. I was alone a lot. I listened to adult conversations. I observed, I noted, I thought. However, it was at this point in my life that the messages took an abrupt turn. MAN had entered the picture. Admonitions began to deal not just with me, but me in relation to men, love, and marriage. Now here we go. “The most important thing a girl can do in life is to make a good marriage.” “You can love a rich man just as easily as a poor man.” “Love to a man is a thing apart, but to a woman ‘tis her entire existence.” – paraphrased from Robert Browning. Society did its part, too, with heavy indoctrination from the Rock Hudson/Doris Day school of thought. Had his predilection for boys been known, we might have been spared this indignity. Sunday School class, sexually segregated at the local Baptist Church (I feel reasonably sure this is done so as to better teach a different set of values to each sex), began to put pointed emphasis on the travails of adulterous wives and the virtues of such Biblical characters as Ruth and her “whither thou guest” routine. My God! Why didn’t someone mention the other Jewish heroines, like Judith who seduced and then beheaded Holofernes in flagrante delicto in order to save her fellow countrymen? I was over forty before I heard that one in an art history class. I began to suspect darkly that my mother’s pride in my academic success was based on her belief that this would raise my stock in the marriage market, rather than any ambition she might have for me to have a career of my own. The glimmerings of possibilities, on the point of bursting into flame, began to sputter. Doubt, questions, confusion. Was I supposed to define myself only in relation to someone else? These new messages somehow didn’t connect with those oft-repeated childhood exhortations to independence, self-assurance, distinction, achievement. It now seemed that those things, as well as my mind, were valuable only in so far as they assured me of catching a man. It had become apparent that this was the name of the game. I sputtered along for twenty years; then one day the glimmer burst into flame. Well, the rest is history and has no pertinence to the discussion at hand. But here I am at 44 with my consciousness raised, sometimes to a fever pitch, still struggling with the question of being a lady. 89

Thoughts on being a Lady Many people think of a lady as being dainty, overly feminine, helpless, dependent, passive, asexual, a cliché. In teaching me to be a lady, my Mother did not teach me any of those attitudes. In fact, she taught me the total opposite; she taught me to be a whole person. And believe me, these lessons “took” like a smallpox vaccination. It was not until MAN entered the picture that she got her signals crossed. Nor was this her fault; she was simply reflecting the beliefs and values of her time. It was as if one set of values had to be super-imposed on the other. I internalized the things I considered worthwhile and slowly discarded the rest, avoiding her displeasure by keeping my mouth shut (the silent treatment) and deciding to take my chances with God in the hereafter. After Mother, HE seemed a minor obstacle. Although she would die before admitting it, my mother is a feminist at heart. Her whole life has been a struggle for independence. What she taught me before the age of 13 were basic attitudes. These attitudes I incorporated into my concept of being a lady, as I observed the women in my family. They were strong, intelligent, talented women who could build a fence in the morning and go to the symphony at night, raise five children alone during the Depression and still find time to read Shakespeare, rip off a Beethoven sonata and face down a rattlesnake with a butcher knife – all with equal self-confidence. Within the limitations of their time and locale, they considered no task beneath them and no goal above them. They did what they had to do to survive in a tough land. “Clinging vines” were not admired or encouraged. Attitudes are not actions; they simply are. In this respect they are passive. But attitudes inform behavior; they underlie all actions, outlining and defining them almost in their entirety. Grace, warmth, dignity, compassion, composure, tolerance, independence, inner strength, assurance, passion, humor, intelligence, distinction, personal courage, conviction, discretion, moderation, courtesy—these were the positive attitudes I came to associate with being a lady. Perhaps we should look for another term, but I have not been able to find any with quite the same quality of differentiation. Being a lady, in the sense I have discussed, is a standard by which I can measure myself. Sometimes I fail; sometimes I succeed. But the reward is always in the effort. It has nothing to do with one’s personal beliefs, individual shortcomings, failure, success, or morality. It simply predicates dealing gently with other human souls and yet demanding equality of worth for oneself, a sense of appropriateness, and a sensitivity and openness to life and its mystery. Being a lady does not keep you from falling down; it teaches you how to get up. ˜ 90