What Does It Mean to Be Ladylike?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 28 2012 12:50 PM

Ladylikeness: An Inquiry

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Advisors to the National Campaign for the Moral Improvement of America's Ladies.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

My first thought upon hearing that Todd Akin does not find Claire McCaskill adequately “ladylike” was to wonder whether simply running for Senate wasn’t enough to exclude her from inclusion in the ladylike club. Engaging in open competition for elected office would seem, at first pass, an unladylike undertaking. Upon reflection that's probably wrong, since it’s easy to come up with examples of gentlewomanly political figures. No one, for example, has ever thought to call the delicate, mannered Aung San Suu Kyi unladylike; I doubt even Myanmar's junta has leveled this criticism. But given that the word is most familiar in the context of admonishment to a screaming 5-year-old girl by her curmudgeonly Republican grandfather, Todd Akin should do more to explain this concept to the nation’s adult ladies.

Akin didn’t outright call McCaskill unladylike; he simply said she had been more ladylike in the past. He was bragging that he had shocked her out of her ladylikeness into a kind of helpless flailing atavism. “She was very aggressive at the debate, which was quite different than it was when she ran against Jim Talent,” he said. “She had a confidence and was much more ladylike [in 2006], but in the debate on Friday she came out swinging, and I think that’s because she feels threatened.”

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Thus we find that it is not only possible to be a ladylike candidate, but that there is a ladylike way to debate. How exactly do they teach debate at finishing school? Is there an especially chaste way to make one’s point? According to Todd, ladylike debaters do not “come out swinging,” are not “aggressive,” and do not act as if threatened. Akin also said of McCaskill’s performance, “It’s like somebody let a wildcat out of the cage.” So wildcats are not ladylike, at least at the moment when they’re released from captivity. Perhaps ladylike debaters sublimate their aggressive instincts into a laconic sharp-tongued wit. Dorothy Parker: ladylike. Jennifer Granholm: Unladylike in the extreme.

Though I don’t claim to understand ladylikeness, I have my own intuitions about it. It seems to me that Condoleezza Rice is more ladylike than Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi more ladylike than Linda McMahon. I’m not entirely sure by what rubric I’ve made these judgments; I may merely be substituting the word “ladylike” for “less demonstrative,” or “more likely to drop the word 'cotillion' into casual conversation” or “not associated with an activity wherein steroidal men body slam one another repeatedly.” If that’s the right idea, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can make a strong case for being ladylike.

In response to Akin’s comments, McCaskill this morning said that Akin “makes Michele Bachmann look like a hippie.” Is that a ladylike thing to say? I think so, but I’m pretty confused at this point. Given how much he has taught us in such a short time, it seems like Akin should drop his Senate bid and launch a national Campaign for the Moral Improvement of America’s Ladies. He could tour different cities with a bus full of books on ladylike behavior, which we could then balance on our heads as we practice our posture. I’d like to know what the most ladylike thing to do in the event of an illegitimate rape is, for example, and how I might behave less like a wildcat. I’m guessing this is a pretty bad start.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.

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