I believe in acting like a Lady.
My generation of women, daughters of the baby boomers, is one of the first to truly feast on the fruits of the feminist movement, sheltered by the sacrifices and perseverance of our mothers and grandmothers from the front lines of gender discrimination. Juggling family responsibilities and careers is still a bit of a conundrum, but largely, we live in a world shaped by our own choices. Acting like a lady sounds incredibly outdated, irresponsible, even, for a dedicated feminist.
When I graduated from college, my Grandma Bobbie’s gift to me was the classic ornament for the newly minted debutante, a beautiful strand of milky white pearls with matching earrings. I was thrilled – thought they were beautiful, but after The Feminine Mysique and four years of free-wheeling bohemian life in Montreal, I wasn’t quite sure if they fit my personal tastes and styles. They were traditional, conservative, demure: everything I didn’t want to be. I wore them to a wedding and put them away.
My grandmother always told me, “Act like a lady, and you’ll be treated like a lady.” She grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana during the depression, left home after high school, and struck out on her own to find work in Seattle. When World War II broke out, she joined up as one of the first women in the United States Marine Corps. She met my grandfather at a Marine dance, and when the war was over, she didn’t leave their romance up to such unpredictable things as destiny. When his boat sailed in from the Pacific, she was there to meet him when he stepped off the ship, and when they got married, they were both in dress uniform. My grandfather resumed his college education at Syracuse University, and my grandmother begged the university to admit her too, despite deficiencies in her high school record. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Home Economics on the GI Bill and worked as a decorator for several years before she gave birth to my father. My grandfather climbed the business ladder steadily, eventually becoming president of his company, and my grandmother was there at his side, excelling in that unpaid but more than professional occupation: corporate wife. She would not call herself a feminist. She believes that the professional mother who drops off her children with the nanny across the street is seriously neglecting her duty as a mother. One of her favorite epigrams is, “Behind every good man is a good woman.”
As I wade through my twenties, trying to carve out my own identity as a woman, I find that my grandmother’s best attributes transcend our social and historical differences. She was independent, but assumed great responsibility towards her relationships with others. She was self-reliant, creative, and resourceful, never leaving a penny unaccounted for in her checkbook. She was adventurous and sassy, but always kept her standards high, for herself and everyone around her.
My pearls come out of the box more often now, accompanying a quirky pair of earrings I bought from a street vendor in Soho or a brightly colored scarf around my head. To me, being a lady means being unafraid to integrate feminism and a demand for equality with the modesty, compassion, responsibility, class, and courage that shaped generations of women that came before. My choices are my own, but this I believe: that the independence and high standards of the ladies I most admire will continue to guide my actions in the adventure of becoming a modern woman.
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