International Women’s Day: It’s Not For Ladies

[Today is International Women’s Day, which brought this post from the archives to mind.]

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Being a Jane Austen Lady

There is something compelling about Jane Austen’s writing, the way she can depict all of life in the doings of a small English village. Her stories are character driven. We can’t help but recognize ourselves or see our friends, neighbors, family and co-workers in them. There is also the urge to be like them, to aspire, to dream of joining them in their lives 200 years ago. Oh, to be a gentleman of means. Oh, to be a lady of good family and fortune.

A Jane Austen lady: what woman could hope for more?

Words from the Pulpit

I heard something the other day that brought back memories of that era. In fact, I’ve heard it too many times to count in recent years. It comes from the pulpit.

“The men are on retreat this weekend, but you ladies still have two weeks to sign up for yours and we have a few slots left …”

“The men’s group continues with its study on Thursday mornings. A new ladies’ Bible study is beginning on Tuesday …”

“While the men are going to the foothills for a day of mountain biking, the ladies will have their own activities over at …”

Men, he said, not gentlemen.

Ladies, he said, not women.

Words mean things. Women and men are words that denote generic classes of people, one male and one female. Gentlemen and ladies are much more restrictive words, and somewhat archaic in their meaning too.

In Jane Austen’s time, generally a “Gentleman” was a man who had significant landed property, often owning not only his own estate but also the surrounding farmland and nearby village that he rented to farmers and village tenants (think of Austen’s landholders such as Mr. Knightley in Emma) and a consequent status as a member of the gentry (a step below the nobility). A “Lady” had a similar place in society, but always by virtue of the status of her father or husband.

Here in the States, we don’t have titles of nobility. And while we used to have something similar to the gentry of England, that has passed as well.  Still, we adopted – and held for generations – the use of gentleman and lady as terms to denote a status in society, one that is above the laboring class.

Nowadays the words are far from their original meaning in daily use. Now they pertain more to a person’s behavior than her or his status in society: “She’s so ladylike” or “He’s a perfect gentleman” are the way people think of the words.

Aiming Too Low

And that brings me to what’s wrong with what I’ve been hearing from the pulpit in announcements and sermons.

First, if the women are ladies, then the men are gentleman. A failure to use consistent terminology is confusing to those of us who know and appreciate the difference.

Second, it’s demeaning. Men get to be men, but women are expected by church leadership to be ladies.

Third, and most importantly, it’s doctrinally unsound. We are not called to enter God’s kingdom out of an expectation that we will behave in certain ways (e.g., that women will now behave like ladies). We are called into his kingdom despite the fact that we won’t behave appropriately much of the time.

We are not Christians so we can now try to add behaving like perfect little gentlemen and perfect little ladies to our accomplishments. No, there is only One who is perfect and we are Christians because of what Christ has already perfectly accomplished for us.

Besides, a goal to be ladies or gentlemen in the church is aiming way too low. We already have a much higher status: we are children of God the Father, co-heirs with Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit himself dwells in us.

You couldn’t pay me enough to want to be a gentleman. And I am glad that my sisters in Christ are infinitely more than mere ladies.

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5 Responses to International Women’s Day: It’s Not For Ladies

  1. krwordgazer says:

    I know why people do this, and particularly church people. It’s because the word “women,” due largely to the deeply rooted, historical misogyny of our culture, can still sound denigrating to the ear, whereas the word “men” is a positive word. Conversely, “gentlemen” sounds a little stilted, while “ladies” is what they’re used to calling groups of women. Church people tend to isolate themselves from changes in the larger culture which have largely removed the stigma from the word “women.”

    If only they could make this one little change! It might be the precursor to other, more profound and necessary ones.

  2. Pastor bob says:

    I grew up hearing that the term of lady was to preferred, it conveyed much more respect. Reinforced with the Spanish speakers of my acquaintance. Señora is used the same as ma’am, and how many of address more than one woman, like this, “Yes ma’am…”?

    Modern usage suggests more of respect, even when it is clearly not due “The gentleman with the red coat assaulted…..” or “The lady in the grey dress needs help.” I have seen some women/ladies cringe when hearing the third person term of “woman.”

    Semantics….. with respect can be fun.

  3. Shalini says:

    Tim!!! Thanks once again! You make me stop wanting to slash my wrists when people tell me to be a lady. India’s favorite expectation from women. Aaaaargh!!

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