It’s been a brilliant and sometimes intense weekend of talks and debates at the WOW festival on all aspects of being a woman. I’ve been to sessions on global economics, speed mentoring, the criminal justice system, body politics, the Arab Spring and many more. My head has been swimming with all the new perspectives I’ve heard and ideas I’ve been challenged with. And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed to Tea With The Lady - a discussion on the very notion of being a ‘lady’ (hear David Walliams voice in your head when you say it) and whether it’s a regression or is actually subversive. Interesting debate? I had no idea what I was in for.
Aside from the chair Bidisha I was unfamiliar with the four women on the panel and was therefore completely unprepared for the biting wit and sharp tongues about to be unleashed as well as the ridiculously funny conversation that unfolded. The context of the talk is that with the current prevalence of Domestic Goddesses (Nigella Lawson), home crafts (Kirstie Allsop) and floral prints (Cath Kidston) is being a lady something that is being reclaimed?
In that light, I’m going to attempt to create a (very tongue-in-cheek) 9 step guide to being a lady, formed by the discussion I heard.
Like Karen McLeod who worked as an air steward for British Airways before becoming a writer, my experience of being called a lady was when I worked in a shop and mothers attempting to control their children would tell them ‘give that back to the lady’ or ‘the lady’s watching and she’ll get angry’. As if I cared. I worked in Primark.
So to Lady attribute number one: Be a bit scary and stern. Scare children.
Writer Catherine Hakim claims it is part of our ‘erotic capital’. A lady is well groomed, stylish and with confidence and manners, like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni. Anna Blundy (author and journalist - who had me in hysterics laughing throughout) argued that these types of ladies were accessories to men - known as being well-groomed arm-candy. Iconic templates as Rachel Johnson (former editor of The Lady magazine) put it.
Number two: Be stylish and well groomed at all times while being arm-candy for a man.
Actually, Johnson argued that as editor she had put women over 40 on the cover who had done something, regardless of their colour or beauty. But also, crucially were not trashy or trampy.
Number three: Don’t be a tramp!
Money and class inevitably entered the discussion. Women like Cath Kidson and Nigella Lawson make millions from their home-styled products and are extremely shrewd. For most women Blundy maintained, doing unpaid work is denigrated as society doesn’t value it.
Number four: Bit confused now. Either make millions by selling ladyness to others, or be arm-candy mentioned above and be rich enough not to work. I think being rich and posh enough not to worry about it is probably key.
Johnson mentioned that when her husband heard she was going to be on this panel, he told her a lady was ‘not pushy and was dignified’ and that she was neither of those things. Blundy went on to talk about her experience of speaking out about her experience of how the Daily Mail wants ladies to be (and I highly encourage you to read her blog post about it) She was styled, put in a suitably coloured frock and, when she didn’t stick to their preferred narrative, the piece was spiked.
Number five: Remain dignified and stick to the script - say what you’re supposed to say.
One of the most hilarious parts of the discussion emerged when McLeod showed us something her (female) partner had bought when they moved in together. A floral Cath Kidston peg holder, shaped like a baby’s dress and with a bow. She noted that many of her lesbian friends were now getting married (to women, I hasten to add as it caused some confusion amongst the panel) and wearing aprons. So is being a lady really just another name for being conservative? The panel felt it was.
Number six: Be conservative and buy aprons and floral peg-holders.
Even Rachel Johnson conceded that if forced to define a lady, it would be a woman in cashmere and pearls and with a pussycat bow. She would like that not to be the case however, but for it to be irrespective of class or income.
Number seven: Wear cashmere and pearls.
In fact, she felt, like Hakim, that being a lady was about behaviour. Blundy felt it’s repressed behaviour - or as McLeod put it, ‘smelling of flowers, not sex’!
Number eight: Smell nice. Shower after sex.
The debate was then opened to the floor and many fantastic questions asked. One was whether baking bread and making your own clothes wasn’t buying into ladyness but was actually about self-sufficiency and not buying from large organisations. Another asked about the programmed Ladette To Lady and what the panel thought of it. McLeod felt sorry for the girls in it, as their own wildness was lost. Blundy also noted that many of them had very problematic relationships with alcohol and sex and this was really just televised, posh rehab, although it seemed to work to an extent. Johnson love it as it taught the girls a sense of self respect and skills valued by society.
Finally, one woman asked if, for women to achieve equality, we really had to ditch the word lady altogether. Every panelist actually felt we did and several didn’t use it anyway. As Bidisha said, it’s currently got a fairly ktisch inflection anyway and the women who market their ladyness are shrewd multi-millionnaires. So with that the women in the room ditched it.
Number nine: Forget it - ditch the list and call yourself something else!