On Being Ladylike

In her excellent book, How to Raise Good Catholic Children, Mary Reed Newland writes, “We can teach our littlest children to pray to Mary about purity in their earliest prayers, and we can teach our older children, when they’re old enough to understand, that one day it may become more difficult to be pure and that they should pray, “Please, Blessed Mother, help me to love purity.”

The Very Model of a Lady

She continues:

And then for girls, there are all the special Mary virtues that have to do with being ladylike. I often wonder if the word ladylike had its beginning in the imitation of Our Lady. If it did, it has long since lost this meaning. Now it means proper and well-mannered and a lot of things nice girls do, not for the sake of pleasing God, which is why Our Lady did them — but usually to impress the company.

This was written in 1954! I wonder what Mrs. Newland would think of girls today, when not many are proper and well-mannered, even for the wrong reasons? I wonder what she would think if she were seated behind a teenaged girl dressed in spaghetti straps, a short skirt and flip-flops at Sunday Mass. I wonder what she would think at the mall on a summer afternoon — would she wonder if these girls left their real clothes behind in a dressing room? I wonder what she would think of the teenaged lifeguard who has rolled the top of her swimsuit up to make it into a bikini, all the better to reveal her Playboy belly-button jewelry.

Some friends of mine can and do discuss loveliness with regard to both our personal appearances and our homes quite frequently. What makes a home lovely? What makes a woman lovely? Mrs. Newland brings our attention to the Blessed Mother. And today, thoughts of her fill my head. If we frame the “loveliness” discussion — whether it pertains to our homes or our bodies or our clothes — as a “ladylike” discussion, it takes on a new dimension. Do we look like ladies and do our homes reflect that a lady lives there because that is what is pleasing to God?

As women, we are called to be ladylike in the truest sense of the word. We are called to imitate the virtues of Our Lady. I remind my girls all the time to “be ladylike.” I tell them to sit like a lady, to speak like a lady, to walk like a lady. After reading Mrs. Newland's advice though, I began to expand a bit on the simple command. I reminded them that Mary is the best example of being ladylike, and that we (Mom included) are called to be pleasing to God in our femininity just as she was. The conversation has just begun, but my three-year-old definitely understands. And she is embracing it! I ask her to sit like a lady and she replies, “Just like Jesus' mommy?”

It Starts Early

I wonder if our culture has so lost the femininity of its female teenagers because they were never taught as little girls how wonderful it is to be a lady. Mothers must tell their daughters that true happiness is found in answering God's uniquely feminine call. Yes, I'm absolutely saying that they cannot continue to dress and/or act in an impure, immodest way and truly be happy. Nothing good can possibly come of unladylike behavior. Nothing. We can't shrink from talking about Mary when our daughters are little. And we can't be afraid to hold her up as an example when they are fourteen. She was a brave, holy, entirely feminine fourteen-year-old when she said, “Yes!” and so set in motion the salvation of mankind. If she can be so courageous, why do mothers cower in the face of a rebellious child who cares far too much what her foolish peers think and considers far too little what God wants? That mother needs to beg the Blessed Mother to help her be courageous. The soul of her daughter depends on a conversion to virtue.

If you are so fortunate as to give this matter serious thought when children are little, it is much easier. Modesty and manners become a part of who we are as a family. Mom and Dad model modest and mannerly behavior and children learn by imitation. As they grow, they have a sense of modesty and the habit of manners. One wonderful resource for teaching children to be mannerly is Karen Santorum’s lovely book, Everyday Graces: A Child’s Book of Manners. Mrs. Santorum edits and comments upon engaging stories and poems which teach mannerly behavior, thereby ensuring behavior that reflects respect for one another.

When we speak about Marian virtue, we need not limit it to girls. Boys, while not encouraged to be ladylike, can certainly be encouraged to be virtuous and to call upon the Blessed Mother to help them be chivalrous gentleman in an age of near androgyny. Mannerly boys are a blessing to everyone around them and mannerly men are truly rare gems.

Take Back the Glory

When a child learns to be respectful, modesty follows more naturally. Modesty respects the purity of the person next to you or behind you or down the sidewalk from you. Children who are courteous can be taught to understand that we are gracious when we dress and behave in such a way that everyone clearly understands we have a holy respect for our bodies and our Creator. Gentle conversations with little girls can lead to true studies with adolescent girls. Books such as Beautiful Girlhood, updated by Karen Andreola (and not written from a Catholic perspective), and Colleen Hammonds’ Dressing with Dignity and Rita Davidson’s Immodesty: Satan’s Virtue will provide much fodder for thoughtful conversations in the home.

And conversation is key; not everyone will adhere to the same dress code. There can and should be some variation depending on environment, climate, and culture. The thirteen-year-old who lives on a boat in the Florida Keys will not necessarily dress the same way as the thirteen-year-old who lives in rural Maine. But they both can and should dress thoughtfully — even prayerfully — considering their highest calling as daughters of the Blessed Mother. And they can both act like ladies.

Homes where ladies live are homes where the words of John Paul II are taken to heart by the homemaker who lives there:

By taking Mary into his own home, John showed her his filial affection…. John's action was the execution of Jesus' testaments in regard to Mary. But it had symbolic value for each one of Christ's disciples, who are asked to make room for Mary in their lives, to take her into their own homes. By virtue of these words of the dying Christ, every Christian life must offer a space to Mary and provide for her presence.

Certainly a devotion to Mary is obvious in a home where she lives. Carefully chosen statues and images are nicely displayed there. Homes of true ladies are not magazine-perfect, not so clean that they are sterile. Instead, they are inviting. Sights and smells and even sounds of those homes welcome the weary to stay and be comforted. Whether it’s a simple vase of flowers on a dreary January day or freshly squeezed lemonade in the heat of July, the home cheers its inhabitants while not being wearisome or ostentatious. It’s not about the show; it’s about ministering to souls with gentle, thoughtful, grace. And the homemaker who lives there calls frequently upon the Blessed Mother for the grace she needs.

It's time to take back feminine glory; it's time to be ladylike. What we want most for our daughters is for them to be happy with Jesus and His Mother forever in heaven. First, we have to set a good example. Mothers must live ladylike virtue. And if we truly, truly want our daughters to be happy, we have to begin when they are very little to remind them that they are little ladies, who will grow in virtue and loveliness just as the Blessed Mother did. If they do not, they will fail to answer God's call. And they will be miserable. They cannot be what He wants of them if they cannot live ladylike loveliness. They can't be happy living outside His will. It's really very simple.

Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Foss

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. To visit her blog click here.

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