When Is a Woman a “Lady”?

Recently I was addressing students at Georgia Tech University – speaking on the topic of Confidence. In the Q & A session afterwards, one diligent student who was taking copious notes asked if I could define “Lady” and differentiate from a “Woman.”  It dawned on me then, that this generation is quite oblivious to the difference. Their blissful “ignorance” possibly stems from the fact that the word “lady” isn’t used much in our society today and I wondered why.

I am British by nationality but grew up in the Middle East and also in India. However, I have spent my adult life in the US. That being said, I will attest that I cringe inwardly when people refer to me as a “woman” as opposed to a “lady.”  Mind you, I know they mean no harm – it’s just that I was raised to realize that there is a definite difference and that training still resonates. I understand that the use of the term “woman” is not negative in any way – or is it? The online Oxford dictionary actually says this about the word “lady”:

Chiefly North American used as an informal, often brusque, form of address to a woman: I’m sorry; lady, but you have the wrong number.

It would seem then that “lady” might actually have a pejorative connotation in our culture!? I decided to delve a bit deeper into the debate – “Woman Vs Lady” because I believe that young lady at GT and others like her would be receptive to the idea of being defined as a “lady” as opposed to a “woman,” if a compelling argument were presented. The internet is rife with arguments, pro and con. The following are some definitions of the word “lady”:

  • A well-mannered and considerate woman with high standards of proper behavior.
  • A woman regarded as proper and virtuous.
  • A woman who is the head of a household.
  • A woman, especially when spoken of or to in a polite way.
  • A woman of refinement and gentle manners
  • A woman regarded as having the characteristics of a good family and high social position; female counterpart of gentleman


I think we can sum up the words “woman” and “man” to be definitions of the sex we are as humans whereas “ladies” and “gentlemen” are what we can aspire to be.

The movie “My Fair Lady” depicts the transformation of a “prisoner of the gutter” to a “lady” by teaching her how, when and why to think, speak and act. Catholics refer to Mary the mother of Jesus Christ, as “Our Lady” – epitomizing all that is good and graceful.  She is also known to be a tower of strength and endurance in her suffering, however.  By the same token, I don’t believe anyone would define Brittany Spears as a “lady” nor would anyone would refrain from referring to the late Princess Diana as a “lady.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the word “Lady” was well used. The feminist movement ushered in a whole slew of alternatives, however,  like “chick,” “babe,” “broad” (and ruder ones!) with the notion that being a “lady” presumes a weakness or handicap of sorts. The movement came about as a call for equal rights between the genders. However, I don’t believe it was meant to create a new definition of a “female” that made her more “male.” Unfortunately, it ended up a movement that threw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

In my perspective, a “lady” or “gentleman” is actually a position of power. No – not from a “class” point of view – but a behavioral stand point. Being a lady or a gentleman can only come about when one has self respect and a respect for others which would make for a respectful community – something we can all stand to have more of – don’t you think? Being a lady means acting with manners and reserve which takes strength because it goes against the natural instinct of indulging all our base thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Without this, we lose our mystery and everyone has a look at our bare soul. Our base becomes our standard. We have the option to act despicably without remorse or shame because we are all in the same boat and nothing is inappropriate anymore.

When we eliminated use of the word “lady” we ushered in the age of indiscretion. Everything became more “exposed” – our bodies, behavior, voices, sexuality. Not much is left unspoken, unseen or untouched. Just take Facebook for example – often every thought, word, action and emotion is posted unchecked –by teens and even adults. Really –does everyone need to know our every move and what is said to a spouse or our kids? Who wants to know about certain parts of our anatomy that should be private? Or that one starts drinking at 2 pm? There was a time when that was not something to be proud of! It certainly wasn’t considered ladylike behavior – or gentlemanly for that matter. Now, no one even bats an eye – in fact, more often than not, it is cheered and considered amusing. Of course, our reality TV shows promote a culture of voyeurism. How sad, that we have debased our society – all in the name of “equal rights”!

Being a lady is something I aspire to and something I am proud to be. It takes my God given gift of womanhood to the next level. I like to dress, think and act like a lady.  I believe this encourages men to act like gentlemen around me and I am grateful when one opens a door for me, engages me in pertinent discourse or helps me with luggage. However, I do not consider myself the “weaker” sex even though I couldn’t challenge a flea’s bench press ability! Being a lady, doesn’t steal my confidence, capability or compassion. It doesn’t make me a weak, ignorant doormat or a commodity. I am a mother, an entrepreneur, have worked in the corporate world, am involved in the community and am well educated. I am glad NOT to be a man or even a gentleman.

I believe it is a good idea to teach our sons and daughters that they can be competent equals while still being Ladies and Gentlemen – the two are not mutually exclusive.

Marisa Pereira


Marisa Pereira is a mother, fashion designer, currently runs a Design and Image Consulting business in Atlanta, GA, is a freelance writer and volunteers at her church and in the community. She holds a BA in Fashion Design and a BA in French with a minor in Psychology and has worked in the Fashion Industry for over twenty years. Frustrated at her inability to find appropriate church clothes for her 14 year old daughter, she heeded God’s call, and created the stylish but modest, Michaela-Noel clothing collection, now available on-line. Having lived in multiple countries, she is acutely aware of the emphasis cultures place on visual appeal. She analyzes the importance of presenting the best image of ourselves and passionately insists that it starts within. She regularly addresses adult and youth audiences – encouraging and teaching them to make a memorable first impact but more importantly - to create a lasting impression. Her websites are: www.mpcimage.com and michaela-noel.com.

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  • Ahawkins77

    I’ve raised my three daughters to be ladies. I’ve always told them, “If you want to be treated like a lady you have to act like a lady, dress like a lady and talk like a lady. Good article. We need raise more ladies in our society. Especially when one sees the portrayal of women in movies, music and TV, we find very few examples of ladies to emulate these days. 

  • Llkazlas

    Finally someone understands what it is to be a lady instead of just a woman.  We should treat each other as ladies, because people have a way of living up to what we expect from them.  If women are treated as if they ARE ladies, that will often influence them to act more like ladies too. 

    My mother and grandmother taught me that certain things, especially sexual things, were not discussed in mixed company and that gentlemen needed to watch their language in the presence of a lady.  Ladies do not curse, or use foul language.  Ladies say please and thank you and had good manners and always show respect for others.  Ladies also cross their legs when they sit down while wearing a skirt and never wear clothing that reveals too much.  Ladies have good table manners, never talk with food in their mouth, place a napkin in their lap and do not discuss certain unpleasant subjects at the dinner table.  This is not being overly “prim or proper”, but a way of showing respect for others by the way that we behave  ourselves.  

    I was also taught not to blurt out every thought that comes to mind.  To keep negative thoughts to myself.  If you can’t say something good, then don’t say anything at all.  I was also taught self control, to control strong emotions and to not vent them on other people, unecessarily. 

    Our society embraces relativism.  However, I have seen that many people still crave the days when we were ladies and gentlemen.  It is a subconscious thing, I guess, to be a lady, because I’m not  aware when I act like one, but I am aware of all the gentlemen that I do encounter in public that open the doors for me, hold the elevator so I can easily enter it and help me with my luggage.  They have also seen me struggle with my wiper blades and things with my car, and have come to my assistance. 

    There are many gentlemen in our society and they do not always look like a gentleman either.  Sometimes they have long braids in their hair and wear baggy pants and beat up sneakers.  Sometimes they are the minority workmen, in dirty clothes, standing at the checkout line that smile and let me go in front of them when I only have a thing or two to buy.  The gentlemen I have encountered are often located in the inner cities and are very often a minority as well.  They do not seem to notice how the world views them, but I have noticed how they view the world.  

  • Bdschwendler

    Excellent article, Marissa!  And, indeed, you are a lady and one I am proud to call a special friend.

  • Lady Francesca.

    I considered myself a LADY from the age of 13!  I have enjoyed being one.  I am also married to a GENTLEMAN and raising two of them.

  • Nin

    Oh wow, what a fantastic article! My mom taught my sisters and I to be ladies and this article speaks right to me!

  • Frank Farrell

    Well said.  It seems as though our very language is distorted today.  One has to chuckle when a police officer or witness describes the actions of a street criminal as; “I observed the GENTLEMEN breaking in to the car before he…etc etc”! And yes, when a woman behaves as a lady men tend to behave like gentlemen – even today.

  • Al

    My ex wife was a lady and in large part that is the reason I fell in love with her back in 1976. She passed away yesterday and as I pondered what I wanted to share about her at her memorial service, more than anything I wanted to share that she was indeed a lady. That gave me cause to search for what exactly a lady was by today’s standards and conceptions. That search brought me to this article and am thankful for it. Yes, my ex was definitely a lady and despite our past differences and divorce we still loved each other. A real man wants a lady and I hope the female readers of this will take that to heart. Thank you for the insightful article!