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.

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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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