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What does being ‘ladylike’ mean when you’re a feminist?

When we hear the term “ladylike,” images of Southern belles with impeccable manners, coy smiles and daintily crossed ankles might come to mind. But is that really what being ladylike is all about? We asked our favorite Raging Feminists to weigh in and dispel the myth of what it means to be ladylike.

What does being “ladylike” mean to you?

My mother would constantly tell me to be ladylike, and rejecting the concept, which I associated then with wearing clothes she wanted me to wear that I wasn’t comfortable in, going on dates with boys, boys paying for those dates and not being ‘too’ independent so boys would like me. In short: strangulation and an inauthentic life.” — Chanel Dubofsky

Nothing. There’s no such thing as being ladylike.” — Ella, age 12, daughter of Veronica Arreola

Being ladylike is sometimes part of my job. Doing sex work means that when I’m working, I have to look like a paragon of sexy, femme elegance. It takes about an hour to get ready, and sometimes I have to do it when I would much rather be crouched over my laptop writing socialist propaganda.” — Margaret Corvid

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During my upbringing, ‘ladylike’ was a term used to police gender expression. I wasn’t a tomboy, but I wasn’t terribly feminine either, and I was told that it wasn’t ladylike to use curse words or talk about sex or wear flannel. Ladylike implied a forced heteronormative and conventionally feminine presentation that didn’t [jibe] with my particular brand of queerness. I didn’t want to be ladylike.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to notice women reclaiming and improving upon that idea. Today, ‘ladylike’ seems less like a prescriptive list of do’s and don’ts and more like a high-femme confidence that some women choose to possess. The women I know don’t care if others care about how they dress, what they drink, how they speak or who they sleep with — they care that they are presenting in ways that authentically represent who they are. They are feminine but tough, and they demand to be taken seriously. I still don’t identify as a lady in that sense, but I look at those who do with great admiration.” — Carrie Nelson

Riding sidesaddle in full Victorian dress, all while wearing a whalebone corset and a vial of smelling salts around one’s neck, never swearing, never drinking hard liquor… I’m getting the vapors just thinking about it!” — Shaindel Beers

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To be ladylike is to have respect for yourself. You also shun the term ‘ladyparts,’ because there’s nothing unladylike about saying ‘vagina.'” — Jill Di Donato

I don’t know what the word ‘ladylike’ even means. Keeping my ankles crossed? Drinking tea with my pinkie up? Never scratching my lady-balls in public? The whole concept is absurd. And even if it wasn’t, stereotypes are such a bore.” — Jen “always ladylike” Selk

I think of my grandmothers as the ultimate in ‘ladylike’ behavior. They both dressed impeccably, never used profanity, were gracious… and they didn’t take any crap off of anyone, including their husbands.” — Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

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I think there are two sides to ‘lady’ — the way it gets used against women to force them to conform to not only gender expression but also really rigid class expectations and the way it has been queered by the people to whom it has traditionally been denied as a label for said reasons of nonconformance. Like, I can’t condemn ‘ladylike,’ because I know too many people who have worked too hard to make it part of their gender identity without the gross classism and racism and FRAGILITY associated with it.” — Marianne Kirby

Being ladylike is simple. Identify as female, and be yourself.” — Rachael Berkey

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Phrases you're saying wrong
Image: Mike Kemp/Blend Images/Getty Images

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