An internet age ago (Timeliness is a lot to ask of me—my lunch breaks are only so long!) Senator Arlen Specter said this to Representative Michelle Bachmann when the two were talking over each other during a radio interview:
Now wait a minute! Don’t interrupt me, I didn’t interrupt you. Act like a lady.
Yeah, gross, obviously. And over at Broadsheet, Tracy Clark-Flory makes this perfectly valid point:
Many women interpret “act like a lady” to mean “know your place, little girl.” This comes from spending a lifetime being instructed in various ways to sit back politely, speak up only when called upon and defer to the male ego.
But “act like a lady” is more pernicious than that. It sets up a dichotomy between the “right way” and “wrong ways” to be a woman. The concept is ridiculous on its face—all women are real women—and it’s intensely limiting and therefore misogynist without further elaboration, but all that much more so when you realize there’s no similar proscription for men—”Act like a gentleman” is only ever said to toddler boys being told to let a girl go ahead of them on the slide. Good men are… well, they’re just called “good men,” but almost never gentlemen. Bad men are assholes, jerks, bastards, and lowlifes, but never not men. No one ever tells them they’re doing manhood wrong; no one ever threatens to revoke the status of “gentleman” from a man who annoys them.
And that’s exactly what this is: a threat. Ladies are treated as nearly human, and ladies are afforded special protection from all those dirtbags, creeps, cads, and sons-of-bitches out there, as well as from swearing, raised voices, and the burdens of intellectual endeavor. All those not-ladies? Those women? Well, without a man to protect them, without the deference accorded to ladies, they’re vulnerable to all kinds of repellent exploitations, and no man would sully his reputation by being seen to intercede with a reprobate, malefactor, thug, or weasel on behalf of some dirty, amoral, impertinent bitch.
Specter is threatening to revoke Bachmann’s status as a lady, leaving her open to attack—from him and from others—with the strong implication that she will deserve whatever she gets. And I’m not just talking about having her political views mocked in the press. Ladyhood is set up as a status vital to the survival of women, that is granted, very rarely, by men of power, and can be revoked by any man for any reason at any time.
To tell a woman to act like a lady is not merely patronizing and dismissive, it is an overt reminder of women’s lower status in society and the fact that women require men’s assent to achieve anything and for men to behave in a “gentlemanly” manner at all times to avoid everything from social rejection to physical violence.