Young Lady

On a seemingly polite but nevertheless questionable title.

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While I no longer think of myself as a girl, I’m not yet ready to claim the title of crone, which the feminist movement has redefined as wise old woman. Still, I’m on the dimming side of 65, and I’m not allowed to forget that the seventh inning stretch is over:  I’m reminded every time someone calls me “young lady.”

 

I hadn’t even qualified for Social Security when I was Young-Lady-ed for the first time.

A friend, 10 years my senior, told me that the man who parks her car calls her “young lady” each time he sees her.  We laughed about it as we walked to the garage. Sure enough, when she handed him her receipt, as though on cue he said, “Good afternoon, young lady.” And then he laid one on me.

I’ve taken an informal survey of my female friends, those in my age cohort and those in the decades ahead, and we’ve all been crowned with “young lady.”  One says her doctor greets her that way at every appointment — and he’s in his early 40s.  It can’t be that he doesn’t know her name; it’s right in front of him on her chart.

I’m sure these folk don’t intend actual disrespect.  Nonetheless, “young lady” is not the same as the deferential “ma’am.”  Far otherwise.

When I actually was a young lady — wearing little white gloves and a hat, crossing my legs at the ankle when seated — no one called me that with any regularity, but if I’d talked back to my parents, they might have said, “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”  And that observation leads to one reason why “young lady” makes me uncomfortable.

I find an implied hierarchy in the phrase, with the person wielding it assuming the power.  It diminishes dignity in a way that’s related to — though without the intended insult or attendant historic hatreds and violence — in calling a man “boy.”

Some of my older male friends are conscious of having being called, “young man” in situations where it might replace either “sir” or “hon.”

Feminist theory says the gaze is an indication of power — the gazer asserting power over the object of the gaze.  If you’re not a feminist, consider, instead, the lesson taught to children: Don’t stare; it’s rude.  The lesson is so ingrained by repetition—or so instinctive, that among ruffians, the question, “You lookin’ at me?” is the start of an argument that can lead to a brawl.

If the gaze is an indication of power, how much greater, is touch?   This subject goes beyond the rules in etiquette books about who ought to hold out a hand for a handshake.

About 10 years ago, half-watching TV, I saw a documentary of an aged leading man — Gregory Peck, I believe.  An unidentified man came up, laid his hand on the star’s arm, gave him a compliment, and left.  That sort of touch — not the intrusion of paparazzi, nor the wildness of mobbing fandom — marked his age.

When my father was 60, he had a full head of jet-black hair, so unusual for a man his age that a local shopkeeper told him he had a great toupee because it looked so natural.  She didn’t believe him when he said his hair was real.  I, however, take after my mother.

Like her, I grayed in my 30s, and with two swooping gray wings, one at each temple.  Had I been a man, I’m sure I would have been considered distinguished.  I celebrated my 50th birthday by returning to the hair-color of my birth.

Five years ago I decided to see what I looked like without chemical intervention.  The shampoo, designed for blondes and gray-hair, looks a lot like bluing (the a laundry product that was often used to make yellowed fabric white again.) The shampoo makes my hair silver, makes me feel downright glamorous — until I’m called “young lady.”

Those two words dispel all illusion of glamour. I’m reduced to being a little old lady with or without tennis shoes.

Other than the presumed rights of familiarity, I believe strangers treat me better now than they did when I was younger.  Or perhaps I’m more grateful for small acts of kindness.  It’s difficult to tease out an analysis of how I’m being treated now compared with how I was treated in the past: What’s due to my age, what to changing mores in, for example, door opening.

Certain behaviors used to be de rigeur.  Given a man, a woman, and a door, the man would open the door.  Any man.  Any woman.  Any door. And then, in the late 1960s, accusations of patriarchy shut down those courtesies: i.e., opening a door for a woman indicated she wasn’t capable of doing it herself.

One man who’s old enough to have been taught to open doors, whose old-fashioned manners survived the chill — one of those called “young man” by parking attendants and waitresses — adopts an ironic tone when he tells about the time he tried to open a door for a woman who was carrying a large bag of groceries and had a toddler in tow. They got to the door at the same time. He reached for the door handle, but she outmaneuvered him, grabbed the door, smiled, and held the door open for him. Telling the story he says, “It wasn’t as though I could stick out my elbow and shove her out of the way.”  It was, I think, her smile that stuck it to him.

Often now, when men and women hold doors open for me, I think that’s just fine. I refuse to frame the situation so that I appear (to myself) helpless.

A couple of months ago I was carrying a cup of coffee, a pocketbook, and a briefcase, making way from the line at Starbucks to the lounge where I hoped to find a big comfortable armchair in the sun.  As I entered the lounge, the lid popped off the coffee and some of it spilled on the floor.  Startled, I was calculating where to set down my coffee so I could mop up the mess.   I must have looked befuddled, because before I could step away from the spill, two young women — students — came up to me, asked if I’d been burned (embarrassed, yes; burned, no), took the coffee from me, got a new lid for it, and mopped up the floor with an efficiency and tact that moved me.  One of them offered to carry my book bag; the other took my coffee.  They didn’t hover, but were helpful, kind. And they never even once called me “young lady.” • 10 November 2009

 

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.
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