In the superb 2007 BBC television production of “Cranford”, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novels about a fictional town of that name in the English Midlands, there is a scene in which Miss Deborah Jenkyns, the local Emily Post, and Miss Mary Smith, her young houseguest visiting from Manchester, have a conversation about the latter’s assistance during a complicated emergency surgery which took place the evening before. “Dr Harrison was full of praise for you; he said you were the equal of a man,” Miss Deborah recounts to a surprised Mary. “And I corrected him. No woman is the equal of a man: she is his superior in every single case.”
Despite her assertions, those familiar with the novels or the series know that Miss Deborah generally preferred to stick to the proprieties, and only deviated from them when she felt it absolutely necessary. Today of course is Leap Day, since this is a Leap Year, for those of us using the Gregorian calendar. And one wonders what her views might have been on the practices of this day, in light of her aforementioned opinions on both propriety and on the role of women.
There are various Western folk traditions of dubious origins surrounding today, but what most had in common was the idea that Leap Day was an occasion upon which a young lady might assert herself somewhat more than what society normally allowed. For example, she might propose marriage to a man, rather than waiting for him to do so, or she might wear trousers instead of a skirt, and so on. Since today Western women can propose marriage to men or wear trousers if they feel like it, these traditions do not seem to have much meaning, anymore.
Those of us in our 20’s and 30’s cannot imagine what our grandmothers could and could not do, based on what was considered proper in society. For example, at one time it was once considered incredibly vulgar for a well-bred lady to smoke a cigarette on the street, presumably because she could be mistaken for being ill-bred, or worse. Our grandparents’ generation may have begun the significant changes, beginning with young ladies cutting their hair and their dresses short, or later participating in the war effort during WWII, but our parents’ generation really threw out the idea that there were definite ways in which all ladies ought to behave or appear in public.
One can debate the point as to whether the change has been entirely beneficial. Certainly it is a good thing that the ladies in the room can make their own decisions without seeking permission. It is also a good thing that they are no longer required to obey their male peers as to how they are to think, act, and so on. We are all creatures with free will, and to be constricted into being unable to exercise that free will is something no one, regardless of their sex, truly wishes for themselves.
On the other hand, when generally accepted standards such as behavior and dress are abandoned, we end up with something utterly unappealing. Today when you go to a public place such as the grocery store or the train platform, the general impression is that one has accidentally stumbled into the ladies’ locker room at the local gym, such is the level of déshabillé which one is forced to witness. This is not to say, of course, that the men are any less guilty of crimes against cleanliness and propriety at times, but I suspect the eyes of both sexes are drawn more to the offending female, rather than the male.
As to why this is the case, one could certainly chalk this view up to the often-blamed residual attitudes from the past, though I think this is something of a canard. I doubt that most of us who grew up in the West in the 80’s or 90’s lived in households where our mothers never once wore a pair of jeans or dress trousers, for example, or never saw a lady dressed in such attire, unless we happened to live in some very isolated community where such things were strictly prohibited. Nor does our generation generally have the hang-ups of some in our parents’ generation with respect to the role of women asserting themselves, such as being our bosses in the workplace.
Yet I do think that on the whole, there is something permanently, infinitely laudable about a lady who does value herself highly, enough to demonstrate it by the way she looks and behaves in public. No matter how much society may change, we are pre-programmed to be able to recognize a woman’s respectability at a glance, which has nothing to do with how much money she has spent on her wardrobe. Rather, this has to do with the question of whether the lady thinks about the impact she will have on others.
By no means am I suggesting that women ought to go back to a no-choice choice of being the drudge in the kitchen, or the china doll in the curio cabinet. Yet as much as men are rightly chastised for the myriad of things we do incorrectly, the ladies do not get off scot-free merely because they are the fairer sex. They are very much aware, even if they choose to deny it, that it is they who draw the eye, and they who set the standards.
While admittedly it is far easier for men to pass unnoticed, whether because our choices in plumage are considerably more limited, or because we are simply uninteresting and have little to say or do, let the ladies among us remember: the power to set standards for how we ought to look and behave toward others is firmly in their hands. It is not limited to Leap Day, Leap Year, or any other holiday. One hopes that they may use that power for good.