Jane Austen Lives
We just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I celebrated it, anyway, along with a bunch of other Jane Austen fans in a cyber-chat on January 28. There is something compelling about Austen’s writing, the way she can depict all of life in the doings of a small English village. Mark Twain’s back handed compliment is actually a testament to how her stories keep drawing the reader back for more: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Yes, Mr. Twain, we understand; you can’t keep yourself from reading her time and again.
Austen’s stories are character driven. She draws them so that we can’t help but recognize ourselves or see our friends, neighbors, family and co-workers in them. There is also the urge to be like them, to aspire, to dream of joining them in their lives 200 years ago. Oh, to be a gentleman of means. Oh, to be a lady of good family and fortune. A Jane Austen lady: what woman could hope for more?
When I started out as a lawyer back in the ’80s, there were a number of employment cases that exemplified the changing nature of the work force. One recurrent figure was The Old Guy Boss (or TOGB, for short). A typical set of facts might include the way TOGB spoke to women in the office, perhaps referring to them as “Girls” or similar terms. And as you can imagine these cases were about more than mere words, concerning discrimination and hostile work environments.
I remember one case our law firm had where TOGB had a habit of calling the women “Sweetie”, but did not use a similar term for men. When one of the women pointed it out to him and ask that he not do so any longer, he immediately apologized. She thanked him, to which he responded without thinking, “Sure thing, Sweetie.” That was not one of the best facts TOGB or his company could point to in the later-filed employment discrimination litigation.
What was wrong with it? It’s demeaning. Yet that practice alone was not the basis of the suit. Rather, when the records show that women miss out on promotions, are denied career-enhancing assignments, and are paid less than men with similar qualifications, then a history of demeaning comments is of no help to any company trying to justify its personnel decisions.
Words from the Pulpit
Happily, many employers have turned the corner on this type of demeaning behavior toward their employees. There are still many instances of job discrimination, of course, but this particular nastiness is not as prevalent as it once was.
So why write about it now?
I heard something the other day that brought back memories of that era of litigation. In fact, I’ve heard it too many times to count in recent years. It comes from the pulpit.
“The men are on retreat this weekend, but you ladies still have two weeks to sign up for yours and we have a few slots left …”
“The men’s group continues with its study on Thursday mornings. A new ladies’ Bible study is beginning on Tuesday …”
“While the men are going to the foothills for a day of mountain biking, the ladies will have their own activities over at …”
Men: not gentlemen.
Ladies: not women.
Words mean things. Women and men are words that denote generic classes of people, one male and one female. Gentlemen and ladies are much more restrictive words, and somewhat archaic in their meaning too.
In English society of centuries past, generally a “Gentleman” was a man who had significant landed property, often owning not only his own estate but also the surrounding farmland and nearby village that he rented to farmers and village tenants (think of Jane Austen’s landholders such as Mr. Knightley in Emma) and a consequent status as a member of the gentry (a step or so below the nobility). A “Lady” had a similar place in society, but always by virtue of the status of her father or husband; the word also had a slightly broader application, attaching to women in the nobility and the gentry both.
Here in the States, we don’t have titles of nobility. And while we used to have something similar to the gentry of England, that has passed as well. Still, we adopted – and held to for generations – the use of gentleman and lady as terms to denote a status in society, one that is above the laboring class. Nowadays the words are far from their original meaning in daily use. Now they pertain more to a person’s behavior than her or his status in society: “She’s so ladylike” or “He’s a perfect gentleman” are more the way people think of the words.
Aiming Too Low
And that brings me to what’s wrong with what I’ve been hearing from the pulpit in announcements and sermons.
First, if the women are ladies, then the men are gentleman. A failure to use consistent terminology is confusing to those of us who know and appreciate the difference.
Second, it’s demeaning. Men get to be men, but women are expected by church leadership to be ladies.
Third, it’s doctrinally unsound. We are not called to enter God’s kingdom out of an expectation that we will behave in certain ways (e.g., that women will now behave like ladies). We are called into his kingdom despite the fact that we won’t behave appropriately much of the time (think of Paul’s description of his abhorrent behavior in Romans 7, or David’s confessions in Psalm 51 after what he did to poor Uriah and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11).
We are not Christians so we can now try to add behaving like perfect little gentlemen and perfect little ladies to our accomplishments. No, there is only One who is perfect and we are Christians because of what Christ has already perfectly accomplished for us.
Besides, a goal to be ladies or gentlemen in the church is aiming way too low. We already have a much higher status: we are children of God the Father, co-heirs with Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit himself dwells in us.
You couldn’t pay me enough to want to be a gentleman. And I am glad that my sisters in Christ are infinitely more than mere ladies.