Choose Not to Be a Lady: Nod to Nora Ephron

Not being a lady

Reading the remembrances of Nora Ephron, I am reminded about how much I like her work. And because I was a kid who dreamed of growing up to be a writer, I also admired her.

In one piece, I stopped on this quote from a commencement speech she gave to Wellesley graduates in 1996: “I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there.”

That made me smile — and feel grateful for strong and trailblazing women like her. When I was in high school, I was told to be a lady by an authority figure and I still remember the feelings of outrage and confusion from the exchange.

“Stefanie, cross your legs,” I was told by an assistant coach of the track team. “Be a lady.” He was the grandfather of one of my teammates and was a supportive and kind man — but old-fashioned and, well, sexist.

Luckily, I had parents who raised me to be independent and to believe that I did not need to behave differently because I was a girl. I knew to assert myself and question authority if necessary (see my fashion rebellion story).

“Why do I have to be a lady?” I remember asking. He was surprised. I recall trying to explain, but I’m not sure how articulate I was. I might have asked why the boys weren’t told to cross their legs. After all, we were both wearing our shorts and track jerseys on the bus.

What I knew but couldn’t say was this. When boys and men are told, “Be a man,” it is to fight for something, to reach down into the depths of their beings and emerge stronger to do the right thing. When girls and women are told, “Be a lady,” it is to delicately suggest we be demure and adhere to rules that are, frankly, pointless. Why would I want to be constrained and controlled? Why on earth would I want to be a lady?

I hope for more commencement speakers like Ephron and parents like my own to encourage girls and women to break the rules when the rules need to be broken. That’s a good kind of trouble to get into.

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