SPEAKING FREELY


Posted by Professor Robin LeBlanc


I'm not certain I have completely understood all of the points Ms. Wicker made, but I am fairly sure I've grasped two of them: 1) She argues that the vicious qualities of the W&L social scene instruct W&L's young women on how to become not mere women but "ladies." 2) She liked my first posting because I "got" the "social capital" element of the Bracket. Having been praised (or perhaps damned with praise) I feel I've been offered an invitation to respond to Ms. Wicker, and on the topics of ladies (especially Southern ladies) and social capital, I have some thoughts to offer.

I'll address the second point, Ms. Wicker's assertion that I understood the importance of social capital to the politics of the Bracket, first because it is the easiest to manage. I do not use the term "social capital" in either my assertion that the writers of the Bracket acted like bullies or my suggestion that we all insist on being added to the Bracket as a show of our solidarity against social bullying. Still, I am talking about a contest for power in W&L's social realm, and I can see how one might assume that we can describe that power as a form of "capital." A movement to sign up for the Bracket us an attempt to form new social ties, extend the reach of the trust we have in each other, and to reinforce widely shared values for the sake of preventing future abuse of our community's members--all parts of the concept of "social capital" embrace by many social scientists, including political scientist Robert Putnam, whose work I have taught in comparative politics classes.

I am glad that Ms. Wicker sees the power logic of my first posting, but I would like to clarify her view of my claims in one small way. I do not think the power issues are "social capital" issues. This is probably because, while many social scientists are at ease with it, the notion of referring to things such as kindness, trust, integrity, and the courage of one's convictions as "capital" disturbs me in a very deep way. "Capital" is a term primarily used to refer to a resource we can turn to our advantage. Perhaps there is a social capital in that sense. I would think that being white, rich, and pretty at W&L is to have a certain amount of social capital in the sense of possessing a resource that serves one's advantage. Being white, male, fit-looking, a member of a cool fraternity, and popular with women, is also likely to equate with social capital. If what Ms. Wicker means to suggest is that those whom chance and a willingness to hide their eccentricities have favored with approval in the W&L social clime have "capital" and are thus less likely to be the victims of maliciousness, I might agree with her.However, if by "social capital," Ms. Wicker intends to point toward those qualities that would lead the silent 1300 to at last band together against W&L's gossips and social bullies, I must disagree with her use of the term.

What is wanted at W&L these days is not more "capital," not more resources by which we might serve our advantage -- individual or collective. What is wanted is something decidedly more old fashioned and less advantageous: a powerful desire to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is not (no matter what some interpreters of Tocqueville's "self interest properly understood" might suggest) always beneficial. Sometimes it is simply and horribly costly. I may have contributed to extending our collective confusion of capital and morals by pointing out in my "silent 1300" posting that, once we are listed on the "Bracket" (or whatever list will replace it next year), we can no longer suffer any worse for our intellectual or sexual choices. But the fact is, we stand up against power when our friends have been injured because it is the right thing to do, EVEN if we will suffer worse and we know as much.

Interestingly, this is the point that I think connects best with the question of what it means to become a lady. I have some sympathy for Ms. Wicker's assertion that what separates the best women from others is that the best are ladies, and that the qualities as ladies are evident in their behavior. How could I fail to sympathize having been raised by a North Carolinian who led me to believe there is no higher goal for a young woman than the attainment of the status "lady"? Even as my many years of work as both a gender scholar and a survivor of my upbringing have led me to think more and more critically about the immense power for self-inflicted repression built into the quest for the status of lady, the term "lady" reaches me in a central part of my being, suggesting to me (despite the refusal of my well-schooled intellect), the possibility of an aim more satisfying, more ennobling, and yes, more honorable than my usual more prosaic goals of managing work, child care, and housekeeping tasks with more efficiency and less stress. Becoming a "lady" often seems to me to be a calling that will ease the daily grind of exhausting chores, the sometimes numbing sexism in the world around me, and my own realization that I'll never be especially extraordinary in most things I do because becoming a lady seems to be a matter of being defined less by the material realities of my situation than my capacity to withstand them with gracious aplomb. And gracious aplomb often seems like all I might manage...

So, I am leery of the term "lady," as any thoughtful feminist probably is, but I also never really give it up, as is perhaps true of many women with a Southern upbringing. But here I must part company with Ms. Wicker, yet again. For I was raised to believe that a real lady is a woman who, despite being merely a woman, despite whatever other challenges she faces, does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. A real lady neither needs nor participates in a community where mere "respectability" rather than actual graciousness is the goal. A real lady is not above making and admitting mistakes of her own, but she is certainly above petty finger-pointing at the mistakes of others. A real lady neither contributes to nor acknowledges the gossiping around her. And a real lady chooses her friends for their true, inner qualities, not for the reputation that a vicious community assigns to them. A real lady would certainly not associate with men who under the reputation of "gentlemen" act like thugs, and she would not deign to credit their behavior as a service to the community. A real lady chooses her friends carefully. A real lady is known by those friends, the friends for whom standing up against bullies, especially when it hurts to do so, is what really counts.


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