Illustration © Tibor Kranjc

What Etiquette Books Teach Us About Women

Language and etiquette have a lot in common. As a set of prescribed rules of behavior, etiquette is, just like language, a form of communication and it can often be packed with more meaning than the spoken word. But while words are known to fall on deaf ears, actions often resonate loudly.

Merriam Webster will tell you that etiquette is “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life”. A word so defined inevitably signals ceremony and restriction. When such rules are applied to a particular gender that has traditionally lacked power, the phrases ‘good breeding’ and ‘prescribed by authority’ can sound much more sinister.

Just as language is always a reflection of a society and its era, so are the words used to prescribe etiquette a mirror image of the society’s mindset. Etiquette books are a window into what we used to think and how we used to behave. They are also, by the way, a terrific resource for authors who write about the past. There are few more sincere insights into a society and how it changed than etiquette books, because they exude blind societal pride and reveal by default the rituals of the time. They’re a reminder that we’ve come a long way — and that there’s still a long way ahead.


While reading through some of first editions of classic etiquette works, the stark differentiation between the prescribed gender roles struck me as almost comical. I’m delighted to report I would be hard pressed to find similar examples in later reprints of these works, which is a hopeful glimmer that our outlooks are slowly changing.

Here are some of the more fascinating stereotypes — and examples of language usage — gleaned from three important works on etiquette: Amy Vanderbilt’s 1958 A Guide to Gracious Living; Emily Post’s 1984 Etiquette, 14th Edition; and John Morgan’s 1996 New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners.

The Helpless Husband

There’s something to be said for the dichotomy between the assumed stereotype of a strong pater familias that old etiquette books insist on on the one hand and the frequent mentions of elaborate ways to tiptoe so as not to offend or hurt his feelings on the other. Women should, it seems, be mindful not to impose any overly feminine chore on the father:

“Most modern fathers can change a diaper, feed and burp the baby, take a pulse, figure a temperature, bind a wound, make beds, oversee children’s baths, and scramble together an emergency meal. Anything a husband does do, should be done in a spirit of camaraderie rather than of martyrdom. His wife should, I think, try her best to spare him the too feminine chores — washing the dishes, setting the table, or sweeping the floors.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, pp. 491–492

“One look at the calendar and Mr. B. would have buttoned up his wrath or worked it off somewhere else (…). By next Tuesday he can mention the matter quite safely. Mrs. B. will be prettily contrite and manage to make her husband fell like a big, strong infallible male who never overdraws his account.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 490

If you’re stuck on “prettily contrite”, so was I. It means Mrs. B. will “exhibit feelings or express remorse or penitence affected by guilt in a pleasing way”. All this because by then, she will have realized how the euphemistic “calendar” simply made her overreact.

The Flawless Wife

Good old etiquette might have been — in terms of women’s self-image — the equivalent of today’s advertising. “A pocket-sized magnifying make-up mirror is a requisite for every woman. It should be consulted regularly,” says Emily Post. While insisting on the notion that women should always look flawless, the behind-the-scenes work on how they achieve sparkle must remain shrouded in mystery. The balancing act is quite literally impossible and the parallel drawn between the wife and the mother-in-law is bad taste at best:

“A man might remember some of his mother’s habits that annoyed him or his father and so give any intelligent, co-operative wife a good idea of what he’d prefer her not to do. He might make it clear that he’d hate to see her come to the breakfast table with her hair in curlers — in fact, that he is quite repelled by curlers at any time, even after lights-out at night. And that he couldn’t abide the sight of her face oiled with cream.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 493

“A woman is well-groomed when she looks fresh, neat, clean, and well-pressed. This means a daily, and often twice daily, shower or bath, fresh underwear and stockings daily or twice daily, competent home or professional hairdressing at least once a week, well-manicured hands, no chipped nail polish, runless, wrinkleless stockings, and shined shoes at all times, even for housework.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 200

Now tell the truth: when was the last time you polished your shoes before vacuuming?

The Lonely Women

By generalizing the role of women at home and at work, persistent stereotypes are repeated in different contexts, here pity and guilt served for breakfast:

“At the breakfast table, even when the family is alone, [the husband] makes some attempt at pleasant conversation with his wife — who may have a lonely day ahead of her — and with his children of whom he sees little enough as it is.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 490

The Manly President

“The correct introduction of a man or a woman is: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present Mrs. (or Mr.) Williams” or “Mrs. Williams of Chicago,” if further identification is really necessary.

Both men and women respond in the same way. That is, Mrs. Williams (as well as Mr. Williams) bows. If the President offers his hand, Mrs. Williams gives him hers. She does not offer hers if he fails to make this gesture of courtesy — as it most unlikely.”

— Emily Post’s Etiquette, 14th Edition, Elizabeth L. Post, 1984, p. 12

I’m at a loss as to what to do should the president, in a parallel universe, be a woman.

The Feminine Secretary

“It is only human for a man to want his secretary to be neat, attractive, and, if possible, pretty. He has to look at her all day long. But the more attractive she is, the more, for his own and her protection, he must treat her with careful, polite objectivity.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 179

Setting aside the 1958 requirement for secretarial prettiness, Emily Post’s 1984 Etiquette is peppered with gems like the one in the example below, possibly because, by 1985, the participation in the work force of women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four in the States soared to 71 percent. A 1986 The Atlantic article states that 80s were a time when women entered sectors of the work force traditionally occupied by men, such as financial management, banking, and legal practice.

“During a lengthy, involved meeting notes may be taken or a cassette set up to record the conversation, although this is not always necessary. When notes are to be taken, a secretary is usually assigned the task, or a member of the meeting may be asked to do so — not necessarily a woman, please!”

— Emily Post’s Etiquette, 14th Edition, Elizabeth L. Post, 1984, p. 516

The Irritatingly Important Women Executives

“A woman who achieves executive status of some kind must guard against being dictatorial at home as well as in the office. Men meet with their frustrations on the way up but not to the same degree, that is, on the ground of sex, as women. Therefore when a woman does arrive she tends to become irritatingly important. When she gives an order she wants action, and never mind the human element. It is very hard sometimes for a woman to continue to be warm and feminine and kindly once she has received business or professional recognition. Actually, she needs all these qualities more than ever if she is to keep on advancing and if her marital chances or relations are not to be harmed.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 207

Subtitles of disbelief blink in my head as I type this: “She must guard against being dictatorial? Oh, at least she acknowledges that for women, upwards mobility is paved with frustrations. But — as a result — she must become irritatingly important. When she gives an order, she wants action? Do men want a tap dance performance when they yell out an order? Okay, this needs to be checked for accuracy. She better not advance in her career or else she’ll never marry!”

The Unhappy Woman

“It’s hard to face this, but no woman can find happiness in putting career above her husband and family. Once she has taken on woman’s natural responsibilities, whatever work she undertakes must be done in a way that deprives the family the least — for some deprivation they must endure if she works at all. Once encumbered she must have something very special in the way of talent to offer an employer to make hiring her worth while, at least while her children are young. Everywhere we meet women who seem to overcome the difficulties of the dual role, but the hard truth is that more women with young children fail at making happy homes while working full time than succeed.”

— A Guide to Gracious Living: Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, Vanderbilt, 1958, p. 206

Old etiquette books rely heavily on wild generalizations of women’s internal lives. They seem to offer a prescription for happiness that takes into account the concept of women’s “natural responsibilities”, while almost admitting that women have to work twice as hard to make themselves worthwhile. Those who claim to have overcome this do not understand their own situation at best or are outright liars at worst.


Finally

Old — and not so old — etiquette books talk about women of very limited daily journeys, generalize their thoughts and internal lives, and carve out perfect stencils for them to inhabit. Women are often depicted as a nuisance and supporting acts, while the lead role is assigned to a man. Finally and regrettably, etiquette books mostly talk about upper class women.

Reading and rereading this is a tough exercise. It’s bitter as I chew through the instructions, divisions and unreasonable orders and criticisms, disproportionately aimed at women. But it’s also sweet because I feel outrage at how things were, which must, I hope, in itself mean that we’ve progressed. Much like language, etiquette is an expression of society. Changes in society will inevitably mould language and etiquette. Hopefully, in 2050, a girl reading a dusty 2018 etiquette manual will be laughing out loud, trying to figure out “what were they thinking!”. And if we’re lucky, we won’t even have to wait until 2050. Summarizing my hopes is John Morgan:

“Traditional etiquette, with its subtle nuances and time-honored forms, is seen by some as at best quaint and charming, at worst ridiculous and snobbish.

To these detractors I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.”

— Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners, John Morgan, 1996, Preface

Meanwhile, just make triple sure you pick up a recent edition. Anything predating the 1980’s might come as a shock.

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