I didn’t actually get to read my copy of The Lady while I was in hospital, in fact I didn’t get to read anything at all. This was mainly thanks to my post-op brain’s refusal to comply with the  usual everyday instructions I tend to bombard it with, like “concentrate” or “focus” or “turn the sodding page ffs!” No, tragically instead of reading anything from the pile of books and magazines I’d lugged in with me to help occupy my time while the glue was busy drying on the Eurofighter, I was reduced to forking out £7.00 for 3 days use of a bedside entertainment unit. This enabled me to watch more telly in a few short hours than I’ve managed to watch in total in the last couple of years. Then I came home on Thursday morning and watched a whole load more.

But yesterday I decided it was time to take the big, all-important step back to normality (or at least what passes for it in my world) and my real life. And so I switched the telly off.

And then I read The Lady.

And oh my word, what a rare old pile of shite it is.

I’ll pass over the Independent Schools Supplement and the classified ads (although I can’t promise I’ll never make mention in future of the “perfect 2 bedroom retirement home” being advertised in there as “a snip at £375,000“, or all the situations vacant slots for housekeepers and nannies, like this one for example: “Full-time Daily Housekeeper. Responsible for all aspects of  6-storey house. Cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, ironing, errands, some cooking. Driver required. Good English. Management of part time cleaner. Non smoker. References essential.) and focus instead on two of this week’s main features: Fay Weldon on socks and sex, and Laura Barber’s article on the Return of the Lady.

Now Weldon’s already come in for some well-deserved stick following an interview she did with Bryony Gordon of the Telegraph, in which the so-called icon of feminism is quoted as saying:

“There are women at work and there’s mating behaviour and women get them confused. At work, gender should not come into it. Women are right to refuse to make the coffee, but when you get home I’m afraid you have to make the coffee. It’s such a waste of time trying to tell your husband to pick up the socks or clean the loo. It’s much easier just to do it yourself.”

Well in her Lady interview with Paul Blezard, Weldon digs the hole a little bit deeper:

“It’s true and I mean it, not least in order to preserve domestic peace. I had no idea it would create such a fuss. The people who have got so exercised by it all are, I think, being totally unrealistic. Also, when you’re being interviewed you just chat on about the things that are on your mind and such things pop out. I mean, I was speaking as the mother of four sons. My husband (poet Nick Fox) is very peeved about that quote, but I do mean it, it just is easier to do it yourself.”

Further on in the interview:

“I ask her how she would respond to those who say she has let feminism down. “Well, I didn’t even know I was a feminist until I read it on the back of one of my books. I thought I was writing novels about what I saw and thought; I certainly wasn’t writing intentional propaganda. When I got a job as an advertising copywriter, I was expected to make coffee as much as come up with copy. I soon noticed it was the women who did the work while the men went out to lunch and talked about their wives’ chests. It just seemed interesting. Wrong, of course, but interesting also and I wanted to point that out.”

I have to say I’m not surprised to hear the woman who argued that rape should be reduced to a lesser charge of aggravated assault on the grounds that it “actually isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a woman if you’re safe, alive and unmarked after the event” and who advised women to fake orgasms, admit to knowing fuck all about feminism; I’m only surprised that it’s taken her this long to do so. Oh yes, and surprised by how quickly Weldon manages to contradict herself. Here she is in the Guardian humming a completely different tune only a month ago for instance:

Did she feel part of the feminist movement? “Inevitably, but I never wrote propaganda because it all seemed so evident. It became obvious that you had to be a feminist because it was such a ridiculous state of affairs.”

So it was obvious she had to be a feminist and part of the movement, and yet she didn’t know she was a feminist until she read it on the back of one of her books. Confused? Yes indeed, sadly I do believe she is.

But anyway, enough about Weldon and her increasingly bizarre pronouncements on feminism. England’s First and Finest Weekly Magazine presents us with a far more complex issue to debate than whose job it should be to pick up the socks and put down the toilet seat, which is: do ladies still exist?

Laura Barber contends that even though the lady became a dying breed in 1958 when the last debutantes were presented at the palace, “there are signs that the post-feminist lady is finally stepping out of the parlour and flexing her muscles.” As evidence for this we apparently only have to look at Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Joanna Lumley, women who remain gracious in their performance of public duties and who, it is implied, unlike Madonna or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, aren’t just trying to look the part, for they have the fundamental character that goes with it.

“Today’s ‘lady’ is intellectual and well-mannered without being snobbish” says Rachel Johnson, the magazine’s new editor, “she enjoys travelling, reading, and gardening; she’s the type of woman who could start her own business or get involved in local projects.” Which all sounds fair enough; after all, that description could probably apply to any one of us, so it’s a shame she then has to spoil it by providing this ridiculous set of rules:

RJ’s Top 10 Rules for a Lady

  1. Put others first
  2. Treat everyone the same but accord those older and higher-ranked (ie your consultant) with extra respect
  3. Always give bad news face to face, never by text or email, and look your victim in the eye
  4. Do not noodle (?) on your mobile or idly flick through the paper while anyone, especially your mother, is talking to you.
  5. Do not wear underwear as outerwear, or no underwear at all
  6. When someone is talking to you, actually listen
  7. Stand up or at least pitch forwards in your chair when an older woman enters the room
  8. Call an older woman “Mrs Proops” until she invites you to call her “Marjorie” – and never before
  9. Do not hold loud personal conversations in public places
  10. However bad things are, a lady always stands up straight and holds her head up high

Yep, I can really see myself getting into that. Standing up whenever an older woman walks into the room, and calling any woman I don’t know Mrs sodding Proops. Not.

Barber’s conclusion seems to be that much like fun feminism, where any woman can declare herself and her actions to be feminist no matter what simply by virtue of the fact that she as an empowerfulled woman has chosen freely to do whatever it is, any woman can also be a lady. It’s not about class or breeding or wealth any more, “the lady is a rather more flexible, inventive, and surprising figure than the rigid stereotypes have allowed.”

Says Barber:

“We are living in an era when female success no longer requires cookie-cutter conformity to some narrow ideal of femininity, with a cut-glass accent and a set of opinions bland enough to pass around the canapés. But nor should expressing your individuality and promoting your own interests necessitate backstabbing, or aping male bravado. Rather than having been ‘finished’ in the old sense, it seems to me that this generation of girls are only just beginning to work out what being a lady might mean – and this time, with luck, it’ll be on their terms.”

This time, with luck, girls will realise what outdated nonsense this all is. And then they’ll get on with their lives without giving tired old sexist gender rules so much as a second thought.

As Jemima Lewis once said in her classic piece on this subject:

Woman is a straightforward word, a description of gender only lightly dusted with overtones of maturity and earthiness. Lady, on the other hand, is saturated with daintiness: it suggests coy glances and batting eyelashes, pencil skirts, pinnies, manicures, tiny feet, dinner on the table and not a hair out of place. It means never burping, snorting with laughter or buying a round.

I’ll second that. Now sing it Helen:

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