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It is a telling choice of word. Hearing it used unironically, as would-be Missouri senator Todd Akin did recently, one almost feels as if Amelia Earhart never flew a plane and Sally Ride never rode a space shuttle. As if Madame C.J. Walker never made millions and Meg Whitman never made CEO. As if Lisa Leslie never dunked, Pat Benatar never rocked, Oprah Winfrey never reigned, and Hillary Clinton never ran.
But that is, indeed, what the man said. In an interview last week, he complained that his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, was very aggressive in debating him, unlike in her 2006 race when she was "much more ladylike."
Akin, last heard revealing the existence of a previously unknown mechanism in the female body that shuts down conception in the event of "legitimate rape," might want to pen himself a reminder to not talk about women again, ever.
This latest gaffe is somewhat reminiscent of when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted as saying candidate Barack Obama had the ability to switch off and on his "Negro dialect." While the observation was true enough, we were still left to grapple with that bizarre choice of word. The term "Negro" fell out of usage in the late '60s. How is it that Reid failed, for 40 years, to get the memo?
One wonders the same about Akin. The issue is not dated terminology, per se, but rather, the suspicion that it reflects a dated world view--particularly with Akin, given his belief in a rape-resistant uterus.
But though he is the latest, he is hardly the only man who has sought recently to police the decorum of female lawmakers. Consider the 2011 e-mail Rep. Allen West sent Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz telling her, "You are not a lady" and "shall not be accorded due respect from me." And then there's then-Sen. Arlen Specter's 2010 shot at Rep. Michele Bachmann during a radio interview: "I'm going to treat you like a lady. So act like one."
One struggles to imagine a male lawmaker being chided to behave in a gentlemanly fashion. The person doing the chiding would be laughed into oblivion, and deservedly so--the complaint belongs to the era of handlebar moustaches and high-wheeled bikes.
This is not to say that a man ought not strive to behave in ways that reflect class, refinement, and manners. He should. A woman should, too. In a nation so rude that a member of Congress hectors the president during a televised speech, many of us could stand to act as if we'd had the benefit of home training.
But this is not about that. It is, rather, about an arrogant, condescending, and paternalistic mind set that says a woman cannot be tough, aggressive, competitive, smart, or feisty, and that if she embodies those traits, so prized in men, she does so at the cost of her own femininity.
In this construction, being a "lady" has nothing to do with good home training, and everything to do with being properly deferential and submissive in the presence of testosterone. And, yes, you may just want to chalk all this up to a difference of values, to say that Akin, West, and Specter are just old-fashioned guys having trouble finding their way in a newfangled world.
But to do that is to give them a pass they do not deserve. It is to tell a little girl she must truncate the sprawl and adventure of her personality, prune it back until it fits into a small, dainty box marked "ladylike."
That would be a tragedy. And a betrayal.
There is, frankly, a point at which being "old-fashioned" becomes being stubborn, denying unwelcome, unsettling, and self-evident change. These fellows are well past that point and our message to them ought to be simply this:
If you want to govern in this century, try living in it first.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.