For far too long, etiquette's traditionally "empowering," association with high status and success has attracted the public, overshadowing the dark truth behind these ideals: that etiquette thrives off of women's suffering solely for the benefit of men. Societal obsession with dictating how a woman should or should not act dates back centuries, with some of the world's first civilizations already establishing gender roles within their communities. However, as humanity continued to progress, the patriarchy developed alongside it, and thus, the oppressive expectations forced upon women only worsened.
In the early 1900s, author Emily Post wrote one of the first complex etiquette books for women, detailing how she believed a woman ought to act, and inadvertently exacerbating the already harmful notions of gender. “She must not swing her arms as though they were dangling ropes,” writes Post, critiquing a bride’s wedding behavior. “She must not shout; and she must not, while wearing her bridal veil, smoke a cigarette.” Post’s writings spread like wildfire, her columns appearing in one-hundred-sixty newspapers and the author receiving three thousand weekly letters from women seeking her advice. The population was at the mercy of Post’s words, and as the idea of etiquette blazed across America, women only became further entrenched in the rules and stipulations attached to their gender. “In the evening don’t sit alone in the ballroom unless you’re in the mood to be picked up by every stray man in the place,” writes Alice Leone-
Moats, in her etiquette book, No Nice Girl Swears. “On trains, the woman in a railway carriage should never sacrifice the comfort of the other people around her to her own,” writes another etiquette advocate, Lady Trowbridge. Despite etiquette’s core focus on empowerment, these so-called “helpful,” books only disempowered women by stripping away their autonomy and independence. Don’t shout! Don’t sit alone if you fear negative male attention! Don’t prioritize your own comfort! Enforcing the idea that women were to be demure, submissive, and willing to accommodating to the whims of any man, etiquette culture demolished the idea of womanhood in the 1900s and installed sexist practices that still haunt the women of today.
I was just past elementary school when I was forced into cotillion classes along with the majority of my fifth-grade classmates. I was told that it would be one of the most memorable experiences leading up to my adult life, and yet I was terribly disappointed. Cotillion was a boring and generally forgettable experience. Looking back, I cannot recall a single dance we learned, I am still utterly confused by table settings, and I have no idea how to “properly,” eat a slice of bread. However, my final cotillion session is permanently seared into my memory. I remember sitting on those too-hard plastic chairs that lined the walls and shivering in the unbearably cold ballroom. Although our class had just begun, I was already counting down the minutes until our condescending instructor would finally dismiss us from his etiquette prison. As he slowly paced around the room, he recited our final lesson plan with a grin. Facing the boys’ half of the room, he declared that “the men,” would have the opportunity to ask a girl of their choice to join them for a dance. He then turned to face our side of the room. “And remember ladies,” he added. “If a boy asks you to dance, do not say no to him.” Despite the frigid temperature of the ballroom, my palms were sweating through my gloves. “No matter how anxious you might be feeling, think of how hard it must be for the poor boys to gather the
courage just to ask you,” he concluded. As a ten-year-old, I was outraged. I wondered how that was fair. Why weren’t the boys taught to respect our feelings in the same way we were taught to respect theirs? As I look back on my final cotillion class, I realize that even as a child, I had already been taught that a man's fragile ego took priority over my comfort as a woman.
Despite its toxicity, etiquette culture still thrives under the façade of “common decency,” a justification that is flooded in hypocrisy. Boys are not taught to be accessories to girls. Men are not told to sit still and be quiet. It is women who are continually silenced and objectified while men are encouraged to take what they want unapologetically. If the very meaning of the word “common,” suggests something ordinary or widely expected, then how can a standard that is only enforced upon half of the population be considered common decency? Etiquette culture is not just manners. It is not just being polite. Institutionalized etiquette practices indoctrinate impressionable girls and young women to sacrifice their independence and forgo their desires, thus extending the harmful reign of male dominance over society.
Desai, Rajvi. “Etiquette Has Always Been Used to Control Women.” The Swaddle, 17 July. 2019, https://theswaddle.com/etiquette-has-always-been-used-to-control-women/.
Smith, Dinitia. “She Fine-Tuned the Forks of the Richan Vulgars.” The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/books/17book.html.