Etiquette Has Always Been Used to Control Women


Jul 17, 2019


Image Credit: Oddnaari.com via Instagram

Don’t sit with your legs uncrossed. Don’t talk back to elders. Don’t seem too friendly with men. Don’t wear flashy, revealing clothes. There are a lot of don’ts that accompany womanhood, with society trying to police the way women communicate, dress, sit, travel — basically, exist. A lot of these stipulations have been dressed up and paraded around as social etiquette rules, but they disproportionately target women’s behavior, and thus, are inherently sexist.

Etiquette and people’s ability to adhere to its arbitrary rules are considered the markers of a decent, ‘well-bred’ person. While the concept seeks to create a gap between social classes, it is also instrumental in creating a gender gap and maintaining entrenched gender roles in society. Gender-specific etiquette and the censure not adhering to it can incur, has led to generations of societal silence around atrocities committed against women. Being polite is about manners — even if manners kill you. The onus of decency has always fallen on the woman, while men can enjoy vulgarity and endangering women. But ssh, stay quiet, women are told, lest anyone think of them as ‘unladylike.’

“The ritual of gender etiquette is an institutionalized social performance whose smallest constituents — or symbols — serve as vehicles for the transmission of socially normative meanings of gender,” writes professor of anthropology Seymour Parker in the American Anthropologist. “Firm adherence to traditional gender manners is associated with a need for clear gender-role boundaries.” Not only is the social etiquette imposed on women borne out of patriarchal notions of gender, but it is also instrumental in defining and further entrenching said bias in society. Parker writes, “[Manners] transform the adaptive ‘must,’ into the moral ‘ought’.” He also found in a study that those who participate in maintaining gender etiquette or advocate for it, prefer to maintain the status quo.

Early versions of gender etiquette and their imposition reflect Parker’s hypothesis. This is also is apparent in a text published in the Manchester University Press that describes the ‘journey etiquette’ widely propagated to women travelers between 1870 and 1940. “Decorum and respectability had to be maintained, echoing the elegant, proper, decent image of women journeyers promoted by transport companies,” writes author Emma Robinson-Tomsett. “By adhering to their guidance on dress, demeanor, and conversation, etiquette writers suggested women journeyers could avoid becoming the subject of damaging gossip that could lead to social ostracism.”

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Journey etiquette, codified into books and magazines of the time, sought to control women’s mobility, as they began to venture out of their homes and travel on ships and trains, Robinson-Tomsett writes. “Women’s travel seemed unfeminine and compromising to the ideal of female respectability in this period,” which incited anxiety from those allowing it and enabled writers of etiquette books to dictate rules as to how women could go about their travels. They were concerned with how travel could impact the woman’s mind and stature in society, she writes. 

Robinson-Tomsett delineates how etiquette advocates envisioned the woman traveler: “one whose digestion is perfect, whose disposition is cheerful, who can be enthusiastic under the most discouraging circumstances, to whom discomfort is of no moment, and who possesses at least a sense of the ridiculous, if not a real sense of humor!” Robinson-Tomsett also lists the qualities the woman traveler must have: “Coolness, efficiency, a knack for taking difficulties for granted and losing no time in overcoming them will do as much towards getting you around the world as a well-lined purse.” 

She cites Vogue’s Book of Etiquette that gave clear instructions to women travelers about how to dress: “They [journeyers] never wear clothes that by cut or color draw attention to the wearer; even if they are traveling in a private [rail] car, people of good taste dress simply,” and How to Travel, another etiquette book of the time: “If . . . you are perpetually changing your dress, appearing in new colors every day, and endeavoring to attract attention, you will be regarded as a vulgar woman who has seen nothing of the world, whom it is desirable to avoid, or the walking advertisement of some advertising dressmaker of the East-end of London.” The idea was to render women as unremarkable and as invisible as possible. “In the morning, [women] should not be seen on deck before 8 o’clock, or before the gentlemen who have been lounging about in undress have retired,” Robinson-Tomsett quotes How to Travel, adding that women were actively discouraged from behaving in any way that attracted attention to them, or inconvenienced any men around them. 

From “it is advisable for every lady on shipboard to endeavour to make herself as agreeable as she can, and not to suppose that all her ‘whims and oddities’ will be excused because she is suffering ‘the pains and penalties of the sea [seasickness]’,” in How to Travel, to “On trains, the woman in a railway carriage should never sacrifice the comfort of the other people around her to her own. It is exceedingly discourteous to insist upon having a window open when you know that others object, even though they are all men,” written by famous etiquette advocate Lady Trowbridge — women were told that they needed to put other travelers’ comfort before their own. Women travelers were instructed not to be opinionated or argumentative, were told to listen attentively and with deference to others, and were asked to be wary of talking to strange men. The onus of being safe during their travels was also put on women, emblematic in the writings of Alice Leone-Moats, an American journalist and author of No Nice Girl Swears: “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,” Robinson-Tomsett quotes. 

While Robinson-Tomsett’s writing chronicles the etiquette instructions given to women between 1870 and 1940, the ghosts of patriarchy past still haunt contemporary society. Society sexualizes young girls and then teaches them to contain their sexuality so as not to make others uncomfortable; they are taught to be polite, not to talk back or challenge authority; women are shamed if their undergarments peek out of their clothes, which has given rise to a host of etiquette rules about how to sit, walk and dress. Discomfort with the agency of women has led society to control them with etiquette. Under the guise of politeness, courtesy and ‘being nice,’ arbitrary rules that shame women for their instincts run rampant, unquestioned. 

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Why don’t we question these rules? It’s because their codification has almost always accompanied new freedoms accorded to women. Want to travel? They’ll tell you how. Want to be sociable with others? They’ll tell you appropriate conversation topics. Want to stay out at night? They’ll tell you how to dress. The concept of etiquette has been woven into women’s need for self-expression and is particularly designed to control it. This is a paradox every woman is aware of: while there are 1,000 stipulations on the ways in which they can behave, there’s also the expectation to have a lively personality.

Women are expected to adhere to every rule that seeks to homogenize their behavior, while also resisting some to a predetermined, acceptable degree, all the while risking censure. Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, as quoted by Robinson-Tomsett, exemplifies this: “Women ‘must behave as the etiquette of ship or train . . . demands that [they] behave; but people who are prim can never find pleasure in traveling, no matter how religiously they obey the rules of etiquette’.” Follow the rules, but not too much. Talk to strangers, but not too much. Dress with personality, but not too much — basically, slackline your way through life. 

This is also reflected in the targeting of housewives, as the recipients of etiquette instruction and the enablers of etiquette culture. The rise of the middle class signified a group that was eager to imbibe social etiquette rules as a mark of sophistication. Knowing correct etiquette was formerly a tedious luxury that was the sole domain of aristocrats before their legacy gave way to the Industrial Revolution. Stuck at home while their husbands went to work, 19th-century middle-class women sought to exert their agency in society — their conduct dictated by manners doled out in generous dollops by etiquette writers looking for their next prey.

Manners were a “means of making friends and, through friends, gaining influence and recognition,” writes scholar of social sciences Michael Curtin in The Journal of Modern History. “Manners influenced the most important battle a woman ever fought for social class — that is, her struggle to win a desirable spouse.” Post marriage, a woman’s manners could also help her husband’s career and social standing prosper. Curtin adds, “Her ability to act as a hostess, to create an impressive domestic facade, to mix readily with those who were useful to her husband: all these required skillful manners.” For men, society often excused poor manners if they were talented or hard-working, but for women, manners often constituted the entirety of their identity and self-worth, making failing at etiquette inexcusable, Curtin writes. For middle-class housewives, “tact, consideration, and self-sacrifice” were the most important etiquette parameters, simultaneously as they were made to feel liberated for having such social influence.

Fast forward a century or two, and we don’t seem to have progressed very much. Women in Japan are fighting to be free of heels in the workplace, working against a professional environment that seems to take patriarchal dressing etiquette for granted. Rape survivors are not believed because society is conditioned on the etiquette of modesty and self-sacrifice, constantly casting aspersions on women if they wear skimpy clothes or consume alcohol. Young girls are taught not to dissent, or be assertive, so as to avoid emotional or physical rebuke. Centuries have passed since the first etiquette books were written, but society still makes women feel like they live in borrowed spaces — as if allowing their mobility in the outside world was a mistake — while constantly reproaching them for violating the rules. 

Most of etiquette is an arbitrary standard of propriety that enables people to make unfair assumptions about someone’s character. A lot of this burden falls on women. It’s time women are freed from the societal filter that restricts their mobility and forms of self-expression. Simply put, let’s just all chill, please.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.

  1. Divya

    This is on another level. Or better, peeling another layer of sexism. Great article.


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