Becoming a Southern Lady, An Essay

Phyllis Lifestyle 53 Comments

Note: Former editor Ann Dorer first shared her thoughts on what it means to be a Southern lady in 2009, when we celebrated the magazine’s 10th anniversary. They provide an ongoing message of the dignity, strength, and good humor that comes with being a woman of the South—timeless characteristics we believe are just as relevant today.

By Ann Dorer

Born and raised in the South, I have naturally known Southern ladies all my life, starting with my momma, her friends, and my aunts; moving on to my schoolteachers, Sunday school teachers, and the mothers of my friends. As a child, I simply assumed all women were like these wonderful ladies who, each in her own way, strongly, gently, and often unintentionally shaped who I grew up to be.

Somehow I managed to hold onto this assumption until, as a young married woman, I came to know Jeanne Prescott, the wife of my husband’s boss. To me, Jeanne was the epitome of a Southern lady. She had done a fine job of raising a good boy and a sweet girl. Her style of dress was always tasteful, appropriate, and pretty. She could be counted on to be kind, thoughtful, and genuinely interested in you. And to my delight, beneath her calm and reserved manner lurked a wicked wit that would leap out unexpectedly and send me into fits of laughter.

So when Jeanne shared her story with me, I was surprised. She was actually born and raised in Danville, Illinois, coming to live in the South after she married Jim, a small-town Georgia boy. As a newlywed, she found herself plunged into a culture foreign to her. She felt like an outsider who didn’t fit in with Southern ladies—that is until, after studying us, she finally figured us out. “All you have to do,” she told me, “is say two things: ‘How’s yo’ momma?’ and ‘Love yo’ hair’.”

Who knew? Since then, I pay more attention to what we say—and we do have our ways. Maybe I’ve had one of the worst days of my life: The dog ran away; the school called to tell me that my child got sick and needs to come home; my mother called to tell me she fell and might need me to take her to the hospital for X-rays; my husband, unable to get through, left a message on my cell phone that he’s bringing two friends home for supper; there are no groceries to speak of in the house, and as Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard put it, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.” Yet on this very day, if I run into a Southern lady friend at the grocery store, I know our exact conversation: “Well, hi, how are you?” she’ll ask. And smiling, I will answer, “Just fine, thank you, how are you?”

Yes ma’am. Our mommas taught us to be polite.

From early childhood on, I never left the house to go to somewhere without my mother reminding me as I departed, “Be nice.”

“Nice” is what we do. Manners must be minded, no matter what. In Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, when the Cunningham boy comes home with Jem and Scout to eat lunch, he asks for molasses, then proceeds to pour it all over his vegetables and meat. A horrified Scout wants to know what the sam hill he is doing. Although Atticus discreetly shakes his head, Scout protests, “But he’s gone and drowned his dinner in syrup.” At that point, Calpurnia, the loving woman who’s helped Atticus raise the children, gets Scout in the kitchen and explains manners, Southern style: “That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the tablecloth you let him, you hear?”

Yes, ma’am.

If ever there is a time when Southern ladies shine, it’s when someone dies. We show up. We pay our respects. And we bring food. I like to bring a sour cream pound cake, hot from the oven. It smells heavenly, I know the recipe by heart, and the cake freezes well when the inevitable too-much food arrives. My Aunt Ann always kept a red velvet cake on standby in her freezer. And there is no doubt what my friend Rosa’s mother, LaVelle Kirkpatrick, often carried. Rosa tells this tale: One day, her mother had just baked her family a beautiful lemon meringue pie, which was sitting on the kitchen counter in all its glory when Rosa’s brother Raymond walked in. He took one look at this sweet delectable dessert, and asked matter-of-factly, “Who died?”

Oh, how we love our stories! Noted Southern author Lee Smith relates how her mother could make a story out of anything—a trip to the drugstore, something somebody said in church . . . Lee says she can still hear her mother prefacing such stories with “Now promise you won’t tell a soul . . .”

And eager to hear, we always make that promise, and absolutely never tell another living soul without first making her promise not to tell. It has been many years since my friend Jeanne shared her story with me of how she came to adapt to Southern ways, but I remember the last time I saw her before she went to heaven, where the Lord surely welcomes new arrivals with “Y’all come on in.” She looked at me with sweet concern and asked sincerely, “How’s yo’ momma?”

And after answering her that Momma was just fine, I had to smile as I said to Jeanne, “Love yo’ hair.” And I did.

Becoming a Southern Lady - Southern Lady Magazine

Illustrations by Judy Jamieson—who has been with Southern Lady since its premiere issue.

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Comments 53

  1. I just got my computer back after being without it for over 3 weeks. This essay – and all the wonderful comments – have really made my day.
    Though I am a Hoosier I do love the wonderful Southern ways. My #4 daughter moved to NC and then married a dear man. I have had the pleasure of visiting for the wedding of my dear grand-daughter and meeting so many of their family. They were all so wonderful.
    Yes, manners are still so very important. Thanks to all of you for your words.
    One of my very best memories is of a dear male friend from TX who never said good-bye without also saying “Be sweet”.

  2. Good Morning!

    I’m a “central coast kind of a gal” but obviously I was meant to be a Southern Lady. I raised my children to always be polite…..and they have raised my grandchildren the same.

    We always say please and thank you, we never go to someone’s ho,e without bringing something, and people never leave our home without taking something with them.

    Our children were taught if they received a gift, they could not wear or use it until the than you had been written and I cherish the darling thank you notes my grandchildren send to me.

    Our table is large and cloth napkins are still used. Our granddaughters love dressing up in my hats and scarfs and joining me for “tea”.

    Our door is always open to friends and family and since no one is a stranger….. That includes just about everyone.

    As I said before, love that Southern Hospitality and it is alive and well in California.

    You have a good day now……..


  3. I’m Southern California born and raised by a mid-west mommy and an east coast dad. We were taught “mama may I” and “please and thank you.” Perhaps there is none of that lovely southern charm in my accent, but everyday, I am respectful, cheerful and polite. Equipoise in speech and habits. I often think, “what would my nana or my grandmother do?”

    Today, the children here in the most northern part of Los Angeles, in the foothills of the Angeles Forest, are so polite. It’s always “how are you Mr. and Mrs. Krall and may I help you with something Mrs. Krall? I am certain it’s not the case with all children in Los Angeles, but I like to think there is a bit of that long generational upbringing that is instilled up here. We may not be “southern,” but I hope it is nice for all y’all to know that polite behavior is not completely lost in the west.

    There is an apple galette on my sideboard baked with fresh apples from our little apple trees in the front yard and if you came over you would certainly be offered a slice with some cheddar cheese and perhaps some ice cream on a nice vintage china plate with a silver fork and a carefully ironed cloth napkin. If you are wondering: I have absolutely no idea why my trees have apples now, but it’s the season they chose! 🙂

  4. Loved this post. My sister and I were raised in southeastern Virginia. Our mother and grand mothers raised us with good manners. Moma used to say, “Be nice and people will treat you nice.” We love your magazine. Oh by the way, “Love your hair.”

  5. So true. Beautifully written. Kind, generous and cleverly self-aware. Just like all the Southern Ladies it describes. Thanks for the post.

  6. Love the post and it brings to the front so many wonderful memories. I was raised in West Virginia and had a mother who was from Mississippi (where I spent all my childhood summers with my grandmother). My childhood friend and dear friend to this day after 61 years, was raised also raised in West Virginia by her mother from Tennessee.
    I suppose it was to be that Janet and I found each other. As children we were allowed to do the same things and the rules and guidelines that we followed were the same. It was easy for us to be at each others home. Now as adults, we finally figured out that is was because of our southern mothers that we love and appreciate the same things, share the same values and shake our heads at the same things. We can both make sweet tea. She lives in North Carolina and I am back in West Virginia after living in Virginia for 33 years.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing that essay!! I am a northerner, but for years have loved the south and loved reading about the people who live there.

  8. I have always lived in Michigan but your description of southern women fits me and my friends and family to a T. We love flowers, china, and antique silver and are very family oriented. My mother stressed politeness and manners too.

  9. It wasn’t until I visited my MS relatives, as an adult, that I found a couple of things we had in common: I had my Aunt Hazel’s crooked nose and they also loved antiques! No one in my CT family appreciated antique furniture or collected butter pats (small, antique, china dishes for individual’s pats of butter). My cousin even collected bone dishes! It was fun shopping with them because we had the same interests. Plus, they always made us sweet tea and fried chicken!

  10. A wonderful essay. I miss my beloved Georgia soo much! I moved to Texas with my Army husband and have lived here ever since but if I get half a chance I head back to Alabama,Georgia and Florida where the wonderful sounds of folks asking how you doin’ and how’s ya folks make me feel as comfortable as a pair of soft faded jeans. My formative years were in my paradise which would make anyone shine with manners.

  11. What a wonderful post. It reminded me so much of how I grew up and was raised. The entire world could use a dose of Southern Charm-It would certainly be a gentler place. It amazes me how surprised people are today, (outside of the south of course) when you respond with Yes Mam, or No Mam or Yes ir and No Sir. It’s just the way we were raised. Thank Heavens.

  12. Gail
    I love this post as well. It’s a great description of us Southern Girls. I was raised Southern and am proud of it.
    One day when I was working, a man from up North was on the phone and he said ” I could listen to you talk
    that southern talk all day” to which I replied, that’s funny you don’t sound that great to me. I do think that as
    Southern Ladies, we have wonderful manners, taught by our Mothers, we know how to dress, we love our
    families and we love others. We are especially friendly to people visiting the South and had often been told how much people enjoy visiting the South. Some of us Southern Ladies still bake from scratch and yes we do take food just about everywhere we go. And I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t love home made southern
    food. So I said to all, y’all come!!!!

  13. Lovely essay of my beloved Southern women. I am one of those, by the way. I will be eighty(80) Dec. 31st. My mother did not tell me to ‘be nice’. She told me to ‘be sweet’ Which meant the same thing. One NEVER opened other people’s mail or asked personal questions. You found out quickly what a ‘personal question’ was. Our question to a friend was “How’s your mama ‘n ’em?

  14. This is one of my favorite posts to date. In my mind a Southern lady, like a lovely gemstone, has multiple facets that combine to create that jewel of identity. A Southern lady is a woman who values and shares the six “f’s”: faith, family, friendship, food, flowers, and fashion. My grandmother sent subscriptions to her favorite devotional, The Upper Room, to loved ones throughout our formative years, grounding us in the practice of daily devotions. My mom ministers through her food. Whether there has been a birth or a death, or a new family in the neighborhood, you can be sure a bowl of her homemade pimento cheese and a warm, fragrant cinnamon coffee cake will be delivered. Southern ladies value their girlfriends, and each friend helps hone admirable attributes. Paula and Phyllis are wonderful cooks and hostesses. A guest never leaves their homes without a jar of jam, pickles or homemade pepper jelly to be savored later. A call or email relating news of sickness or injury has Gail showing up at your backdoor with homemade rolls and delicious Brunswick stew. Mary Alice always makes time to listen. Patricia continually shared cuttings from her garden and packets of new seeds to try, and Lucy is a feast for the eyes in her love of “dressing to the nines” for each event attended. If you think about the attributes that endear the South to many, you can distill the formula of Southern lady hood into the verse “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Guess that’s why we are considered to be so hospitable. Whether it’s food, flowers, or something to look at, Southern ladies love to share.

  15. As a tranplanted New Yorker ten years ago, I have been all consumed with your incredible southern culture! Where I came from, the only poundcake we ever heard of was Entenmann’s in a box. Banana pudding was an unknown and only cowboys owned the black cast iron skillets. A “Hoe” Cake…???? Hmmmm…thought it was something from NYC’s 42nd street era and what is it doing here in the south? Well, my first indoctrination to southern food was turning on the Food Network, which I had never seen before and lo and behold, there was an adorable, fun loving southern woman named Paula Deen! With a slight bend to her cute stature, she kind of whispered to the audience, “Wanna know what gets me up in the morning? French Fries and Dill Pickles!” I was hooked! Luckily I am very blessed with some wonderful “Southern Belle” friends who have taken me under their wings. Since then, I have made countless poundcakes including Elvis’s! My black cast iron skillets from old southern antique festivals have replaced my french copper ones and hanging on the wall of my now southern kitchen is one of my pride and joys…an old hoecake pan! And yes, I do make hoecakes and my grandchildren love them! During UNC football and basketball season, our home becomes a bed and breakfast of sorts, inundated with all our Yankee friends and family! They can’t wait to come down in the mornings and have a real southern spread for breakfast and I have to say, it is wonderful! The number one request…Paula Deen’s baked French Toast Casserole and in second place are my yummiest hoecakes! I do swear,”the secret is in the pan!” Thank you Phyllis, for all your fabulous magazines and heartwarming articles and inspirations! You have helped this uprooted New Yorker and her entire family embrace your wonderful southern life and culture so whole heartedly! All the best and many, many thanks to you, your family and your staff…and oh yes…many thanks to “yo’ momma” too!

    1. I would love to have Elvis’ poundcake recipe. I bet it’s as good as his voice – maybe that is what made him so easy on the eyes and to listen to.

  16. Enjoy your writing. I am Savannah bred and have lived other places but so happy to get back to the South, a truly wonderful place where most Southern bred ladies have good manners, know how to cook and dress and love reading the magazine!

  17. Born and raised in North Carolina and currently living in Colorado, I am constantly asked where I’m from and very tempted to say the United States, but explain that after living in Colorado for 25 I still plan to keep my southern accent and if it seems to be sliding, will back a quick trip back South to restore same. Most that ask are just being friendly, but some point out to me that after such a long time my accent should have slipped away. I proudly tell them that I am very proud of my heritage and in no way would I deny it.

  18. Glad I was born and raised in Georgia. One of my grdaughters who lives in Colorado said she wished she talked like me. I told her “bless your heart”.

  19. Beautiful picture of our way of life. When my darling husband and I moved to tiny Ponchatoula, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina washed our New Orleans life away, I quickly discovered we had moved to a town that epitomized the southern ways we love. Two teenaged girls were gossiping in the drug store when a third girl entered. One of the girls made an unfortunate comment about the third girl. Like a flash, three different women reprimanded the gossipers with the southern classic “I know your Mamma raised you better than that?” The girl who made the comment immediately turned bright red and apologized. None of those women were related to the girl but all felt it was their duty to correct such impolite behavior. I fell in love with Ponchatoula right then and there.

  20. This blog was wonderful. Thank you for brightening up my day. Love the southern manners. Wish we had all been raised with such.

  21. Loved this essay upon first reading in 2009. It has lost nothing in the rereading of May, 2015.
    I was blessed, as was was Ann and many of the Southern Ladies who commented, to have been surrounded by strong, refined, gracious Southern Ladies.
    One cannot mourn properly without Mother’s deviled eggs; Mrs. Sim’s… ya’ll understand.
    Living all over our wonderful country, I learned, Bless yo’ heart, that being Southern is more than a location: it truly is a state of heart…

  22. I love your writing. I’m enamored with all things south. I’m concerned that it will all be watered down because so many people move around. Very few seem to have that beautiful accent. I love the way you were raised to be nice and especially enjoy how ya’ll bring food to those who are grieving. My Dad grew up in southern Indiana and when a funeral procession drives by the driver would get out of the car and put their hand over their heart. I wonder if that’s a southern tradition.

  23. I can remember telling my very young girls, “Always walk your friend to the door, even if you asked her to leave.” Now grown with children of their own, they always walk me to my car when I drop. Habits formed early continue to shape us.

  24. What is it about the South that makes the readers of Southern Lady love it so much?

    I am from up North and I have a sign in my Lake Room that says “I am not from the South but I got here as fast as I could”. I believe it is the gentle Southern drawl with which people speak, the relaxed pace in which they live and the hospitality they show to most all people.

    I have found the essay to be quite true and as I read it certain lovely friends came to mind.

    Thank you so much for sharing your magazine and blog.

    Y’all have a sweet day.

    Kathy Schwegman

  25. Such a heartwarming piece. I was born and raised in California and my parents, one from Europe and the other from California raised three girls in a mannered household. Dinner was en famille as was every meal. In fact, I never ate a meal alone unless I was sick in bed! And even then I had the cat. We came to the table clean and in good moods. If you weren’t in a good mood, you would eat in the kitchen alone and no one wanted that.
    Manners are necessary for society to function. These days, people compliment me on my manners and while I appreciate the words, I am sad that the manners are even noticed. As a teacher, I insist my students use manners in the classroom and they do try. My favorite slogan and I write this on the board, is “Be kind, life is hard enough.”
    The students read these words all day, every day, and I believe the message sinks into their being and they become more thoughtful and kind as the year progresses.

  26. Southern ladies have personalities which
    are developed through the generations
    of parents and grandparents, who set
    an example of love and caring for others.
    Melanie Breckner

  27. Loved this! No wonder I am not happy where I live – I was born to be a Southern Lady and I’m living in the wrong area. 🙂

  28. Truly enjoyed this essay! Although I’ve spent my whole life in IL, I still appreciate ladies with good manners. That’s how I was raised and how I see my grandchildren being raised. What a difference that makes! Sandy, O’Fallon, IL

  29. That was fun to read! I grew up in Texas and could never appreciate the “Now be nice!” I always heard from my Mother (and can still hear!) as I grew up and even as an adult. I have to chuckle now and appreciate it!

    1. I am from Texas, a native Texan, and I consider myself a Southern lady. My Mother was from Mississippi and we spent many summers visiting there. She instilled all her southern values in me I guess is why I feel like I’m a Southern Lady! I also learned all her southern “sayings” and I do have a pretty good southern accent! I am proud to be a Southern Lady from Texas!

  30. Loved this, thanks! I think that being kind and polite is one of the virtues that is so often forgotten in today’s world but so very much appreciated when done sincerely…VA born, south WV raised and returned to central VA for past 49 years, wouldn’t live anywhere else.

  31. I was raised in the Midwest with plenty of manners also. We may not have had the southern accent, but we were taught to “be nice”. I think a lot of the lost manners are due to today’s society. Now I’m in Florida which has both the genteel southern ways AND the brash, hurried New Yorkers and New Jersy transplants. We need to bring manners back!

  32. Loved this post. Being born and raised in Dalton, Ga. I too can relate to How’s yo Momma?
    I often tell friends that I am so glad that the Lord saw fit for me to be born here in the South and
    in Dalton. Glad to be southern!!

  33. So enjoyed your post, I’m a California girl and our ways were similar growing up Mom was from the Gold Rush era in No.Ca. Taught me canning peaches, jams and applesauce. My Grandma made grape juice from her grapevines she grew. Homemade lemon pies and spice cake with maple frosting, I can still smell them. My Mom is now 99 years old and I cherish all my visits with her. She taught us to always say Please and Thank You. And to write thank you notes. My Grandma was my first pen pal. I loved getting letters from her and would read them over and over. Memories, they stay in our hearts! Thanks for making my day start off with a smile. Bravo, Carmel from Ca.

  34. Thank you for sharing this … my adult kids still tease me to this day about me yelling to them “Be Nice”

  35. I’m all choked up thinking about all the fine southern ladies that have influenced and shaped my life. Thank you so much for helping me count them among my many blessings today! There are no more women of “noble character” than Southern Ladies!! Proverbs 31:10

  36. Cute essay…I too love the South. Having been raised in Mobile, Alabama, I can relate to the questions, “How’s yo momma?” and so many more. Yes, we were taught to be kind and polite. It is just the “southern” way. To this day, when I drive down the street of almost any quiet community, I wave as if I know them and they always wave back as if we are really friends. It’s called “Southern Hospitality”. Yes, most southern belles are well dressed, thoughtful, very traditional, and can have boisterous personalities (that alone makes us contagious). We’re beautiful, tanned, dark, smart, caring, seasoned cooks, and true, bona fide CLASS ACTS!

  37. Thank you for this, the best blog ever. Many sweet memories have come to mind. I was born and raised in the Atlanta area and am southern to my core. This article describes southern ladies perfectly.

  38. About the best post I’ve ever read. Really makes me glad to be Southern Lady. Keep up the good work!

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