03/04/2013 13:50 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 06:12 BST

The History of Being a Lady

Some matters are simply contentious. Sometimes you're never going to get it right. The politics of the Middle East, for example. Whether Scotland should or shouldn't become independent in 2014. Oh, and whether the term 'lady' is outmoded and derogatory or exactly what most women aspire to.

I first became interested in the word when I was writing fictional female characters - I'm a novelist. It cropped up again and again in archive material and women went to huge lengths to make sure they behaved in a ladylike manner, no matter what they were up to. A female adventurer exploring the Nile basin sent to Cairo for stays and white gloves so she could still dress for dinner. A women explorer threatened to sue the Times because they suggested she was wearing (gasp) trousers on her travels. The first female recipient of a British military medal rescued a wounded soldier from a WWI battlefield by riding in on a horse and scooping him to safety - sidesaddle.

It's easy to laugh at etiquette but in a hundred years our children's grandchildren will almost certainly be laughing at us. Often we don't notice the stringent rules to which our culture subjects us. Last year when the Duchess of Cambridge was photographed topless while she was on holiday there was a double outcry - the shock of a Royal and very public figure being intruded upon against her will alongside the horror of her state of undress. Ladies in our society do not appear topless. Ever. In the back and forth of history this is a relatively modern development - a hangover from Victorian times. In Restoration England, for example, many a Duchess wore dresses so low cut that make-up for nipples was de rigeur. A Restoration lady would have shrugged off Kate's disgrace - though of course they'd still have been appalled at the intrusion.

Being a lady in 2013 is fraught with fine lines we mustn't cross. I appeared last week on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour discussing the word with ex-editor of The Lady magazine, Rachel Johnson and feminist heroine, Bidisha. The comments flooding into the programme proved how much of a hot potato women find the notion of ladyhood. It didn't surprise me - I've lectured on the subject everywhere from the National Library of Scotland to English Heritage and afterwards the questions from the audience might be best described as troubled. Women today are ambivalent about the notion of ladyhood and while for many the word holds an allure that they worry might not be politically correct, in others it provokes outrage.

It's interesting that given our culture has so many words that refer to women in a truly derogatory fashion, it's 'lady' - a term that has conferred social respect on our gender for over a thousand years - that has women up in arms. This probably comes from the way the word developed over the 20th century. During the Victorian era there is no question that ladyhood was a cage designed to keep women in their place, as more and more stringent rules emerged - from social behaviour to etiquette and sexual propriety. If you dressed inappropriately, used the wrong cutlery, let a swear word emanate from your person (even in extremis) or were sexual in any way, you were done for.

Pleasingly, despite those rules, we still have a long tradition of militant ladies in Britain. Members of the suffragette movement, originally treated like modern-day terrorists when they demanded the vote, retained their status as ladies despite their political beliefs. Matters however, closed in after WWII and ladies were expected to go back into the kitchen having driven trucks, worked in factories and dug for Victory. The 1950s for many proved a return to Victorian times when the mark of a lady was her relationship to the men in her life (who her father was and who she married), what she looked like, the way she dressed and a matter of having impeccable manners - all very domestic. As a result, in the 1970s, when modern feminism spiked, many women rebelled against the whole notion of being a lady. To be modern was to be as undifferentiated as possible from men. Yves Saint Laurent's 'Le Smoking' dinner suits for women caught the spirit of the times.

More recently there has been a resurgence in ladyhood. We revel in afternoon tea, cocktails, high heels and red lipstick. There are still strict criteria around ladyhood: a lady must be well-presented, she must behave with propriety and show concern for others (or, put the old fashioned way, have good manners). But we demand more of our ladies nowadays and I believe the era of the militant lady is back. Today women have the rights and equality our Victorian sisters could only dream of, and with those privileges comes the responsibility of standing up and being counted. Ladies today must have integrity - they need a cause. Pioneering, landmark women of substance like Baroness Helena Kennedy, Kate Adie, Camilla Batmandhelidhj and Aung San Suu Kyi are great examples of pioneering modern-day viragoes worthy of the title. Ladyhood today isn't about fruit knives and bodice stays, it's a powerful way of describing our formidable women, our trailblazers - more of a soapbox than a cage.