In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what is Aunt Alexandra's vision for what is "ladylike?" How does Scout respond to this vision? What does Atticus think about Scout's conformity to gender roles?
Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is a six-year-old tomboy when Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird begins. She, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill spend the summer days running around, climbing trees, and trying to provoke a response from the reclusive, mysterious Boo Radley. Scout's tendency towards what used to be called masculine physical activities leads to regular rebukes from Aunt Alexandra, and from the Finch family's housekeeper Calpurnia. In Chapter 9, Scout's father's agreement to represent an African American man accused of raping a white woman in the American South of the 1930s results in the young girl's fight with another child, a boy, who accuses Atticus of being "a nigger lover." Scout's Uncle Jack, tending to her wounds, informs her, "You'll have a very unladylike scar on your wedding-ring finger."
The theme of Scout's unfeminine-like propensities continues, as when she and Jem are taken to the town's black church by the housekeeper. Noting that Calpurnia has suddenly taken to using a modified form of language once among other African Americans, Scout asks her why she, Calpurnia, has adapted her language for this new audience. Calpurnia admonishes Scout for suggesting that the African American housekeeper and nanny ought to use "proper" or standard English when conversing with other African Americans, prompting the following rebuke, "It's not necessary to tell all you know. It's not ladylike in the second place."
With those to whom she is closest raising the issue of what constitutes "ladylike" behavior, one can only imagine Scout's reaction when admonished by the considerably more annoying and judgmental Aunt Alexandra. When Alexandra arrives at the Finch home, she informs Scout that she and Atticus had decided that Scout should be exposed to more feminine influences. Scout refutes her intrusive aunt, but only to herself, thinking, ". . . it would be many years before I would be interested in boys, I would never be interested in clothes."
Scout's ambivalence notwithstanding, Aunt Alexandra continues to try to shape her into something she is not: a proper lady. When Alexandra has other adult women to the Finch home, she invariably insists on Scout making an appearance. The result, according to the young narrator, is always the same: "I was usually mud-splashed or covered with sand." Scout is who she is, and Aunt Alexandra cannot change her, try though she might. As for Atticus, while suggesting to his children that Aunt Alexandra's arrival is mutually agreed upon by the two adults, Scout makes clear that the idea is far more forcefully advanced by Alexandra than by the more low-key father.
Aunt Alexandra wishes Scout would act like a proper Southern lady and not behave like a "tomboy." Alexandra believes a female should wear dresses, engage in social activities, and remain indoors. She also believes a lady should have an understanding of her heritage and not participate in physical activities. Scout despises her Aunt Alexandra and does not agree with her ideas about femininity. Scout would rather wear her overalls and play outside with Jem and Dill than sit indoors and have conversations with other women. Atticus is a tolerant individual and allows Scout to run around with the boys. Atticus does understand Scout is getting older and will need a feminine influence, however, which is why he invites his sister to live with them. Scout never fully accepts Alexandra's way of life, but does realizes she will soon have to enter the world of women.