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Although I've often heard use of the phrase:

You are a gentleman and a scholar

I have never heard a version appropriate for the fairer sex. I guess you could say a lady and a scholar?

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There is no exact equivalent of the idiom, and "lady and a scholar" is just going to sound silly or patronizing. I suggest just dropping the idiom altogether and offering a gender neutral compliment such as "you are very generous and thoughtful". While you're at it, you could probably also 86 "fairer sex". Gender neutrality is hard, but worthwhile. –  MετάEd Jun 29 '12 at 22:33
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@MetaEd: Well, «fairer sex» already sounds silly and patroninizing, so that ship has already sailed! :) –  Mariano Jun 30 '12 at 3:31
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The expression comes from a male-dominated world, as does the similar 'an officer and a gentleman'. –  Barrie England Jun 30 '12 at 6:16
    
Both current answers take the phrase rather literally. I've always encountered it in a figurative sense, or simply as a means of expressing gratitude, and Wiktionary defines it simply a an admirable person.Perhaps you could expand on what you want your female equivalent to connote? –  Peter Taylor Jun 30 '12 at 9:36
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Reminds me of the old joke: "You're a gentleman and a scholar... and I'm a liar." –  J.R. Jul 1 '12 at 1:45
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4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Perhaps a "learned lady" would be somewhat equivalent to "a gentleman and a scholar."

In this phrase, learned (lur-nid) is defined as:

  1. having great knowledge or erudition
  2. involving or characterized by scholarship

And a lady is:

  1. A well-mannered and considerate woman with high standards of proper behavior.
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I don't think there is an exact equivalent. The problem is that you are asking for a phrase with these incompatible connotations:

  • It should be an old-fashioned idiom. (A modern phrase would not have the same ring to it: notice that it's rare to call somebody a "scholar" these days, except in a rather narrow, technical sense.)
  • It should suggest that she is scholarly.
  • It should suggest that she possesses the qualities admired in a lady.

They are incompatible because, traditionally, female scholarship was not considered ladylike. A female scholar was considered a kind of de-feminised monster.

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I can only think of one proper word for an intellectual woman: bluestocking. The etymology is given at Etymonline and Wikipedia, but as you would guess, originally the term was derisive and not appreciative. The situation is different today, for example, Chambers just states:

An intellectual woman

There is another substitute from the French: bas bleu, but the etymological connotations are the same.

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This is a rather archaic phrase. The basic idea behind it is that the man in question, rather than being someone who defines himself by labor and/or physical activity (as typical men do), is someone who is genteel, and cares about higher intellectual pursuits. Its kind of the opposite of saying someone is "a man of action".

The problem with applying this to a woman is that unlike with men, this is exactly how a proper lady was supposed to be. Mostly. There weren't supposed to be any "women of action". So in theory there should be no need to say such a thing about a woman.

I'd say that if you are worried about gender equity, this phrase is so loaded down with gender biases that turning it around it hopeless. You should avoid it altogether.

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