Ungentlemanly Behaviour

Common Courtesy Should be Gender Non-Specific

I find the term ‘gentleman’ perfect and ridiculous in equal measure.

It’s perfect because the word consists of ‘gentle’ and ‘man’, and who doesn’t want some of that in their lives? The dictionary definition sounds great: ‘A chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man.’  

Interestingly, the dictionary definition of gentlewoman is: ‘A woman of good family’, or, ’A woman with good manners and high standards of behaviour’.

And this is where my problem lies: A gentleman is traditionally defined by the way he treats other people, particularly women. A gentlewoman is defined by, her lineage, an accident of birth or if she behaves herself in a way that society finds acceptable…for a woman.

For these reasons, the term gentlewoman has been consigned to history, and I believe it is time for the word gentleman to go the same way. It is archaic and every feminist bone in my body rails against it.

This conflict became relevant to me when my youngest daughter made a new friend at school. It was one of those wonderful moments where I realised my child had found a friend whose mother I would also choose to hang out with. The little boy was funny, characterful and kind. His mother was the same. Bonus.

The more time we spent with these two, along with her older son and my older daughter, the closer we got, but I found myself regularly stopped in my tracks by some of the things she said. When my eldest was starting Secondary School, my friend gave her son the task of looking out for her.

This was thoughtful, but I questioned whether a Year 9 boy would really be interested in even speaking to a lowly Year 7. ‘He should look after her,’ my friend said, ‘He needs to learn to take care of girls.’ I laughed, certain she was joking, but she wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against protective, kind behaviour. But I am vehemently against the belief that a boy should be a girl’s champion. Society has changed, we are no longer telling people how to think and behave according to their gender. We are allowed to be individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses, and, I believe this change is as important for the sensitive boys as the self-assured girls out there.

This became a regular area of discussion, every time my friend asked her youngest to allow my daughter to go first or hold a door open for her. She would always remind him to be a gentleman.

In response I would remind her that this was all unnecessary. My daughters should open doors for people, offer them a seat, be aware of the needs of others. It’s not gentlemanly, it’s common courtesy and why should that be gender specific?

In my opinion, we should all be gentlemen, which is why the term is so out-dated.

I asked my friend, over and over again, ‘Please don’t ask your sons to treat my daughters like princesses. Ask them to treat them as equals.’ She looked at me as though I was from outer space. ‘But I want them to be gentlemen,’ She insisted, and to this day, I don’t think she gets my point. What I believe she wants is for her sons to be respectful, polite and well mannered. That’s what I want for my daughters too, which is why being a gentleman doesn’t come into it.

My husband and I are bringing our girls up to be confident in the knowledge that they are equal to other human beings, irrespective of gender, race or sexuality. The biological fact that many men are physically stronger is undeniable, but also seems a little irrelevant in our house, where my eldest is over five feet ten at fourteen years-old. She towers over the boys in her year, so suggesting they are her physical superior seems ridiculous.

My youngest daughter is intellectually precocious (often just precocious), and the idea of sexism to her is as preposterous as, for example, racism or homophobia. ‘But why,’ she asks, ‘Would someone’s gender (skin colour/sexuality) make them better or worse than me? We’re all different, so surely we should be judged on what we do and say, not whether we’re a boy or girl?’

Can you argue with that? I can’t.

So why, if we accept she is right, should a man be gentler than a woman? I believe that kindness is key, and that equality and acceptance should be universal traits, taught by every parent and in every school.

I’m not asking for the characteristics of an archetypal gentleman to be lost, I’m just asking for us to be gentle people and for parents to stop asking their sons to treat my girls as ‘other’ to them.

My daughters are not fragile, they are not in need of your protection. They are your equals and should be viewed and treated as exactly that.

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