Among the dusty old practices with which we the enlightened have now dispensed, having recognized the folly of our past, is the idea of behaving in ways that were once referred to as “gentlemanly” and “ladylike.” My God, how foolish we were to trouble ourselves with such things. These days, of course, the suggestion that any particular behaviors should belong to one gender identity over another is considered by many to be sexist and noninclusive. And so, having unshackled ourselves from these terrible social restraints, we have at last abandoned those stuffy rules of courtliness with which previous generations were burdened.
But for any young readers who may be curious to know what these silly social codes of bygone eras entailed, I’ll elaborate. “Gentlemanly” qualities included a firm handshake, good eye contact, clear communication, and a sense of honor. The gentleman of yore was taught that he was honoring women by standing when a lady entered a room, holding doors, removing his hat, and offering his seat. He eschewed loud or raucous talk, drunkenness, cursing, spitting, and other improprieties.
“Ladylike” behavior involved things like a genteel manner, appropriate attire, modesty, respectability, elegance, grace, good clear speech, a pleasant demeanor, a talent for conversation, and the avoidance of anything that would suggest poor breeding. A lady didn’t curse, discuss personal subjects with strangers, attend to personal beautification in full view of the public, or engage in gossip.
Back then, if someone said “You’re not very ladylike,” or “You’re not a gentleman,” that was a cutting insult that elicited shame or offense. But this, of course, is merely a history lesson. We’re finally free from all of that nonsense, aren’t we?
I can feel your muscles tensing, your teeth clenching, and your fingers itching to abandon this piece immediately, skip down to the comment section, and register your militant objection to even a whiff of support for this idea. Before you give me a piece of your mind, let me assure you that, as a feminist, the Curmudgeon would never advocate an all-out return to the restrictions of the past. There was much wrong with the limiting gender roles to which we slavishly adhered back then. And in most ways, the greater individuality we now enjoy is far healthier, particularly for women, who were often discouraged from being their fullest selves.
BUT . . . BUT . . . there is still a baby in that bathwater.
I believe—and this will be highly controversial I’m sure—that men and women are different, and that there’s some beauty to be found in relishing those differences. Remember, we’re not talking about machismo and subservience, or even femininity and masculinity; we’re discussing being ladies and gentlemen. Maybe those roles aren’t identical, and maybe that’s something we can embrace in ways that don’t limit, restrict, or diminish us.
Also, you may have noticed that my descriptions of these once-revered qualities at the beginning of this piece included a good number of similarities. Some of what we considered ladylike or gentlemanly amounted to simply not being an ass, giving thought to those around you, and showing as much class as possible. The Curmudgeon thinks those are still very fine—maybe even necessary—qualities, and that their decline is a damned shame.
So I propose an enlightened return to the idea of ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. If we can expand our definitions of those words, I believe we can have individuality, equality, and class at the same time. In my version, perhaps a lady can hold a door for a gentleman. Perhaps a gentleman can occupy a listening role in a conversation with a lady. Perhaps a lady can have a firm handshake and a gentleman can be demure. Hell, perhaps a lady can be gentlemanly and a gentleman can be ladylike. Perhaps we all can avoid vulgarity and practice consideration. Now ladies and gentlemen, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.