Do women really need ‘gentlemen’?

Aileen O'Reilly and Suzanne Harrington give us their views on how 'gentlemen' fit in to modern society.

Who should foot the bill for dinner on Valentine’s night? The gentleman, of course, says Aileen O’Reilly.

Ladies, make no mistake. It is not a matter of ‘needing’ gentlemen. It’s far more a matter of having enough self-respect to know we deserve them.

Yes, I expect doors to be held open for me. Yes, I expect the man to at least offer to pay for dinner. Yes, I expect to be offered a seat if I’m standing on a crowded bus or train and, yes, I expect my bags to be carried, if they’re heavy, and I make absolutely no apology for it.

Why? Because I was brought up being told I was worth it; anything less than this is boorish behaviour.

Aileen O'Reilly. Picture: Dave Meehan

My father is a gentleman. It is imprinted in him like writing on a stick of rock. I grew up watching him carry bags, offer lifts at any time of the day or night, open doors, give up his seat, and lift heavy objects. 

I saw him wait at the foot of the stairs, gazing in awe as my mum descended in a haze of perfume and in her beautiful dresses, when they were going out to a dinner dance. 

I equally saw him gaze in awe at her skills with finance and her decision to return to work outside the home when all three of us children were going through college. 

Even as a child, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, they were equals and, therefore, I naturally expected similar treatment for myself.

My mum is a very strong woman; the word ‘spitfire’ has been used. She passed it on to my sister and myself. 

It’s just one of the things my dad adores about her. We have a brother and, yes, he is a gentleman, too. 

When I spoke to my dad about writing this article, he looked bemused and shook his head: “Being a gentleman isn’t about being patronising; it’s simply about respect and acknowledging that women deserve to be respected.”

I remember, when I was 17 and eating my heart out over some boy at school, it was my dad who sat me down for a ‘chat’ (my mum had already tried, but telling me “you’re a feminist until it comes to Mr X” hadn’t so much ruffled my feathers as ignited them and my claws were refusing to retract). 

To this day, I remember that conversation as the scene from The Wizard of Oz where the Good Witch Glinda tells Dorothy that she has had the power all along to get herself home and the camera pans down from her stunned (and confused) face to the sparkly red shoes on her feet. 

My dad talked to me candidly about his teenage years and early 20s, when he was going to dances and chasing girls. Then, he spoke the line that has stayed with me ever since. 

Men can think what they like and they generally will, but it is the woman who holds the whip hand.

My mum told me that men could be terribly stupid when it came to women, but hearing my dad reveal that men were essentially powerless made me sit up and take note — this was the inside track! 

From the time I was old enough to hold my own in an argument, I’ve sat down with my dad and had discussions on everything from politics and news and books and film to sex and religion and we have each argued our sides, whilst simultaneously learning something new from each other. 

I was never patronised or told about glass ceilings.

Acknowledging the relevance of the gentleman in the 21st century is acknowledging every woman’s right to be respected, which, in turn, brings out the best in every man. How can that ever be considered obsolete? 

It is as relevant now as it always should have been.

Men and women need each other apart from just physically (this is by no means meant to negate same-sex relationships); we compliment each other in so many ways as friends, colleagues, lovers, partners and, yes, adversaries, too.

Our femininity is a complex power that should not be traded in for fear that it is misconstrued as a weakness.

We’re capable of doing anything we set our minds to, plus we’re built to give birth and that’s the equivalent of breaking 20 bones at the one time — of course we’re not physically inferior!

I certainly do not need a man to assume I will pay for dinner or have a door close in my face to make me feel equal. 

I know I am any man’s equal, therefore I see these courtesies for what they are… I see them as respect.

A guy wants to fork out for a romantic dinner? No problem, says Suzanne Harrington – once she can pay next time

If a man offered me a seat on the bus or the train, it would make me wonder just exactly how old and fat I was looking; it would totally freak me out. 

I’m too old to be pregnant; too young to be old. Why would I need a seat? 

Look at what I’m wearing: lycra and trainers; I’ve just come from hot yoga or dog-walking. I don’t need a seat. Thanks, though. 

Maybe offer it to an elderly man or woman, or a parent with small children. I’m fine.

Suzanne Harrington

I don’t want a gentleman. I want a human. A lovely human, with good manners, but not the kind of manners that modify themselves according to the genitalia of their recipient. No. 

Hold the door for me, and I will hold the door for you; it depends on who is going through the door first. Ordinary politeness, going both ways. 

You don’t need to carry my bag — I possess my very own excellent shoulders — although I would take your coat, if I were cold. Equally, if you were cold, I’d offer you mine. Or my scarf, if my coat didn’t fit. 

Kindness is all, flowing in both directions. Good manners is noticing other people’s needs and comfort, and being attentive to them; gender irrelevant.

I mistrust a man with shiny manners who thinks he is making you feel like he is treating you well by leaping to open doors, ostentatiously pulling out chairs, insisting on paying for stuff; in my experience, such actions are at best ersatz, at worst controlling. 

Put your money away, little lady. Like a black-and-white film from an era when men owned everything and women were obliged to be grateful, while pretending to be a little bit frail and useless.

No, for me, the modern gentleman is a man who shows good manners to all, from the waitress who took his dinner order to the homeless guy outside the restaurant. 

He asks how you are, before talking about himself. He doesn’t bang on endlessly about his stuff every time you meet — he realises you are not an audience.

 

He uses actual words and sentences while WhatsApping you, and doesn’t keep you waiting too long for a response. 

Nor does he upload photos of you all over his social media without checking with you, first, that you are ok to be tagged. 

He notices your new hair/shoes/piercing, and is generous with compliments, as you are with him. 

Cooks you dinner, without going all Gordon Ramsay about it. Stands behind you at gigs, so you don’t get elbowed in the kidneys. 

Basic stuff. Kindness, consideration, thoughtfulness. 

More of a turn on than a million doors opened. Door-opening is fine, but ultimately not terribly meaningful.

The thing about traditional gentleman manners is that they serve little purpose, other than to reinforce the man-made divide between humans. 

They require men to behave differently towards women, and for women to somehow expect to be treated differently. 

Yes, great, buy me a drink, then graciously accept the next drink from me; thank you for dinner; next time it’s my turn.

Goddammit, it’s not rocket science.

The mark of a true gent is not some learned dance around doors and drinks bills. 

It’s a cup of tea when you’re knackered; it’s noticing boring tasks and doing them unbidden; it’s sharing the emotional labour. 

It’s being charming with your friends and family; it’s making an effort with your children, and it’s making you feel comfortable and relaxed. 

That is what a gentleman is. The rest is just filler.

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