Peggy Noonan’s Advice for Gentlepeople

I don’t study issues of gender, but I do think about them. Lately, I’ve had a new opportunity for thinking about gender and leadership because, for the first time in thirty years, my boss is a woman. Hers was an internal promotion, so she had been a peer. It’s been fascinating for me to observe her rise to the occasion of her position. She has totally nailed that elusive balance of warmth and competence. I am pleased to work for her, proud of her, and inspired by her example.

Feeling that pride of sisterhood reinforces my feminist identity. But sometimes I question that identity, like yesterday, when I was enjoying Peggy Noonan’s column in The Wall Street Journal, “America Needs More Gentlemen.” I sent some excerpts to my sons:

The whole culture, especially women, needs The Gentleman back.

A person of the cultural left would say that is a hopelessly patriarchal thing to say. But one thing the #MeToo movement illustrates is that women are often at particular risk in the world, and need friends and allies to stand with them. That would be men. And the most reliable of them are gentlemen.

The dictionary says a gentleman is a chivalrous, courteous, honorable man. That’s a good, plain definition. The Urban Dictionary says: “The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will . . . whose self control is equal to all emergencies, who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity.” That’s good, too.

He tries to remove the obstacles “which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him.” He is “tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absurd. . . . He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage.”

Who wouldn’t want her sons to have “self control equal to all emergencies”? I liked it when my muscle-bound son directed the drunk man away from me at a July Fourth event, and I liked seeing that my other son bought his girlfriend roses, even if I would never want them myself. Am I a Bad Feminist?

Noonan is a gifted writer, and while she suggests that her proposal is “hopeless” to some, she paints an unambiguously virtuous picture of The Gentleman. I checked with my Most Feminist Friend (MFF) to see what she thought. MFF said,

Good advice. Most of it is good for women, as well as men!

Good point, MFF. Yes, indeed, we should also exalt the woman who does not make her fellow human conscious of his inferiority.

So what is the special opportunity for men in rising to gentlepersonhood? Our culture is rife with opportunities for consideration related to physical strength and protection. My hubby is stronger than me: it’s nice to have him lug the heavy suitcases. His body temperature runs higher: when we are out for the evening, it’s nice when he offers his coat. He’s bigger: it’s nice to feel protected on city streets.

My husband learned traditional good manners from his parents and grandparents. I admit I am not always gracious when he opens a car door or stands when I leave the table in a restaurant. Those habits seem more like relics of an older order, with less practical relevance today, than the gestures that use his conspicuous brawn and warmth.

Noonan encourages men to take risks of gratuitous chivalry. Why is there a risk is using some old-fashioned gestures, like helping with coats or hailing cabs? Why is being helpful a risk? The old-fashioned gestures bring with them a reminder of other old-fashioned practices, like discouraging women from careers. I see Noonan encouraging this risk because the polite gestures don’t just represent the bad old days, but they also represent a form of civility, and most importantly in the age of #MeToo, a grounding in restraint, a “self control equal to all emergencies.” Gentlemanly behavior is her prescription for men. And the implied advice to (gentle)women is to accept the gestures as considerate and not look for an opportunity to be offended.

For my part, I will work harder to graciously accept gentle gestures. And to make them, too.

1 Comment

  1. Christina Galante says: Reply

    LK,
    I am lucky enough to work for a company that is filled with gentleman, most especially, my 90 year old boss. But In your piece, I especially loved your reflection on your first female boss:
    She has totally nailed that elusive balance of warmth and competence. I am pleased to work for her, proud of her, and inspired by her example.
    Thank you for this post of sage advice.

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