Dear Pope Francis,
I know the title of this letter may seem a little odd as Meredith and I begin looking more closely at femininity in our letters, but sometimes I really struggle with what it means to be feminine, especially in light of the resurgence of what I call the ‘gentlemen culture’. I’ve seen many websites devoted to how to be a gentleman, both Catholic and secular. These websites cover everything from how to tie a tie, to developing virtues, to the proper etiquette for opening various types of doors for women. I fully support men who focus on holding themselves to a particular set of standards, especially if it includes a healthy respect for women, but that doesn’t mean I struggle with it any less.
What I struggle with even more is the idea that to allow guys to do these things suggests that I am lady-like or feminine. When I looked up the word ‘feminine’, Google told me that it means: “having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.” Adding in this piece of the puzzle, just makes it more complex – I have never thought of myself as delicate.
Growing up, I was always independent, and I still am. Generally, I carry my own bags, open doors for myself, and mostly fend for myself. I was brought up to be able to stand on my own two feet, and do what I need to do in order to make my dreams come true. This has served me well, since I’m tackling goals on my list, but this independence often makes me feel awkward when guys go out of their way to do something nice for me, like walk by the street when it rains so I won’t get splashed by cars, or insist on carrying a bag for me.
Independence doesn’t seem to have a place in the definition of ‘feminine’ I quoted above. Since the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the century, women have fought for and valued their independence and affirmed their equality with men. But can you be both independent and feminine? I need to think about that question some more.
I have been thinking about the gentleman culture, and unfortunately I haven’t found a good way to reconcile the inherent generosity with my independence, other than to be polite and return the favour. For instance, if a guy opened the door for me, I make sure I say ‘thank you’ and open the door for him next time. I have found it easier to go with the gentleman-flow with some guys, like a friend who takes great pride in being a Southern gentleman, because I am used to him doing these gentlemanly actions. However, it still catches me off-guard when I met a new guy, and he does the exact same things, because I just don’t see them from most guys.
Many of the actions that are standard in the gentleman culture shouldn’t simply be about acting like a gentleman because you want to respect women. Rather they need to be about respecting life in general, whether you are trying to be a gentleman or feminine, and showing that respect by doing something nice for another person, regardless of gender, whether that’s holding the door for a stranger at the mall, or offering to help a friend in need. If that means a guy will go out of his way to walk me to the subway when it’s raining then so be it. However, I may continue to feel a little bit awkward.
PS: I would love to hear other thoughts about the gentleman culture, so please feel free to share in the comments.