I had a disagreement with someone about using the word to describe the way I want to raise my son as "a gentleman." Her point, which was absolutely valid, is that the word has been loaded with some negative and anti-feminist connotations. Specifically, it harkens back to this quaint idea of Medieval romance and chivalry, where women had to be treated as fragile and helpless (and sometimes even the source of evil). And then there's a taint on the word too from when it was used to label men simply based on their social standing.
Why not, she said, just raise your son to be a good person?
Well, because I think "good person" has some problems of its own. A good person might raise no waves in life. He might be afraid to ever reach out to others and impact their lives, might do nothing of any consequence and die alone, unremarked upon, with the barest footnote in his funeral that he "was a good person." Good, to me, means you have followed the rules for getting along with society. Really, the only thing you have to do to be a good person is not be bad. And then perhaps a few things extra... you show a kindness here or there to tip the scale out of neutrality and into nice.
The most notorious, world-altering people in history? I think few people would blindly apply the label "good" to their characters. Certainly you couldn't say that about Steve Jobs. Definitely not Donald Trump. Not even about Barack Obama. He may have been, arguably, a good President. But ruthlessness and politicking seldom are considered humanity's better characteristics.
No, I'd rather look back actually at the word gentleman, even with it's few old faults, which also encompasses the concepts of loyalty, generosity, and honour - things that are considered part of humanity's better characteristics, but which you are not required to defend fiercely or actively pursue in order to be a good person. I want to look at the word as applied to someone who is calm, strong of will, and polite.
As a feminist, I want my son to be a gentleman of this kind. And I don't believe it conflicts with my beliefs in equality at all.
I want him to be a person whose moral code requires him to be good to others, and not just be a well behaved person in the sandbox of life, alone.
Raising my son to be a gentleman, to me, means to teach him to be mindful. Thoughtful. And with a solid, moral core that helps him clearly determine right and wrong.
I want him to be able to be the knight in shining armor if he has the means to be one. Not just for women, but for anyone - or anything - who may need saving.
I want him to be considerate of the bodies, feelings, and reputation of his dates or the casual partners he might take.
I want him to be worthy of trust - and for his word to be gold.
I want him to be faithful and fiercely loving to his wife. Or his husband. Or any people who become part of the circle he considers his family. I want his loyalty to be something that people treasure earning.
I want him to perform those old courtly gestures of assistance like holding a door open for a woman. But I want him to hold it for a man, too. If he is able, I would want him to surrender his seat on a bus for an elderly man or a pregnant woman alike. I want him to take people's coats - not because they are helpless, but because being helpful means he has looked someone in the eye and offered respect and a kindness that may make them feel less alone in this world.
I want my son to actively affect people's lives in a non-zero-sum way.
And I can't really see any reason why we wouldn't all want to teach our sons to be gentle men. I think we should take this word, dust it off, and modernize it for a new era.