The phrase ‘gentlewoman’ was coined in the 1800s. A gentlewoman is that woman in your life who, whenever you go for dinner or drinks with her, you come away from feeling really uplifted and inspired. She challenges you in the best possible way; she listens, asks you questions and makes you feel truly ‘seen’. She’s someone who has done work on herself to be grounded, content and have a joined-up sense of who she is. By that I mean, she isn’t confused or fractured, packaging different bits of herself up for different people at different times. She knows herself, likes herself and is confident in being that person. This makes her a good, reliable and supportive friend. A gentlewoman looks inwards so she can project outwards and be fully present in the world around her and engaged in the relationships that matter.
There are more similarities between gentlewomen and gentlemen than differences. When we say someone’s a gentleman, we mean he’s someone who’s kind, charming, self-aware, who can light up a room with their personality and make people feel good about themselves. I think it’s a shame that an equivalent word isn’t used as much for women. We say ‘ladies and gentlemen’, but a lady feels a lot more refined, while gentlewoman sounds exciting, adventurous, robust and cool.
Gillian Anderson and Tilda Swinton are definitely gentlewomen, but I’d also say younger people like Janelle Monáe, Emma Watson, Florence Welch, Zendaya or Solange – people to really look up to, who are really good at what they do, but come across as warm and with a depth to them. They exude self-confidence. Kim Kardashian and the cast of Love Island are not gentlewomen because they exude a fragility of self – I don’t get the sense they are particularly in tune with who they really are.
I became a gentlewoman in my mid-20s after experiencing the loss of my older cousin Billie, who was more like a sister to me. I realised I owed it to her to live my life fully and well. She died of a brain tumour at 31. I was in a bad, controlling relationship and it was holding me back in so many ways. Once I found the courage to break out of that 12-year relationship, I could begin really taking gentle care of myself and building myself up into this woman I’d aspired to be.
Being kind to ourselves can be as simple as making the bed in the morning. This elementary act of self-care sets you up for the day ahead and means you come home to a sense of order and peace, not a tangled mess.
Wear what makes you feel good. Wear what makes you feel you. Being a gentlewoman doesn’t mean you have to have an androgynous sense of style – it’s more about being someone who wears clothes and doesn’t let clothes wear her. Express yourself and your sense of identity through what you wear, but don’t feel it has to be a static thing. Your sense of style should evolve along with your sense of self.
Be more gay. Being gay means that my relationships start from a much more equal standpoint. I’m not weighed down by expectations or traditions. I think even the most woke, progressive straight couples are still having to fight against these expectations of gender, whereas I don’t have to engage with them at all.
Being gay forces you to come to terms with your identity and feel confident in telling people your identity every day. The act of coming out is a brave thing you have to do not just once, but constantly to everyone – from the Amazon delivery guy who asks if your husband’s in to people you meet at parties or at work. It’s a constant assertion of your deepest sense of yourself.
Be open and honest at work. Being a gentlewoman does not mean you are a push over: instead you take up space, make yourself heard, but you do it with self-awareness and charm. It’s easier to achieve your personal goals if you are kind and compassionate to others at work.
When I was passed over for the top job at Elle, I’d been in the unusual scenario of being both acting editor and applying for the job. Finding out I hadn’t got the job was disappointing, but I had to be humble, accept someone else got it and not feel resentful. Moving on and doing the best in your current job is important. That said, you should always apply for things, even if you don’t think you have a chance of getting it, because the whole experience of applying for a big job really forces you to up your game.
If you do end up leaving a job, leave well. Don’t just slip away one day and never come back. Make a speech, arrange leaving drinks, and send notes to people you enjoyed working with.
When starting a new role, always try and meet people individually. Whatever stage you’re at – whether you’re going in as those people’s manager or you’re the most junior person on the team – ask if they’ve got ten minutes to have a coffee. Take the initiative to reach out first: it’s a good way of feeling like you’re in control.
Live your online life with humour, perspective and objectivity. Focus on the real world, real relationships and real, tangible experiences – not the engineered version of them.
Be a good friend. Put some time aside on a Sunday evening to book friends in for dates, even if busy schedules mean it won’t be for weeks in advance. Put friends’ birthdays or anniversaries in your diary; send cards not texts. Pick up the phone and call a friend for a proper chat rather than just exchanging emojis. Ask them about themselves: ‘How are you?’ doesn’t cut it. How are they feeling about something specific: are they coping okay with work, motherhood, their self-image? Sometimes it is up to us as gentlewomen to ask the right questions of our friends and help them to really open up to us.
My life has changed in every possible way since becoming a parent. Recently my wife and daughter went away for a week to stay with my in-laws in France and it felt like I was on holiday in my old life. The thing I realised more than any is that everything is just better with my little daughter. I don’t feel like any sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way outweigh the joy and amazingness of being a mother.
Adopt a soft-power approach to your life. Think before acting. Share your platform with others; let their voices be heard too. Listen well and ask questions. Be honest. And be as kind to yourself as you are to others.
How To Be A Gentlewoman: The Art of Soft Power in Hard Times by Lotte Jeffs is out now. Order here.
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