Several months ago, I wrote a brief piece on chivalry. In it, I proposed that chivalry is really not compatible with gender equality. We can have one or the other, but not both. And ultimately, it may be best if the sexes tried to help each other, rather than expecting that men be the protectors and benefactors of women.
A contrary opinion comes from “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance” by Emily Esfahani Smith. In it, she declares that women deserve both equality and chivalry at the same time, and men should obediently get with the program.
Esfahani Smith writes:
“This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic…In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: ‘To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.’”
Fair enough. This is historically accurate.
“About a year ago, a group of today’s men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves.”
Yes. Men and women are equal. At least, that’s what I’ve been told since I was old enough to understand human speech. This is what Feminism pushes for, right? No?
“This contrast is indicative of a larger trend—the decline of chivalry and the rise of boorish behavior among men. According to a 2010 Harris poll, 80 percent of Americans say that women are treated with less chivalry today than in the past. This is a problem that all women—especially feminists—should push back against.”
The absence of chivalry does not = boorish behavior. Chivalry is the expectation that men will protect and provide for women because they are women. A man is not being a boor simply because he refuses to pursue traditional gender roles. Men can be nice, professional, and polite to women without displaying one bit of chivalrous behavior.
After the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, which insisted on the equal treatment of women in all domains of life, feminists dismissed chivalry as sexist. They still do. A new study, published in the feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, questions the entire enterprise of male chivalry, which, in an Orwellian flourish, it calls “benevolent sexism.”
I find it far more Orwellian to demand that men and women are equals AND women deserve special treatment, at the same time. In my opinion, the referenced journal article is simply being honest that chivalry and equality really aren’t compatible.
“Chivalrous behavior is benevolent because it flatters women and leads to their preferential treatment. But it is sexist because it relies on the “gendered premise” that women are weak and in need of protection while men are strong. “Benevolent sexism,” Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker of the University of Florida write in the study, ‘is an ideology that perpetuates gender inequality.’”
I agree in part. My proposition is that chivalry is justified only if either of these things were true: 1. Women are objectively superior to men, and it should be the natural role of the male to selflessly sacrifice on their behalf. 2. Women are weak and helpless, and men need to be on constant alert to save them.
In my opinion, anyone who believes in chivalry has to believe in one or the other. Otherwise there is no rational reason to argue for chivalry.
Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, summed up the study with tongue-in-cheek, writing “the bad news is that gentlemanly behavior makes people happy.”
I am sure the hundreds of millions of men who have sacrificed and died for the protection of women over the centuries would be delighted to know their corpses make people happy.
Perhaps because of women’s ambivalence about chivalry, men have grown confused about how to treat women. Will holding doors open for them or paying for the first date be interpreted as sexist? Does carrying their groceries imply they’re weak? The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.
Well, yes. The “old rules” should be discarded. This is precisely what feminist-supporting men and women have been fighting for. No?
Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.
If men and women are equal, then for what reason should men need to “aggrandize and hold” women? And what’s all this about “holding” women, anyway? Sounds coercive and violent. I think Esfahani Smith needs to attend a seminar about violence against women.
And again, she implies that the absence of chivalry = boorish “unconstrained masculinity.” Not so. Men who reject chivalry are simply evolving their expression of gender roles. What feminist would have a problem with that?
“We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is,” argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. “It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.”
Fair enough. But we are conveniently forgetting that generations ago, women were not perceived as fully-functioning adults. They had limited agency over their lives and their choices. They were generally expected to be chaste, behave with temperance, and defer to male authority. Do women want to go back to that culture? Doubtful.
As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.” Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm.
Well, I happen to have read Dr. Hoff Sommers a great deal. Her overall argument is not represented here, because she acknowledges that the Feminist movement has deliberately inflicted a great deal of harm on men and women. I will listen to Hoff Sommers on this issue, even if I may disagree about chivalry, because she is far more honest and fair than most writers on gender issues.
“Some women are trying to bring back chivalry. Since 2009, for instance, a group of women at Arizona State University have devoted themselves to resuscitating gentlemanly behavior and chivalry on a campus whose social life is overwhelmingly defined by partying, frat life, and casual sex. The event has spread to campuses nationwide. Its goal is “to encourage mutual respect between the sexes,” Karin Agness tells me in an interview. Agness is the founder and president of the Network of Enlightened Women, the organization that hosts Gentlemen’s Showcases at colleges each spring….Women, she said, ‘want to be treated like ladies.’”
Do you know why campuses are “overwhelmingly defined by partying, frat life, and casual sex?” Because the guys who behave in such a way are also the guys who get attention from a lot of women. I could walk on the campus of any major university and find thousands of chivalrous, polite, gentlemanly men who are lucky to get a handful of dates in the entirety of their undergraduate careers. Meanwhile, the “frat life” guys need an electronic organizer to keep their “friends with benefits” straight. If you want men on college campuses to reform, you have to start by looking at the behavior of both sexes.
“Bennett and her fellow chivalry advocates have the right idea. “If women give up on chivalry, it will be gone,” Sommers tells me. “If boys can get away with being boorish, they will, happily. Women will pay the price.”
This is outright misandry. Men are not naturally inclined to boorish behavior. Imagine the cries of misogyny if I wrote something like “If girls can get away with being manipulative gold diggers, they will happily. Men will pay the price.” Boorish behavior is no more central to the male identity than gold digging is to female identity. Some people are inclined to behave poorly, and when they are rewarded for it, it encourages them.
If feminists want to level the playing field between men and women, they should find common cause with traditionalist women, like those at ASU, on the issue of chivalry. Both groups are concerned with how men treat women. They just differ in what that means: Feminists want men to treat women as equals; traditionalists want men to treat women like ladies. Are the two mutually exclusive?
Yes. The two are mutually exclusive, by definition.
“Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous. In other words, chivalry in the age of post-feminism is another name we give to civility. When we give up on civility, understood in this way, we can never have relationships that are as meaningful as they could be.”
No, chivalry is not civility. Civility is a positive thing that we should encourage. Civility does not conflict with equality, either. Chivalry is not compatible with equality, as it is the expectation that men will sacrifice and die for the women under their care.
“If women today—feminists and non-feminists alike—encouraged both men and women to adopt the principles of civil and chivalrous conduct, then the standards of behavior for the two sexes would be the same, fostering the equality that feminists desire. Moreover, the relations between the sexes would be once again based on mutual respect, as the traditionalists want. Men and women may end up being civil and well-mannered in different ways, but at least they would be civil and well-mannered, an improvement on the current situation.”
I guess we’re all just supposed to wonder how women can treat men with civility and respect, because Esfahani Smith spends this entire article criticizing men for not meeting her expectations.
During a screening of the Dark Knight, a deranged gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, theater, murdering twelve innocent people. Three men, all in their twenties, were in the audience that day with their girlfriends. When the shots rang out across the theater, these men threw themselves over their girlfriends, saving the women’s lives. All three of the men died. At the time, Hanna Rosin noted that what these men did was “deeper” than chivalry. It was heroic. I agree. But heroism and chivalry share a basic feature in common—the recognition, a transcendent one, that there is something greater than the self worth protecting, and that there is something greater than the self worth sacrificing your own needs, desires, and even life for.
Well, no. That’s not what happened. What happened is men followed their traditional gender role programming and behaved chivalrously. If it demonstrated that something “greater than the self is worth protecting” then we should have seen some women throwing themselves in front of bullets to save their boyfriends, too.
If we can all agree that the kind of culture we should aspire to live in is one in which men and women protect and honor each other in the ways that they can—and not one in which men are pushing past women and children to save their own lives—then that is progress that women everywhere should support.
We can’t agree to this, because Esfahani Smith does not offer one word on what women’s reciprocal obligations to men should be. This entire article is about some women wanting to have it both ways. “Women are equal AND special. Women should be free from their traditional expectations, while men are forced to toe the line on theirs. Man Up!!!!”
I think Esfahani Smith, and other women who think likewise, need to decide what they want. Equality, or special treatment. Choose one.
For a female opinion on why men aren’t doing as they’re told, watch this video:
Transcript of that video is right here, by the way. –DE