On Chivalry

Most of my friends know my stance on chivalry: it needs to rest in a watery grave. Some of them think that I go overboard with my outspoken hatred of a tradition that is supposedly about “good manners.” They think that if I try to dismantle the system that I’ll deprive them of the privilege of having their SO’s do anything from open car doors for them to give them flowers. But, what they don’t get is that I could care less what arrangements they make with the people in their lives. I care about what people try to do to me without my consent. I care about what the unspoken “rules” of chivalry mean for me and other women. And that is why I hate chivalry in its current incarnation, not because I’m against people opening doors for each other or whatever other considerate gestures they wish to extend.

Over in the feminist LJ, police_my_lips has sparked a discussion on the matter. I’d like to pull some choice quotes from commenters and elaborate on my own experiences and opinions.

I. Chivalry: Then and Now

I’ll defer a bit to Miss Manners: Chivalric etiquette was an improvement on the previous system of “Ladies never.” Nevertheless, symbolically declaring women too superior to run the everyday world had an amazingly similar effect to declaring them too inferior. And by the way, chivalry originally applied only to upper-class ladies, and while a version of it was extended to the middle class in the nineteenth century, it never inspired anyone to defer to the lower classes.

With that in mind, I think it’s important to note that “chivalry” was not only sexist, but also classist. It never existed in the way some people today like to claim it did, and ought to be declared thoroughly dead, hopefully replaced by the idea that all people ought to treat each other with respect.

The only place chivalry seems to come up these days is by people making the argument that feminism is BAD because it requires people to be mean to men who hold doors open to women. Clearly, this is the most pressing and foremost issue for moden feminism.

[Comment by night101owl]

While chivalry certainly lingers on in part as another way to discredit us feminists as over-the-top, and that kind of bad PR is definitely worth addressing, I’ve found that it lingers on in spirit as well as name in other areas. I think these areas also need to be looked at in order for us to dismantle a tradition rooted in sexism and classism and replace it with a tradition that is focused on being considerate to all people. Remember, folks, good manners is helping people in need regardless of their gender, class, race, orientation, or what have you.

II. The difference between chivalry and good manners

Right. People sympathetic to chivalry often point out how certain behaviors, like holding open doors, can sometimes be the polite (or nice, or helpful, or friendly) thing to do. What we’re saying is that politeness is fine, but treating women based on a code that means treat us as fragile glass creatures is not. We put in the politeness bit to preempt people who would try to explain how chivalry and politeness are the same, or coterminous.

[Comment by trinityva, emphasis mine]

Good manners is about respect. It’s not respectful to treat a woman in a way that limits her personal freedom without her consent. It’s about doing things to help out those of your kind, regardless of their gender expression, chromosomal set, or sexual organs. It’s about helping because you want to help, not because society/your parents/your family/your friends have told you to.

Chivalry, in its original form and the bastardized version that’s touted today, may include common courtesies but the gendered slant takes it out of the arena of strict good manners. It’s good manners with conditions: I’ll open this door for you if you’re a woman, because I’m supposed to be nice to women. I’ll buy dinner for you because you’re a woman. I’ll do this and that because you’re a woman and my parents told me that women need/want to be treated this way. Not, you know, because we should be kind to those around us.

III. It’s about helping women, right? Wrong.

“Chivalry’s not dead? Let’s slay it.”
I often hear people say, “Ha ha, chivalry’s not dead. Awww.” Grrr.

If men really want to assist women, how about joining the fight for equal wages and political power? How about working for the maintenance of reproductive rights? How about boycotting the sexist, Anglo-centric, anti-fat, media?
(Nota bene: I know that many men already do these things. I’m just developing an argument, y’all.)
Through chivalry, opening the doors to cars and buildings for women and pulling out their chairs signifies that men want to help women. So, if by chivalry men demonstrate that they want to aid women, fine; do something that actually helps. (Nota bene: I know that men do things to help women, c.f. Men Against Rape, Dads for Daughters. Just developing the argument.)

Also, by holding that women are more fragile and delicate than men and also that women are more virtuous and trusting (hello, gender roles), chivalry cripples women: it puts them on a pedestal and renders them in need of protection from the cruel wiles of the worldly outside. Lastly, by saying that women are “more (fill in the blank)” than men are, chivalry doesn’t help equality between the sexes that we feminists work for.

[Comment by alaiyo, emphasis mine]

First off, I find it really sad that alaiyo has to qualify her arguments with “of course this doesn’t apply to all men” statements. That should be obvious; there are men (feminist, pro-feminist, and non-feminist) who concern themselves with actually helping women. Not surprisingly, in my experience they are also ones don’t consider themselves to be chivalrous.

Does that mean that my non-chivalrous friends are uncooth men who would slam a door in the face of a woman whose hands were full of groceries? Well, no. But they wouldn’t slam a door in the face of a man whose hands were full of groceries, either, something that chivalry allows by omission. How many “chivalrous” men think about other men when they hold open doors? Or rush to pull out another man’s chair? Not many, in my experience. And, at least in the chair-pulling instance, the act would probably be considered highly offensive to the recipient of such “chivalry”. But we women aren’t allowed to be offended by those same acts. We’re not allowed to speak up against them, or to ask for such acts not to extend to us. It’s just good manners after all.

And that, to me, is one of the ways that chivalry is exposed for what it really is: a way to control women by forcing “courtesy” on us. The veneer of good manners is just a smokescreen to make it hard for women to break away from the controlling aspects. Women get “special” treatment, whether we like it or not.

I once had a friend who wanted to be “chivalrous” towards me, so he would run ahead of me to open doors. In itself, it wouldn’t be so bad, except that even after I told him I didn’t like or appreciate that kind of behaviour, he would still do it and if I beat him to a door he wouldn’t walk through it.

That, while an extreme example, is not the only instance of that kind of thing. Almost always when I bring up with my chivalrous male friends that I don’t want a door opened for me, or I don’t want my chair pulled out, or whatever, they try to shame me by telling me that I’m oversensitive, that I should be glad for their help, etc. Sorry if I, you know, think my opinions should be the deciding factor in what people do to me. My apologies, fellows. I’ll just go back to being the fragile desert flower who needs protection from big, strong men who couldn’t give a shit about my happiness.

IV. Don’t ruin my romance!

I like my b/f giving me flowers as much as I like doing it for him. I hold open the doors for people to be courteous and I appreciate the same in return. Politeness, niceness, heck even being “romantic” is wonderful so long as you’re not set a certain “role” to play based on your gender! That’s my view =)

[Comment by rosalynmoon]

One of the most infuriating arguments I get from my female friends (who also try to shame me when I bring up my displeasure with chivalry) is that I’m trying to ruin the romance from them. Because they want their SOs to open doors for them, or to give them flowers, or whatever, I have to have the same treatment or suddenly I’m on a crusade to control what they do in their personal lives.

As rosalynmoon’s comment demonstates, feminists aren’t out to ruin romance for people. If you like getting flowers, great. If you want your SO to open doors for you, great. These are things that you discuss when you get together with your SO, so that you can be treated the way you want to be treated. You see how I am not part of this process?

For me, romance isn’t flowers. It isn’t opening of doors, or pulling out of chairs. I like to pay my share of the meal, or treat my SO to a movie on occasion. I like to be involved in major decisions, outside of perhaps a couple surprise parties or whatever. I like being a partner in my relationships, both intimate and friendly. I’m not a delicate flower, and to treat me as such is the deepest insult to my personhood. It is a dismissal of who I am and what I stand for. It is not courteous, it is rude.

V. Final Thoughts

Being nice is good.
Being friendly is good.
Being helpful is good.
Being polite is good.

Bullshit codes about how to treat people based on gender? Not so good.

“Needing” bullshit codes about how to treat people based on gender to remind you to be nice, friendly, helpful, and polite to women? Fucked the hell up.

[Comment by trinityva]

If chivalry really is good manners, then why do a good portion of the men that I hold doors open for refuse to go through? Why am I not allowed to define what kinds of “courtesy” I want to receive from my friends? Why are people treated differently based on their gender expression? Why is an act from a man to a woman considered appropriate, but that very same act from a man to another man not?

Every culture, every nation, and every individual have different ideas on how they want to be treated. If you want to give me a courtesy, then give me the courtesy of respecting me on my terms for a change.

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34 thoughts on “On Chivalry

  1. I was considering making a snark about that kind of attitude (the men who buy into things like chivalry are also the first to complain when women also buy into it, then use feminists as scapegoats as if we’re the ones pushing that kind of thing), but I couldn’t find a good way to work it in.

    When I read ignorant stuff like that expressed by the posters in your link I just want to bash people over the head with the Clue Stick. People should be required to learn about feminism before they’re able to rip on it. ._.

  2. Or learn about women, even, but I guess they’re too busy being oppressed by us or whatever they think is going on. I probably should put up some more Feminism 101 links for the less hostile, like the guy who started the thread. I’m not going to go debate them on their own forums, but I’m wielding the Clue Stick ready in defensive position if they bring it onto my blog.

  3. “if I beat him to a door he wouldn’t walk through it”

    Thank you so much for pointing this out (and for a great post overall, btw).

    I find it so rude when men do this, and they do it to me a lot. Since I work in retail I’m constantly in situations where several strangers are going through doors together. I’m also often the first one to the door since I’m usually in a hurry to clock in or go home; I’m never there just to browse. The stupid idiots who positively insist on taking the door from me for absolutely no reason just make the whole process take even longer and completely piss me off.

  4. So…when a man holds a door for me I should ask him if he’s just being polite because he doesn’t want the door to slam in my face or if it’s because I’m a woman?

    Sheesh. Just proves people who want to be offended will find something to be offended about.

  5. Patti, I think you need to reread Tekanji’s post. For example, “If chivalry really is good manners, then why do a good portion of the men that I hold doors open for refuse to go through?” There is nothing wrong with being polite.

  6. Patti, I think your comment proves that “people who want to be offended will find something to be offended about.” You wanted to be offended by people, like me, who dislike chivalry and will speak out against it, so you went for the pot-shot that most chivalry advocates use when I bring up the “chivlary is sexist” argument without actually reading my post.

    If you had even gotten through the first paragraph, you would have noticed that I specifically said [it’s] not because I’m against people opening doors for each other or whatever other considerate gestures they wish to extend [that I dislike “chivalry”], but rather for the sexist and classist implications of the entire system as it stands today.

    Also, not that I think you’re anything but a drive-by troll, but this is your first and only warning. Any other inappropriate comments (as defined by the discussion rules) will be deleted and you will be banned.

  7. Jenny: I completely understand that! It gets to the point where I think to myself, “Well, guy, if you hadn’t made such a scene we’d both be where we wanted to go by now.” How does it prove that you’re a chivalrous guy when you inconvenience both you and the woman who’s trying to show good manners by coming to a dead stop and refusing to go through her open door?

  8. Yeah, I just experienced a completely bewildering display of chivalry recently. It was one of those large sliding doors that was so wide five people could go through together, but the guy (it was raining by the way) would not go through until I went through, holding up his poor daughter and the freak ushered me to go ahead of him, too…Just bizarre, the lengths men will go to to make you feel like a freak.

  9. I hope it’s okay that I drop by (followed Hugo’s link).
    I’d like to go out on a limb and suggest that all of this depends on the particular situation. Sure, some instances of “chivalrous behaviour” could be about controlling the woman in the situation, and it could be straight out threatening.
    BUT, in many cases it really is nothing more than a nice gesture, intended in everything but an offensive/threatening way, and I really think that in these cases we should not lay into guys for holding open that door. Being a PhD student at a top university, I have many good male friends who genuinely appreciate me at the very least as their equal in absolutely every sense. I know for a fact that if/when they hold open the door for me, controlling me is not any closer to their minds than controlling them is to mine. (and this is not because they don’t perceive me as feminine, to the contrary.) I say this as a feminist.

    It’s slightly different when I visit in Eastern Europe, where I am originally from. “Chivalry” there is indeed generally more linked to a still pervasive patriarchal mindset. Even in situations like this though, I would strongly argue that our energies in fighting the patriarchy would be much better focused elsewhere. It’s not chivalry that’s the problem, it’s attitudes that *could* be underlying chivalrous behaviour that are the problem, and there are millions of better ways of fighting those attitudes than through fighting chivalry.

    That’s my two pennies’ worth.

  10. tekanji

    The really annoying part about it is that this is work, and retail at that (customer is always right! – yeah right), so I can’t ever ask them exactly what they think they are doing.

    yeah….working retail has been interesting

  11. Can’t really comment on the door thing as I spend as much time holding the door at work as having it held for me (and that military men are a lot more fair-minded and progressive than people give them credit for), but I think the quote by trinityva under the Final Thoughts heading was the best summary of the situation I’ve ever seen.

  12. [Administrator Notice: For failing to adhere to the discussion rules, this post has been deleted and AmericaHater has been banned.]

  13. Hey AmericaHater, I don’t think the point is being made that each and every time a random male person opens the door for a random female person the female person needs to pick a fight and berate said male person for doing so. The argument is not against politeness (and holding doors for people can be an act of simple unisex politeness, after all).

    However, if I have a male friend and I’ve talked to my male friend many times about my feelings on being equally able to hold doors for each other and he refuses to ever allow me to hold the door for him because that’s not chivalrous, that’s just silly.

    When men get their knickers in a knot over having women hold doors for them (falling all over themselves to prevent this from happening, as jessant and tekanji were saying above) they’re really getting their knickers in a knot over being treated like a woman. It’s no longer about politeness at that point, it’s about sexism, pure and simple.

  14. Sorta like placing a woman on a pedestal … it’s a way to create a false perception about a woman’s abilities. Chivalry as a system, sets women apart from mainstream society and subliminally reminds us all the time that we are “supposed” to be fragile creatures who require a strong man’s help to get by.

    When I’m with my three kids, one in a stroller, I appreciate anyone holding the door for me or giving up their seat on a bus. That’s because there is a practical difference to keeping three kids near by and safe and being alone.

    That doesn’t mean that I always need someone else to open that big heavy door or stand during that bumpy bus ride. And the people commenting here saying you’re nitpicking about chivalry are ignoring the truth of the system that sets us up to think women need men to get by.

  15. Great article!

    This summer I got in a huge fight with my brother, who is sexist to the core and doesn’t understand my life in women’s studies and activism, or my feminist values.

    We were walking down the sidewalk and he suddenly grabbed me and moved me so that I was on the inside of the sidewalk and he was walking on the outside, closest to the street.

    “What are you doing?” I asked.
    “I’m supposed to walk on the outside. It’s safer. It’s polite,” he said.

    Onward proceeded a huge fight as he explained to me that he does this for all he female friends only, that it’s just him being polite, thinking that he’s protecting them by walking on the outside and that I was being selfish and uninclusive for not understanding this and being upset about it.

    How could I make him understand that this small action had just made me feel inferior? That I felt lesser of a person that him because I was the one who needed protection, just because I was female?

    It’s not about politness, or about helping women. It’s learned actions that we learn as we grow up, through patriarchy, through sexism, through classism, to keep us all in our set gender roles and not break out of the system.

  16. Artemis — You could tell your brother that “walking on the outside” was a protective manuever that makes you feel like a child. I remember my mother doing the walk on the inside rule back when I was 8. It was like holding hands when you cross the street, a way to protect a vulnerable child, not a way to treat a grown woman.

  17. It would probably benifit all concerned if there were a distinction made between the all encompasing “Chivalry”, and the subset of it’s “rules” that only pertain to the behavior of men toward woman.

    It may be nice to see a passing nod to Judith Martin or Lynne Truss as
    modern arbitors concerning manners, civility, courtesy, respect, acknowledgement,and the value of various tacitly agreed and accepted social expections.

    Im not seeing anyone here show knowlege of the full circle, or even why, that the “Chivalry is demeaning to woman” meme has taken amongst women since the sixties.

  18. CaptDMO: In the future, polite admonitions may not get you banned, but they aren’t appropriate, either. It implies that we should be shamed for not bowing to your expectations. Kindly refrain from such accusations in the future, and phrase your dissent differently.

    It would probably benifit all concerned if there were a distinction made between the all encompasing “Chivalry”, and the subset of it’s “rules” that only pertain to the behavior of men toward woman.

    Maybe you should read my post a bit more carefully. I said:

    Chivalry, in its original form and the bastardized version that’s touted today, may include common courtesies but the gendered slant takes it out of the arena of strict good manners.

    My point? As long as “chivalry,” or the image of chivlary conjured in most people’s heads, includes the subset of “rules” that govern men’s behaviour towards women, and mandate women’s acceptance of said behaviour, a meaningful distinction cannot be made.

    It may be nice to see a passing nod to Judith Martin or Lynne Truss as
    modern arbitors concerning manners, civility, courtesy, respect, acknowledgement,and the value of various tacitly agreed and accepted social expections.

    Why would I bother to give a passing nod to someone I’ve never heard of? Furthermore, I don’t agree with setting up arbitrary “rules” and saying “you must follow them!” is indicative of good manners. Good manners should be an expression of the respect and sympathy for other human beings, not because other people tell you that you should be nice to someone else (or, in the case of chivalry, “nice” to women).

    Im not seeing anyone here show knowlege of the full circle, or even why, that the “Chivalry is demeaning to woman” meme has taken amongst women since the sixties.

    Honestly, I don’t really know exactly what you’re trying to say here. Obviously, if no one has shown “knowledge of the full circle” it’s either because 1) we don’t know what it is, or 2) those who do find it irrelevant to the conversation.

    And, I assume by the second half of your sentence, that you would have liked to see a discussion of the history of the rising dislike of chivalry in feminism? Frankly, this isn’t the place to go for history lessons (unless you want information on Asian culture or religion, or Classical myth, religion, or literature), as my feminism is almost 100% non-academic. I haven’t even studied Dworkin, or Hooks, much less the history of second wave feminism.

    Next time, if you think some mention was lacking, why don’t you, I don’t know, bring that side to the table instead of getting on your high horse and chiding us for not doing it for you. My guess is that you’ll get a better reaction that way, even if people don’t agree with you.

  19. As strange as this idea seems to be, maybe some men hold the door and do other such things because they actualy appreciate women. They do this because men and women are intrinsically different, and because they respect these differences. This isnt saying they think women are not equal in most arenas, but it is also not denying the differences in the sexs(sp?). The way that i view and act on chivalry is to be polite to both men and women, but if both should need help at the same time, i would choose the woman.

  20. Lancelot, either read my posts before you comment or don’t comment at all. I’m really fucking tired of educating people too lazy to read even to the end of my introduction.

    And, people at large, please stop using the “omg femanests haet teh door opaning!” stereotype. It’s old, it’s tired, and I’m going to start banning people who do because that’s not really what I’m talking about and it’s getting to the point of derailing the thread.

  21. Chivalry was originally a warrior code founded in Christianity to reduce the brutality of war on non-combatants (mind you, it often was ignored in practice) – defence of one’s prisoners unto death, remaining faithful to oaths, etc., etc. What you are angered by was grafted on in the twelfth century – it is known as the precepts of courtly love, and is based upon French ballads of that time. And a side note: be they man or woman, if someone else is behind me, in front of me, or anywhere within ten feet of me and moving for a door I am nearer to, I hold that door open for them out of habit – it’s the way I was raised. I try (and most often fail,) to put everyone else’s interests ahead of my own – to only hold the door for women would be contrary to this.

    Go ahead and tell me I’m a fool – I already know that, but I try to live by a code that seems purer in this modern day. If you feel offended, I am truly sorry, for that is not my intention – but I think there still are people who can take something like this at face value without ascribing a thousand nefarious purposes to it.

  22. Andrea, I wish you had left a response to Lancelot’s multiple assertions that women and men are essentially different! (I mean, at the very least, a questioning of how on earth we can fall into similar-within-the-sexes categories when we’re all so different from each other, period, might be a good start.)

    I don’t think he made the argument you said he made. He didn’t do the “Feminists hate door-openers!” argument. He did the one that’s MUCH more prevalent out in debates we get into with our friends and in the not-usually-gender-discussing community: that members of the two genders/sexes are, by nature, “just different.”

  23. Katie: I’ve debunked the myth of gender essentialism on this blog more times than I can count. I get sick of reiterating the same thing over and over again. Although I think that, when I have time, I’ll add a category specifically for it so people can have easy-access. In the meantime, I direct you to The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.

  24. Ouch… mea culpa on the whole chivalry thing. In large part, I guess, it’s just what a ‘gentleman’ is expected to do, and NOT doing it made me feel like a churl.
    Woah. Churl. What a snooty word! Classism and sexism, all rolled into one neat –and hard to get rid of– package. Hard, because the guilt will probably still be there.
    Anywho, I have noticed a difference in reaction among genders and age groups to chivalry. Generally, most of the people who reacted favorably were of a previous generation. Felt odd to be called ‘sir’ by a man old enough to be my father, but that is what gentlemen call each other, even when dishing out insults. The ones who reacted as if they weren’t sure how to take it were usually younger than me, and for the most part, male.
    Thinking back on it, I guess that does sort of put the whole thing in its place: a good idea, horribly contaminated by stale traditions. If chivalry cannot be decontaminated, then it needs to be canned like toxic waste and buried as deeply as possible.

  25. As usual, thanks for keep making me think and recall injustice, that goes right in front of my eyes but I am too dormant by the soporific force of traditional culture to notice it.

    I will add my grain of salt. 😛

    Schopenhauer, the man was a genius, erudite and very advanced morally (for homosexuality, animal rights, etc.), but sadly too, a mysoginist. Anyway, he wrote an essay on women – btw, I do not recommend to read that first, if you ever want to read this philosopher, because you will probaly despise him too quickly ^_^ (I convince myself that he was largely influenced by the horrible relation with his mother, and that he was going along with the culture and prejudices of the time) – in it, he spoke of “the lady”, that european phenomenon in which women are shown a particular etiquette and manners just because of their gender (or should I say sex?). Well, that got me thinking, why do women get treated in such and such manner?

    I asked a relative, male, somewhat a conservative with regards to sexuality and individual behavior, about it. I said something like, “what is this thing of the lady, why do they get treated as special?” and other questions and we ended something like “yes, but she is a lady, she gives birth, etc”. I cannot remember properly, but it was as if because you go through that, very painful, process of giving birth, that is why you deserve a special “polite” treatment.

    The thing is not all women give birth or care about having children, but more importantly, so what? Men do not say “please treat me corteously after all, as a men I have the potential of developing kidney stones (women can too but it is much less probable), which is as painful as giving birth (as a friend of mine said :P)”

    What is the basis for courteous, polite behavior? Not your gender but your person, and more relevant, as you say, your consent. But here a weak counter question, how do we avoid being irrespectful, after all, we cannot be asking everyone “can I open the door or can I give you a sit”? They do not expect you to ask, to ask is irespectful by default. For example, I have been looked bad or complained when I did not place a sit under a woman’s butt or let a woman enter first into the bus or into a class, whatever.
    When some women rejoice or accept the “if you are a woman you receive a particular display of behavior from males”, the feminist male is against two fronts, that of the perpetrator, the “male well-mannered” and the victim, the “uncritical and conformist woman”.

    How can we change this, only by discussion; discussion in the written word, like you do or verbal, like the more brave do (no way in hell I can do this, too timid and sensitive. I have had some horrible experiences too -_-). Reading is important as well, and having a mind receptive to ideas and different opinions is very relevant too.

  26. I said the feminist male, but I think the feminism female – stupid labels I hate them but it is impossible to engage in political and social discourse without them! For now at least. I can’t wait for the postgender era ^_^- also must confront the two types.

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