The problem with ‘chivalry’ is that it’s a ruse for sexism
By Polly Dunning
The boss of a friend of mine insists on opening doors for her. She hates it. She has told him that she hates it and would prefer him not to do it. His response? ‘You won’t shift me on this one, I was raised to be polite to women.’
How can we take issue with that? He is trying to be helpful and polite. He’s trying to be chivalrous. If we do complain, that is often what’re told.
‘He’s just being nice.’ ‘He’s just old fashioned and brought up to respect women.’
But is it nice, respectful or polite to behave in a way you have been explicitly asked not to? To behave in a way that makes the target of your behaviour uncomfortable? This kind of denial of the experience of women who hate this benevolent sexism is classic gaslighting.
Women are made to feel like their own discomfort and their own dislike of clearly sexist behaviour is somehow insulting to the man who is ‘just being chivalrous’.
But if chivalry is polite, honest and kind behaviour, particularly from men to women, then behaviour which makes a woman uncomfortable is, by definition, not chivalrous. It’s not polite, and it’s not kind. It’s certainly not ‘showing respect’.
Whether it makes a woman uncomfortable or not, it is also not courteous or polite to treat women as if they are less able or requiring special treatment or protection. Quite frankly, as an able-bodied woman I am just as capable of opening the door, pulling out the chair, or standing for the train trip as you are.
It is patronising and sexist to suggest otherwise. Which is what this supposedly ‘chivalrous’ behaviour does.
The only reason I can think of to offer a woman your seat on the bus, or insist on opening the door for her, or pull out her chair is because she requires help. Of course, if the person is pregnant, elderly, or physically less able, it would be appropriate to offer your seat to them regardless of their gender. If you arrive at a door first, again, it would be polite and appropriate to open it for whomever is going through the same doorway, no matter their gender or yours.
This kind of benevolent sexism is also seen when a man swears in a group conversation and then turns to the woman/women in the group to apologize to them. As if our precious girly ears and sensibilities can’t cope with profanity.
You know what is far more offensive than any word you could ever use? The fact that you think that my being female means I require special treatment. Also, the wage gap, violence against women, and sexual harassment and abuse, just to scratch the surface.
If you don’t think something is appropriate to say in front of women then maybe you need to consider whether it’s an appropriate thing to say at all?
The argument that this behaviour is meant to be kind and that I need to ‘lighten up’ and stop ‘reading into it’ is bogus. Actions all have an underlying meaning and that must be interrogated. In this case, this traditionally ‘chivalrous’ behaviour is plain sexist.
And it figures that it would be, considering where chivalry comes from. Chivalry emerged around the 10th century as a code of conduct for mounted soldiers. In the common consciousness, chivalry seems to be associated with the dragon-slaying, pure-hearted knight who saves the damsel in distress.
Putting aside the obvious issues with casting women as ‘damsels in distress’, this soaring image of the chivalrous knight is pure fantasy. Think realistically about medieval warfare and you’ll pretty quickly move your mind to raping, maiming and pillaging.
And these codes of chivalry were mainly an attempt to curb this extreme violence, and most certainly didn’t focus on women! The code was basically: stop being violent towards people just for fun. Which sounds good!
Maybe we could go back to that kind of chivalry, seeing as male violence against both men and women does seem to still be a bit of an issue? The opening doors kind of chivalry came about in the Victorian era as nostalgia for the gentle, kind, and courteous behaviour of knights in the Middle Ages, which is about as historically accurate as their slaying of dragons.
Of course, like cat calling and wolf whistling, plenty of women will tell you they like having doors opened, having men stand for them, having dates pay for dinner. That they view it as somehow complimentary.
But the subtext of the action (that you are a delicate flower in need of care and protection that men do not require) is decidedly un-complimentary. And what individual women like is irrelevant whether it comes to whether something is sexist.
This kind of ‘chivalry’ props up and protects the idea that women are weak and in need of male care and protection, which in turn casts us as less capable of leadership and responsibility.
If men want to do something practical that truly shows respect for women, they should throw themselves into ending discrimination and violence against women. They should pull their mates up for making sexist remarks. They should stop opening doors, offering seats, and paying for dates (unless they decide to pay 15% more than their share to cover the wage gap, that’s okay!).
I want to be treated as an equal in every way. My womanhood is not my defining characteristic. If you wouldn’t do it for a man, don’t do it for me. And if it makes you uncomfortable when you end up pulling out my husband’s chair when you go to pull out mine, but I go to the other one, maybe you need to think about why it makes you uncomfortable to pull out a man’s chair but not a woman’s.
Polly Dunning is an educator and writer.