One response I’ve noticed from many women when the topic of chivalry comes up is to suggest that chivalry isn’t really dead, it is simply a matter of gender neutral courtesy. In response to my post Chivalry on the Titanic, Big Little Wolf offered a link to her own post Chivalry: Here today, gone tomorrow, ALWAYS in fashion:
Chivalry is about courtesy and generosity. I say YES to chivalry on my planet which, incidentally, is neither Mars nor Venus, nor poor pitiful Pluto, tossed from the fold by hapless hacks with PhDs!
My planet is called Fred – where I get to pick and choose the typically masculine or feminine behaviors that suit me.
A bit later on she elaborates:
Pick up the tab for a date? Yes – I will expect that.
But I believe in high quality, low cost first dates – coffee or a glass of wine. And thereafter, cozy restaurants or even take-out to be shared is just fine by me, as long as it’s shared, mmm… chivalrously.
I’m not wooed by money or pretension, and not looking to break the bank as we get to know each other. That’s courtesy, generosity, and good manners on the woman’s side.
A little further down she reiterates:
What we deem as chivalrous behavior is about manners and upbringing. I often open and hold doors for people.
She also explains in the post that men opening doors is something she values but sees as optional. However, if you drive a truck or SUV she will expect help getting in not because she is a woman but due to her diminutive stature. One word of caution I would offer men who are confused about the whole business is not to apply this same rule to a short man; he is extremely likely to take offense if you offer to give him a boost. So don’t apply the same rule to a small man as you would a small woman. Just to summarize Big Little Wolf’s rule on women and trucks; chivalry means giving the little lady some extra help. I’m hoping that should be easy enough to remember.
Susan Walsh expressed the idea of chivalry being gender neutral courtesy more succinctly in her comment on my post Chivalry only comes from a position of strength:
It seems to me that in a post-feminism world, chivalry is an element of character that should apply equally to both sexes. It should mean taking responsibility for a fellow human being, regardless of gender. Historically, men (the stronger sex) have been chivalrous toward women. One could argue that today, women are in a stronger position is some arenas – they certainly are stronger in higher education.
24 years ago I was riding the T in Boston, 8 months pregnant. I got on to a crowded car and held on to a center pole as best I could. No one offered me a seat. After someone got off the train, a teenage girl “saved” their seat for me so that no one else could take it. Since then, I have tried to be generous (chivalrous?) to anyone of any age that looks like they could use a break.
Chivalry is noble, but should not fall only to men.
I think Susan is on to something, and we probably should explore whether women are aware of the obligations which come with their power. But I disagree that if a given courtesy or gracious gesture is gender neutral that it should be called chivalry. Chivalry is inherently masculine, and we already have generic terms for courtesy and charity. Rolling the general in with the specific will only confuse things further, and the concept of chivalry in our society is already messy enough as it is. This is especially a problem because real differences between men and women do (and always will) exist. Susan mentioned graciously offering her seat on a train to those who look like they need a break. As she says this kind of act is noble whether performed by a man or a woman. However, I wouldn’t call this chivalrous when done by a woman just as I wouldn’t call a man ladylike for being polite. Furthermore, while she might offer her seat on a train she won’t be told she should expect to offer her seat on a lifeboat should the ship she is traveling on experience a sudden loss of buoyancy. This is exactly what Anonymous age 68 describes being instructed on a cruise ship in the 1990s:
The first thing we did was lifeboat drill. The men had to stand behind the line, while all women went to the front. There were old men with canes, who had to step back, and young, strong, healthy women who looked ready to run marathons who went to the front. After 30 years of feminism, this was a perfect example of the hypocrisy of the modern women, not one complained about the sexism involved.
Like it or not, there are still differences even at this extreme level. Rolling gender neutral courtesy into the term chivalry denies this reality. It isn’t just that men can still be formally required to give their lives so that women and children can live; there are and will always be social expectations on men which women don’t have. No one ever questions why the unsinkable Molly Brown accepted the seat on the lifeboat while half of the very sinkable children on the ship didn’t get a seat. However, the 1,000+ men who stepped aside (and died) so she could have that seat would have faced accusations of cowardice had they not done so. As different as things are in many ways nearly 100 years later, that basic distinction hasn’t changed.
In a more mundane example, while Susan would undoubtedly call 911 if she witnessed a crime in progress or call a tow truck for a stranded motorist (assuming she could do so safely), a woman is highly unlikely to ever be asked the following question by a member of the opposite sex:
- Why didn’t you stop that big guy from beating up the small guy?
- Why didn’t you offer to fix that person’s car?
- Why didn’t you stop them from robbing me?
I’m not suggesting men should feel obligated to act in the situations described above; as I said in my last post on the topic, chivalry is a gracious gesture only if it is freely given. However, this doesn’t change the fact that many do feel that men have a nearly unlimited obligation to put the wellbeing and safety of others (including strangers) above themselves. Saying chivalry is no longer associated with being a man denies this fact.
Beyond expectations, there is also the question of real world abilities and behaviors. Doomed Harlot envisioned a brave new world where gender neutral persons exchange acts of chivalry:
To go back to Susan’s point, however, there should be an ethic of the strong-helping-the-weak. It’s just that in our society strong and weak or no longer determined based on gender. I also note that a person who is strong in one situation may be weak in another. For example, I may know how to change a tire better than someone, but perhaps she knows how to rescue me from drowning. Or a big strong man who carries heavy boxes for women may one day become elderly or disabled, and need help from someone carrying boxes for him.
So basically chivalry means from each according to his ability, to each according to her need. As Doomed Harlot points out under such a reciprocal system a man gets to carry heavy loads of women and older men his younger life, and then have his heavy loads carried by younger men when he is older. She also clarified a bit more on a further comment:
Fun story: last year i was stuck by the side of the road for 3 hours while waiting for a AAA (for non-Americans that’s an organization that sends out roadside assistance). It seemed as though about 30 men stopped to offer to change my tire (one after another) and I kept saying, “No, thank you, AAA is on its way. I’m all set. Much obliged.”
I checked the IP addresses, and the Doomed Harlot who thinks women are likely to stop and offer to change a tire for a stranger is the same Doomed Harlot who has experienced exactly the opposite in real life. Her life experience (but not her theoretical musings) match my own real life observations. All of the difficult, dangerous, or expensive acts which we call chivalrous are almost exclusively performed by men, even after decades of moxie. For example, women can be protectors. However, if a non family member puts themselves in significant risk to save your life statistically they are almost always going to be men.
My suggestion would be to take those acts women are equally likely to perform or face equal expectations to perform and call them by the applicable gender neutral term (charity, courtesy, etc) whether they are performed by men or women. For those remaining acts which are performed almost exclusively by men or for which men face greater expectations to perform, we should call them chivalry when performed by men and use the generic term in the odd case where women do them.