Chivalry and feminism appear to be natural enemies: If women want to be treated as equals they can’t also want men to open doors for them or always pick up the check. Carrying a woman’s bag can be taken as implying that she’s too weak to do it herself.
But an article in The Atlantic suggests that a return of chivalry could actually help the feminist cause. Chivalry, Emily Esfahani Smith argues, is about respect, not condescension.
“Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages,” she writes. “It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances.”
By that logic, its return would decrease the harassment and assault of women. Of course, there was rape when there was chivalry, but the structure of society in general was skewed so far against women that when men did break the rules of chivalry and assault them, there was very little they could do about it. When I say a return of chivalry I don’t mean a wholesale step backward, but a return of one social custom, integrated into our much-closer-to-equal society.
One issue that hard-line feminists run up against over and over again is that men and women are actually physically, chemically different. As much as we may want to deny it, men have a physical advantage over women — on average, of course.
The discrepancy in physical strength doesn’t affect women’s ability to be equal in most respects — it doesn’t hinder our ability to contribute to STEM fields, to hold down full time jobs, or even to serve in the military. But as we fight to be treated like we’re no different at all, systems that protect us from physical violence break down. The physical differences between the sexes are why we need the Violence Against Women Act, in recognition of the disadvantage women are often in during a physical confrontation with a man.
Chivalry has the potential to be the same idea, on a smaller, everyday scale.
In the Atlantic article, Smith shares a great anecdote from the life of Baptist Minister Samuel Proctor: Proctor was on an elevator when a young woman stepped on. He tipped his hat to her, and she bristled, asking, "What is that supposed to mean?"
The pastor's response was: "Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat."
When phrased that way, chivalry doesn’t sound offensive and condescending at all, but like it would make for an all-around more pleasant world.
Of course, the danger of accepting chivalry as a way of promoting respect for women is the incidental implications that caused feminists to malign it in the first place. Speaking about its return theoretically is all well and good. But it’s not a far leap from a chivalrous respect for women to thinking that they’re weak and incapable of doing anything for themselves.
Even when it comes from a positive place of wanting to help, the assumption that a woman always needs a man to step in and rescue her is exactly how chivalry came to be referred to as “benevolent sexism.” Chivalrous men may mean well, but it’s easy to see a disconnect between social rules about treating women with delicate respect and the push toward equality.
The big question here is: Can a man open the door for his female coworker, or even defend her during a physical confrontation, and then still consider her an equal in work?
I’m not entirely convinced that a return to chivalry wouldn’t open the door to reinforced ideas of women as weak, but Smith’s proposal is worth considering.