Chivalry - what it really means

We’ve all heard the word chivalry before and most of us have a rough idea of what it means: men giving women special treatment – usually in the form of more polite behavior. On some level most men are chivalrous even if they never deliberately try to be. Likewise, most women expect chivalry in some form or another even if they aren't aware of it. Chivalry is so wide spread and indoctrinated into our culture that we often take it for granted as ‘normal’ behavior. But normal means nothing other than that it’s fashionable and not that it is good or right or even healthy. I want to take it apart a little and try to establish more precisely what we mean by chivalry and chivalrous behavior. I’ll also look at the consequences of practicing chivalry on a social scale as well as on a small scale between individuals.

Both paintings by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee
Both paintings by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee

Where Chivalry Comes From

The word chivalry originally described the virtues and codes of practice that were associated with the institution of knighthood in the middle ages. It is derived from the French word chevalerie or perhaps the Italian word cavaliere, both meaning knight[hood].

An important thing to note is that knights were an upper class among the warriors. They were the noble warriors and it was nearly impossible for lower class boys to ever become knights. Even in battle, knights were significantly more likely to survive and be treated with respect by the enemy since their lives were considered more valuable than for example those of the foot soldiers or the archers. The knights were also trained to be courteous, honorable and to protect the weak which was not at last to distinguish them from the lower classes of society.

The reason I said all that is to show that the code of chivalry originally had very little to do with women. It was never meant to be about women and it was definitely never meant to be for men as a gender. It was strictly an upper class code for the knights.

What Chivalry is Today

In modern times, the meaning of the word chivalry has become completely ‘gendered’. Specifically I mean that chivalry is a code of behavior for men and it demands certain rules that men must abide in their treatment of women. Here are some typical examples of this code of chivalry as people understand it today (some are very clichéd, others are more serious):

  • Treat women with special respect.
  • Offer or even insist on helping a woman with a variety of tasks.
  • Always open the door for a woman and allow her to walk through it first.
  • Help a woman into or out of her coat – especially in public places like restaurants.
  • Protect her from harm as well as from insults, drawing harm to yourself if necessary.
  • Stand up for your partner especially against other men.
  • If necessary, sacrifice your life in order to save that of a woman.

Make no mistake, the last one, which requires men to sacrifice their lives is still practised systematically today!

Many people also think of chivalry as a way for men to show special courtesy towards women. And another popular view is to describe chivalry as a way for men to impress women with their manners. This is left over from the upper class background of chivalry as it enables men to show women that they have a high status by acting in a manner that one would associate with people of a high social status. I don’t agree with that last way of describing today's chivalry because it leads us to confusing it with plain good manners that have nothing to do with gender.

Today, chivalry is almost exclusively a form of behavior that men aim at women and it says nothing about how men interact with each other or how women interact with each other. Also, chivalry is never considered something that women can or should practise towards men. As such, chivalry is sexist by definition and so is anyone who practices, propagates or demands chivalrous behavior.

How Chivalry Harms Women

The ethical concerns of treating one gender as more valuable than the other are obvious to anyone. Nevertheless, in any discussion when I mention how chivalry is detrimental to women, people listen much more closely and are much more likely to agree.

By holding men to a higher standard of behavior than women, you are essentially programming women to become less well behaved, less mature and less accountable. Chivalry also comes with the inherent suggestion that women are less capable than men, that they need help (because they’re women) and that they are more fragile and require more protection. While nobody disputes that women are physically weaker than men, the typical manifestations of chivalrous behavior don’t enter that difference at all. In other words, holding a door for a woman is hardly necessary. So anyone who justifies chivalry by the fact that women are weaker is suggesting that they can’t even open a door (if that particular one is on their list).

In this way, chivalry infantilizes women meaning that it treats them like children and on a social scale it pushes the female gender into a position of less accountability and less competence and, more importantly, less independence. This doesn’t agree well with individual freedom and gender equality by any definition.

Many women appreciate chivalry and actually want to take a more child like role in society as well as in the family. This is everyone’s personal choice and, although I have no understanding for it, I still wouldn’t push my way onto others. The problems arise when women face discrimination as a result of chivalry. In the work place, it might result in women being less likely to be given responsibility and thus give them less opportunities to advance.This is particularly prominent in areas like the armed forces, police or rescue services where protecting, rescuing and saving lives is the principal goal.

On the other side is how women see themselves and how the world relates to them. Very often we hear women, who enter a competitive male dominated field, complaining that men are conspiring against them or that they’re not accepted by the men as peers. Well perhaps many of them are simply experiencing the absence of chivalry for the first time. Many women have received special treatment from men all their lives and think of it as normal. They only notice when it suddenly stops and it will naturally seem like unfair treatment to them – even if it isn’t. So those particular women want to be treated by the men just as the men treat each other. But what they don’t know is that [chivalrous] men are a lot less forgiving towards each other – especially when they’re in competition and being on the receiving end of that male competitive behavior will, no doubt, come as a shock to any woman who’s used to the special treatment that chivalry imposes on her. I’m not saying that there never is the problem of men giving women a hard time when they enter a male dominated field, but you can be sure that chivalry does nothing to prepare women for it and actually denies them the chance to experience life on equal terms with men.

What Chivalry does to Men

The problems that chivalry causes for women are nothing compared with what it does to men. But, for some reason, most people are not interested in this at all. That reason is in fact chivalry. How something that causes harm to men just doesn’t matter socially is one of the consequences of chivalry itself. Here are some of the things men have chivalry to thank for:

  1. We, as a society, care less about men’s well being, health and safety. Male casualties are not as noteworthy as female. There is much greater public spending on women’s health than on men’s health. This comes from the rule to protect women from harm (i.e. not men).
  2. When a woman commits a crime we are more likely to ask ourselves why and what she was a victim of that made her do that. While, with a man, we will probably just declare him evil and demand a high sentence. This is a consequence of holding women less responsible for their actions and infantilizing them.
  3. The phrase women and children first is a battle cry of chivalry and it is also nothing less than gendercide. In fact it is worse, because it's not only killing them, it's expecting them to sacrifice themselves willingly because of their gender. If you want to be fair it should be parents and children first or just children first or my personal favorite is: smallest and weakest first.
  4. Indirectly, chivalry denies men help even when they need it. Chivalrous men are indoctrinated to feel that needing help is unmanly and so they are more likely to suffer in silence and not ask for help. And even when they ask for it, they’re less likely to get it than a woman might be.
  5. Modern western society prides itself in standing for equality of the sexes but reality looks very different. Chivalry brings about an imbalance that causes society to systematically ignore instances of inequality where men are affected negatively. I mentioned public health expenditures. Other examples include the family courts and the education system (though I’m not yet convinced that the problem lies within the schools).
  6. It leaves no room for sensitive or submissive men. Not all men like to be in charge of things and make the woman's well being the only thing that matters in their lives. Many men also want to be looked after and protected. I suspect there are a lot of them only that chivalry forbids them to be open about it. 

Chivalry and Feminism

This is a really interesting aspect that is widely ignored by feminists as well as anti-feminists (neither of whom I’d say I belong to). Many of the points I made above about how chivalry affects men, people often blame on feminism. But it’s more complicated than that:

Feminism used chivalry ruthlessly in order to gain influence. Without chivalry, feminism would never have gotten off the ground. For example, finding funding for men’s shelters has proven a near impossible task compared with finding funding for women’s shelters. Plenty of men in higher positions with financial resources are willing to help women but would never lift a finger to help men. These same men are the modern equivalent of the knight, and they are the driving motor behind feminism. They have been all along. The problem is that they're riding it all on the backs of the foot soldiers - the majority of men.

On the other hand, feminists are often openly just as critical as I am about chivalry and for mostly the same reasons (except that many would disagree about feminism using chivalry to gain influence). This is because feminism did start off as a movement of equality and some of that is still left over in today’s feminism.

I think the relationship between feminism and chivalry is one of supreme hypocrisy. On the one hand, feminism as a political movement quietly depends almost entirely on chivalrous men but publicly it blames the patriarchy because it’s dominated by chivalrous men for unequal treatment of the genders. But this unequal treatment is a consequence of the same chivalry that has enabled feminism to accomplish anything in the first place. The result is an absurd relationship based on guilt and dependence. Wherever that will lead us, it ain't nowhere good.

Meanwhile, anti-feminists often blame feminism for the current inequalities that treat men as second class citizens. While feminism certainly played a part in bringing those inequalities about, it is still only a small part. The real culprit was chivalry. Without chivalry, we would have much earlier asked the logical and obvious question:

Ok, equal treatment for women is on the way, now what about equal treatment for men?

But when you ask that question today, you typically get the same sort of response that you might get if you asked a woman if she would help a man into his coat. (For the record, I have helped a man into his coat more than once and nothing bad happened).

Conclusion

Chivalry isn’t dead but it should be! Today, chivalry is only an instance of sexism and nobody should tolerate it. If you’re a man, don’t let anybody impose it on you. By all means, be courteous, hold doors for people but not just for women. Treat all people with respect and not just women. And if you’re a woman who enjoys chivalry then you should know that a man who treats you on the same level is paying you much more respect than a man who treats you like a little princess. It’s more honest and ultimately healthier for you and your relationship with him.

If a couple want to practise chivalry in their relationship then that is their business but nobody should impose it on others and that includes indoctrinating children with chivalrous concepts.

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Comments 29 comments

adeluca 6 years ago

I never thought of chivalry being so damaging. Personally, I think it should be reserved for couples only, because then it's their consent and their business.

:D Great article! Very informative and gives a new perspective on the topic.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 6 years ago Author

Thanks adeluca. Nice to get feedback.


Assassin Fred 5 years ago

True, all people should be treated with dignity and respect, we should especially emphasize this in our modern day and age. But what about old fashioned values of treating a lady wike a lady? These are things that my Grandfather taught me, to respect the women in our lives... Surely, these kind of values are starting to be lost due to changes in scoiety, unless you come from a small town still deep-rooted in old fashioned family values.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 5 years ago Author

So your grandfather taught you to respect the women in your life. Great.

And what did he teach you to do with the men?

If the respect is supposed to be aimed at men too, then why not just say "respect people"?

If the respect is not aimed at men too, then it's just sexism and in most cases that's exactly what it is.


catch1 5 years ago

I have to say that I agree that feminism and chivalry are contradictory/incompatible and expecting both is hypocritical. So, I will treat feminists with strict equality, no different than a man would be treated. That is the right thing to do, and in line with the principles of feminism.

However, most women aren't feminists, so they aren't demanding that same equality, and shouldn't be penalized for feminists' view toward chivalry. So, non-feminists should get the chivalry they want and feminists should be treated equal to men, no chivalry. That is the best way to manage this situation.


Julie 5 years ago

Very interresting Lucy,

Many interresting perspective.

I wonder if holding men to a higher standard of behavior is not based on the assumption of a Female inate high standard of behavior. This is a common place to hear that kind of thing as false it can be.


Terrence Lo 5 years ago

Interesting points Lucy. Speaking as someone who follows the modern code of chivalry (it is the basis of my moral life and day to day behaviour... since I was a child), I never directly subscribed to those particular modern preconceptions of the treatment of women, but I did follow some of them (as a former paramedic, I can't even begin to describe how many times I've deliberately put myself in direct danger to protect women over men). But at the same time, I also follow some of the beliefs of Robert Heinlein, who stated that to NOT protect women and children first as a species is eventually self-defeating and genocidal in nature.

But it does give me something to think and ponder and consider. But I don't believe my beliefs are particularly so destructive to the social fabric, as followers of chivalry are invariably the type that sees themselves as striving for heroism, and to act as a standard for others to follow. The world always need heroes... and it needs people to demonstrate civility and kindness and dedication to a greater cause. I've been decorated several times and dedicated a large part of my life to my community due to chivalry, and how can that be bad?


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 5 years ago Author

Hi Terrence,

Thanks for the great comment. That sounds quite amazing. Of course that isn't bad. It really is heroic.

But, in the context of chivalry, it leaves me with the question whether your actions were exclusively for women? Or did you save and protect men and women depending on need rather than gender? I doubt you'd have left a man to die if you could have saved him. And THAT is what makes you a hero, you save people! Heroism is very different from modern chivalry.


gguy profile image

gguy 5 years ago from new jersey usa

Lucy, I have read that a major reason the U.S. military does not allow Women in combat is because the men will instinctively try and protect them, distracting them from their mission.


Liz 5 years ago

I'm a woman who appreciates chivalry. I think this article is way off. Chivalry does not put women down, or take men for granted. I love being a woman and being treated like one. Vive la difference! Chivalry does not put woman in a position of not being responsible or of being infantile.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 5 years ago Author

Hi Liz,

would you also cry "vive la difference" if a man demanded you cook for him because that's what he reckons women should do?

Now if you say "that's not the same", then I'll ask: who get's to decide which form of sexism is acceptable and which isn't?

I've never seen a justification for chivalry that isn't rooted in sexism. Please tell me if you know one.


catch1 5 years ago

Liz as (I assume) a non-feminist is entirely within her rights to enjoy gender inequality such as chivalry. She doesn't espouse total gender equality as feminists do. Now, if she identifies as a feminist, I agree completely that she's being a hypocrite and is, in reality, not a feminist at all.


Grinka 5 years ago

I hardly feel that being chivalristic in behavior towards women is offensive. I have always been taught to hold women higher than myself, only out of respect. I do not practice respectful behavior towards women to demean them, I do it because I am quite old fashioned and I feel that women deserve more respect then they often get. Men walk all over them and use them as trophies instead of treating them with dignity. I feel all to often that people who view chivalry as disrespectful or harmful towards women have not truly been shown what it means to be treated like a Lady, not a trophy.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 5 years ago Author

If it's just about respect, then why only be respectful towards women? Be respectful towards people and leave their genitalia out of it.

"Men walk all over them and use them as trophies instead of treating them with dignity."

Speak for yourself. One can't walk over somebody or treat them like a trophy if they don't want it.


GeorgeFromGermany 4 years ago

Great! I think like you in many respects and wrote about my views too.

Other articles of you are great too. ;-)


john 4 years ago

chivalry

what exactly that means??,opening doors for women,giving your seats to them,carry there bags and all that

if yes then i think i can relate to one of them,i do carry heavy bags for women and even give my seat to them ,its not like i think i am superior to them in any way,it just in my mind that i should do it.

i can't help it though,i do open car door for my women,and she really appreciates it ,so i think if both parties feel good about it then there is nothing wrong in it i guess

i know what you mean though but maybe i am too narrow minded to understand that

anyway,really good article,love it


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 4 years ago Author

Thanks john.


Imran 4 years ago

Loved your article. I'm adding the link to my blog so my friends can read it. I think we as a society explain away things as chivalrous without bothering to analyze what these actions signify.

I've had numerous discussions with friends who think it is chivalrous and romantic that a man should ask a woman's father for her hand in marriage. This act seems like a remnant from the days when women were the property of male head of household. Also, it seems like a meaningless gesture, as a woman who really loves a man would probably not care if the father did not give his permission for this "chattle exchange."

There is a lot of academic research out there that looks at how women that commit serious crimes end up getting lesser sentences than men, e.g. life imprisonment vs. death penalty. I am against death penalty personally and think the same concession should be given to men. One article I read termed chivalry in these cases as "benevolent sexism."

So thanks for a great article and I complete agree that chivalry should be dead.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 4 years ago Author

Thanks Imran.

What's the link to your blog?


Darkproxy profile image

Darkproxy 4 years ago from Ohio

I honestly never connected male disposablity to chivlary, but what about manners just holding doors open in general? Should this entire practice die off or can we keep parts of it for romancing others?


Sam 4 years ago

They say that girls mature faster then boys I sometimes think that is a myth. I think that because of how often women and girls these days (some not all) make generalisations about men and boys. Making generalisations about people based on nothing more then there gender, race, skin color, etc, that in and of itself is a sign of immaturity.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 4 years ago Author

It's true Sam, girls do mature faster but then stop earlier. What we don't know is why.

I'm guessing that the harsher treatment of boys plays an important role. They're under more pressure and therefore more stress and this inhibits learning - especially with regards to social skills and emotional development.


Jbar 3 years ago

An obvious misunderstanding of True Chivalry


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 3 years ago Author

By all means Jbar, please enlighten us what "True Chivalry" is in your view.

Until you do, I'll stick with my interpretation.


FlyByNight 3 years ago

Hello Lucy83,

I got linked to your blog from reddit.com/MensRights. I am impressed by the honesty and relative neutrality of this particular corner of the internet. The blog linked below may be of interest to you. It veers towards anti-feminism/Mens Rights Activist (MRA) ideals occasionally, but it has a lot of discussion of the exact issues you identify here.

www.genderrratic.com

I do appreciate the way you state the issues in an entirely gender neutral context, and wish that voices like yours were more mainstream. I don't think it's even possible to overstate that. I wish so much that voices like yours were more mainstream. Chivalry, true chivalry, hurts women just as much as it hurts men, with its implication that women are less capable of fighting and less capable of standing up for themselves and others, less capable of self-defense. I am a man, and I can't say I'm into cross-dressing or the feminization of men, though I have no pr0blem with either. In fact, I'm encouraged by the existence of women like you, the idea that, even if I fall short of the masculine ideal, there might still be someone in the world who could love me. Your boyfriend is a lucky man. But I'm getting way off topic. The point is, chivalry is one way of many to keep women believing they are always weaker, and men believing we/they always must be stronger. Keep spreading the truth. Many men won't say it, but I guarantee you we appreciate it. Thank you for being strong for us when we can't.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 3 years ago Author

Hi FlyByNight,

thanks for stopping by and leaving a nice comment. I'll take a look at the site you linked.


samowhamo profile image

samowhamo 3 years ago

Lucy I dont really know all the facts but is it true that African American and Native Indigenous women in this country have a hard time getting justice in cases of sexual abuse.


samowhamo profile image

samowhamo 3 years ago

What I meant by a hard time getting justice was some or most get no justice at all the indigenous people are course Alaskans and Native Americans.


Lucy83 profile image

Lucy83 3 years ago Author

@ Sam

The problem with cases of sexual abuse is that by their very nature, it's typically going to be hard to get justice. But I really don't know the statistics but I can imagine there being prejudice towards ethnic minorities. Not a subject I really thought would matter much in this topic.

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