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.
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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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:
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?
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).
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.