December 11 2012
Is It Time to Give Chivalry Another Chance?
Emily Esfahani Smith’s Atlantic piece entitled “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance” has so many sparkling bits that I am not going to be able to restrain myself from quoting at length.
Ms. Smith begins with a comparison of the sinking of the Titanic, when men gave their lives so that women could survive, and that of the Costa Concordia, when men shoved aside women to save themselves.
The decline of chivalry is reflected in a 2010 Harris poll: 80 percent of women said that women are treated with less chivalry today than in the past. So what happened? I’m afraid our feminist friends are not free from blame:
After the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, which insisted on the equal treatment of women in all domains of life, feminists dismissed chivalry as sexist. They still do. A new study, published in the feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, questions the entire enterprise of male chivalry, which, in an Orwellian flourish, it calls "benevolent sexism."
Chivalrous behavior is benevolent because it flatters women and leads to their preferential treatment. But it is sexist because it relies on the "gendered premise" that women are weak and in need of protection while men are strong. "Benevolent sexism," Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker of the University of Florida write in the study, "is an ideology that perpetuates gender inequality." They advocate interventions to reduce its prevalence, even though, they found, chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place.
Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, summed up the study with tongue-in-cheek, writing "the bad news is that gentlemanly behavior makes people happy."
Feminists may not like chivalry but it may be as essential for men as for women:
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described "equity feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, "Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal."
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.
Okay, here’s my favorite part of Smith’s piece:
A story from the life of Samuel Proctor (d. 1997) comes to mind here. Proctor was the beloved pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. Apparently, he was in the elevator one day when a young woman came in. Proctor tipped his hat at her. She was offended and said, "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."
Chivalry has been replaced by the hook-up culture and boorish behavior on campus. But all is not lost: Smith reports that some young women on campus are trying to bring back chivalry. At Arizona State University, for example, young women have created a “Gentlemen’s Showcase” to honor men who have behaved chivalrously.
I have an idea: While the feminists engage in their boring old reading of “The Vagina Monologues” this Valentine’s Day, why don’t women who believe in chivalry hold events to celebrate it?