"Can chivalry and feminism co-exist?"
Since starting this podcast, I have had several guys reach out to me and ask about chivalry. I'm sure you've heard similar conversations - They grew up thinking chivalry was polite but have heard stories about women being offended by it and don't know what is most appropriate.
Honestly, I love this conversation and I get excited every time it comes up. I think this is such an interesting topic, and everyone has different opinions on it and that is okay. I enjoy hearing men's perspectives on this topic, and I've really appreciated the discussions I've had where both parties really heard each other. It's okay to disagree, but it's awesome when you can have a discussion where you learn from the people to disagree with. I strongly pushback against the stereotype that feminists tell other women how to live and chastise women who aren't "feminist enough", so these thoughts are my own and I'm not trying to convince anyone either way. If you've never thought about chivalry and feminism - take this as an opportunity to formulate your own thoughts on this. If the idea that chivalry is or isn't polite is uncomfortable to you, ask yourself why and try to get to the root of what YOU think about it. Not what society thinks. What YOU think.
Here's what I think. Chivalry confuses me. I enjoy it sometimes. Sometimes I don't. Let's look at a common example of chivalry.
A man opens the door for a woman.
This is a super common form of chivalry. If a man opens a door for a woman is it because he doesn't think she's capable of doing it herself? I doubt it. I think that that is a very shallow reading of this. When my dad used to open the door for me growing up I didn't assume it was because I couldn't handle opening my door, I assumed it was because for my dad, this was one way for him to show his love for me. This was how he was raised. Do I have a problem with it? No. Definitely not. But after pondering this question, I have come to the conclusion that if in fact in today's world chivalry is a sign of love and politeness, then I don't see why only men can be chivalrous. So sometimes my husband opens my door. Sometimes I open my husband's door. Sometimes we open our own doors because it's easier. Mostly, we understand that neither one really cares all that much, and we both appreciate it when the other opens the door. I think there are many forms of chivalry where this applies. If you believe chivalry is synonymous with being polite and showing that you care for someone, I don't see any reason for women to be the only ones to benefit from this. If the idea of a woman opening up a man's car door seems wrong to you, why? Is it just because it is different than what you usually see? Or are there deeper feelings there?
Benevolent sexism is a subtler form of sexism that seems positive or "complimentary," but is rooted in stereotypes of female inferiority. Do I think that this is what chivalry stems from? Absolutely. Are all acts of chivalry benevolent sexism? Well - here's a better question. Is chivalry founded in the idea that women deserve special treatment? Protection? Or that women are delicate, sensitive, or weak? Why else would it be chivalrous for men to walk on the side of the street closer to traffic? Why else would it be chivalrous for men to pull out women's chairs for them as they sit down?
But it's also not the 15th century anymore. Like any tradition that has been passed down over centuries, chivalry has lost some of its significance and meaning. If men practicing chivalry can genuinely say that they are doing it to be polite and show their love, and not because they feel responsible to protect and guide their wife, then we don't need to worry about it - so long as the wife is an active participant in deciding this, of course, and not just a byproduct of the situation. An easy question to ask yourself if you wonder if your chivalry is sexist is "Is this restrictive?" Even better, don't ask yourself, ask the woman on the receiving on of your chivalry.
One argument that I've heard is, "If it benefits women, why would women not want it?" To this I have a few thoughts. First of all - plenty of women do want it! And that's totally fine! Do I enjoy it when my husband surprises me with flowers? Of course! Is this chivalrous? By today's definition I certainly think so. Second of all, feminism is about equality. The fact that modern chivalry is primarily still men "protecting" and "helping" women shows that men and women are not equal. Regardless of your stance on chivalry, if it isn't mutual between men and women, then men and women still aren't equal. And true feminism is not only about getting rid of things that are obviously detrimental to women. Lastly, benevolent sexism normalizes gender inequality. Benevolent sexism precedes hostile sexism. Benevolent sexism can seem attractive and enticing because it can get wrapped up in a chivalrous package, but benevolent sexism is dangerous. And if the chivalry practiced in your life is rooted in the idea that women need men's help, it is sexist.
The conversation of chivalry is one that I think should be had more often. For one thing, if you have a gender bias that is leading to sexist chivalry, you should probably figure that out. But what I hope is a more common response is an evaluation in any kind of relationship (romantic, friendly, familial) of the current actions and language being used. It should be an opportunity to make sure that you are on the same page. Is chivalry sexist? Can feminists enjoy chivalry? Are chivalrous men misogynists? These questions generalize all men, all feminists, and all of chivalry, so they can't be answered. But I hope that you'll take the time to decide for yourself how you feel about chivalry, so that the next time you do or don't open the door for someone your intentions are good.
And for the men who are upset that this conversation is happening - I hear you, I see you - this is not a personal attack. Keep in mind that to those accustomed to privilege, equality can feel oppressive and offensive.
How do you feel about chivalry? Let me know! And again - I'm not here to tell you how to do feminism and I hope you'll keep that same respect for me and others as you have these conversations.