“What has become of chivalry, when men used to open doors for you, pull out your chair, tip their hat, kiss your hand, help you down out of your carriage, leave calling cards on little silver salvers?”
“So how far back do you want to go Blanche? I mean do you still wanna be able to vote?” –Blanche Devereaux & Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls
I gotta say, I’m with Dorothy on this one. If there’s one topic where I’m unambiguously, unapologetically unSouthern, it’s the topic of chivalry.
By way of definition, when discussing chivalry, I am referring to the specialized usage whereby men are honor-bound to treat women in certain very specific, even ritualized, ways. I see chivalry as the companion of hospitality, just with fixed gender roles.
Now that we have the figurative housekeeping out of the way, let’s talk about literal housekeeping. A woman’s place, in traditional Southern contexts, was in the home, either keeping house on her own, or supervising the staff that carries out the housekeeping.
A Southern lady, especially a lady of a certain status, also wore mobility-limiting clothing that connoted elegance, with a soupçon of helplessness. (See corsets, petticoats, and dainty shoes.) If you live in this type of social setup, it makes sense to have a code of chivalry. Women, much like the house pets we coddle today, were not fit to interact in the full reality of the world and had to be protected, followed, and escorted.
But that was then, and thank goodness, this is now.
There’s no middle ground for me on this–chivalry is part of a flawed, gendered social hierarchy that rewards people for ritualized manners and not genuine kind intent. I have no use for it. It works my last nerve whenever I see it in the twenty-freakin-first century. I give two examples below. Watch me seethe.
Exhibit A – elevator etiquette. My favorite part of working remotely during the pandemic is not dealing with the daily office ritual of men allowing women standing behind them in the lobby onto the elevator first. It’s inefficient, it’s vapid, and it’s useless. There’s no “best place” to stand in an elevator. And even if you find such a mythical place, you often have to adjust your position as the elevator fills. And you don’t get to your floor any quicker because you were escorted onto the elevator first. What is the damn point?
Exhibit B – self-righteous practitioners of chivalry. My favorite story on this point occurred at the Lindbergh MARTA station here in Atlanta, where a group of about two dozen of us were waiting to board a bus that had just pulled into the bus bay. An older man, who I admit may have been suffering from a mental impairment, began directing traffic, herding all the women to the front of the line and onto the bus in front of all the men, proclaiming “Ladies first!” and holding out his hand to bar entrance to the men closest to the front.
I don’t make scenes in public as a general rule, but I imploded so thoroughly in the bus situation that a scene may have been the preferable option that day. The amount of anger I felt toward that man was unreasonable, but his actions struck at the core of my sense of fairness and rationality.
Should we not treasure women? We should. More importantly, we should treasure all women. Chivalry was designed for a certain class of women. The archetypal act of chivalry is the laying down of one’s coat so that a lady can glide over a puddle. Such an act, though, requires that the man involved owns a coat. And if he does own a coat, he should also have one that he could afford to be ruined to prevent a minor inconvenience for a woman.
Chivalry requires the luxury of sequestering the women in one’s life into turrets and onto pedestals. It’s not for washerwomen and servants. It’s not for the marginalized or the poor who have to earn a wage to survive. And if a “true gentleman” actually recognizes these lowly, dingy females as worthy of the gesture, then the gesture itself becomes inadequate beside the uplift that is needed. Why single out a woman for a gesture that makes her feel special once, while doing nothing to fix the system that makes her not feel special always?
Chivalry does work for me in the more generic sense of being kind and considerate to people of all genders. Holding open a door for another person is a polite gesture; it saves the person some effort. Gesturing someone into a space first when there’s no clear order means that you aren’t so hurried that you can’t pause and allow someone else passage. Shielding someone you care for from traffic or rain is kindness in action. Gendering such consideration, though, is an arbitrary relic of a time when all kinds of things were gendered, things most of us wouldn’t endorse gendering today. (To Dorothy’s point, things like voting.)
If you’ll pardon the pun, I think the time is nigh to say “Good Knight!” to chivalry and just start being kind to people.