chivalry is dead, but civility is very much alive


My parents like to tell an amusing anecdote from their 25+ years as a happy married couple about chivalry.

It all starts on a Sunday afternoon, after we had gotten back home from church. We’d made a quick stop by the grocery store, and we’d all carried in the groceries and unloaded them. When I started to put the groceries away, I realized I didn’t know what Mom was planning to use for lunch, so I went to ask her.

I looked all over the house, but couldn’t find her anywhere. Finally, I asked Dad where she was. With a sudden sheepish expression, my dad rushed out to the garage– where he had left my mother sitting in the car. In the rush to get the melting ice cream into the freezer, he had forgotten to open her door and help her out of the car.

When my parents tell this story, my mom laughs about how she just patiently waited, reading her Bible, knowing that eventually her husband would realize what he’d done. He did, and now they both chuckle and smile at each other any time it come up. It’s really, really adorable.

My husband doesn’t open my car door for me. Well, not as a regular habit. Sometimes he unlocks my door first because his car doesn’t have power locks, but that’s mostly when the passenger door is closest to wherever we’re coming from. If the people from my childhood ever saw me non-nonchalantly let myself out of a car, they’d probably be horrified. “Samantha, what are you doing? You have to let your husband be a gentleman! You have to encourage chivalry, or you’ll kill it!”

Back in August, John Picciuto wrote an article titled “Why Chivalry is Dead, from a Man’s Perspective.” He doesn’t say anything new, or even particularly thought-provoking, but it’s been floating around my facebook feed for the past few days, and I’ve never talked about chivalry, so I figured, hey, let’s do it.

First, some background on John: he’s 26 or 27. I’m 26, just for full disclosure. Conclusion: we’re both really young, and since the average age for men to get married for the first time in America is 29, it’s likely that he doesn’t know very many people who are ready to settle down and get serious about finding someone. So when he says “Dating is done,” he should really be saying “People my age don’t seem to take dating very seriously right now. That might change in like, oh, say, two to three years or so, based on national averages.”

Then he starts bemoaning how men aren’t paying for the dinner anymore, and they’re not holding doors any more, and that “women have allowed men to become complacent,” and that women should “wise up” and starting “asking for the things they deserve” and that the only alternative is for men to be lazy because they’re going to get sex no matter how “chivalrously” they behave.

Ok, so . . . obviously, there are some problems going on here, and I’m not going to take the time to pick them all apart.

Just one thing: chivalry is benevolent sexism.

Benevolent sexism is regular sexism disguised as something that gives a benefit to women. It’s not actually beneficial because benevolent sexism relies on the same patriarchal beliefs that hostile sexism does: women are weak, women do not have power, women are not equal to men in value or ability. Chivalry, as one of the supposed “benefits” women receive for being the “weaker sex” is supposed to make us happy. We’re supposed to be complimented, flattered, and we’re supposed to give brownie points to the man who opened that door for us.

Because chivalry is generally well-intentioned, and perceived as “good manners” or “just being polite,” feminists like me who believe that chivalry deserves to die get booed and jeered at a lot.

Thing is, I’m not opposed to being mannerly. I believe in respect, compassion, kindness, and empathy. I believe that people should be polite. But that’s just the thing: I believe people should practice good manners. Chivalry is one-directional manners. Chivalry can only be men being “polite” toward women. It makes women into objects, because we can only accept this “politeness” as a passive receptor– we can never be the actor. We can never practice “good manners” of our own if chivalry doesn’t die.

I want to open doors for people. I want to give my seat up on the subway for someone who needs it more than I do. I want to hold an umbrella out for someone who doesn’t have one and it’s raining cats and dogs. I want to take responsibility for myself and buy my half of the movie ticket. I want civility, from everyone– no matter what their sex might be.

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  • frasersherman

    This. I’ve noticed how often “men used to hold doors open for women” is used as proof pre-feminist days were some kind of fabulous and superior world for women. It’s much better to talk about courtesy or good manners or anything that doesn’t have the gender-related baggage.

  • Regarding the “guys don’t pay for dinner or open doors” thing… You’re absolutely right in regards to this being a “stage in life” issue. I’ve recently started dating again, and I’m 26, dating men 30-35, so these men are more serious about dating than guys my own age. None of them will let me pay for anything!! Sometimes I can pay for coffee, but the men always pay for the big things. And they ALWAYS open the doors for me, except when I get out of the car, because I’m too quick for them!

    • frasersherman

      It’s also regional. My women friends in Georgia/Alabama/Florida are much more impressed by it than women from further north.

    • SunnySide

      I had this experience as well – the guys who talked the most seriously about dating paid on the first date, held doors open, etc. I also open doors and pay for dates, which weeded out the too “traditional” guys. I also always started with a coffee or an activity (put-put, summer concert) for blind dates so if he insisted on paying, it’d be low enough that I wouldn’t feel pressure for a second date. Dinner and theatare felt more appropriate after meeting and having a nice conversation.

      The arrangement I had with my SO worked well for us – we each paid for the things we planned and we still do that. He’s more likely to pay for meals, I’m more likely to pay for tickets.

  • I really like the way my girlfriend and I do things. If I open her car door for her, she reaches across and opens my door for me while I’m walking around to my side. Usually, if I buy dinner on a date, she pays for the movie, and vice versa. Since we live together, we split the rent equally, and then budgeting for bills is done on a percentage, based on how much we both make. We still have separate bank accounts, and we re-evaluate any time one of us gets a raise or a new job.
    You remember how I was when we met, Sam. I was almost militaristic in how focused I was on being a “gentleman,” and making sure I opened the door for any female, and occasionally letting guys in, too. Thankfully I’ve grown past that, to just attempting to be polite to everyone, but not making sure I wait 5 minutes extra just in case there’s a female who “needs” the door held open for her.

    • “Almost” militaristic? 🙂 You took being a “Southern gentlemen” pretty seriously, that’s for sure.

  • Hi, there! Have been reading a while, first time commenting. Great post. I have known my mom to talk fondly about the good old days when women were treated right. I don’t buy it, but it’s a difficult view to fight because, who *wouldn’t* want people to be nice to you? (My argument: I can hold doors for other people just as well. It’s not about chivalry, but as you say, being mannerly, kind, and civil to everyone, regardless of sex.)

    You should definitely watch Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives episode on Knights. He talks about chivalry, and it’s an eye-opener. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhWFQtzM4r0

  • Jack

    I would like to preface this by saying that for me, equality between men and women is now an expectation. I live with my girlfriend- we split everything 50/50: rent, utilities, groceries, cleaning, laundry, etc. If she gets to the door first, I would expect her to hold it for me, and visa versa. However, by saying “Chivalry, as one of the supposed “benefits” women receive for being the “weaker sex””, I think you’ve totally missed the mark almost as badly as the author claiming chivalry is dead because women don’t respect themselves enough. Chivalry is a demonstration that, contrary to you being inferior as a woman, womanhood is a unique and cherished attribute derserving of such treatment intrinsically. I know my girlfriend can support herself (she makes more than me, and I’m proud of that), I know she can open the door for herself and defend herself, but my proclivity to chivalry and to protect her and provide are sign of my love and respect for her, and she appreciates them as such.

    • I’m curious to know if this would still apply if the word “personhood” or “humans” were used instead of womanhood.

    • frasersherman

      If you both like the way you do things, I’d say that’s cool. I think today’s post was more about people who assume that should be the default position–and like the guy in that one linked post, that women who don’t want his chivalry are WRONG!!!!!!

  • Dan

    This is an eye opener for me. I suppose I have to be more on guard in case I’m presumed to be patriarchal. I was raised to be mindful of the way I relate to women, & out of respect I do open the door for women in general, offer my seat, etc. I do it out of courtesy, & that’s all. I also extend courtesies to other men, I was raised to do these things as etiquette, to be polite. Many people still do see this as traditional manners, & many women appreciate the respect. It has no connotations for me as women being weaker, different, etc. Even many younger women just recognize this for what it is, traditional manners. To each their own, but please don’t attach demeaning connotations to what can be simple traditional manners. To each their own.

  • That cracked me up. Your mom just waited in the car?!!!!

    • Koko

      I was gobsmacked when I read that! My dad generally opened my mom’s car door, but she is *not* the type to sit around doing nothing when there are things to be done, dang it! (Yes, that’s exactly what she’d say, lol.)

      We must’ve been bad Fundies in the chivalry department. 8oD

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  • I had a very odd experience with chivalry, perception of, a few weeks back. I was in a queue in a shop to buy lunch, and I’d stepped ahead of a young woman because the thing I wanted from a shelf was forward of her position in the queue. Then I stood aside to let her up to the counter first, because (a) she was in front of me to start with and (b) I try not to assume I have the right to push in front just because some women might be used to giving way to men. In other words, I was acting out of a feminist conscience there.

    The counter staff, both women, approvingly called me a “gentleman” — and then both of them, one after the other, said “Feminism ruined my life,” because it meant there were so few “gentlemen” about. So having acted on my feminist conscience I was being complimented for counteracting feminism. I didn’t know what to say, because as a man I really don’t feel I’m entitled to lecture women on feminism. I did say rather weakly “I didn’t do it to be anti-feminist”.

    • Unfortunately, a lot of people very quickly figured out that the easiest way to undermine feminism was to co-opt the language of feminism and twist it. Many people don’t understand what feminism actually is and what feminists advocate– the only thing they know, usually, is what the overwhelmingly white-rich-male-dominated media has to say about feminism, which has never been pretty.

  • Your post caused me to reflect on my own behavior. I am in my 60s and have always lived in the South. I open a lot of doors: for old people, people with kids, and anyone coming toward me from the other side if the door opens in my direction. I usually open the door for anyone who gets there the same time I do, which sometimes puts me further back in the line.

    I guess I am not chivalrous because it does not occur to me to open doors for ‘women’, though I recall a time when I did that.

    I also taught my son to answer Yes and No instead of Yes Ma’am or No Sir. I guess I am a bit of a rebel against hierarchal traditions that don’t make sense to me.

  • My mom and dad are in their 80s, lifelong fundies, and my dad always held open the door for my mom. Period. When she finally went out into the work force to help make ends meet, it was a struggle for my dad that she did so. Eventually he saw her need to be out working as something that satisfied her. My mom has had severe dementia for several years, now, and she is often unreasonable in her demands. My dad still bends over backwards to please her. It is unhealthy, both for him and for her. He sees it as his duty to God to take care of her himself, no matter how bad his own health is. My parents are moving in with my oldest sister tomorrow. That move should have taken place a decade ago, but my dad resisted because my mom loves their house. Following the fundamentalism gender roles can put one on a trajectory of real harm. In my parents’ case, they both have suffered physically due to poor health in a much more substantial way, just because my Mom is stubborn, and my dad thinks he has to be her caregiver.

    • frasersherman

      That happens in lots of couples who aren’t fundies too, or so it appears to me.

  • I’m with jesuswithoutbaggage regarding doors. I hold doors for everyone if they are reasonably close. I will hold it for a longer time for someone disabled or with small children whether that person is male or female. I think this is the way things are heading – at least on the West Coast, where I live. Both men and women hold the door for me, if they are gen x or younger.

    I also give up my seat, but that’s because I am relatively young and in good physical condition. (I’ll also put pregnancy in its own category here. Pregnant women should always have the seat if at all possible. Likewise the very elderly or disabled.)

    Civility sounds like a fine plan to me.

    • “Civility sounds like a fine plan to me.” I think that is the issue, fiddlrts!

  • Wife and I just had our 35th. A woman should expect a man to be nice to her while dating or hanging out. It’s her way of testing he respects her by being on his best manners. There might be a rude awakening after marriage, but if he takes you for granted, wants to go evens when he asks you out (different matter if she asks him out) those should be red flags. Unfortunately my daughter has never taken my advice on anything.

  • I love the double-layer doors for this reason. Whenever I am with a friend, one of us gets the exterior and the other the interior. We both get to be courteous, and it’s faster, too.

    On the other hand, as a woman who was rarely treated well by her X, I do feel smug when some guy comes along and opens the door or offers any other form of common courtesy … mostly because it reminds me that not all men are rude.

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