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Chivalry ... and the Contemporary Woman


I’ve been involved in a bit of an odd study today, the study of Chivalry. Of course I knew what it was, doesn’t everyone, I knew a bit of its history, which many do, but what I hadn’t realized is to what extent it lives and even thrives today. Not something I see in my everyday life, I have to say (husband and son excluded).

I am one of those lucky women who live with men (one approaching middle years and one approaching adolescence) who are the embodiment of chivalrous gentlemen. I’m more than lucky, really, I am blessed.

But I’ve discovered something of late. This behavior, this chivalry, is not necessarily an attribute that some women today covet, understand, or even tolerate. And to that … it is impossible for me to understand. I thought, I truly thought, that all women longed for this. You see, I am an historian by education and vocation; I love to bury myself in books and stories of people from long ago. Somehow I’d missed the contemporary social commentary that chivalry was not only dead, but disrespectful to women.

Lately, I’ve begun to realize that there are women, many in fact, that truly loathe the concept of chivalry; reject it outright, and belittle the men who practice it.

My first encounter with such a woman was in, of course, a department store checkout line. The checker was male, he couldn’t have been more than 19, handed this woman her bag and politely wished her, “a good day, Ma’am.” That word triggered a verbal explosion fueled by hate and bitterness. After receiving this tirade, the polite young man, obviously flabbergasted, stood looking at no one and nothing, all at the same time. The expression of hurt in his eyes is something I’ll never forget. The woman, if she’d have ever cared to look, would have seen the aftermath of her destruction with just a glimpse. Next in line, I did my best to repair damage done by my fellow female. He was robotic, and had learned his lesson well … very well indeed. I doubt very much the word ‘Ma’am’ will ever cross his lips again. I also doubt he very often bestows acts of kindness, otherwise known as chivalry, to a women he doesn’t trust. How well we teach our children.

What is chivalry? Chivalry, according to Encarta, it is “the combination of qualities expected of the ideal medieval knight, especially courage, honor, loyalty, and consideration for others, especially women.” In other words … respect. Yes, definitely my idea of the perfect man.

While chivalry was essentially created during the Middle Ages to outline and demand a certain code of conduct among knights of the realm, it continues today in much the same manor. Historically, they were a set of guidelines that helped to combat medieval attitudes of brutality, ignorance and prejudice. Today, chivalry represents an ideal that is every bit as contemporary and politically correct as if it were written for contemporary society.

So … what is it? Basically, chivalry is nothing more than showing … respect. What is so ironic is that members of our oh-so-elite group of social commentators often reject this concept because it is generally practiced from man to woman, regarded as outdated, and then dismissed.

Peggy Post, author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, outlines specifically what modern day chivalry is;

  • Holding the door.
  • Stepping aside to allow women to exit first.
  • Helping to put on a coat.
  • Paying for a meal – with the qualifier that whoever does the inviting does the paying.
  • Standing. Getting up to greet someone is always polite — and this is especially important when the person is elderly or is a business superior or client. It’s also the thing to do when you’re being introduced to someone.
  • Walking on the outside. The custom of a man walking between his female companion and the street was the custom in the days when carriages splashed mud and ladies’ finery needed shielding. These days, it doesn’t matter who is walking on the street side of the sidewalk.
  • Shaking hands. Used to be that a man was supposed to wait for a woman to offer her hand before he extended his. Today, regardless of gender, people should shake hands upon meeting, and it doesn’t matter who puts out their hand first. (I like the old way better!)
  • Helping to carry something. A neighbor or coworker — anyone — who is overloaded with books or packages will appreciate an offer of help from whoever is nearby.
Basic common courtesy … yes? I have been confronted lately, more times than I care to think about, by women who make comments to me about men who extend some of the previously listed behaviors, as “not showing respect to women.” Or that they have a problem with that behavior because it suggests disrespect for women.

From Emily Stoddard of Blue Jean OnLine, a website of young women for young women, on chivalry; “Some believe that in the battle of the sexes chivalry is an attempt to solidify the place of the “weaker sex.” In my opinion, such actions are worthy and go to show that we should expect this kind of respect in our relationships.”

She continues, “What matters here is not the action but the intent. Ladies, don’t shrink from a guy if he opens the door. Appreciate the fact that he was thoughtful; don’t conclude that he considers you incapable. What is at heart is not his perception of your abilities, but his perception of how to show respect for people in general.” [Emphasis mine].

Somewhere along the line we have confused chivalry with equality, believed they could not co-exist.

Frankly, I don’t want equality with men … I don’t need equality with men … I don’t desire equality with men. I embrace and foster and celebrate our differences. Does that make my belief antiquated and dangerous and harmful to women? Why would such an attitude of servitude ever be considered demoralizing and harmful … especially to women who so often spend their lives serving others? Why is it then that when a man defers to a woman in an act of chivalry, an act of servitude, does it become wrong and unwanted?

I delight when a man acknowledges the fact that I’m a woman. I delight when doors are opened for me, because I’m a woman; when packages are carried for me, because I’m a woman; when men walk on the traffic side of me, because I’m a woman.

What that says to me is that I am female, someone worthy of special and exceptional and respectful treatment. An acknowledgement of not only my worth, but that of all women. Women contribute so much to our society; we work hard, we multi-task as no man ever could, we capably run businesses, households, raise children, volunteer, listen and hear what those around us are saying, or not saying. In a very general sense, admitting my generalization, women are typically the care-givers of society.

The next time a gentleman hesitantly opens a door for you, carries items for you, acknowledges you in some special way, remember, please, that he is revering your feminism, acknowledging your place in this village we call a society. And for the men who show us this respect, thank you. And may we women extend similar acts that show our respect for your maleness and your contributions to our way of life and our society in general.

Thank goodness chivalry is not dead. An interesting website on the topic,

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