Should We Give Chivalry Another Chance?

Is chivalry dead? If it is, who killed it? This is a topic that I addressed in a recent piece for the Atlantic, titled “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance.” Feminists, I argue, have unfairly maligned chivalry as “benevolent sexism,” but I think they should reconsider their position. Chivalry, after all, has historically been about putting women first. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented, single, college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.

In the words of Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins, “We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is. It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.”

I elaborate in my piece:

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.” 

… 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.”

According to a 2010 Harris poll, 80 percent of Americans say that women are treated with less chivalry today than in the past. I think this is a problem that all women, especially feminists, should push back against. My solution is for feminists and non-feminists alike to reclaim chivalry:

If feminists want to level the playing field between men and women, they should find common cause with traditionalist women … on the issue of chivalry. Both groups are concerned with how men treat women. They just differ in what that means: Feminists want men to treat women as equals; traditionalists want men to treat women like ladies. Are the two mutually exclusive?

Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous. In other words, chivalry in the age of post-feminism is another name we give to civility. When we give up on civility, understood in this way, we can never have relationships that are as meaningful as they could be.

If women today—feminists and non-feminists alike—encouraged both men and women to adopt the principles of civil and chivalrous conduct, then the standards of behavior for the two sexes would be the same, fostering the equality that feminists desire. Moreover, the relations between the sexes would be once again based on mutual respect, as the traditionalists want. Men and women may end up being civil and well-mannered in different ways, but at least they would be civil and well-mannered, an improvement on the current situation.

I received a lot of feedback on my piece. Aside from negative reactions from some feminists, most women I heard from responded favorably. This strikes me as fairly predictable. What’s more interesting is that the article inspired anger in many men–young men especially. They think that women need to do more to merit chivalrous behavior from men and they want to know what they gain from chivalry. I’m happy to report that Acculturated‘s Ryan Duffy and Mark Tapson are writing responses to my piece that, I believe, will address these issues, so stay tuned for those. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about the complaint I received that (1) women should do more to solve this problem and (2) how chivalry benefits men.

  1. FreeWifiDuringSermon

    Great post. In answer to your questions at the end:

    1. Women need to re-calibrate their standards for men.  Don’t give dirtbags and wimps the time of day. Men will improve accordingly.

    2. Men don’t really “get” anything out of this in a transactional sense.  Unless of course the women become more selective in favor of the chivalrous (see number 1.).  However, here are a few intangibles you may accrue: 

    - self respect

    - virtue (very underrated these days)

    - happiness because much of chivalry is merely shaping and tempering what most guys instinctively do.

  2. Merina Smith

    I wonder if chivalry is even possible in this day and age.  It might be in some communities, but where men and women have followed the 60′s feminist paradigm, it is almost hard to imagine.  When the woman is the boss and she has many male employees, how would she be treated chivalrously?  I guess the point is that chivalry seems to have grown up through a recognition that the vulnerable needed protection, but nowadays many women are NOT more vulnerable than men, in fact many men these days are more vulnerable than women.  I think women gained a lot of their power by essentially bullying men,  in part by making the rules very hard for men to understand.  The elevator story illustrates the problem.  Now, that was a brilliant response, and it is ridiculous to be offended by a courtly hat tip, but why would men continue to do chivalrous things when they are always uncertain what might cause offense?  I’m all for civility but I have my doubts about conditions being ripe for a return to chivalry, which by now would just look like another way for women to wrest more power from men. 

  3. Jeff

    I can’t wait to bite into Duffy and Tapson’s piece.

    Emily, you refuse, steadfastly refuse, to address this fact: feminism and chivalry are incompatible.

    Chivalry was a quid pro quo arrangement. Men brought women under their protection, if they were worthy of chivalric sacrifice. Men have deemed women worthy when they were chaste, monogamously loyal, pure of reputation, and of gentle manners.

    When a man tips his hat to a woman, he explicitly recognizes a pact between himself and womankind. Her relative weakness, modesty, and submissiveness is assumed. His strength and leadership is assumed. If a man lacks belief in these assumptions, the general man will not adopt the sacrifices of chivalry.

    Think about these assumptions. They are the very opposite of feminism and feminists. Chivalry and feminism are logically and behaviorally incompatible. Where we have the one, we cannot long have the other.

  4. Schrodinger

    Why place the responsibility on women?

    This may be idealistic, but I can’t help but think of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Here was a man of extreme chivalry which changes the life of a “low” woman.

    Chivalry is like forgiveness, it is something we do for our own sake, not for another’s.

  5. Bereket Kelile

    I got the same reaction to my post. You summed it up right in saying that men think that women, in general, aren’t quite deserving of chivalrous behavior. Or at least that there needs to be some guarantee that it will pay off. I think chivalry may have been less about expecting a certain response and more about self-improvement. There were rules about how to treat other men, as well as women. 

    It’s a challenge for all of us to get past the enticements and attraction and pick the man/woman who is right for us and will make us happy. Men and women need to be trained to look for the virtues that the other should have and reward it. But if we wait around for the other person to do the right thing then nothing will happen. 

  6. TheSophist

    You really should check out the most commented member diaries discussing just this subject, and actually, your Atlantic article to boot.

    What well-meaning women, like you, completely misunderstand is this:

    “Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous.”

    No, it is not. You can try to sell chivalry as meaning respect and politeness, but then you don’t need the word “chivalry” now, do you?

    Chivalry is really about honor. Specifically, it’s about male honor, which is not simple politeness, and always tinged with threat of violence.

    It cannot exist without its complement: female honor. That used to mean some very specific things in the chivalric age. It is unclear what that means today.

    “Give chivalry another chance” is the wrong way to think of the issue; its ideals still exist, if dormant. The real issue is, “What is female honor today?”

    You seem to grasp what makes a man a gentleman. Ok, what makes a woman a lady?

  7. Bereket Kelile

    See what I mean Emily?

  8. TheSophist

    If anyone’s clicked through and read Katie M. Baker’s response to Emily’s Atlantic post

    Do tell me why I, as a man wholly uninterested in a relationship with Ms. Baker, should treat her with chivalry instead of what she asks for: politeness.

    I do hope her male friends, colleagues, and acquaintances remember this post should they ever find themselves on a sinking boat together. Or confronted by criminals. Or live through a super storm Sandy.

  9. Jeff

    Seriously, Emily, will you address the incompatibility of feminism and chivalry? Will you address the questions TheSophist raises?

  10. Anne R. Pierce
    C

    I agree that women should do more to solve the problem.  One can be free and a lady (or at least civilized) at the same time. While many boys are brought up on video games and sports, many girls are literally brought up on the culture.  From Sex in the City to more recent sitcoms that make Sex in the City look innocent, moms should steer their girls away from inane, crude, crass, cynical, jaded Hollywood.  The standards many young women use to judge young men are straight out of Hollywood. Until a kinder approach to men appears, I doubt we’ll see a kinder approach to women.

  11. Mantis9

    I partly agree with Jeff and the Sophist.  Feminism poses itself explicitly against Chivalry because it is about male honor, which is predicated on the threat of violence. However, I don’t believe feminism and chivalry to be incorrigible.

    To answer your questions:

    1) Chivalry, as defined by Sophist, is concerned with male honor. This seems to imply that a woman’s behavior isn’t of first priority.  Chivalry required Samuel Proctor to tip his hat to any woman that might step into the elevator with him, be she a prostitute, virginal maiden, Janeane Garofalo, or Princess Peach. His statement of restraint and aid implies his power as an individual and a man over this woman as well as her elevation in worth because of who he is.

    2) Chivalry benefits men because it requires men to recognize their power as individuals and as a group. Why restrain yourself from an action when you lack the ability to do so? It means nothing for me to say that I refuse to be a professional football player when I’m obviously incapable of accomplishing the feat. And as Peter Parker would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Responsibility is good.

  12. Emily Esfahani Smith

    I’m not convinced that they are incompatible and I don’t think members of my generation are either, given Bereket’s posts. I’m someone who has benefited from feminism and I have not only known many men who have been chivalrous, but I have experienced their chivalry first hand. What’s the contradiction?

  13. Emily Esfahani Smith
    Anne R. Pierce: I agree that women should do more to solve the problem.  One can be free and a lady (or at least civilized) at the same time. While many boys are brought up on video games and sports, many girls are literally brought up on the culture.  From Sex in the City to more recent sitcoms that make Sex in the City look innocent, moms should steer their girls away from inane, crude, crass, cynical, jaded Hollywood.  The standards many young women use to judge young men are straight out of Hollywood. Until a kinder approach to men appears, I doubt we’ll see a kinder approach to women. · 7 minutes ago

    Completely agree about the culture’s crassness when it comes to matters of sex and relationships. 

  14. Mantis9

    Also, women should be elevated above men, regardless of their behavior, because of the very pragmatic reason of child birth.

  15. Bereket Kelile

    Even if feminism and chivalry are incompatible that is not a reason not to be chivalrous. I think the hope here is that people will make the choice to do the right thing in spite of the cultural trends.

  16. BlueAnt

    This is why I love Ricochet.  I can count on a group of other members to argue the responses I was imperfectly trying to articulate in my head.

    Jeff is right:  feminism and chivalry are incompatible.  Feminism only leaves room for politeness (or, as feminists might call it, mutual respect).

    TheSophist is right: chivalry was about honor, male and female, a concept almost completely lost in modern culture (outside the military).

    bereket kelile and TheSophist are right about the incentives for men to bother engaging in chivalry, but for provocation’s sake I will take that one step further.  

    Chivalry provided the most utility in hierarchical societies, where men and women, professions and classes, all had more rigidly defined relationships to each other.  Those roles were most strictly defined in medieval/feudal times, the default setting we think about when the word “chivalry” is thrown around.  But it remained true right up to the dawn of modern feminism.

    The increase of women in the workplace, the sexual revolution, womens lib movements, etc have obliterated traditional roles which chivalry respected.  Arguably, for the better; but when you reject hierarchies in our relationships, what point is there for chivalry to even exist?

  17. BlueAnt
    Emily Esfahani Smith: I’m not convinced that they are incompatible and I don’t think members of my generation are either, given Bereket’s posts. I’m someone who has benefited from feminism and I have not only known many men who have been chivalrous, but I have experienced their chivalry first hand. What’s the contradiction?

    It’s not a contradiction, it’s an anachronism.

    In short, there is a view of honor that it is a personal thing.  If a man chooses to be chivalrous, he is doing so for his own honor’s sake.  He may choose to ignore the woman’s honor (or lack thereof), as well as society’s approval of his actions.

    But feminism itself discourages chivalry, as does the society which normalizes feminism.  There is no incentive outside individual preference to engage in chivalry, and it may even make things worse for the man.

  18. Joseph Stanko

    Feminism and chivalry are incompatible.

    This, to my mind, is the essence of chivalry:

    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.   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.

    A truly chivalrous man would be outraged by the very idea of sending women into combat.  He would bristle at the notion of sending female firemen (not “firefighters,” but firemen) into a burning building, or expecting female policemen to wrestle an armed suspect to the ground.

  19. Foxman

    Ok so you want chivalry.  Just what does this mean?  What do women give up?  A man gives up some trivial things, his seat on the bus; some not so trivial things, i.e. money (he pays); and some very serious things, i.e. his life or limb.

    What does a woman give up?

  20. Mantis9
    BlueAnt:

    Chivalry provided the most utility in hierarchical societies, where men and women, professions and classes, all had more rigidly defined relationships to each other.  Those roles were most strictly defined in medieval/feudal times, the default setting we think about when the word “chivalry” is thrown around.  But it remained true right up to the dawn of modern feminism.

    The difficulty with chivalry is the the difficulty inherent in modern society–voluntary restraint.  We’re spoiled for options. Keeping my weight down would be easier if I ate the same foods in smaller portions nearly everyday after working at a manufacturing plant for 12 to 16 hours. A hierarchical age would, yes, reinforce, even demand, this chivalrous behavior and, hence, the utility would be more pronounced.

    However, while keeping my weight under control is more difficult given that I work from home, possess more leisure time, and money/credit to eat a large variety of foods, its utility isn’t diminished.

    I believe the same is true for chivalry.

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