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.