I’m from the deep, deep South—from a town in Alabama so small that many native Alabamians haven’t even heard of it. The pace of life contrasts starkly with the weekday rush of Boston. People take their time walking and driving. Where I’m from, if you don’t react immediately when a traffic light changes from red to green the person behind you will likely wait patiently, never dreaming of honking. No one will ever pass you in the grocery store or in the hallway without stopping, asking how you and your family have been, and then inviting you over to “sit a spell” with them on their porch sometime.
There’s also another aspect that any outsider will notice almost immediately: Men hold the doors open for women, pay the bill at a restaurant, walk on the side of the sidewalk closest to the street, and walk women to their doors after a date or event. I never thought twice about it. To me, and to many Southerners, it is simply considered good manners, like saying “excuse me” if you bump into someone or “bless you” after someone sneezes.
You may imagine my surprise, then, when one day my teacher began to lecture about the dangers of men practicing chivalrous behavior in our society. As we continued to discuss the subject, I found that most of my classmates heartily agreed, vehemently condemning the preferential treatment of women by men in the ways listed above. For women to truly be considered equal to men, they asserted, they must be treated the same as men. If they weren’t, then sexist ideals would only be reinforced, even if the men had good intentions.
The problem with this rhetoric is the way in which the idea of chivalry is viewed. Originally, it was a code of conduct for knights in medieval times, but the term was also traditionally associated with the idea of honoring and being devoted to women. This association was strengthened by the ideals expressed throughout 19th century Romanticist literature and continues into the present day.
However, in the midst of a long battle for gender equality, chivalry has taken on a negative connotation for some. It becomes distorted into the idea of a knight in shining armor rescuing a damsel in distress because he says he respects and honors women. It’s common that women are generally able to open a door themselves or pay for their own meal, so why would they need help from a man to do these things? In short, the answer is they don’t. Asking that question is completely missing the point. Perhaps some men are actually sexist and believe that women can't get through life without the generous assistance of a man, and that’s why they get the door for a woman. It’s shortsighted, though, to generalize someone’s motivation for an action that can be so open to interpretation.
To me, modern-day chivalry simply means that a man respects and supports a woman in all her endeavors. For example, getting a woman safely to her door at night or walking on the side of the sidewalk closest to the street can effectively be an act of solidarity against widespread sexual assault. Making a woman feel protected against any obstacles that men with malicious intent may try to throw in their way is, to me, a man’s obligation.
Ignoring the differences between men and women and advocating for the same exact treatment is ignoring the unique set of challenges that women face such as sexual assault, workplace discrimination, and limited access to reproductive health resources. Because people come from different positions in society, different treatment is sometimes necessary in order to work towards equality. Of course, there are many ways to support and stand in solidarity with women—and it doesn’t have to take the form of holding the door open or paying for the bill at a restaurant.
Still, I would urge you not to assert that these actions are inherently sexist and an obstacle to gender equality. They can, when done with mindful intention, send the valuable messages of support and solidarity that women need (Yes, I said it: Women need men) in order to overcome inequality, becoming the beautiful, strong people they were born to be.