Each time I teach Women's Studies 101, my students inevitably get in a rather heated argument about the concept of chivalry. They love debating whether it is really, really nice for men to show universal "respect" for women by opening doors for them and performing other such traditional rituals, or whether they agree with Marilyn Frye (from her classic 1983 essay, "Oppression") that male chivalry is evidence of female oppression, and downright insulting to women:
"The gallant genstures have no practical meaning. Their meaning is symbolic. The door-opening and similar services which are needed by people who are for one reason or another incapacitated -- unwell, burdened with parcels, etc. So the message is that women are incapable. The detachment of the acts from the concrete realities of what women need and do not need is a vehicle for the message that women's actual needs and interests are unimportant or irrelevant. Finally, these gestures initiate the behavior of servants toward masters and thus mock women, who are in most respects the servants and caretakers of men. The message of the false helpfulness of male gallantry is female dependence, the invisibility or insignificance of women, and contempt for women."First, I tend to have to remind them that, in our racist, classist, ageist, ableist, heterosexist society, not all women are always extended the luxury (if it is, indeed, a luxury) of male chivalry. Then the discussion turns to the consequences of societal expectations that men behave like traditional "gentlemen" -- the corollary to that expectation being that women have to act like "ladies". And when I ask my students what it means to be a "lady" in our culture, they start naming off words like, "passive", "docile", "pretty", "polite", "petite", "gentle", "smiling", "grateful", "compliant", "dependent", "delicate", and "weak". And, suddenly, they don't seem so pleased with the idea of chivalry. Isn't it funny how that works?