"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Question of Chivalry

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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?

11 comments:

plumpdumpling said...

I tooooooooooootally disagree with "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", just so we're clear.

And if I am, in fact, the caretaker of my man, it's only because he took care of me first, and I want to return the favor.

Tracey said...

You don't see how some women could see it as totally patronizing?

I don't think Frye is referring to men and women who are in relationships mutually doing things for one another. She's talking about all men "gallantly" showing women respect through door-opening when there are so many other (much more important) ways in which they systematically disrespect women.

The article was written in 1983, which I am almost reluctant to point out, because my students are sometimes really quick to jump to the conclusion that things were bad then, but all better now. I think the date does help put her words into perspective, though.

snobographer said...

The article was written in 1983, which I am almost reluctant to point out, because my students are sometimes really quick to jump to the conclusion that things were bad then, but all better nowYeah, I remember 1983. People thought sexism was over then too.
I'm sure people generally believed women's oppression was over in the 1950s too, since the 19th amendment had been ratified by then. What more could you want, right?
Twenty years from now, people will probably look back on the early-2000s and call it a "different time" too, whether there's any substantive change by then or not.

hgill said...

I have not read Frye's essay, but I will do that now, because I want to know how she deals with the entire concept of "dependence" (due to its links with "disability"). I used to work at a law firm and these kind of gender politics were rampant, especially so when getting in an out of lifts. When it was obvious that male workers were waiting for me to get out first, I would deliberately say, "no, you're right". The common response was that they would look confused, I presume because they saw it as an innocent, polite gesture, rather than something highly symbolic.

Anonymous said...

Good grief! I cannot believe that we are still fighting about opening doors!

In 1983, when I was in college, I never knew whether I would offend a woman by opening the door for her, or by declining to do so. I would have thought we would have decided one way or the other by now.

In my social circle, opening doors is a gender neutral courtesy. I open doors for male friends, and they reciprocate. I open doors for female friends, and they reciprocate. When someone opens a door for you, you say thanks and walk through.

I wonder if I will live to see a day where people learn to exchange simple acts of kindness instead quarreling over gender power issues.

plumpdumpling said...

With me, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. As hgill brought up, it's almost a given that men will let me out of the elevator first, even if they're closer to the door than I am. I thank them for their politeness but always think how unnecessary it is. But you can bet that any time a man rushes out of the elevator before me, I think about how rude he is.

SD Lynn said...

What are gender neutral ways to show respect for others? Rather than bashing men who are trying to be courteous (and not understanding that a lot of women don't see it as a courtesy) why don't we try to replace old (sometimes bad behaviors) with good ones.

"She's talking about all men "gallantly" showing women respect through door-opening when there are so many other (much more important) ways in which they systematically disrespect women," Tracey said.

Can we get a thread or a conversation going about the ways men are disrespectful and try to teach them better ways to show us respect? For that matter, can we talk about ways to show men respect that aren't promoting male chauvinism or the subtle degradation of (ourselves) women? That is a blog I'd like to read. This is a good segue or prequel to that conversation, and I think it's a conversation that needs to be had.

Smirking Cat said...

Let the door shut in my face if it means men will stop talking down to me, patronizing me, thinking I can't fix anything or handle anything mechanical, judge me exclusively by my looks and breast size, stop thinking buying drinks or other gestures somehow buy my body, etc.

Fighting over doors? Please. We are still fighting far more than that.

A. Marie said...

You touched on chivalry as extended to women of color- thought these quotes would be notable:

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!”

-Sojourner Truth, 1851 speech, "Ain't I a Woman?"

“True chivalry respects all women… Virtue knows no color line, and chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and texture of hair can command no honest respect.”

-Ida B Wells, Chapter 1 of The Red Record, 1985

Tracey said...

Thanks, A. Marie. My students do read the Sojourner Truth piece and Ida B. Wells on Lynch Law in America, but I've never seen your second quote before. I'll have to check out The Red Record.

Anonymous said...

Leave it to a feminist to write that a man going out of their way to help a woman somehow makes women *invisible*. Who writes this crap?