I have good news and bad news.
The good news: chivalry is not dead.
The bad news: chivalry wasn’t really about me at all.
Perhaps it would be best to start where most European history seems to begin: the Church. In short, after the invasion of the Normans from what is now France in the tenth century, the Church decided to ease the terror by instilling an honor code for aristocratic, self-professed Christian knights to follow in their personal lives and when they encountered neutral common folk while in uniform.
Now, imagine you are one of these country women used to being barged in on by foreign troops, and you are greeted by such a large, intimidating cavalry of knights and horses. In such a case, chivalry dictates a sort of etiquette for these knights to communicate to the woman that though they are indeed large and intimidating, they are devoted Christian men who do not intend to hurt her.
In such a situation, I don’t imagine that anyone would have a problem with chivalry. Love your neighbor, and don’t rape and pillage an innocent village. If you want a wife, don’t abduct her. Common sense. But note: such innocent villages are full of men, women, and children, and they are innocent because they do not possess the same potential for force as the knights do.
The aristocratic man continued to practice chivalry even after the ages of constant threat of war passed away, deeming it his individualistic duty to protect his household whether physically or verbally in the public domain. A woman, however, did not possess similar influence to defend her family’s honor and was thus deemed dependent on a more influential class – in this case, the males, who have traditionally held power in Western history.
Here the problem arises when we attempt to reconcile our modern ideals with the medieval chivalric code. We have decided that women are fit to work alongside men, own property, and hold public office, yet we have spent these hundreds of years since the end of the Dark Ages recovering from the idea that women and children serve as our equivalent of an intrinsically pure yet powerless class.
I know enough women who defend chivalry simply because it’s an easy way to get free meals and jewelry, but I am not concerning myself with irrationality. Instead, I would like to address the good-intentioned men who believe that giving special attention to women is a sign of respect.
Here it is: it’s not.
Respecting me means respecting everyone else, not just me, as you would want to be respected. If we want to talk about chivalry, we have to remember that women were given special respect at the time of its founding specifically because they were considered dependents who were incapable of influencing major decisions made by the aristocracy, just as the servant class was. Chivalry was a code of maintaining the integrity of those who would otherwise be considered second-class.
Today, a man unfortunately cannot know what to expect when he holds a door for a woman anymore: maybe eye rolling, perhaps a pleasant smile, or the occasional I-can-do-it-myself-thank-you scowl. I like holding doors for people, regardless of their gender. It’s a nice thing to do, and I like it when other people do it for me, too. Other women understand this practice: they go through the door when I hold it, and most of the time, they look up and say thank you.
In my experience, men generally have a harder time with doors. Some will go through the door and perhaps say thank you as well, but more often than not, others will stop dead in their tracks, pace around the entry in confusion, or even declare that it’s not my place as a woman to hold the door. Often, they’ll place a hand on the door to supplement mine without acknowledging me at all. Allow me to share some a couple more specific experiences:
Once, I opened a door for an older man in the morning, and he loudly declared, “OH, NO! My father would roll over in his GRAVE if he saw this!” and took the door from me. I stared at the ground as I shuffled inside. I encountered him again a couple months later, and he did the same exact thing. Turns out that he simply has his script rehearsed and ready to go.
My personal favorite is the time I held the door for a boy before going into the dining hall for breakfast. He tried to take the door from me and insisted multiple times that I go in before him, but I smiled and told him that I was opening it specifically for him. His expression grew from friendly to almost scary, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Stop trying to be so noble.” I let him take the door and went inside without a word, and he followed behind, mumbling self-righteously that it was a kind attempt on my part but that it wasn’t right.
But what if we can all be noble? It only takes one mean-spirited woman to counterclaim the idea that all women possess some sort of intrinsic defenselessness. Chivalry is founded on the ideal that civilized knights, or gentlemen, have a responsibility to defend the powerless. Those that we would point to and declare true gentlemen today value those that society overlooks and instead treats them as equals, not as dependents. The term “gentleman” lives on, and for good reason. It is righteous to live as a gentleman. But chain mail is outdated, as is the classic definition of the word, so if we want to keep the gentleman alive, I maintain that I have a duty to live up to the standard of gentlewoman: upholding justice, defending the weak, and showing genuine love and kindness for all those around me. This is not an empty promise: true love is sacrifice, and it takes strength to view others as equals and stand up for their honor when no one else will. If another believes that I owe him (or her) anything for his “chivalry,” then he is not practicing true chivalry at all.
My point is this: men, hold the door for people. Women, hold the door for people, too. Both of you, go through doors when others open them for you; an open door is an extension of virtue. Accept it. Chivalry is noble, but practice chivalry not to lord it over another because of your own privilege but rather to uphold honor. Your honor exists regardless of whether or not another is there to accept it, and you cannot earn honor by demeaning that of another; on the contrary, you must create your own.
Updated August 25, 2015