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Chivalry and the modern woman

Chivalry chiv|alry

Noun

1.2 Courteous behaviour, especially that of a man towards women

I often hear the phrase ‘chivalry is dead’ but I wouldn’t say it is. I still see men showing acts of it towards women and have experienced it many times myself. It is dying out though, as women in the past evidently experienced it a lot more than we do. We don’t see some courteous acts much these days, such as a young man pulling out a chair for his girlfriend in a restaurant. I’ve wondered how simple gestures like this even came to be. Who were the individuals who thought that women were suddenly unable to do minor, routine tasks when men were in the vicinity? We may have been considered to be ‘the weaker sex’ but we could have been given some credit!

Yesterday’s women no doubt had a different opinion though. I get the strong impression from history that they accepted chivalry without question because most of them were used to being looked after by men. It goes without saying that times have changed dramatically. Us modern women are now almost socially equal to men and generally independent.

If a man performs a chivalrous act that we associate with days gone by, it’s quite easy for us to misinterpret it as him still thinking of womankind as considerably inferior. This would explain why some younger women have described what remains of chivalry as ‘patronising.’  I can see their point but I personally wouldn’t use a word as clear-cut as that. I would say ‘confusing’ due to my mixed views about the issue. When a man is courteous towards me, I have what I would describe as a ‘nature versus nurture moment’. An instinctive female primal desire to be looked after by a male briefly struggles with the independent, feminist side of me. I feel a little superior because I’m being prioritised, yet also inferior because I’m obviously not being thought of as an equal. This all combines to make me feel an overall strange combination of appreciation and annoyance.

I will tend to lean towards one of these more than the other, depending on the mood I’m in. My thoughts have ranged from ‘What a nice fella, he obviously has good manners’ to ‘Oh my God, does he think I’m not capable of opening a door?’ Sometimes I’ll open a door for a man in an attempt to be seen as equal and then find it particularly annoying when he beckons me through and says ‘ladies first.’ I appreciate his respect for me but it also feels like a slap in the face because he refused my gesture. I opened the door for you first, so don’t bother about it!

I do welcome some acts of chivalry more than others. For example, if I’m having trouble handling a heavy/bulky item, I’m secretly pleased if a guy offers to help me! I’ll still feel a little inferior but I allow for the fact that (let’s admit it) men have stronger muscles! I’ve also been grateful to the men who have helped me with my car problems. However, I would feel quite patronised if a man pulled out my chair or opened a car door for me because I’ve done these simple tasks numerous times for myself. I’ll always politely thank a man and often smile in response to his gesture. But if I felt irritated by it, I’ll feel a bit guilty about forcing myself to react positively. I’m probably falsely making the poor guy feel good by giving the impression that I’m grateful when really, I feel like telling him that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to do it myself!

It’s also evident to me that he has been brought up to respect women, so I feel bad about not appreciating the results of his mother’s efforts. I could even say that I feel like I’m going against a fellow female! Sometimes I wish that I could just appreciate a nice guy’s help every time. After all, many other men out there are just pigs! And is a respectful gesture really such a bad thing in a world where so many people mistreat others?

I’m aware that some acts of chivalry towards women are a bit vague too. Just because a man opens doors for us doesn’t mean that he doesn’t for men too. And if there is a pregnant or elderly woman on a bus, a guy is likely to give up his seat for her due to her circumstances rather than her gender. Other examples are more obvious though, such a man offering to pay on a date. Should he? We had a debate in my all-female old office about this once and the results were quite interesting. All the women over 40 said yes, if a man wants to take a woman out, then he absolutely should pay. All the younger women, including myself said that we would rather pay our own way to show our independence. These extreme differences in opinion somewhat confirmed my previous inkling that more mature women tend to accept chivalry more.

I assume that many older women will have brought their sons up to be courteous. However, the rise of feminism appears to have made a lot of young men confused about chivalry and wary about putting it into practice. As a result, it has gone from being common and socially acceptable to more sporadic and arguable. We seem to currently be in a difficult ‘fading out’ transition period where men can’t really win however they behave. If a guy tries to treat women equally by making a point of never being courteous, some people may view him as being rude and disrespectful. Yet if he tries to still be a gentleman, he runs the risk of some people (and young women in particular) perceiving him as being condescending.

I feel a bit sorry for men in today’s society because if I was one, I would feel quite self-conscious about how I behaved towards women. I wonder how many men actually feel this way. Comments on the Internet give the impression that at least some do. They worry about appearing sexist and complain that feminism has ruined chivalry. While many of them seem to be genuinely saddened by this, I have my suspicions that several are chauvinists who see assisting women as an excuse to keep us feeling like the inferior sex!

I wonder if we will all even have to concern ourselves with chivalry for much longer. If many younger women don’t care much for it, they may not be focussing much attention on teaching their little boys about it. Therefore, it could disappear completely within the next few generations. Would we be happy if it ended now though? I think it’s hard to say. I’ve heard many women say that they would like a guy who treats them right, but then maybe we are more forgiving towards chivalrous lovers than strangers. Some women genuinely appreciate chivalry by any man. We may find it a bit strange and sad to see something that has become almost a tradition go completely too.

As for the feminists among us, yes, we would like to be treated as equals and think that we would be pleased to say good riddance to this ‘old-fashioned’ behaviour. However, I bet that secretly, many of us are a bit offended when a man lets a door slam in our face, and would continue to be until we got used to acts like this being obsolete.

We obviously can’t have it both ways but I get the impression that a lot of women wish we could. I suppose we aren’t called ‘complicated’ for nothing!

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