Is chivalry really what we think it is?
A few weeks ago, I was on a family road trip when we stopped at Subway for a quick dinner. Once the people in front of us had gone through the process of ordering and paying, it was finally our turn to construct our sandwiches. Hungry and eager to order his meal, my younger brother stepped up to the deli case. When he did, I did not mind at all, especially considering the fact that I literally had no clue what I wanted. My mom, however, did have a problem with his ordering before us. She quickly called him back, saying, “Why don’t you let the ladies go first? It would be the polite thing to do.” When she said this, I started thinking. Why does it matter that the ladies go first? Wouldn’t it have been just as polite if I had let my mom and my brother go ahead of me? This interaction made me think deeper about the expected behavior between men and women.
Let’s take a trip down the very long, winding road of history. The idea of chivalry, originally a code of conduct for medieval knights, took root in England in the Middle Ages. I will spare you too many details, but the basic premise of this ethical code was as follows: all knights must vow to be loyal, generous, honest, and must portray overall noble behavior. They must defend and protect the weak, the helpless, the sick, and the vulnerable. At the time, the idea that women were weak and frail pervaded most cultures. Women were considered inferior in many ways. Thus, they perfectly met the criteria necessary for a knight’s protection. As time continued, this idea stayed in place. Men need to protect and provide, while women need to be protected and provided for.
Even as society progresses and the idea of women as the weaker sex has become taboo, the idea of chivalry has persisted. Society maintains the archaic standards of male-female behavior, even when so much has changed. Men are still expected to hold the door for women, and most women still expect it. While there is nothing wrong with holding the door for someone, a man should not do this for a woman solely because she’s a woman. The motivation for considerate behavior needs to change. Someone holds the door open for another because it is his or her pleasure to do so. Someone offers their seat in a crowded area to be courteous. These acts of kindness are nice to do for others, regardless of gender. Politeness and chivalry should not be equated, even though they often are. There is a very fine line between being courteous and being chivalrous. People often conflate the two because they have an imperfect view of the reality of chivalry, which was a means of treating women as inferior citizens.
Chivalry is outdated. Regardless of whether or not it has yet, ancient chivalry needs to die. However, common courtesy does not. My only request would be common courtesy for all. Society must lose the stigma surrounding gender-specific behavior. It doesn’t matter who gives or who receives these kind gestures. It matters that they have been offered, not out of obligation but politeness.
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