Emily Esfahani Smith is arguing in The Atlantic that we should revive chivalry as a behavioral standard beneficial to both men and women. Smith asserts, using the examples of the Titanic and Costa Concordia sinkings, that our society has seen the decline of chivalry and the rise of “boorish” behavior in men.
I’d be much obliged if you took a moment to read my posts on the origins of medieval chivalry and on “shipwreck” chivalry, because everyone and their aunt’s chihuahua has to talk about Titanic when discussing this topic. Go on, I’ll wait.
Welcome back. From Smith:
Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity…
Since you’ve read my previous posts about chivalry, you know that chivalry originated as a method of managing violence, directing it in the service of one’s overlord–vassalage was the single most important aspect of medieval chivalry–and preventing knights from sacking wealthy Church properties. To that end, it wasn’t always very effective. Yes, a genre of courtly love ballads and stories emerged during the medieval period, but chivalry was far more concerned about the duties and rights of knights and lords to other knights and lords than it was about treating ladies nicely. I’m using the word “ladies” intentionally; peasants were not included in these considerations. In fact, medieval warfare was largely conducted by wars of attrition against “enemy” civilian populations.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is wearing the blinders of Victorian sentimentality.
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”
It didn’t caution all men, it cautioned knights and nobles, and it cautioned them to act honorably toward members of their own class. They didn’t protect the weak and defenseless. They lived off serfs, for crying out loud. They went rampaging around the countryside of foreign countries and then had fairly chummy conversations with the rulers of those countries, who were fairly unperturbed by the deaths of their own citizens (see: The Black Prince). Chivalry enabled violence, made it heroic, and channeled it under the control of the state. In International Relations parlance, we would say that it supported the state’s monopoly of the use of force.
Contrary to Smith and Sommers, I don’t think men are naturally uncontrollable beasts who need to be harnessed by…well, I guess by women, who evidently have magical powers to tame men by acting submissive. Because that was the traditional bargain of chivalry. Women who didn’t step off their pedestal or seek more power or express opinions might expect polite treatment, but women who did were subjected to violence and ridicule. And that’s the problem with chivalry: it doesn’t reduce violence so much as channel it in specific ways. If it makes it unacceptable to act violently or discourteously to white middle class women who follow certain strictures of behavior, it follows that it is acceptable to act violently or discourteously to people who fall outside those provisions.
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.
Yes–women were considered valuable pieces of property and repositories for male honor. Also, please read my shipwrecks post. [Side note: I obviously think people shouldn't use physical force to harm or intimidate others, but chivalry isn't the only way of expressing this. And everyone, although especially taller men, should be aware of their bodies in space. I've heard from short women that they're constantly getting blocked by people who don't seem to notice they're there. Awareness is good.]
And by “gentlemen”, I’m going to assume that the author means “white middle to upper class men”. And by “women”, I’m going to assume she means “white middle to upper class women”. Because that is historically true, and because we cannot talk about chivalry without talking about class and race. This also implies that there’s a class of people women must be protected from, and that class was usually defined in racialized terms.
Nineteenth-century Southern society is frequently lionized as chivalrous. Were slaveowners chivalrous to their slaves?
Below: A political cartoon depicting the murder of a 15 year old girl on the slave ship Recovery, in 1791. The Captain was charged but acquitted, on the grounds that the girl died of disease rather than her injuries. Wikimedia Commons.
Slaves, working class people, and people of color were not included in the provisions of chivalry. Female slaves and domestic servants were basically considered available for the taking by the masters of the house. Working class people couldn’t expect preferential treatment, on the Titanic or anywhere else. White women in the middle and upper classes could feel entitled to chivalrous treatment, although they also didn’t have much legal recourse if the system of chivalry failed them and they got stuck with an abusive husband.
Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, an examination of elite Southern slaveholding women during the Civil War, provides an excellent case study of a society built on a hierarchy of race, gender, and class, and the chivalric ideas underpinning it. Elite white women were very privileged because of their race and class, but they were also basically considered ornamental breeders. During the war, women with excellent handwriting were hired by the Confederate government to sign paper bills printed by the Confederate treasury. If I remember correctly, they were paid around $60 a month, because the government felt that elite women deserved to be supported during the war, by virtue of their social status. For comparison, privates in the Confederate army earned $11 a month. And slaves were slaves. Elites behaved “chivalrously” to other elites. Everyone else was beneath them, and undeserving of courtesy, or at least undeserving of a massively inflated paycheck.
Back to the article:
Some women are trying to bring back chivalry. Since 2009, for instance, a group of women at Arizona State University have devoted themselves to resuscitating gentlemanly behavior and chivalry on a campus whose social life is overwhelmingly defined by partying, frat life, and casual sex. Every spring for the past three years, these women have gathered for the “Gentlemen’s Showcase” to honor men who have acted chivalrously by, for example, opening the door for a woman or digging a woman’s car out of several feet of snow.
Can someone please explain to me why everyone is so fixated on the door thing? For the confused, this is the Ripening Reason guide to door etiquette: Hold the door open for people who need the help, like someone in a wheelchair, or someone with a walker, or someone pushing a stroller, or someone carrying a bunch of stuff, because it’s the nice thing to do. When going through a door, check to see if there’s someone coming after you, because no one likes to have a door dropped in their face. If you’re walking with someone and you open the door, it’s generally polite to let them pass through the door first. If someone holds the door for you, say thank you. If you hold the door for someone, don’t think that this social nicety entitles you to lavish praise, because it doesn’t. Clear enough?
There’s a big difference between helping someone because it’s a nice thing to do, and doing something for someone because you think they’re incompetent do it, even if they’re not, or because you want to prove something or make them feel obligated. Helping someone shovel out their car is nice. I wouldn’t refuse help from someone who is just being neighborly, but I also wouldn’t laud him for being chivalrous–in fact, I don’t even consider that a compliment, because it suggests that the act was done to enforce certain behaviors, rather than out of the goodness of his heart. I grew up in Massachusetts. It snows there. I’ve been shoveling since elementary school. I can shovel out my own car, and yours too. If I shovel out your car, does that make me chivalrous? Probably not, because a woman shoveling snow exists outside an historical system of sexual obligation.
Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous. In other words, chivalry in the age of post-feminism is another name we give to civility. When we give up on civility, understood in this way, we can never have relationships that are as meaningful as they could be.
So why can’t we just call it civility? Why should we refer to common courtesy with a term that is weighed down by so much sexist, classist, and racist baggage? Chivalry created an in-group deserving of good treatment, and an out-group that was not accorded the same consideration. Perhaps we should take this opportunity to slough off the remnants of an unjust social system, and create a new model of civility that accords respect for our shared humanity, inclusive of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation (since chivalry is awfully heteronormative). I fully recognize that basic civility is lacking from many of our social interactions. I’ve worked in retail and I spend a fair amount of time on the Internet.
I also recognize that many men feel that our society doesn’t have enough positive examples of masculinity. Unfortunately, masculinity is frequently constructed as “that which isn’t feminine”, which I think leads to a lot of insecurity, not to mention the denigration of women. I don’t think I can speak cogently on this topic, but I do understand the need for positive masculinity. I just don’t think it will come from the historical concept of chivalry.
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