Chivalry has evolved significantly since its inception in the Middle Ages. What began as a knightly code of conduct, defined by ideals like courage, honor, courtesy, and a willing-readiness to defend the weak1 , gradually morphed into guidelines for men’s behavior towards women.
Since the turn of the 20th century, chivalry continues to be a hotly debated topic. In many ways it has been on the decline since suffragettes argued against chivalry because of its association between females and weakness. It’s also true that many men disguise chivalry as a means of obtaining women by enhancing desirability as a ‘nice guy’, rather than suggesting respect for women.
Though not necessarily implicit these days, many acts considered chivalrous indirectly express a weakness in women. Opening a door, paying for a bill, offering a coat in the cold—can all, in theory, suggest that women need these things done because they cannot do them independently. Thus, it begs the question—can chivalry and equality co-exist?
As a young male seeking to uphold respect and courtesy towards the opposite sex, I believe the two must exist simultaneously. We are at a pivotal point in which social confines formerly placed upon women are shifting. With more women placing increased value on career success and financial independence and a higher percentage of women than men graduating college, it’s impossible not to continue to recognize women’s strength.
It’s important that we start the conversation by acknowledging that chivalry does not mean what it once did. Chivalry today simply references men who conduct themselves with good manners towards women. It would be remiss to think we can redefine chivalry, however, we can change the intentions of and behind the term.
Stepping further towards a shift in chivalry comes from a change in the intent from which men commit a chivalrous act and the lens through which women perceive acts of chivalry. The inspiration from which men seek to conduct themselves chivalrously should come from an admiration and respect of women’s growing strength and independence. It is then up to men to make women feel that chivalry towards women comes from this place of admiration and respect.
Two great things will happen if we can adapt how we see and conduct chivalry. First, the stereotypical actions of chivalry will carry greater meaning and greater value. Small actions don’t have to simply mean, “I am a man and you are a woman, thus I should perform this courteous act.” Each small act has the ability to serve as a reminder that men support a woman’s worth, drive, and authenticity as an independent individual.
Secondly, if each chivalrous act simultaneously reminds men that we are uplifting strength, rather than aiding the weak, gradually it has the ability to help shift the stereotypical gender perceptions.
“Great change usually comes with a little help. There’s been a lot of talk about women ‘leaning in’, maybe it’s time that men start lending a hand…”
The biggest question—how does this happen?
It starts with conversations—with friends, family, and colleagues. It starts by teaching men from a young age that chivalry means supporting strength, not demonstrating it.
Great change usually comes with a little help. There’s been a lot of talk about women ‘leaning in,’ maybe it’s time that men start lending a hand…not a hand that says women are incapable of doing it their own, but a hand that says I want to help because it’s the right thing for everyone.
- “chivalry.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 18 Sep. 2013. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/chivalry>.
- New York Times: Room for Debate – Resuscitating Chivalry
- The Atlantic: Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance
In the News: