On Chivalry (or as I like to call it, Sexist Microaggressions)

For the most part, I do not encounter active, conscious sexism on a regular basis. Most people will acquiesce that social equality is a pretty good idea. It’s rare for me to encounter folks (especially in my age group) who voice or act on obvious and explicit sexist attitudes.

But I still experience sexism all the damn time. Which means it’s the nasty, hidden, pervasive kind. The kind that perpetrators (and victims) usually don’t recognize, name, or give credence to. Now, I’m grateful that I don’t have people explicitly telling me that I’m intellectually inferior because of my womanness. The problem is that they unwittingly act out those attitudes, and when I point it out, I usually get treated like I’m irrational and hysterical. Note: Some people do actually REALLY get it and I tend to cling to those people like little life savers in the high seas of sexism.

I often have the experience of explaining that I am a feminist and  that social equity is very important to me. Men (particularly men who have some type of potential romantic interest in me), will frequently respond by affirming their approval of gender equity and then, IN THE SAME BREATH, will say something patently sexist.

It goes like this:

Me: “I’m a feminist and social justice advocate. Social equity is really important to me and social justice education is one of my passions.”

Man: “Yeah, that’s cool. Equality is great. I totally believe in that. As long as you’re okay with me holding doors for you/me paying for your dinner/taking a guy’s name when you get married/you shave your armpits/ you are not always talking about feminist stuff.”

What I hear: “I don’t know what feminism is. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay so I don’t look like an asshole, but I still expect you to submit to small acts of condescension and injustice in your daily life so I don’t have to be made uncomfortable with reckoning with you as my true social, economic, and intellectual equal and so I can feel like I’m a good guy.”

Many of these acts that annoy the living hell out of me are commonly referred to as “chivalry.” Some of you may be familiar with the concept because some men frequently like to proclaim that it is not dead. In my opinion, chivalry equates to microaggressions: small acts of condescension, steeped in implicit and explicit assumptions that women are delicate, incapable, and need to be tended to.

I consistently experience significant backlash when calling attention to the fact that I find these actions to be sexist. The common response is that men are “just trying to be nice.” I am all about acts of kindness, generosity, and goodwill. However, it is naive and, more importantly, privileged, to ignore the fact that insistence upon door holding, chair pulling-out, bill-paying, name-changing, asking for hands in marriage, and guiding women toward the inside of the sidewalk are all steeped in a socio-cultural history that is based in the idea that women are biologically, intellectually, socially, and economically inferior to men. A history in which women were treated as property. A history in which you asked to marry a woman because you were basically buying her. A history in which women couldn’t pay for things because we were not permitted to work outside of the home, hold bank accounts, or own property. A history in which women were seen as being physically and biologically inferior, in which our brains and bodies were believed to be less than those of men. A history in which my sisters chained themselves to the front gates of the White House and went on hunger strikes for the right to have their voices heard in the democratic process of this nation.

I am an independent, educated woman. Make no mistake that my success has been earned on the backs of women who came before me and fought for equality. My own grandmother was pulled out of school at age 13 to work in a thread factory, financially supporting a family in which the boys were encouraged to continue their education and earn college degrees. So you’ll have to excuse me when I insist on paying for my own panini on a first date. Because I do not take for granted for a single day that I am financially independent. You’ll have to excuse me when I exercise my rights as a citizen to openly talk about politics and social issues that are important and impact me, because it is not lost on me for a moment that I have the right to vote and still see far too few women in elected positions of leadership. And you’ll have to excuse me if I think I can open a door for myself or sit my dainty behind in a chair without having a fainting spell.

Men of the world, if you want to be nice, genuine, or kind, stop relying on outdated social conventions rooted in assumptions of women’s inferiority. If you want to be kind, talk to me, listen to what I have to say, take an interest in my interests, defend my opinions instead of my honor, and do your part to ensure that I and other women have access, opportunities, and equal treatment in our society.  When you hold a door, actively interrogate why you are holding that door and who you are holding it for. I’m not saying to start slamming doors in women’s faces, but kindness means taking an extra moment to go out of your way for everyone and anyone, in a way that does not suggest that you are exerting power or control over someone, that you are the keeper of the door. Men have decided for far too long which doors women get to have opened for us. We can open them ourselves.

9 thoughts on “On Chivalry (or as I like to call it, Sexist Microaggressions)

  1. What a great post! I remember much debate on this topic during my women studies class in undergrad. I agree that ‘chivalrous acts’ such as opening the door as you suggest, should be random acts of kindness bestowed on everyone and anyone. Especially when you make the topic a little more complicated and consider lesbian relationships and there are people who assume that one of the individuals in the relationship takes on the male role and then should perform those acts of chivalry. I have seen this assumption be made by the people in the relationship themselves. Furthermore, I agree that I am financially independent and do not need to be treated delicately. Although it may be nice to be treated as though you are special and not being treated as though you are incapable as long as you are doing the same for your partner. Usually there are two doors leading into a restaurant, on a date they would open one door and I would hold the other.

    1. Great points, Geena. Any good relationship (romantic or otherwise) includes balance and reciprocation of kind and thoughtful acts. Both people should feel special and cared for in multiple ways. I think that questioning these acts of chivalry invites conversation about everyday power dynamics in relationships, which, in my opinion, always become harmful when imbalanced.

  2. “And you’ll have to excuse me if I think I can open a door for myself or sit my dainty behind in a chair without having a fainting spell.” That part just sent me into a laughing fit! XD

    Brilliant article overall, I loved every ounce of it! ❤

  3. you need to research chivalry and the actual traditions you are talking about. this whole piece is simply uneducated and populated with feminist myths. you perpetuating misinformation doesn’t make you any better than fox. your anger is a misdirect towards men who are trying to show you respect. rather than taking it out on them, maybe you should direct your anger towards those who show you no kindness at all.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Lorry. My understanding of chivalry, which is based on research, is that “chivalry,” as we know it in contemporary society, is a set of informal social norms associated with masculinity and what is considered “appropriate” masculine behavior. These norms were initially derived from the medieval chivalric code, standards of behavior associated with martial service. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in medieval history and have interpreted chivalry through the lens of understanding contemporary social behavior, particularly as it is related to the concept of benevolent sexism (prosocial or positive behaviors toward women that still have the affect of subordination or contributing to the idea of feminine weakness). For more on benevolent sexism, I recommend looking at the work of Peter Glick and Susan Fiske. I am happy to be directed toward further research on chivalric behavior.

      My goal here is not to provide misinformation, but to encourage dialogue and interrogation of commonly accepted social behaviors, using my own experiences and interpretations as a starting point. A variety of research indicates that prosocial behaviors exhibited by men toward women serve to contribute to women’s subordination, but my intention in this post was to speak from my own experience. As this is a commentary on my own experience and a personal narrative, I disagree that it can be labeled as misinformation. I am, of course, interested in being shown kindness by others, but I am more interested in breaking down and understanding how behaviors that are ostensibly kind can contribute to negative outcomes for marginalized groups.

      Thank you again for reading and contributing to this conversation.

  4. The problem is that this objection to “chivalry” combines things which are “patently sexist”, but which essentially no-one thinks are entailed by “chivalry” and things which are indeed what people mean by “chivalry” but which are not patently sexist. e.g. insisting women change their name or shave or not exercise their rights as a citizen to talk about political issues are undeniably sexist… so much so that they hardly even count as *micro*-aggressions; holding a door open for women is not *patently* sexist. It’s not right to tar the extremely sexist (but little to do with “chivalry”) cases and the typical cases of “chivalry” such as holding doors open for people, with the same brush.

    Let us grant that the convention of buying dinner for women *is* problematic because it encourages the idea of gender-distinction etc., while being typically innocently intended and endorsed by both men and women (indeed, it seems that men paying is *more* endorsed by women than by men and that women often resent men if they *don’t insist* on paying for everything: http://www.scribd.com/doc/160036991/AM-2013-Frederick-Study). How then should we attempt to stop men and women endorsing this practice? It seems unlikely that this should be done by telling men that the thing that they think is polite and which many women expect them to do is a “sexual micro-aggression” akin to demanding that women not talk about politics or forcing them to shave. Working out how to make women and men alter their practices is difficult, but simply racheting up the level of denunciation applied to men who do what is demanded of them is not a solution.

    1. Thanks for sharing that study. I think that the finding that some women resent men who do not uphold “traditional” gender norms in the scenario of paying for dates reflects an idea that I believe is very true: women are very much complicit in upholding social behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that contribute to and perpetuate sexism and gender inequality. The quantitative and qualitative information from that study serves to illustrate that point. I think that it is important, then, in any discussion of interpersonal or social interactions between men and women, to call upon women to examine how their own internalized oppression impacts their social interactions. However, I think that it’s unlikely for any woman who has not actively considered the role of gendered socialization in her own experience to demand a different type of behavior from men. But I also don’t see any reason that men who are aware and feminist-identified cannot initiate different types of behavior, regardless of the response from specific women. Sexism is ultimately harmful to all relationships. Any man who is truly committed to egalitarian relationships and to giving up some of his own privilege has the ability to act differently in the name of furthering equality and dismantling socialized gender roles.

      In terms of categorizing sexist behaviors and attitudes differently, there are certainly actions that are openly hostile and clearly sexist, and which likely have a more direct negative impact than actions that are based in some goodwill or intention of kindness. But sexism is harmful, regardless of the intention or how a certain act measures up against a more egregious or harmful act. Do we have bigger fish to fry, so to speak, in terms of sexist behavior? Of course. But I do believe that these small acts of benevolent sexism–chivalric behavior– contribute to an overall social environment that is less likely to mount a serious challenge to the more obvious forms of sexism. All sexism deserves to be challenged, regardless of how seemingly small it may be.

      Thanks for reading and adding some great insights to this conversation.

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