A Feminist Conversation on Chivalry

by Nicole Deagan, Ariana Barer, Ellie Gordon-Moershel, Carly Rhianna Smith, Helen Polychronakos, Carissa Ropponen, Katie Scholfield, and Caity Goerke. 

In March, The F Word Media Collective received the following email from The Morning News with Philip Till at CKNW:

“…I’m writing because I’m hoping that someone from The F Word would be available for an interview. Earlier this week I saw an article on chivalry in the Huffington Post and I thought it would open the doors for an interesting discussion. [http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/andrew-lawton/chivalry_b_2936648.html]. Basically in the article, the author talks about an incident at a coffee shop where he held open the door and a woman refused to walk through the door saying, “I don’t need a man to hold doors open for me.” The author says he was just doing what he was raised to do, be polite!

We are going to be speaking with the author of the article to have him share his story and start the discussion on chivalry, and we’ll also speak with a gender studies professor to talk about gender roles/stereotypes, etc. I’d like to have someone from The F Word on our show to talk about chivalry from a feminist point of view.”

In response, one of our collective members, Nicole, agreed to go on-air and seize the opportunity to share her thoughts about chivalry and to speak to how we might consider chivalry from a feminist perspective. Additionally, Nicole’s invitation for an interview sparked a conversation amongst the members of The F Word regarding our own thoughts on chivalry:

Ellie: I have an opinion on this. It’s definitely not top on my list of battles to fight but it does annoy me when men open doors for me but even more so is when men try and give up their seat to me on public transit.

Carly: I don’t see it as a big problem or something I need to speak up against because, quite frankly, there are bigger and more problematic issues when it comes to gender inequality. It’s a symptom of larger attitudes, no doubt, but having someone be extra polite to you is not really the worst thing that could happen. I’d take having someone awkwardly hold the door open or try to give me their seat on transit over being sexually propositioned or harassed on the street any day. It’s not malicious or ill-intentioned, and while it does carry the implication that I am a weaker female, I can live with it.

Katie: Basically, I think that whatever gender you are, it is polite to hold the door open for someone if it makes sense. i.e. If someone has a lot of stuff in their hands/are struggling with something, or if I’m simply a few steps ahead, and the flow of our walking makes opening the door for them more convenient than walking through myself and holding it open. For me its all about what is the most practical. Basically practicality and minimal disruption of movement is what I focus on. So, I get annoyed when my flow is disrupted because a guy is mislead into thinking it’s his job to open the door for me. Pet peeve!

Ellie: Exactly, politeness is holding the door for the person coming into a building behind you. Everyone should do that for everyone all the time regardless of gender. It just keeps the flow going (as Katie said). Politeness is also going out of your way to open a door for someone who is carrying a lot of shit. Again, regardless of gender.

Katie: I do not mind if a guy holds the door open for me, I don’t look at it as gendered. However, if a guy won’t walk through a door I hold open for him, then that’s a problem, and is the point at which chivalry or “politeness” becomes sexism.  What I mean when I use the term sexism, is not misogyny/hatred of women, but a perception that some action or exchange is to take place with the male or female in set roles; in this instance, a man opening the door for a woman.  If I open a door for a guy, oftentimes he will open the OTHER door himself and go through it.  How does that make any sense? It could easily be interpreted as rude, and likely would be so if I were to refuse to walk through a door a guy opened for me, and opened my own door.

Similarly, it makes no sense if I’m nowhere near a door and a guy holds it open, and waits 10 seconds or more for me to walk through, when I am clearly  able-bodied and not weighed down with objects.  Don’t do that.  That is inconvenient and doesn’t make sense if it’s simply to make you feel like you’re doing your job as the man, because in fact you are simply annoying capable women. :P

Ellie: Unfortunately, this argument always get conflated to “oh here goes another crazy feminist blaming a ‘nice’ guy for oppression.”

Caity: I was walking into a bank and an older guy was walking in a little ahead of me. The bank had a vestibule so we had to go through two sets of doors get inside. Because he arrived at the door first, he held it open for me. Considering that that meant I got to the second door before him, I tried to hold it open for him to return the favour. However, he stopped right away and (he was a lot taller than me) he reached over me to hold the door instead and insisted that I walk in ahead of him. What was the worst part about the situation was how flustered he got and how bad I felt for making the things feel awkward. The whole thing immediately made me feel like I should have just let him hold the second door in the first place because it would have been easier. Thinking about it later, that felt shitty because I know that the “easier” it seems to maintain the status quo, the harder it is to uncover where paternalism and sexism exist in ideas like chivalry.

Helen: I do have a little internal feminist spasm when a man opens a door for me, thinking: I should say something! I should educate this dude… But frankly most of the time I don’t have the time, and, as Ellie said, it’s not at the top of my list of important feminist battles. And the line between genuine courtesy and patronizing courtesy is sometimes hard to define. Men giving up their seats for able-bodied women is another matter, however. It is really annoying. I definitely decline.

Ellie: The transit seat thing kills me. A guy tried to give up his seat to me on the main street bus once and I politely declined. At the next stop a bunch of people got off and so I sat down and he said to me “see you did want a seat.” I responded, “how does it make any sense for me to have a seat over you. I’m obviously young and able bodied” so then we got into a public argument about ‘treating women well’ blah blah but I kept saying to him all of this ‘chivalry’ or ‘politeness’ is based on the notion that women are weaker than men and need their protection. No matter how nice the intention.

Carly: I guess this is something that’s crossed my mind in the past, although I haven’t thought about it too deeply. I suppose my take on it is that it’s not really something I see as a problem. Like Katie said, I hold doors open for people all the time (when it makes sense) out of politeness, and regardless of gender. I would hope common courtesy dictates that the person walking in front of me doesn’t let it slam in my face, especially if my arms are full or something. That being said, it does make me a little uncomfortable when somebody quite obviously goes out of their way to do something like that for me. However, that’s simply because I’m aware of the underlying implications that I’m “weaker” or “need help” as a female.

Carissa: Feminism has not killed chivalry. The two are not mutually exclusive.  Men can still continue to open doors for women while working toward substantive social change. One problem I see is that some men think that opening a car door, offering a seat on transit, or paying the dinner bill is doing enough to show they value women. It would be much more useful if men would focus on opening doors of opportunity for women rather than car doors because let’s face it, we are still living in an old boys club where most of the power is consolidated with wealthy white men. If these old boys would use their privilege and power to hold the doors of opportunity open to women rather than to hold them shut we would be further along our way to equality.

Ariana: I’m just thinking about some language I learned at an abelism / disability justice workshop the other day. The facilitator was talking about how useful the language of “enabled” folks and “disabled” folks can be. How does our society and our infrastructure enable some people (accommodate their needs) and disable others? Stairs, narrow hallways, inaccessible bathrooms, ridiculously long exams, tiny print, small seats, etc. Reading all of your thoughtful comments, I kept thinking about how chivalry can be used as an excuse to participate more directly in rape culture… otherwise we wouldn’t need a poster like this. Chivalry can act as one part of our cultural disabling of feminized bodies (as lacking, deficient, and needing extra or special accommodation) and enabling of masculinized bodies (as “normal” and fully capable). Women are supposed to need special safety tips to avoid rape (instead of an end to rape culture) and First Nations folks are supposed to need special funding and reserved land (instead of an end to colonization and racism), etc. Anyway, just thinking about some parallels/solidarity between disability justice, feminism, and Indigenous movements in relation to supposedly courteous acts by individuals, systems, and governments…

What do you think about the lines between “politeness” and “chivalry”? What does it mean when acts of “politeness” become gendered and how can we connect these ideas to discussions of feminism, ableism, etc.?

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5 Comments on “A Feminist Conversation on Chivalry”

  • Spanda

    I think some more interesting issues to touch on would be the more subtle ones. From what I’ve witnessed, women initiate conversation with their boyfriends or love interests far less often than men initiate conversation with women. In order for the world to be truly feminist, shouldn’t society be structured in a way that encourages women to take on the risk of pursuit? This could help women adapt to a competitive workplace. Shouldn’t women ask men out of the first date just as often as men do? Shouldn’t women make the same economic expectations of men as men make of women (income and whatnot) when choosing a spouse?

  • Nikanoru

    The problem with this mindset is that people like me hold the door open for everybody. This is not an exclusively female thing. I do it to be a nice person. If you stop and berate me for holding the door open for you, you’re not attacking the patriarchy of “chivalry”, you’re attacking kindness. You’re killing kindness. Why is it such a crime to just accept a kindness and move on with your life instead of derailing your life and the life of the person holding open the door and fighting with the person who just anonymously did something kind for you?

  • Rachel

    I think chivalry is not degrading towards women to some extent. However, I was recently in a relationship where the man I dated would not let me touch doors. He would open every single door for me wherever we were, even if the situation would make more sense for me to open the door. Like I appreciated it until I got SCOLDED for opening the door. Also, he would pay for everything. (Again, this is not an issue for me.) BUT, at one point I wanted to go out with him and the next day was his pay day, so I offered to pay his way into the venue. He declined. He didn’t have money, I offered to pay just this once, and he declined. He would rather keep his pride of whatever morals he held over women and wait to go out until he could pay instead of having a fun time with me (keep in mind the date would only require me paying like $10 for him.) In my case, would this change anyone’s view of chivalry? because these occurrences infuriated me…

  • Long Live Chivalry

    I am not only responding to this post, but also to one I read on another site. Here is the link, http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/09/chivalry-must-die/

    I am 22 years old, and I would like to disagree with your argument because of the positive influence that learning chivalry has had on my life. My mom taught me to be chivalrous to women since I was old enough to talk, and because of those courteous acts that formed towards women, I have been able to apply them to everyone I encounter daily. When I say everyone, I mean men and women. I believe that excluding chivalry from the things to teach a young boy will have a negative effect on the development of those young men. Chivalry in its innocent nature is only an act of kindness towards women, never meant to be offensive or degrading. Therefore if a parent teaches chivalry as a courteous gesture, as mine did, the young man will likely realize that these gestures can also apply to men as well as women. The principles apply to both genders, not just one. I can already hear opposing comments to my post, “But there are other ways of teaching a young boy to be kind!” The reality is that boys are immature! There needs to be a motive to do something, and the watchful eye of a young woman can give a strong purpose to any young man. I have learned by being chivalrous—opening doors, lending my arm, being a gentleman—that being kind to women as well as men makes me happier and also makes it easier to be peaceful citizen. By taking away the social norm of chivalry, I will be denying my children an opportunity to learn how to be courteous men. I will not deny them that opportunity.

  • The F Word Media Collective

    Touche.

    Love,
    The F Word Team.

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