It’s easy to feel conflicted about chivalry, as we’ve come to understand it. It can feel outdated, condescending, even infantilizing. And it’s true that, for many men who engage in what they perceive to be “gentlemanly behavior,” it is simply a means to an end. Either they believe that women are inherently a weaker sex more in need of help executing basic tasks, or they assume that enough “nice” gestures piled up one after the other will inevitably result in sex. And neither of these perceptions are healthy; neither of them are accurate or positive, especially when reproduced on a societal scale.
But there is another kind of chivalry — one that is perhaps too different from the heavily abused social concept we’ve come to know to be called by the same name — which is not unhealthy. It’s not selfish, or condescending, or demeaning of women. It doesn’t expect less of them, or feel that they should be entitled to more for no particular reason. Men who exhibit this kind of chivalry are perfectly respectful of a woman in the workplace, on a date, and in the process of making any number of choices he might not agree with. His purpose is not to distinguish her by her femininity, but rather to acknowledge what his masculinity might imply.
My father raised two daughters, and always treated us in this way. He showed us at once immense respect for our capabilities and interests and autonomy, but strived to show us that we should demand a certain kind of treatment from the men we brought into our lives. (My sister, as it happened, ended up dating women — but she still expects this treatment from the men she interacts with otherwise.) He would never shame us for a phase we might be going through with our style or activity we wanted to pursue, because his being a gentleman didn’t revolve around anything other than our humanity. With my mother, he was the same. When it came to letting us walk in front, watching until we got safely in a door to drive away, to help us with heavy bags when we needed it, these were all acts of kindness and, yes, respect, which never made us feel as though we were weak or childish for needing it.
Because this kind of chivalry — doing everything possible to make a woman feel safe and acknowledged — is not based on what it means to be a woman. It is acknowledging that she encounters, likely on a daily basis, many men who disrespect her humanity. She is catcalled, she is pushed, she is touched against her will, she is talked down to and made to feel profoundly uncomfortable. She can’t tell who is following her, she doesn’t know what a man’s intentions might be, she doesn’t want to be in certain places alone at night. And when a man makes extra effort to make sure she knows that he means no harm, that he treats her with respect and wants equally to make sure that she is okay, he is saying that he he knows what we most likely feel so often.
It is, in a way, an apology for the other men who have made this extra gesture of comfort so necessary. When a man walks you to the bus, or carries your bags, or makes sure you get home okay, he is doing what he can to make your experience just that much less threatening. And while, in a perfect world, we would be treating both women and men with the exact same levels of deference and effort, the truth is that one group simply doesn’t need it like the other one does. The world isn’t as disrespectful to them, isn’t as damaging to their ability to walk through things freely — even at night.
This kind of chivalry, the chivalry that comes from acknowledging how cruel some men can be to women, should be praised and acknowledged. It should be the kind of thing that we expect from men, and which men come to expect from one another, until it is as much a necessity for social interaction as speaking the same language. It should not be unusual or surprising in any way, and should not be interpreted as an attack or degradation on what it means to be a woman.
Several months ago, I was walking down the street with a male friend trailing slightly behind me on his cellphone. Another man — a stranger — passed by me and made a sexual comment just loudly enough for me to hear. My friend stopped in his tracks and ran up to meet me, turning to the guy as he passed and saying, “You’re fucking pathetic.” He asked me if that kind of thing happened often. I said that, yes, it happens to women every day, and that it’s something we’ve sadly become fairly used to. But I told him that he was right, the guy was fucking pathetic, and exactly why I was glad someone was walking me home.