The Truth About Chivalry

For a long time, I thought chivalry was stupid, mostly because I believed it was a system that enforced outdated ideas about gender. Its underpinnings, it seemed to me, were rooted in the idea that women weren’t capable. Why would there be a tradition of men opening doors for women, for example unless there was an unspoken assumption that women couldn’t open doors for themselves? Many of these rules seemed to involved with men performing tasks for women, reinforcing the unspoken assumption that women couldn’t or shouldn't do these things for themselves. As such, I thought it was distinctly antifeminist, and swore it off.

Imagine how surprised I was, then, when I discovered that my opinion was shared by prominent antifeminists as well. Some articles I found online argued that in espousing feminism, women had forfeited any right to “preferential treatment” from men and thus chivalry should die. Others took to the web to argue that, since women still desire the chivalrous man, feminism was an empty talking point from women who wanted more rights, but still desired some aspects of a patriarchal system. Either way, their opinion was clear: women could have either feminism or chivalry, but not both. What surprised me more than anything else, though, was the way this dichotomy was framed in controlling terms, as punishment for being feminist or reward for not being feminist. 

Something about this felt downright wrong to me. The sheer malice contained in these attacks on chivalry convinced me that there was something wrong in believing feminism and chivalry couldn’t coexist, and I wondered exactly what I and these people had been missing. The realization, while it took me a long time to come to was simple one: chivalry is no longer applied just to women. If I arrive at a door before a man open it for him as well, I wait for every member of my family to come to the table before eating, not just my mother, and it would be ridiculous to argue that I show kindness to only women. The actions that chivalry mandates are today applied just as much to men as to women, becasue today we know chivalry by a different name: politeness. And politeness extends to everyone.

Surprisingly enough, this actually reflects the original understanding of chivalry that medieval knights would have had. Do even a modicum of research into chivalry, and it becomes clear: that it was never meant to extend explicitly to women. Yes, there is an aspect of chivalry usually defined as courtly love that mandates how knights interact with women, but chivalry only mandates that knights show them respect, honesty and generosity… exactly what it mandates they show other men. In other words, Chivalry is a code on conduct that mandates how we interact with all. It’s those who claim that feminists forfeit its “special treatment” who have perverted and forsaken it, not the feminists. Chivalry is nothing, never has been anything but politeness, after all, and everyone deserves politeness.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex