It's been unfairly maligned as sexist, but women and men alike would benefit from bringing it back.
This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, as the ship was on its maiden journey from Southampton, UK, to New York City, it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. About three hours later, it sank. Three-quarters of the women on the ship survived; over three quarters of the men, by contrast, died. In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: "To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic...They gave their lives that women and children might be saved."
About a year ago, a group of today's men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves. One Australian woman on board reported at the time:
The people that pushed their way on to the boat were then trying to tell them to shut the door, not to let any more people on the [life] boat after they had pushed their way on...We just couldn't believe it—especially the men, they were worse than the women.
This contrast is indicative of a larger trend—the decline of chivalry and the rise of boorish behavior among men. According to a 2010 Harris poll, 80 percent of Americans say that women are treated with less chivalry today than in the past. This is a problem that all women—especially feminists—should push back against.
After the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, which insisted on the equal treatment of women in all domains of life, feminists dismissed chivalry as sexist. They still do. A new study, published in the feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, questions the entire enterprise of male chivalry, which, in an Orwellian flourish, it calls "benevolent sexism."
Chivalrous behavior is benevolent because it flatters women and leads to their preferential treatment. But it is sexist because it relies on the "gendered premise" that women are weak and in need of protection while men are strong. "Benevolent sexism," Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker of the University of Florida write in the study, "is an ideology that perpetuates gender inequality." They advocate interventions to reduce its prevalence, even though, they found, chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place.
Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, summed up the study with tongue-in-cheek, writing "the bad news is that gentlemanly behavior makes people happy." He goes on to ask, "When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes, shouldn't they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive? Healthy? Something that might even conceivably be grounded in the nature of Homo sapiens?"
In an interview, Connelly tells me that despite Murray's points, the problem with chivalry is that it assumes "women are wonderful but weak." This assumption of female weakness puts women down, Connelly says.
Perhaps because of women's ambivalence about chivalry, men have grown confused about how to treat women. Will holding doors open for them or paying for the first date be interpreted as sexist? Does carrying their groceries imply they're weak? The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.
Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of "benevolent sexism," it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.
"We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is," argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. "It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable."
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described "equity feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, "Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal."
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.