Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Can chivalry and feminism coexist?

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Does offering a hand to a woman go against the rules of feminism? 
Photo / Thinkstock
Does offering a hand to a woman go against the rules of feminism? Photo / Thinkstock

Confession: I'm a little bit/very charmed by chivalrous, gentlemanly men. As long as it's not some sort of agenda-laden, playboy act, I find certain gestures touching. Like bag carrying, or a door held open. (Unless I'm not even close to the door yet, so I have to hurry awkwardly along while the guy's just standing there, waiting.)

Is appreciation of such old-fashionedness very anti-feminist of me? Probably, if you get right down to it. After all, I want to be treated as an equal in every single respect, but there I am delighting over acts that indicate I can't manage alone.

However, I would never expect or demand such gestures. And I'm touched overarchingly by people treating other people beautifully - so maybe my appreciation of chivalry could be lumped under that generic umbrella? In any case, there is a guilty tension that my girlfriends and I have noted. Essentially, it comes down to a gnawing feeling that we're letting ourselves down - that we're conceding some sort of gender-related feebleness every time chivalry makes us swoon.

Because we know chivalry was borne of the idea ladies can't get by without a helping (male) hand.

But what is chivalry, anyway?

The word comes from the Old French chevalier (which means knighthood or horseman) and before the 13th century it referred to excellence atop a warhorse. As time galloped on, however, knighthood meant less hooning about in battle and more sifting around court being a charming, helpful guy - especially to maidens. This went on for a while, until eventually knights became the upholders of a new social and moral code of conduct, based on courtesy, honesty, protection and loyalty.

Alongside this development was the phenomena of 'courtly love' - from whence the word 'courtesy' derives. This was when a knight went cuckoo over a lady who wasn't his wife, idealising her in poems and doing all sorts of things to flatter her and prove his all-round greatness. (No one seemed to look down on the whole courtly love 'affair' because medieval marriages weren't based on love, anyway - they were transactional. That said, the whole deal with courtly love was that it was generally never consummated, and thereby the purest kind of love that ever was, and blahblahblah.)

Anyway, these days things aren't so dramatic, unless you're one of those people who pretend-fight with swords in the park. For most of us, chivalry means pretty benign-seeming things like a man opening the door for a woman, paying for dinner, or giving up his coat.

But is chivalry really so benign, or does it infer women are weak and inferior? Also, is it dead? And, if it is dead, does it matter if it's benign or not - and should we be glum that it died?

It's so confusing.

The first person in recorded history to get sad about chivalry's perceived demise was Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. Appalled no one protected the French queen during the French revolution, he wrote in 1790: "The age of chivalry is gone. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to sex and rank, that proud submission, that dignified obedience."

More recently, US television presenter Laura Schlessinger announced that: "Chivalry is largely dead, and feminism is the murderer". Campaigning for a resurgence, she urged women to "enjoy being a woman and let men treat them as such", and men "to be old-fashioned gentlemen".

To be fair, some feminists actually do want to snuff out chivalry. (They may as well; they get plenty of blame for it anyway.) Others propose a combination of chivalry and feminism - or, 'equality chivalry'. Others still are like, whatever, you guys - that wouldn't be chivalry.

This isn't a new dilemma. People started questioning the coexistence of chivalry and feminism as far back as 1912 when the Titanic sunk. Debate swirled around the 'women and children first' evacuation policy - celebrated among Victorian and Edwardian commentators as 'the ancient chivalry of the sea' - with one Lady Aberconway writing to The Daily Mail to argue the practice was "a sacrifice which ought not be demanded of the male sex, nor accepted by the female".

Back to the present and a man called Scott Farrell would probably disagree. The founder and director of the Chivalry Today Educational Program is bonkers about chivalry. He gives "dozens of live presentations on the history and values of chivalry every year" at Californian schools, libraries, and other civic and professional organisations. He also posts regular podcasts and essays on his site, like Chivalry To The Extreme, and Random Acts Of "Knight"-Ness.

Having sat here now for three hours thinking more about chivalry than I ever have in my entire life - I've decided that maybe oil and water can mingle. Reason being: I know, and my (very modern!) boyfriend knows, that I am actually more than capable of carrying my own grocery bag/muddling through life on my own. And more than willing to do so. So any sexist associations that once belonged to chivalrous acts are rendered obsolete. And therefore gestures become just that: gestures. Ones that still highlight gender differences, sure (he has stronger arms than me), but is that necessarily a bad thing?

Also, in an age where pop culture is now so interwoven with porn 'culture' - and all the soullessness that this inevitably feeds into mainstream representations of women and sex - there's a beautiful, respectful simplicity to the act of opening the door for a woman.

Speaking of which, in the middle of writing this I went across the road to get a coffee. On my way out of the cafe a little boy, maybe seven-years-old-ish, held the door open for me (true story). I was a lot bigger than he was, so I'm pretty sure he didn't do it as he feared I might not make it out under my own steam. I don't even think he did it because I'm a lady. I think he did it because he's a little gentleman.

P.s. Are you a man? Are you confused? Ask Men magazine seems to know the rules.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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