Chivalry – The “Benevolent Sexism”

“I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft, from her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

Those are strong words from British author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who launched feminism in the 19th Century. Back then she and other women were bristling over the practice of men on the one hand bowing to women, picking up their dropped handkerchiefs and opening doors for them while on the other hand denying them independence, education, careers and even the right to own their own property or control their own finances. Women did not even have legal custody of their own children and were considered property of their fathers and later their husbands. While the former treatment of women was viewed by some as “chivalry,” the latter was considered by many to be a denial of rights.

The Olden Days of Chivalry

When described that way, chivalry has a chilling aspect to it. An exploration of the origins of chivalry in the 10th Century reveals that it wasn’t the romantic concept we once thought. For in exchange for receiving protection and courtesy from men, women surrendered their independence and equality. In her review of Chivalry in Medieval England, by respected British historian Nigel Saul, Sarah Douglas writes, “In Chapter 14, for example, he agrees with the current opinion that chivalry rendered the position of aristocratic women in society rather ambiguous. This is because, while they were made objects of reverence (and therefore could wield power over men desirous of their company), they were at the same time relegated to the position of appendages to men in a hyper-masculine martial society. Moreover, as chivalry became more stylized, women were increasingly restricted in their behavior because any deviation from the chivalric ideal of the passive, beautiful female was gradually more unacceptable. The higher the pedestal, it seems, the harder the fall.”

We also learn that life was worse for women in Europe during the so-called Age of Chivalry than it was previously. For it was the Norman Conquest of 1066 that launched the concepts of chivalry, feudalism and a caste system that divided people into superiors and inferiors while denying all women of their ability to control their own destinies. In fact, the idea of chivalry originated to create men as warriors, not gentlemen. It was only in fiction and dreams that the Camelot version of the Knight in Shining Armor rose from the ashes of the bitter reality of the way things really were.

Women were property, pure and simple; “upper class” women could be compared to birds in gilded cages because they were more protected and pampered. They had to abide by more rules and enjoyed fewer rights than lower-class women. Upper class women had to bear more children, become educated in how to be a good wife and be at her husband’s beck and call to preserve his image, wealth and power.

Lower class women had a bit more freedom but still were subject to their fathers and husbands. Single women had more rights than married women, but once they married — which all women were expected to be eventually — they surrendered their rights.

And, speaking of birds in a gilded cage, Queen Guinevere and her life have been romanticized in different versions of the story of Camelot. But, on closer examination, if it was a bed of roses she was encased by thorns. For starters, it seems that she was most likely a thank-you gift to King Arthur for saving her father’s life and married off too young to enjoy “the simple joys of maidenhood.” And later, having fallen in love with the dashing Sir Lancelot, was nearly burned at the stake for her transgression. Then, after Lance’s spectacular rescue of her she wound up in a convent, which would have been fine if that had been her plan in the first place. In other versions of her story she is also repeatedly kidnapped and held for long periods against her will because of her beauty and desirability; does that sound like chivalry, or barbarism?

Benevolent Sexism

Fast forward to the present and the concept of chivalry is viewed by many modern women as “benevolent sexism.” The designation is not new; it was coined by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske nearly 20 years ago in their study titled, The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Ambivalent sexism is defined as “an ideology composed of both a “hostile” and “benevolent” prejudice toward women. Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women who are accused of trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. At the other extreme, benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection.”

Modern feminists agree that the routine pulling out of chairs, paying for dinner, opening doors and so on is a subtle but insidious form of sexism. “I’m sure most chivalrous men are well-intending. But to me, chivalry still seems like a rather contradictory representation of kindness, maybe better off left in the dark ages,” writes Hailey Yook on the Opinion page of The Daily Californian.

And, writer/editor Julianne Ross writes on Arts.Mic, “Chivalry and civility are not yet synonymous, and we will never achieve true social equality so long as women are thought of as uniquely pure, delicate or needy, nor if we’re granted respect primarily on the basis of womanhood (as opposed to personhood).”

The Weaker Sex?

On the surface women might appear to be physically weaker because we are generally smaller than men. But, not always; there are many individual women who are bigger and stronger than individual men. Moreover, in many ways men are more fragile than women. And, in many ways women are stronger than men. To quote , Mahatma Ghandi: “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior.”

The point is that women and men have their strengths and weaknesses, but one should not be subjected to automatic “trivial attentions.” The problem is that when women go along with the stereotype they are more accepted by men and even other women. When they break out of it, they become targets.

Laura Stampler writes in her article, Men don’t recognize ‘Benevolent Sexism”: Study, “If a man offers to help a female coworker set up an office computer, Glick said, and she accepts, she is perceived as warm, but lacking a level of competence. If she politely refuses, however, she is often viewed as a “bitch.” Men who accept help are also seen as vulnerable, Glick said, but they do not suffer the same repercussions for trying to do things on their own.”

Business versus Social Etiquette

It has long been confusing to men, especially, how they should treat women in and out of the workplace. Quite simply, in the workplace everyone is considered to be equal. Therefore, it is not necessary to open doors, pull out chairs, help on with coats, pay for lunch, buy coffee, offer your arm or hold an umbrella for a woman unless it’s something you would do for a man a well. Likewise, women may perform those kindnesses for men. If someone is in need of some assistance it should be offered whether the person doing the assisting or the recipient is female or male. Just as women should not always be the ones expected to fetch coffee for everyone, men should not always be the ones to buy it. Men are now reporting to women in the workplace, so we need to put power in perspective.

In social situations, whoever does the inviting out — woman or man — should be prepared to pay for the entertainment, dinner, etc. In such situations, both women and men should be kind, helpful and attentive to each other and assist each other as necessary.

The Backlash

Just as there was a backlash against women during and after the First and Second Waves of the Women’s Liberation Movements in the past two centuries as well as during the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), there continues to be a backlash against women who object to being marginalized as the “weaker sex.”

A backlash from men can manifest itself by actions ranging from petty, such as refusing to give up a seat or open a door for anyone of the female gender to bullying, intimidation and retribution. An example of such pettiness can be found in the comment in an Irish men’s blog in response to a study on benevolent sexism by : “Great work ladies, we’ll be sure to get you both a beer in recognition of your service if you ever pop over to Dublin. You’ll have to pay for it though, obviously.” Hostile backlash can be more severe and can range from exclusion from social and professional occasions and projects to violence at home. As well, some women also push back on the concept of benevolent sexism, often because they do not wish to fall out of favor with men.

But the backlash and the push back often miss the point that women who do object to benevolent sexism do not object to good manners, civility and caring; they just don’t want it to be one-sided, condescending and stereotypical.

The New Chivalry

Men are key players in women’s ongoing quest for equality, and it’s important that they understand how women feel in the 21st Century. Actress, model and feminist Emma Watson puts it succinctly when she says, “Chivalry should be consensual; both parties should be comfortable with that.” Those are wise words, but still many men and women remain confused and conflicted over the issue.

This confusion is highlighted by Laura Stampler, who writes, “Anna Rittgers, a blogger for the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, wrote that she first thought the study was a hoax and that she was ‘beginning to suspect that the modern feminist movement is actually comprised of a bunch of honest-to-goodness misogynists whose goal is to make women look ridiculous.'” Sounds to me like a twisting of the issue ala

And, it’s further disheartening — not to mention annoying — to read articles such as the one by Martin Daubney, entitled “Chivalry is dead and feminism is to blame,” in which he writes, “But I lose the will to live when feminist bloggers find sexism in places where it doesn’t exist, and draw a line from something trivial and stupid (say, a pink child’s bib with the logo “born to shop” on it) to something serious and frightening (e.g., rape culture)…Wolf whistles, the “pinkification” of children’s toys, The Sun calling high-profile women “fillies” – these seem more sad and silly to me than genuinely sexist.”

Based on my experiences and observations, benevolent sexism does exist and it forces women into stereotypical roles that limit their self-confidence and ability to advance in any area they choose. An example of how women continue to be viewed differently from men is in the area of salary negotiations, in which women generally must play the role of the kind, warm — and, yes, passive — female and not appear to be unfeminine or too assertive or she’ll be shut down by employers of either gender. 

But, there is hope. Many women and men are researching and talking about benevolent sexism. And, in my view to deny that benevolent sexism exists is akin to denying climate change exists; the science clearly is there. Therefore, let’s fine-tune chivalry and practice it as it was meant to be — kindness, assistance, protection and the valuing of everyone under various circumstances. Let’s not hold on to the pretend chivalry of the bad old days when men ran each other through with swords and locked women in towers, forced them to bear children and burned them at the stake when they disobeyed. Again, that’s not chivalry; that’s barbarism.

Therefore, if you’re a man….

  • In the workplace, respect women as equals; instead of — or in addition to — opening physical doors for them, open doors of opportunity.
  • Don’t belittle women when they ask for assistance, and don’t hesitate to ask them for professional rather than clerical assistance.
  • Worry less about pulling out chairs for women at meetings and more about interrupting them when they are speaking.
  • Respect their space and their time.
  • Avoid calling them “ladies” unless you are calling men “gentlemen” in the same breath.
  • Say, “women’s room” instead of “ladies’ room.”
  • When in doubt about what to do, listen carefully; ask.
  • Treat everyone with respect; if someone needs your seat more than you do, give it up.  

If you’re a woman… 

  • Be gracious when men open doors and perform other niceties, and let them know politely but firmly when it’s unnecessary, embarrassing or unwarranted.
  • Don’t let anyone interrupt you, male or female.
  • Open doors, pull out chairs, hold umbrellas and perform other niceties for men as well as for other women.
  • Correct people courteously when they call you “honey,” “dear,” sweetie,” “girl,” and other terms of endearment in the workplace and certain social situations. Such terms should be limited to use by your parents or sweetheart; others should use your name.
  • Don’t be afraid to demonstrate your skills; we’re not back in middle school. You can show your brains.
  • Deal confidently with the everyday subtle forms of sexism.     

Women and men can still be friends, colleagues and romantic partners all in their proper places. We’ll all be the better for it.

 Until next time,



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