CULTURE: Feminism vs. Chivalry

Written by Kristin Clift on . Posted in Local

man-opening-door-for-ladyI never have to open a door around campus, I rarely have to unload my groceries by myself, and I never pick up the check on a date. I must say, it’s good to be a woman. Yet I still live in the 31st-ranked country for women, according to the UNDP gender-related development index for 2009. Apparently even Cuban women have it better than I do.

This index, according to the World Economic Forum’s Web site, “assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities.” The index also takes into account life expectancy, education, purchasing power, and standard of living for women in every country.

In Sweden, one of the top-ranking countries, women have it great. They get year-long maternity leave, receive equal opportunity in the workplace, and don’t have to choose between a dream home-life and a successful high-profile job — they get both, and (gasp!) men are equally responsible for the daily tasks of childcare. In the working world, women aren’t expected to behave like men — their difference is respected and they are “rewarded for being themselves.”

However, in Sweden, men don’t pick up the checks on dates. They rarely hold open doors for women or pull out chairs. Men hardly pursue women to ask them out; women are the aggressors in relationships. I’ve heard that male tourists love going to Iceland (the number one country on the UNDP list) because the women are more forward.

Chivalry as we know it doesn’t exist in these countries, yet life is apparently better for women. It makes me wonder if gender-equality and chivalry are inversely affected by one another — increase one and the other goes down, and vice-versa. I know part of the reason why men always paid for dates was that women weren’t typically allowed in the workplace and, once they did start working, women made significantly less than men. Today, women only make 77 cents for every dollar men make. It seems logical that a man would pick up the check on a date.

But examining the powerful, prosperous women of Iceland and Sweden makes me wonder if chivalry may be the cause of inequality? Must it be sacrificed in order to gain a better, more broadly equal life for women? Is it because of a belief that women are not equal that men perform these certain acts? Does it enforce our differences?

Since its conception in medieval times, chivalry has been a code of respect and honor. But I’d like to re-frame the question — does this respect and honor breed inequality of the genders? I personally love it when a man is chivalrous to me and, yes, I would think less of him if he weren’t.

Yet, while courteous manners may not be the reason the United States holds a relatively abysmal ranking on the UNDP index, the intentions of the man behind the manners might have something to do with it. For instance, a man who adheres to the chivalrous status quo because he thinks women are somehow lesser or weaker and must therefore be treated in a certain way. I believe this type of thinking perpetuates inequality.

I’m not advocating the dissolution of chivalry at all. I love chivalry. Chivalry is not the problem, and it doesn’t need to be sacrificed to achieve gender-equality. Chivalry is but a mere long-standing cultural tradition that I hope sticks around. But is it too much to ask for my door to be held open and to receive equal access to a high-powered executive job that allows me maternity leave? Men, the next time you hold open a door for a woman, I hope you do it out of recognition and respect for her powerful femininity, which is equal to but very much different from your masculinity.

Kristin Clift is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.

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