The Coexistence of Chivalry and Feminism

In this day and age, girl power is thriving (thank you, Beyoncé). Women are breaking down gender barriers right and left, setting new standards, and demanding equality in all forms. Amidst all of these successes, we hear the phrase “chivalry is dead” or even “feminism killed chivalry” on a consistent basis. What exactly is chivalry? During the Middle Ages, it was a value system that knights lived by and was based on loyalty and honor. In the modern day dictionary, chivalry is defined as “an honorable and polite way of behaving especially toward women”. Whoa. Many people would view the last part of the statement as offensive toward both men and women.

      The term “benevolent sexism”, which is defined as “an ideology that emphasizes traditional gender roles depicting women as warm but weak and men as competent but cold,” has been thrown around in the media as a phrase that acts to justify gender stereotypes. This phrase intends to flatter women who conform to feminine stereotypes; however, studies show that it has been associated with multiple negative consequences for women, such as heightened feelings of incompetence and self-doubt, as well as increased self-objectification. Upon hearing these results, the first question to come to mind is are traditional gender norms hurting twenty-first century women? Don’t men deserve to be treated just as well as women? What role does feminism play in all of this? And most relevant on our campus, what do Bucknell women think about these matters?

      A recent article written by a self-proclaimed male feminist brought up an interesting paradox of chivalry: when men act according to traditional gender norms, women get offended, but when men don’t act according to traditional gender norms, women are disappointed that they’re not being treated better. One Bucknell woman says, “I think people believe that ‘chivalry is dead’ because of shifts in society. More women are becoming active in the workforce and are more assertive [than in the past]. The dating norms have changed, now it's more acceptable for women to ask men out on dates. In older generations, women were courted by men, creating an unequal distribution of power when it came to initiating dating. I think this is a two-sided issue with women setting high expectations for men but men also needing to step up and bring some of that pursuing back”.

       It seems like it’s not so much “chivalry” that women want as much as polite gestures and respect. And guess what? Men deserve that just as much as we do! “It’s not that a man needs to open my car door for me. While I appreciate that, I can open the door for myself—it’s the compassion of another person, knowing that I can say something completely ridiculous or deeply personal and still feel safe. That is what I can't do for myself. As a person, I demand respect because I don't deserve any less and it’s not just because I'm a woman. Men should believe the same [about themselves],” says another Bucknell woman. Another woman says that, “instead of always putting each other in categories, we should look at each other as human beings and make decisions on how to treat each other on an individual basis. I certainly believe that ‘chivalrous’ acts should be carried out today, but not only by men. Both partners should do nice things for each other to show that we value and appreciate them on a personal level and cease to follow these gendered ‘scripts’ that dictate our actions,” says one Bucknell woman.

      Maybe we shouldn’t be offended when our hands are full and a man rushes to get the door for us if we’d expect a woman to do the same and if we know we’d do the same for anyone else. Anyone, male or female, is capable of being polite and respectful toward members of the same and of the opposite gender. Engaging in this unconditional respect seems like part of our civic duty. Furthermore, as members of “generation Y”, which is so frequently criticized by modern day media, we have the power to redefine how these taboo topics are viewed. “We are NOT a ‘post feminist’ society,” says one woman who supports her statement by saying, “there is still so much that needs to be discussed and action to be taken. Feminism is equality for all. You don't have to burn to your bras or stop shaving your legs to be a feminist. We are at a defining moment as a generation where we have the power to change negative ideas like feminism being a dirty word”. In contrast, a Bucknell man brings up the term “fair-weather feminism” and says that, “women cannot turn on feminism when it helps them, and become a damsel in distress when it suits them.” It’s a complex issue in it’s entirety, but the simple belief in equality between genders makes most people some degree of a feminist, but even so, many people aren’t comfortable identifying with the word, due to these extremist views.

      This notion of mutual respect between all people works to empower humanity as a whole. “You can be a feminist and still enjoy chivalrous acts,” says another woman. “I am in an incredibly healthy, rewarding, committed relationship, and I love when [my boyfriend] does little things for me. I don't take my self worth from how he feels about or acts towards me, but rather from myself alone.” Similarly, another Bucknellian says, “As a woman, if I am interested in a guy, I should be asking him out for a movie or a drink or dinner. Because it's 2014 and we've all got things to do. So, let's be nice and have a good time.”

      Instead of writing off small, kind acts as displays of “benevolent sexism” or rejecting them on the basis of feminism, we can accept them as reciprocal respect between human beings, regardless of gender. Another Bucknell man says, “I find it ridiculous that chivalry is only used as a term to define how men should act towards women. I hold the door open for people because I was taught that it was good manners, not because a certain gender deserves more respect or because tradition dictates that I should do so. It seems like less of a problem of chivalry and more so that good manners and being decent to other people isn't really a priority these days.” Moral of the story? Modern day “chivalry” isn’t a gender-based power struggle, it’s an opportunity for us to redefine social standards. As the up-and-coming adults of society, it’s up to us to fully seize this opportunity, because let’s face it, the world needs more kindness, more respect, more smiling at strangers, and more actions that say “I’m doing this just because I appreciate you”.