The Flip-side of Chivalry

(The Shop Around the Corner, 1940)

All of my brothers were trained from a young age to always follow some basic standards of chivalry: Open the door for people. Give someone else your seat. Let others go first. Naturally, I picked up on these principles, too; to my mind, it was simply a question of good manners. So, when a young gentleman I know offered me his seat at a recent gathering where there weren’t enough chairs to go around, my initial reaction was to thank him but assure him I was quite alright without one, as was perfectly true. But then I realized: how do we expect our boys to be gentlemen if we won’t let them be?

Catholic websites are overflowing with articles—usually by women—about how important it is for men to be chivalrous, and how sadly lacking in chivalry many men are today. (Clare Ryan has an excellent post about how we often forget that for a man, being a true gentleman entails so much more than simply opening doors for women.) But there’s another side to chivalry—the flip-side. As young women in society, we have a special role in being on the receiving end of chivalry. In a certain sense, in today’s world it is actually up to women whether men act like men.

Our culture is laboring under almost a century of feminist agitprop, and all sorts of strange side-effects are now rising to the surface. A student can get a degree in something called “Women’s Studies,” for instance, but there simply isn’t anything called “Men’s Studies.” Movies for the last 25 years at least have been full of women who can kung-fu kick their male companions to kingdom come, shoot straighter than them, and hold their liquor better. They bossily take charge of situations, immediately deem their male sidekicks immature and incapable, and occasionally swear to punctuate their “toughness.” In other words, they imitate the less admirable qualities of men. This cliché has become so ingrained in society that too often the stereotypes are accepted without question or protest.

It’s exactly this sort of situation that kills chivalry. If chivalry dies, it is our fault—the fault of women, at least in part. It is the fault of women when they usurp what is properly the role of men. When they push themselves to the front, and automatically take charge of all of life’s sundry dilemmas, they can impede the men around them from stepping up to the plate and being truly chivalrous and self-sacrificing.

Now, this requires a fine line of distinction. This does not mean that women shouldn’t have careers or management positions, or that a woman has to let a foolish man take the lead just because he’s a man. But it does mean allowing good men to assume the roles of leadership and of protection that come naturally to them. A man can’t step into his boots if a woman is already wearing them herself.Quite simply, women must allow men to be chivalrous by not getting in the way of their chivalry.

It’s sometimes hard to do this. A young man I know told me that he once let a girl lead him while they were dancing. “It was terrifying,” he said, “I never knew what was going to come next.” He had had a glimpse of the other side of the situation, and realized that women don’t have it easy. Women have to work at their role of receiving chivalry, just as men must work at their role of being chivalrous. If they don’t both fulfill their roles properly, the whole relationship, like a dance, doesn’t work. I’m used to being self-sufficient and independent. I am perfectly able to open a door on my own, carry moderately heavy loads, wait my turn in lines behind a guy, etc. But it is actually up to me—up to all women—to allow men to be chivalrous, or they never can. With practice, there are little things I’ve learned to do to help me pursue this goal: for example, waiting that extra second to let the fellow walking alongside me reach the door first, so he at least has the opportunity to hold it open for me, instead of pushing through on my own.

In My Heart Lies South, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino tells how she, an American woman, met and married an amorous Mexican and spent the rest of her life learning to appreciate the Mexican culture. One of the cultural standards to which she had to adjust was a certain old-fashioned chivalry in which the women did not insist on being totally independent at all times. Her sage Mexican mother-in-law, Mamacita, explained the situation to her, in a teasing tongue-in-cheek way:

“Men are not very brave,” she says, “Otherwise God would have arranged that they bear the children. . . . So it is up to the women to make them practice being valiant . . . Let them, every day or every week, do something that strengthens their will against pain or danger. . . The man who performs a brave act before a lady will love her very much, for she has seen him do it. But if instead, she pushes him away and acts with courage to save him from some physical danger, he will feel robbed of his virility, and he will never feel toward her in the same way.”

What Mamacita says is partly jest, but the lesson she references is very true. Men and women compliment each other; they have distinctive virtues that help them to balance out each other’s flaws. If we want men to be strong, admirable, chivalrous gentlemen, then the battle starts here—with us. We must examine ourselves and see if our lack of feminine virtues is failing to help them be true men. Life is a dance. Let the men lead.

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