Chivalry’s ghost: Courtesy should not be gender-biased

Jacob Schmidt

We live in a society nobly pursuing equal rights for women. And yet it seems there is one area in which we do not want gender equality: dating.

We say women should be respected as capable and independent, and yet men are told — and many women expect — that during a date, the man should open doors or give up his jacket for the woman. Women fight for equal pay, yet many still expect men to pay for dinner.

These dating expectations arise from our society’s lingering belief in what is commonly, and inaccurately, known as chivalry. Originally a code of conduct that promoted general civility and respect, chivalry has devolved into a set of inadvertently sexist expectations. For example, many women expect a man to pay for dinner and are dissatisfied when he does not. Likewise, many men are offended if the woman offers to pay.

However, many men and women still view chivalry as beneficial. People laud it as a testament to good intention and uphold it as a desirable trait in a suitor. And, while chivalry seems respectful at first glance, it places a qualifier on courtesy by requiring that we rely on one’s gender to decide how we treat them and what we expect from them.

Studies show that chivalry can be a form of benevolent sexism, which “is like a wolf in sheep's clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level,” Northeastern University professor Judith Hall wrote. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.”

Chivalry is contrary to gender equality, and both genders are at fault for not recognizing it. Jin Goh, a graduate student working with Hall, said, “Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society."

Of course, politeness and generosity are positive behaviors but not when biased toward a gender. Chivalry encourages us to view someone as male or female before we see them as a person. Instead of reserving a special code of conduct for our prefered gender, we should cultivate policies of genderless courtesy — ironically, something that the original definition of chivalry encourages.

Schmidt is a physics sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @heyjakers.