Are Chivalry and Feminism Incompatible?

This summer, I had doors opened for me, was ushered into rooms ahead of my male counterparts, and was even offered a spot in line ahead of the boys. I attended an amazing international program where I met teenagers from thirty-two different countries, and I learned that in many parts of the world chivalry is not, in fact, dead.

Apparently, my international friends (who came from countries ranging from Kazakhstan to the Netherlands) share a belief that women ought to be treated differently in certain situations. Maybe it’s just automatic behavior, but these boys acted differently from the seventeen-year-old boys I know, who would never think to say “You first.”

I grew up in New York City, where people rush through their daily routines, scarcely pausing to allow others to exit the subway before they push their way on, and where people have generally liberal attitudes about the roles of men and women. I’m not exactly used to men holding doors for me. I know that many women struggled to accomplish this goal. The suffragettes and feminists knew that with independence comes responsibility, and fought to pay for themselves at dinner just as they fought to be paid equal wages. Mostly, they succeeded, and so I shove my way onto the subway everyday and grab for doors as they slam in my face. Personally, I think it builds character. Also, I’ve never known anything else.

This summer, when the first door was held open for me, I assumed it was an accident. When my suitcase was carried up the stairs, I assumed the boy helping me worked for the program as a porter. When a boy in in the dinner line insisted I step ahead of him, I guessed that the language barrier had caused a misunderstanding. When he persisted, I nearly laughed aloud at the absurdity.

After about a week, though, I was hooked. I felt satisfied when a boy helped me down the steps of the bus or thoughtfully pushed my chair in for me. When the program ended, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when my suitcase was cheerfully hauled down the stairs. I found myself thinking things like how respectful! and saying things like “Oh, that would be a delight!” when offered some service. Essentially, I became someone’s grandmother.

When I got back to the U.S., I was grumpy when I had to drag my luggage off the tarmac on my own, and I secretly found myself thinking that paying for my own meals might be a little overrated. Then, I snapped back to reality. I began to scold myself for liking the special treatment. I thought about where chivalry came from and realized it was an extension of the thinking that women are inferior to men. Chivalry exists in backwards cultures where women are not able to progress, I assured myself.

But then I remembered a conversation with some of the participants from Finland, in which I mentioned the lack of women in politics and was received with blank stares. “Lack?” one of them asked, confused. Thinking he didn’t know the word, I began to explain. He interrupted and informed me that there is no lack of women in leadership. He listed Finnish women in power, including prime ministers and members of parliament–statistics that dwarfed those of the United States. Then, he asked me if I’d like a drink, and proceeded to pay for it.

Being at an international program helped me realize that my world is not the only one that exists. I’ve always assumed there are two basic views on the progress of women, but now I see I was mistaken. In my world, women learn to fight for themselves and push ahead of the crowd, but don’t always make it. Perhaps, in countries where men open car doors for women, there are other, more important doors left open as well. Or, maybe there’s no correlation at all. Either way, I’ve learned from living with people from other countries. While I will never wait for someone to open a door for me, I will never scowl at the man who does. I know that he may in some ways be more of a feminist than a man who assumes I will do it by myself.

So, I guess I kissed chivalry on the cheek and flew back to my world a bit more open-minded.

Originally posted at Rachel Simmons' blog

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