Augustine: Treating women respectfully extends beyond chivalry

Kathryn Augustine, Columnist

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a man holding open the door for a woman passing through or paying the check at a restaurant, society’s focus on chivalry places emphasis on the wrong lessons.

Acting courteous and polite toward women — through acts such as opening a car door or offering to carry luggage — is a positive lesson for adolescent boys to learn and take to heart. However, in reality, basic courtesy is something all humans should be taught to integrate into their interactions with others, regardless of gender. Chivalry alone is insufficient; it doesn’t constitute appropriate treatment of women or automatically equate to respect. And chivalry, when unwanted, can be disrespectful and downright demeaning.

Historically, chivalry was the name of the class of knights during the feudal period in Europe. The term evolved to represent the values and conduct knights were expected to follow, on and off the battlefield. Today, in the absence of knights in shining armor, chivalry has grown to refer to men acting in a gentlemanly manner through aiding women in simple, easy ways.

The current ideal of chivalry suggests that respect for women can be reduced to simple gestures, when genuine respect includes seeing women as people — rather than a method through which to demonstrate proper manners. This genuine respect and seeing women as people should be incorporated into the overarching definition of chivalry.

Even though I personally do not take offense to a man closing the car door behind me, for instance, men need to be cognizant of the fact that gestures like these can be perceived as degrading and unwarranted to some. I once had an experience in which a man refused to allow me to contribute to the cost of a dinner. While this was an attempt to be chivalrous and align with tradition, it ignored my desires to independently pay for my share of the meal. Intentions were good, but the outcome left me feeling powerless. If a woman repeatedly asks to pay her share, then chivalry should be cast aside and the man should relent and allow her to, without question or protest. Chivalry suggests that men need to cater women without any exception, and that is not applicable in 2019.

As a result, we need to redefine chivalry so that the term that encompasses simple, altruistic actions toward all people — not just women — as well as a deeper level of respect in terms of asking for consent, treating women as equals and using language that is not belittling or inherently sexist. This new definition also means acknowledging that some women prefer ultimate independence without any interference from men, and that this is valid. While chivalrous actions can be appreciated, it’s important to realize their presence does not replace genuine respect nor does it give men the right to support unequal power dynamics within their relationships with women.