It’s often men who display small acts of chivalry: keeping the door open followed by a “ladies first”, carrying a woman’s bags, giving up their seat to a woman. To many, these are signs of good manners. Some women even expect chivalrous gestures. However, what underlies chivalry is the idea that women cannot look after themselves. That women are weak and men are strong. In that sense, chivalry serves a purpose: it reinforces the belief that men are the more capable gender, and that women are in need of protection.
We call such seemingly harmless and often well-intended behaviour benevolent sexism or ambivalent sexism (the two terms are used interchangeably). It’s sexist because it reproduces the oppression and marginalisation of women by portraying them as weak and incapable, whilst requiring men to be always strong and in control.
Examples of benevolent sexism can be found in the workplace, where women are too often hired for their “interpersonal skills” instead of their expertise. In other words, for their “feminine” soft skills rather than their training, experience and technical knowledge. Ultimately, this can lead to missed career opportunities, feelings of frustration and internalised sexism, which in turn contribute to underperformance.
Chivalry and benevolent sexism more generally portray women as kind, precious, beautiful, fragile, nurturing and a range of other typically “feminine” characteristics. Research shows that people with such beliefs about women tend to think only “bad girls” who violate gender norms in a way that invites sexual advances get raped. Such beliefs are in turn associated with victim-blaming in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Benevolent sexism hurts men too. It denies men’s capacity to be gentle or compassionate, as well as their right to be vulnerable.
Some may argue that chivalrous behaviour isn’t always a bad idea. Walking a woman home late at night may be necessary, simply because we cannot deny that street harassment and violence against women is a reality (especially since safe routes home are at times hard to find). Similarly, we may want to step in when a woman experiences violence or harassment in a club, at work or in any other situation. The sexism inherent to chivalry based on gender norms once again highlights the urgency to address gender-based violence and harassment.
So, chivalry is not dead, but is it time to kill it? Not per se. Small acts of kindness make life nicer and signal care and affection. But we must get rid of the sexist component. That means: Women, stand up for your girlfriends in the club, do not expect men to be strong, hold doors open for people with different genders. And to everyone: show your vulnerable side, ask women to carry your bag!