My post last week, Equalitist Chivalry: Vaginas are Doors Too struck a nerve, receiving over 350 hits, and stirring up several edifying debates (thanks, Er!). In the meantime I’ve done a little more research on the subject and it’s inception, and have come to the conclusion that chivalry was one of, if not the first social movement towards gender equality. Yes, you read that correctly.
Chivalry represented the first areligiously organized push back against barbaric “might equals right” ways of time immemorial. It was an acknowledgment that for reasons beyond their control (i.e., less physical strength) women were perpetually dishonored and forced to live in fear. The circle of protection extended to children and elders too. The story of Camelot, in which “courtly love” manifestations of chivalry were made famous and expounded upon, gives us an example of the chivalrous knight, King Arthur, who is ultimately loyal to his code of honor, “might for right,” despite pressure to enforce the savage punishments du jour following Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal.
To further discern why I can’t seem to let this idea go, I explored chivalry’s inception in my life. As a little girl I remember watching my dad stand up as a matter of course whenever a woman (usually my mother, his mother, or an aunt) came or left the dinner table. This happens less frequently now, but I still watch for and fundamentally appreciate it, as I did then. I never sensed for a moment that my dad performed this act to keep women down, or to control them. He did not ask or even appear to care where they were going or why. My basic, childlike understanding was: this big poppa bear has these momma bears protected, and everyone better recognize. Men are physically impressive beings, in different ways than women naturally (I explore this point more thoroughly in my football-lauding Eight Layer Dip recipe) but impressive nonetheless. Male physicality has been used for ill so often, is it possible to harness that energy for both football and the cause of gender equality, before urgency requires the latter?
I’m not saying the way forward is to reinstate old school chivalry, but I am asking that we take a closer look at this term, at what it means to model the protection of women in modern society, and re-evaluate the feminist assumption that all chivalrous roads lead to Disney Princessdom. What would happen to rape statistics if every honorable man communicated, through a code of action, that he would put himself on the line for a woman in danger? Think of the early education implications. Hypothetically, let’s say a closeted physical abuser (is there any other kind?) and his wife are having dinner with another couple; their kids are present. The abused wife excuses herself to go to the bathroom and the husband from the other couple stands as she leaves and reenters. I am not naive enough to think this small action could effect significant change for the abuser, but what about his son? What about the abused? It’s a wordless statement of intent, and I wonder how powerful it could be.
While I found nothing to criticize in the depiction of Merida from Brave (which upon first viewing incurred a relief so strong that I cried, much to my son and daughters’ confusion) and the accurate portrayal of women (both mother and daughter) as determined, intelligent, and capable, I believe that’s only half the battle. I’m all for women learning archery, martial arts, or most any other means of protection, but we have to do more than build up defenses, otherwise we have accepted living in fear. How can we stop the attacks from happening? Make would-be attackers think twice? Create and protect a global standard for appropriate conduct? To truly explore any of these options we will need the assistance of honorable men: We are all in this together.
Needing male assistance does not mean we failed (think of all the assistance men need being born, for example). It just means that we can’t win the battle for gender equality by relegating half of the enlightened populace to the sidelines, especially the brawny half. Everyday there are more men who become enlightened. What should they do to help? I imagine that if I were a successful, well-adjusted man, I would want a clear directive upon which I could act, using my male strengths, to end this oppression perpetrated by my kind. How can we make sure we do not shame men so terribly for past wrongs, or become so hyper-attuned to perceived infringements that we unwittingly prolong progress on a global scale? The relative freedom we enjoy in this country obliges us to ask these grey-area questions.
I am purposefully thinking radical thoughts because I want radical results. How else can we achieve gender equality in our lifetime? When the mental tide is shifting, we must take action. Is it possible that we threw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to chivalry? Antiquated though it may be, when I look at modern day rape, child bride, and physical abuse statistics, there is no denying it: Women (children, and elders) across the globe urgently need protection from dishonorable men, and we cannot do it alone. This does not mean I see myself as less than, inferior, or incapable (if anything, I feel grateful that my gender is not so prone to aggression); it simply means that I am looking for protection for my kind, to sew freedom rather than suffering. I suppose if chivalry is really out, there’s always this option:
“Chivalry! – why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection – the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant – Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.” —Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820)