July 06, 2004

Chivalry's dead? I didn't even know it was sick. . .

I was thinking, off and on this weekend, about a letter I read in the Westchester section of the Sunday NY Times. A woman wrote in to complain that no one would give up their seat for her on a morning train going into the City when she was rather visibly 9 months pregnant. She closed her letter by asking whether chivalry was dead. Is it? Should it be? Should she have had any expectation that she would have been treated differently because of her sex? My answer is yes, it is dead and no, she should not have any expectation of more favorable treatment because of her sex.

Putting to one side the issue of the pregnancy, because I happen to believe that is not an issue open to discussion. Simply, she should have been given a seat because of her physical condition, just like you give your seat to a person with a cane, for example. That is based on disability. That said, I can recall numerous instances of offering a seat to a pregnant woman on a City bus or subway only to have them decline the offer. And, there is another school of thought that says you do not ask or suggest a woman is pregnant unless you are actually seeing them give birth. As in, what if you're wrong about the pregnancy? But enough, let us return to the chivalry question.

chivalry, at its beginning, was a code of conduct according to which Knights and the nobly born aspired to live their lives. There is plenty of information floating around about it on the internet and some of it might actually be correct. It included within it, the Courtly Love tradition, which had various rules for courtship and marriage and taking lovers. Chivalry has come to mean, I think, a manner of treatment of women by men. Women are exalted by virtue of the fact of their being female. I think that this is meant to memorialize the belief that women were the weaker sex and were to be treated accordingly, better really than the way men treated other men. So, we come back to our question: is it dead?

Yes, I think it is and it ought to be. First, the belief that women are the weaker sex is obviously false. They do not need better treatment out of weakness. Second, I think that the social contract has been redrawn over the last 30-40 years in the US. The playing field is much more level. Yes, I know that there are still glass ceiling issues and pay parity issues, but just the same, I think that women are competing fairly evenly with men now in the workplace, in school, on the athletic fields (at least since Title IX), and every where else. Such competition precludes any claim to chivalrous conduct. I think that it is somewhat a question of having your cake and eating it, too. I think that pregnant women does not deserve a seat on the train because she is a woman. Indeed, if she was not pregnant, she would have no right to complain. Her claim to that seat based on some outdated notion of chivalry rings false.

Posted by Random Penseur at July 6, 2004 08:01 AM
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