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Chivalry and male chauvinism seem like polar opposite ideologies; however, I have routinely been involved in situations where it’s hard to distinguish the difference between them. If you look up “chivalry” in the dictionary, it won’t say anything about women, but it is generally understood to mean a higher standard of courtesy and manners that a man should exercise towards the other sex. By the same token, “male chauvinism” is the notion that men view women as somehow inferior.
The first time I observed the line between chivalry and male chauvinism being blurred, I was a 13-year-old on an extended school trip. Whenever the bus pulled up to a hotel, a father who volunteered as a chaperone would step onto the bus and say something to the effect of “We need some boys to help move the luggage.” He would always specifically say “boys.”
I felt a little awkward sitting and waiting on the bus while my male classmates moved my bags for me. Finally, one evening I stepped off the bus with the boys and started moving the luggage in an effort to find my own suitcase. When the male chaperone saw me, he said, “Let’s let the boys do that, you don’t have to do that.”
In another instance, I signed up to do volunteer work moving boxes at the local food bank. When I showed up, the man by the door greeted me by looking up and saying, “Are you my volunteer?” When I answered in the affirmative, he invited me in and introduced me as the high school volunteer to the elderly lady standing behind the desk. She stared at the man and then back to me with a combination of unpleasant surprise and extreme skepticism before saying somewhat urgently, “This is not the kind of work for a girl.” When I assured her I could handle manual labor and followed her male associate to the back room, she just shook her head disapprovingly.
So what is the difference between occasions like this and ones that I interpreted as chivalrous, such as when a male colleague offered to carry my purse for me?
An important factor is what you say versus how you say it. There’s a huge difference between “Can I help you with that?” and “Let’s let the boys do that.” One is offering to do a kind gesture, the other is telling me what a female should or shouldn’t be doing.
The context is important as well. Obviously, I was fully capable of carrying my own purse, so the gesture was only symbolic in nature. When someone looks at me with disdain for carrying my own luggage or a heavy box, the clear implication is that they’ve concluded I’m not physically strong enough because of my gender.
In other instances, I’ve noticed male chauvinism disguised as compliments or empowerment.
One such example occurred when I was a javelin thrower on my high school track team. During practice, the assistant coach complimented one of my better throws by enthusiastically saying, “You’re not a girl! You’re a javelin thrower!” Another example, perhaps the most offensive one I’ve heard, took place when I was discussing religion over lunch with a good friend. He argued with me that, “Mary wasn’t a woman, she was the mother of Jesus.”
Later in my life, I also noticed similar statements in movies, except they came from women. In one particular example, the female characters in the movie said lines like, “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist” and “I’m not a woman, I’m a doctor.”
These examples were all stated or scripted as if they were actually compliments; in reality, they were statements designed to make women feel inferior by suggesting they were able to achieve things that went beyond their capacity as women.
On the other hand, there were times when I was given different treatment because of my gender, which I didn’t find so patronizing. This happened to me on a few occasions while I was living in Turkey. One time, my supervisor requested that I ask for a ride rather than walk home from work after dark because I was “a lady” and the men I worked around were “very sensitive.”
Another time, I was waiting on an empty sidewalk for a taxi after visiting a museum. A male staff member of the museum came down and silently stood next to me as I waited. When the taxi arrived, he opened the door for me and carefully moved the hem of my skirt all the way inside the vehicle after I climbed in.
These men, rather than discount the fact that I was a female, gave me special consideration because of it. So why wasn’t I bothered by it? Why did I consider it chivalry instead of male chauvinism?
Once again, their intent was important. Statements such as “we are very sensitive” made all the difference as it made the issue about them instead of about me. I came to appreciate the fact that some men behave this way—not because they think I am incapable or inferior due to my gender, but because they consider it part of their very identity as men.
In addition to making it about themselves and who they were, in some cases it was about the world around me. As I grew older and wiser, I came to realize that, unfortunately, women do indeed have more to fear in this world than men. I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the gentleman standing and waiting with me on the sidewalk if not for the dozens of times in my young adult life strange men drove past me on the road stopped to (I would venture to say) solicit me for prostitution.
That’s perhaps the fundamental difference between a male chauvinist and a chivalrous knight in shining armor to me. The former says “I’m here to tell you who you are and what you should be” while the latter says, “I’m here to be courteous and protect you because that’s what a knight is supposed to do for his queen.”
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