In downtown Annapolis this morning, I watched a young couple stroll out of a residential neighborhood and turn a corner onto a busier street. Just as they rounded the bend, the man dropped the woman’s hand and passed behind her, only to take her other hand and realign himself street-side as they continued along.
‘Well done,’ I thought.
I’m not sure your average American man today knows the unwritten gentleman’s rule that a woman should walk on the “protected” side, away from the street, while the man walks along the gutter side, acting as shield for her from unpleasantness such as puddles, cars, and historically – horses and carriages. If he does, he often ignores it. But it’s a very nice gesture, as are others which include opening doors for ladies, holding umbrellas over them, and going out to retrieve the car and bring it back around in bad weather.
One might think these chivalrous courtesies died out with the the feminist movement, but in some circles they do persist and for that I am grateful, because their roots are not in fact based on the false idea that women are inferior, but are instead based on the Truth that women are worthy of honor and respect.
In an article for The Atlantic called “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance,” Emily Esfahani Smith explains this by referencing an acclaimed professor in Baltimore and a woman who describes herself as an “equity feminist.” Here is a particularly interesting passage:
“We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is,” argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. “It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.”
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.
A story from the life of Samuel Proctor (d. 1997) comes to mind here. Proctor was the beloved pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Apparently, he was in the elevator one day when a young woman came in. Proctor tipped his hat at her. She was offended and said, “What is that supposed to mean?”
The pastor’s response was: “Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat.”
My husband, sons, other men in my family, and that young man this morning, have all shown me – that there are still some men who are ready and willing to defend women – the ones they know, and the ones they don’t. That’s good news to me.