By Danielle,

Is Chivalry 'Benevolent Sexism'?

8/14/2012 DK 2 Comments

I recently came across an article published in my university's newspaper about the author's experiences as an intern journalist at a well known newspaper organisation. The author describes the 'horrific' time she had during the 2-week internship, exposing the homophobic, sexist, and insensitive attitudes of the senior employees towards her (the author) and various social issues. Here is the article for those of you who want to read it: The Hun Mole: Notes From a Tabloid Newsroom.

I agreed with most of her points regarding the employees' unprofessional workplace ethics. However, I could not immediately understand her point on sexism. She mentions that the men (employees) were 'unnecessarily sexist' by acting with what we may call "chivalry" or "good manners", such as 'waiting for [her] to walk through doors and leave the elevator before them.'

Now, I am personally all for gender equality (although I admit one single year of studying feminism here and there hardly makes me a feminist), which made me wonder whether this kind of everyday acts of chivalry is indeed sexist. Then I came across this article: Chivalry is actually 'benevolent sexism', feminists conclude. To briefly summarise, the feminist psychologists from The Society for the Psychology of Women argue that many so-called polite acts in fact belittle women, suggesting that women cannot cope without the help of men:
'The researchers created a list of such damaging acts as: helping a woman to choose the right computer, calling a group of both men and women "guys" and offering to do the driving on a long distance journey.
Even men who think they are expressing affection might be guilty - the scientists said calling a woman a "chick", showering her with unwanted affection or saying that you cannot live without her could also be sexist.'

Reading this article, I wanted to be persuaded, to believe that there is yet another form of sexism in society worth fighting against which we are too accustomed to notice. However, even with this almost seemingly masochistic (ha ha) attitude, I could not immediately relate to the points raised in the article. Should we dismiss what seem to be biological and natural differences between men and women such as men being physically stronger, and therefore be insulted when offered help lifting a heavy object? (Is the assumption that men are naturally stronger an anti-women thing to say in itself?)
While I do understand and could potentially agree with all points made by these feminist psychologists, what I am having trouble deciding on is whether we should feel belittled by well-intended acts: Are they so detrimental to the advancement of gender equality that we should correct the "gentlemen" every time they practice what they feel are acts of chivalry?

Arguing against this article, Stephen Bayley wrote: Why I'll keep opening the door for women, which argues, among other things, that:
'Sexism is a mark of civilisation, as is all behaviour based on perceptions and intelligently adapted to different circumstances. Life is about gradients – the ascending, sometimes meandering, paths between different values. Vice/virtue, young/old and male/female are simply the most obvious. 
Manners are the device we use to negotiate these sometimes tricky and precipitous social slopes. It's a contract based on respect, an unforced standard of conduct intended to enhance another's self-esteem.'

After reading both sides of the argument, I am yet to come to a conclusion as to what I personally believe.

However, next time a man holds the door open for me, I shall carefully evaluate my feelings and whether I can relate his act to the result of subconscious male chauvinism.

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  1. Will anything ever really be good enough for feminists? I've been bought up my whole life being taught chivalry, ironically last night I had a conversation with a friend in which we came to the conclusion 'fuck chivalry'. For different reasons to that which this article bring to question. I'm of the opinion that it puts women on a pedestal (which results in manner of disparity). I just had this thought about the movie Titanic, where they put all the women and children on the life rafts. Do you think the women who wrote the article on benevolent sexism would sing the same tune if their lifes hung in the balance?

  2. Hey you! I responded to your comment in a post, because the response was getting too long.. haha. Thanks for your comment and here is the link to the post: :)