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Benevolent or Hostile Sexism

I just read about a study, conducted by T. William Altermatt, Ph.D., that focused on today's chivalry that was quite revealing. Its purpose was sought to determine whether chivalry has a positive or negative impact on women.

More precisely, it wanted to know if chivalry is:

  • A gesture of respect that acknowledges and honors gender differences; or
  • A gesture of assistance that perpetuates the stereotype that women are less competent and independent.

The study included surveys and arranged behavioral responses.

It proposed that chivalry is based on one of two perspectives: that women are less capable (in which male assistance is required), or more virtuous (in which special status is deserved). Descriptions included "benevolent sexism" versus "hostile sexism." Either way, chivalry is related to a descriptive or prescriptive stereotype of women, where it discriminates according to a woman's perceived worth.

In other words, chivalry discriminates against women by negatively typecasting them in the eyes of men under the aegis of being benevolent. The study further suggests that men "act" chivalrous in order to look more attractive to females, and women often respond.

In light of what we are trying to accomplish through Chivalry-Now, I feel compelled to respond.

I preface my remarks by pointing out a few relevant facts:

  • Chivalry-Now is somewhat different from its medieval ancestor.
  • It does not align itself with acting polite in order to look more attractive or to win favors.
  • It views women realistically and does not support stereotypes.

Of course, the study was not testing real chivalry, but rather a modern rendition of it that focuses only on somewhat limited gender relationships— hardly the more comprehensive philosophy that Chivalry-Now represents.

It assumes that the popular idea of chivalry focuses only on manners toward women. Anyone familiar with Chivalry-Now knows that there is more to it than that. Without its moral base, the courtesy associated with chivalry might very well be limited to trappings that hide alterior motives. We need to be aware of this in our own development in order to avoid even sub-conscious deception. The definition of Chivalry-Now is in our hands.

The study, therefore, had nothing to do with Chivalry-Now, other than provide us with food for thought and pitfalls to avoid. It was conducted before the Chivalry-Now web site was available online.

We need to admit upfront that medieval chivalry was never perfect. It was highly caste-conscious and supported female stereotypes of its own making. It was often self-serving despite romanticized images to the contrary.

But medieval chivalry needs to be judged according to its time and for the positive benefits it provided. It introduced a new attitude among men that was both civilizing and beneficial to women. If it had not, wealthy ladies would not have financed the chivalric literature that was handed down to us today. The Church would not have supported it. The idea of being a gentleman, which we still value, would not have developed.

Chivalry-Now is somewhat different from Chivalry-Then. It includes Age of Enlightenment ideals, the insights of modern psychology and yes, the positive aspects of feminism, including equality and respect for all.

We not only reject hostile sexism, we reject benevolent sexism. Sexism infers blind inferences that all women are less than men.

People are individuals and cannot be lumped into definitive categories. We recognize that genders do tend to reflect somewhat generalized differences. How could they not? Our belief is that these differences should not be a source of contention, but of logical cooperation. They are needed and should be honored.

Chivalry-Now does not focus on how we should discriminate against women. That is anathema to the very soul of our beliefs. We focus on developing ourselves into proper men.

Of course there will be variations in how we treat people. That's true for everyone. What Chivalry-Now calls us to do is offer a base of respect toward women as a whole. What happens after that is a matter of discernment and relationship. Part of equality is being judged according to actual behavior. That being said, I trust that all our Companions will treat a woman (and men) of questionable character with suitable respect and courtesy, and abuse nobody.

Chivalry-Now recognizes that women hold special status in our species, both as individuals who carry a female perspective, and in their role as the conduits and sustainers of human life. Men provide a supporting role in this process as the natural partners of women. Such conclusions seem pretty obvious. The issue is not one of dependence or independence. It's about partnership suitable to both.

We know that women are not helpless or less competent then men. Nothing could be more obvious. Many get along fine without men in their lives. Sometimes better.

Within each gender, as within each race or ethnicity, there is a wide spectrum of capabilities, talents, beliefs and potentials. There are women CEOs, middle managers, construction workers, weight lifters, boxers, clerics, and soldiers. Stereotypes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

When we speak of "gender-related traits" we speak of generalities, tendencies, not to be labeled good or bad, but appreciated for their vital function. These tendencies provides a more varied source of necessary behavior within the species that assures our survival. Earth would be a cold, barren and hostile planet if humanity were composed of what are commonly referred to as "male qualities." I would not want to live there.

Chivalry-Now tells us to honor women first for who they are as women, and then gauge that honor according to their personal qualities. Nothing could be more fair and equal than that.

Whatever deference we extend toward women through courtesy is meant to honor womanhood itself. After that, their individual traits can and should be judged for what they are.

During my career in social work, I have helped a wide variety of women. Some well-educated. Others not. Some who cared for their children with utmost concern. Others who neglected their children due to drugs, alcohol or just selfishness. Some worked three jobs just to get by. Others turned to prostitution or permanent welfare dependency.

In other words, the variety of personalities and capabilities were just as varied as those of men. Some lived up to their potential goodness, others did not — just like men.

If we are to respect manhood, despite the poor showing of many of our brothers, shall we not do the same for womanhood?

Chivalry does not end when we decide a woman fails to live up to our expectation. We may modify our behavior toward them as individuality warrants, but our initial response should be open in order to see the real person. Evil may lurk behind a conservative dress and practiced smile. Truth and goodness may be found despite the façade of suggestive clothing, tattoos and adolescent piercings. Wealth, poverty or station do not determine the qualities we hope to find in all men and women.

That some men should use chivalrous behavior deceitfully is wrong. Courtesy needs to be our way of life, not called upon just to win favor. Holding the door for an attractive woman is false chivalry if, in the next moment, you let it slam into someone who doesn't interest you. It is a lie and unworthy of manhood. True courtesy is not something you perform for your own benefit or image. Such an attitude is rooted not in our culture, but in our lack thereof.

The world we live in has been so contaminated by marketplace values that even something as decent as courtesy and respect are considered suspicious. Hidden agendas flourish and are found just about everywhere. Indeed, the height of politeness today is found in people wanting to sell us something. It's only natural to be suspect.

Likewise, it is only natural for studies on chivalry to conclude, right from the beginning, that chivalry is born from a selfish need rather than the longing for high ideals. Such is the world we live in. Such is the way people think.

It is our responsibility to prove them wrong.


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