The Price of Chivalry

I’m one of those ­women that other women hate. I get mad when a man opens a door for me when I clearly don’t need it (and I’m not talking about holding the door when I’m behind him—I’m talking about intentionally running ahead to open the door). Or when he stops and waits for me to exit the room first, even though he’s closer to the door.

His intentions are usually for the best. Most of the time it’s just “how he was taught” growing up. Good men hold doors for women. Men with manners let the ladies go first.

It’s all seems very harmless—sweet even, until you consider that what’s really happening is reinforcing the stereotype that women are helpless.

And that’s what’s called benevolent sexism.

The term benevolent sexism was first coined by Dr. Peter Glick, a professor at Lawrence University, and Susan T. Fiske from Princeton University, who defined it as “a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable, but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection.”

Typically when we think of sexism, we think of hostile sexism, which is described as “an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction.” Benevolent sexism feels much different from this run-of-the-mill misogyny because there is kindness at its core.

But that kindness always comes with a price.

There’s nothing wrong with opening a door for someone or stepping aside for someone else in your path – but if you’re doing it only because that person happens to be female—that’s benevolent sexism.

This is why a man can love his wife, mother and sister, have female friends, be nice to his female co-workers and still be sexist. The negative consequences of his benevolent sexism are buried in what most of us consider polite and kind behavior from men.

In our patriarchal society, it’s not hard to see how we arrived at this point. Benevolent sexism, patronizing as it can be, is still much better than the alternative—violent misogyny. When men put women on a pedestal, adore them and are nice to them, it is better than verbal and physical abuse. There’s no disagreeing with that.

But there is a price to that – whether we know it or not. According to the report for Harvard Business School’s Gender and Work research symposium, accepting benevolent sexism leads to the following:

  • Reinforces the stereotype that women are weak, less competent, and dependent on men.
  • Prevents young women in high school and college from seeking academic achievement or wanting to achieve financial independence, which can lead to women staying in abusive relationships.
  • Keeps women from growing their careers because they are less likely to receive critical performance feedback or challenging assignments. And at the same time, are more likely to receive positive feedback.
  • Justifies continued inequality. Because whether they mean to do it or not, “Benevolent sexism justifies [men’s] traditional power and privilege while characterizing their gender group as heroic protectors and family providers, rather than callous oppressors.”
  • Stops women from seeing the inequality around them. According to the research, women who were merely exposed to signs of benevolent sexism (and not actively accepting of it) felt that society was fairer and it lessened their actions towards promoting women’s rights.

So what is the solution? If chivalry is so terrible, what do women like me want from men? The answer is actually pretty simple. We want men to treat us as people.

It’s not the kindness that offends. It’s the why that’s so troubling. It’s the assumption that we need it everywhere we go just because we happen to be female. We don’t need to be condescended to like helpless damsels in distress. We also don’t need to be treated like men. Simply ask us if we need or want help before offering it.

In the end, overcoming benevolent sexism requires us to address it before it starts. That begins with recognizing that teaching traditional chivalry to our young boys conflicts directly with the empowerment message that we’re simultaneously teaching to our young girls.

It’s not enough to teach girls to be powerful and independent if we don’t stop teaching boys that these independent girls need to have every door opened for them.

Recognizing and combating this benevolent sexism does not require us to throw politeness and respect out the window.  We can teach kids to be helpful and supportive of one another—to help people who need it—without indoctrinating them to believe that all women need men simply because they are women.

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Katelyn Stiver

Katelyn Stiver is a marketing professional with a love for online shopping, social media, food, CrossFit and any brand of TV/movie streaming service. She is a proud alum of Kent State University and lives in Copley with her husband, and her adorable dog, Johnnie Walker Texas Ranger.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • First, let me say I agree with the above article. I’m a woman who, as I like to say, “is north of 70” and when I was growing up it was expected that not only would men open doors for you but open and close the car door too to both let you get in and out of the car! In the 60’s when we got the idea of being liberated from the old norms it became a point of contention when this happened and some men got angry when I objected to it. For some years I was without a partner and then a few years ago started to date men my age or somewhat older. Well, I found the nothing had changed with them. I had to wait until he opened and closed the car door again, etc. I had been independent, self-supporting and raised 2 kids pretty much by myself for many years and felt like I was in a time warp. It was actually very strange and uncomfortable for me to be treated this way again. No, we should definitely not raise our sons this way or teach our daughters to expect to have this type of treatment which reinforces the helpless female stereotype but it does help to have a sense of humor about it when it occurs. Here’s a few nicely said comebacks-“Oh, I didn’t realize I look so weak. I guess I’ll have to work out more.” “Please don’t exert yourself. I’m really able to mange doors by myself.” You get the picture. In the meantime, I think I’ll try dating men somewhat younger than myself and who hopefully have ditched these customs:)

  • Thanks for sharing. Now that you’ve read and deciphered reports I’d encourage you to talk to people. Real people you might not interact with everyday, women and moms like me. We are working tirelessly to teach our sons respect through chivalry. For small children like mine these physical acts help explain something like ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ that tend to be over a 5-year old’s head. And for the record, I like women like you! You remind me why it’s important for me and other women like me to stand up for what we believe. To read blogs and engage in dialogue with those who have an opposing view so we can understand each other better. If we ever run into each other in person, can you please hold the door for me? Promise I won’t be offended.

    • I think teaching respect and honor is incredibly important for young children, and I do appreciate that it is hard to teach those things to young kids. Where I would challenge you is why gender should be brought into the mix at all. If girls are strong, independent and no better or worse than boys, what’s the justification for the chivalry?

      Why not treat everyone with the same respect and kindness, regardless of gender? I would actually argue that it’s more confusing when gender is introduced because then what’s the logical reason for the action?

      I would also agree that it’s important to read and engage with blogs who have opposing views so I appreciate you commenting. I would gladly engage in an in-person dialogue with you as well as hold the door for you 🙂

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