Since the beginning of mankind, chivalry has held its head high as one of the great traditions of society. I’ve little doubt that if we could travel back through time, we’d see cavemen placing their companions closest to the fire, or Roman emperors ensuring that their wives had every luxury. In many men, there is something of a genetic disposition to take care of the woman next to us, whether it’s opening her car door or (in dire situations) ensuring that she’s the first one onto the lifeboat in an emergency. And so, as a society, we still embrace these traditions wholeheartedly, and the most chivalrous of men are our role models for graciousness.
But there is a darker side to this story.
Being subject to human nature, we are also bound by the psychological implications of what we do. We are a society that has long kept women at a position inferior to men, and even today salary analysis has unquestionably shown a sizable gap between the two. We have also never had a female president, and the one candidate that came close rose to power in the shadow of her husband. Constantly, we are reminded of the “glass ceiling” that exists in corporate America and beyond. And most incredibly of all, there are men and women alive today that saw their own mothers unable to vote in elections.
Publicly, no one is foolish enough to admit keeping women at bay. Privately, however, it is very much an open question. I think the assumption has long been that blatant sexism continues to lurk silently throughout our families and board rooms, but in practice I have found that this is not as black and white as it seems. As always, I think the answer lies a little deeper than that.
The question is: deep down, as men, do we truly believe that women are our equals? Do they share our capability for intelligent decisions? Do they possess the strength to do what needs to be done, regardless of the situation or emotions involved? Do they deserve the benefit of doubt that we constantly give ourselves, even amidst the notable failures of men in leadership?
My answer is an emphatic yes. But the solution to this problem is not as easy as it seems. In addition to changing our beliefs, as we’ve done slowly over time, we must also increasingly change our actions. And in this case, alongside the more obvious actions, we must also begin to wind down the longstanding tradition of chivalry.
This will surely provoke some negative reactions among readers here. Why, then, would I believe it? Because for every case in which a man takes care of a woman, there is an implicit belief that a woman needs to be taken care of. By its very purpose, chivalry is drawing the line between the provider and the dependent…and in the dependent role, I’d argue that a woman can never truly be a man’s equal. If you still find this hard to believe, think about it a moment: why is chivalry an embraced tradition? As men, we embrace it because it is the “nice” thing to do. Why, then, is it not acceptable for women to do the same? And wouldn’t we, as men, feel hurt if this right was taken away from us? The answer to these questions are quite revealing.
Of course, it’s entirely possible (as we continue to tell ourselves) that such generosity does not come with strings attached. But again, we are subject to human nature, and I simply do not believe that a man does not feel empowered when he holds the door for a woman, makes more money than she does, or allows her to go first in line. I think that, buried within our subconscience, men perform these roles because they feel it is the duty of the more powerful sex…and thus by doing so they become the more powerful sex. As a result, for this and other reasons, the glass ceiling continues to exist all around us.
As part of a new generation of men and women, I hope that we continue to see our paths merge together. I hope that when we glance across the board room table, men and women increasingly see each other across a level playing field. And perhaps most of all, I’d like to see us arrive at a place where men no longer feel like they have to take care of women.
For when the glass does finally shatter, I expect it won’t matter who takes the first step over it.