Chivalrous; a: marked by honor, generosity, and courtesy b: marked by gracious courtesy and high-minded consideration especially to women. —Merriam Webster
Is it okay to open a door for a lady? Come on, no laughing. Sometimes small things tell us something about the big things.
I’m a fairly egalitarian male; some would say I’m hyper-sensitive regarding unequal treatment of women in the church and in society. But when it comes to the traditional chivalrous role the male gets to play … I confess I enjoy it.
So am I a hypocrite?
I ride Chicago’s “L” train (the elevated transit system) quite a bit. One day, during a crowded rush hour, I was sitting near the back of a train car when a new group of passengers pushed into the little space left. Many of them had nowhere to sit. Above the rattle of the train, one young woman suddenly asked, “Isn’t anyone going to give up their seat? Is chivalry dead?” Before I could react, a male voice rose in anger. “Yes, chivalry’s dead! The women’s lib movement killed it!” He looked around, challenging any disagreement, then blustered on, “You can’t have it both ways, you know!” Embarrassed at the man’s rage and the woman’s blushing confusion, I gave her my seat, pondering both her question and the man’s response. While helping moderate a discussion among egalitarian couples at CBE’s Marriage Conference in 2002, I asked the wives how they felt about having doors opened for them. The results of that unscientific survey were about four to one in favor of chivalry. Afterward, one woman not in favor approached me, apologetic. “It isn’t so much questioning your desire to open the door … I don’t like what it symbolizes, though.”
Well, she’d nailed it. That’s the issue for me, too. When I give up my seat or open a door, what do I mean by it and what am I perceived to mean by it? Something as simple as opening a door can be profoundly patronizing. That is, it may be about a perceived power disparity between the man and the woman. She is too weak to open the door; she needs protection from her stronger counterpart. There are far-reaching meanings within meanings that may wound the sensitive feminine heart.
Of course, my take on it is a bit less complicated. Once, while attending col- lege, I opened the door for a female friend. She promptly stepped back and said, “I don’t need or want you opening doors for me!” I smiled and replied, “Okay, then, you can open the door for me!” In other words, my issue was one of mutual respect, deferring to each other in this very small way. She didn’t change her mind, but she laughed.
Perhaps it is a heart thing.
Particularly with my wife, I enjoy the sensation of publicly honoring her by opening doors, pulling out her chair at a restaurant, helping her take off her coat. None of it is as important as honoring her in a conversation by listening fully, or honoring her by putting her ahead of my work or my own desires. And of course there’s an element of showing off in such actions. I enjoy not only my wife’s response but also the responses of others whom I imagine are thinking, “Isn’t that a nice man!” But since nothing I do in this life is likely free of self-interest or impure motives, I can only try to do my best and trust grace for the rest. Those small chivalrous things are, to me, signs that her well-being is central to my well- being, that her good is my good, that her ease and comfort are my ease and comfort.
In short, chivalry isn’t dead. Male chivalry at its best may have been described by Sir Almroth E. Wright: “What, then, is chivalry if it is not a question of serving woman without reward?” But these days, it needs to be a thinking chivalry rooted in mutual respect and mutual agreement. My wife likes doors opened for her in public just like she appreciates me doing the dishes or folding the laundry at home. All of these together create a fabric of service on her behalf that signifies a tender respect. Likewise, it is deeply meaningful to me when she allows me to escort her and make much of her. When I honor other women, I honor her. And by honoring her, I honor other women. By hon- oring women, I also honor my gender and myself.
Let’s not be foolish. When my wife pours my weary self a cup of coffee, offers to trim my errant eyebrows, or shops the thrift store for my cozy winter running sweats, she is also chivalrous. Chivalry can be practiced by both sexes!
Christians are to defer one to another out of reverence for Christ. As with all things, opening or not opening a door is about love. There is the love I wish to express, but there is also the love or lack of love someone receives from my (in)action. Love is relational. And relationships are built (among other things) upon acts of tender, other-centered consideration.
So will I continue opening doors for my wife and other female acquaintances? Most likely, yes, unless they let me know it signifies something unpleasant or unwelcome to them.
At least that’s how one egalitarian lover of chivalry sees it.