Tools of the Patriarchy: Should Chivalry Be Dead?

Tools of the Patriarchy is a biweekly column on the tools that establish men’s dominance in society, or, in other words, uphold the patriarchy. Whether or not these tools are used intentionally, they contribute to a world in which women are not equal to men.


Tools of the Patriarchy: Should Chivalry Be Dead?
“God Speed,” a 1900 painting by British artist Edmund Leighton depicting an armored knight departing to war and leaving his beloved. (Wikipedia Commons)

In discussions of modern feminism, Larry David is definitely not the first person to come to mind. And yet, one episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” seems to—strangely well, we know—encapsulate the issue of chivalry in the modern day. (Bear with us, here.)

In one scene (S9:E1), David walks into a building. After opening the door, he turns and notices a butch woman walking behind him. He thinks for a moment, then lets the door close in her face.

She comes inside and asks David why he didn’t keep the door open—”I’m a woman, aren’t I?” He proceeds into Larry-David-esque stereotyped explanations: “I didn’t think you were the type to want a guy to hold the door open!”

It’s a ridiculous encounter involving David’s “equation” for door-holding—among other biased, oft-uncomfortable dialogues. Later in the episode, David barges into the home of the woman and her fiancé, and (upon ruining their engagement) as the woman’s fiancé makes to leave, he opens the door for her and she says, “I don’t need you to hold the door for me, you prick!”

We’re not saying Larry David is the authority on chivalry today; in fact, comedy in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” often highlights David’s lack of finesse and social etiquette.

But the episode raises an interesting question: Should chivalry be dead?

For many women, the feeling of having a door opened, or having dinner paid for by a date gives pause—not because feminists don’t appreciate men’s affection, but because the concept of chivalry and chivalrous actions can imply lack of equality, or a classification of women as weak beings that must be doted on and protected.

Women may think: “Is it sweet that he wants to walk on the street side of the sidewalk, or hold the door, or pay the check so I don’t have to?” Or is it all just stirring the pot, allowing women to be seen as ‘less capable’?

Actions executed on the basis of gender inequality are complicated, to say the least. Let’s dive in.

The History of Chivalry

The word ‘chivalry’ comes from the French word for knight: “chevalier.” During the Middle Ages, chivalry was essentially a tool developed to reign in the behaviors and enforce the responsibilities of medieval Christian knights.

Jennifer Goodman Wollock, a professor of medieval studies at Texas A&M University, notes the origins of chivalry:

“What develops as you get into the late 11th, 12th century is a sense that knights have to have a professional code if they’re going to be respected and respectable.”

Eleventh-century epic poem, “The Song of Roland,” is most frequently credited with outlining the code of chivalry, consisting of these five rules:

  1. “Fear God and His Church,
  2. Serve the liege Lord in valour and faith;
  3. Protect the weak and defenceless;
  4. Live by honour and for glory;
  5. Respect the honour of women.”

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While those five rules may seem harmless, an Ohio State University book review for Nigel Saul’s “Chivalry in Medieval England” summarizes the need for the development of the code of chivalry as follows:

“A martial elite arose which came to view violence as its primary and hereditary profession. It was this violence that the church attempted to regulate, giving rise to a code meant for those horse-bound ‘knights’ which later became known as chivalry.”

Essentially, the code of chivalry was originally designed by the church because their elite military class—those beloved, revered “knights in shining armor”—were so horrifyingly prone to violence that their practices could no longer be permitted to persist. (One expert went as far as calling knights as “hired thugs.”)

Tools of the Patriarchy: Should Chivalry Be Dead?
William Kent’s 1729 “The Battle of Agincourt.” (Royal Collection Trust)

Notably, the code of chivalry did not apply to common peasants or lower class women—a 2018 Washington Post article by Middle Ages expert Amy S. Kaufman explained the words of 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, “famous for his chivalric romances.”

She specified: If a knight met an unaccompanied noblewoman or her lady on the road, under chivalry he was forbidden from “dishonoring” (i.e. raping) her—but if he battled another knight for her, he was entitled to “do with her as he pleased.”

Non-noble women were not included in this arrangement; they had basically no rights when it came to knights’ agency over their bodies.

So before crediting the code of chivalry with an honorable origin, keep in mind this jarring truth: Chivalry came to being because these powerful men were raping, looting and murdering a little too much for the church’s taste.

There’s no question as to why the Medieval Ages were called the Dark Ages—there were too many uncivilized knights!

What Is Chivalry Today?

Chivalry eventually evolved to what we know today: a gender-based code to be followed by gentlemen who want to be a part of the moral and social code. Men perform certain duties or courtesies to protect and—at least, theoretically—honor women.

There is a myriad of ways chivalry continues to manifest itself today—from helping a woman with her coat, waiting for a woman to sit down first, opening a car door for a woman or not allowing a woman to pay the bill.

Still, chivalric actions are based in the idea that women are inherently weaker and require a man’s aid or protection in order to function day-to-day.

We are not saying that men should stop buying women dinner. We are not saying that men should never open doors for women. We are simply saying men should not need a code of honor to know to do these things—and, men, you should be thrilled if a woman wants to do these things for you, too. 

Equality, as in all things, is key here. 

The Problems with Chivalry

Tools of the Patriarchy: Should Chivalry Be Dead?
Sir Frank Dicksee’s 1855 “Chivalry.” (VictorianWeb.org)

In 2015, Emma Watson recalled a story on Facebook Live, in which she took a man out to dinner and he was uncomfortable with her paying. She explained she is a fan of having the door held for her, and of being taken out to dinner, but that she feels she should also be able to take a man out.

“I love having the door open for me,” Watson said. “I love being taken to dinner. But I think the key is, would you mind if I open the door for you?”

(Let us recall, dear feminist readers, the central idea behind feminism is equality.)

Just as it is a polite, kind, generous courtesy to pay for a woman’s dinner, so too is it a courtesy to pay for a man’s. The rigidity of chivalry makes it solely a man’s responsibility and duty—when, in an ideal world, people would do courteous things for each other, regardless of gender.

This is, however, the less directly harmful problem we have: Amy Kaufman, in the Washington Post article, eviscerates any lingering tastes for chivalry through the lens of the endlessly upsetting past defense of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh. She writes:

“When 19th-century Southerners resurrected ‘chivalry’ on this side of the pond, their code protected only white women—which is undoubtedly still the case today. The criteria for which women chivalry does, and doesn’t, protect always shifts: It can be race, class, age, power or even just being in the right crowd.

“But inevitably, other women become targets for the violence that is controlled and contained in the presence of the worthy. Men feel entitled to those unprotected women, and crimes against them are considered mere ‘misbehavior.’

“This is how you can have a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault who nevertheless gets 65 women to testify that he’s a swell guy. It’s one of many cases in which a woman will leap to a man’s defense because he treated her well, not realizing it’s only because she was part of the ‘in crowd.’ (At least one woman withdrew her support when she learned that she did not, in fact, have a place behind the shield of chivalric protection.)”

Chivalry, both historically and today, is used as an excuse for sexist—and even violent—behavior more often than as a path to simple “gentleman” status.

And, as Kaufman points out, chivalry most often only applies to white, wealthy women.

The swearing-in Ceremony of Brett M. Kavanaugh (left). (Official White House Photo / Joyce N. Boghosian)

So—Should Chivalry Be Dead?

Simply put: Yes.

Societal rules such as these treat adult men like children who must be carefully told what to do in order to get things right and be polite. It is not too much to ask that adult men act like adults; outdated guidelines shouldn’t dictate how men should treat women, but rather basic human decency. 

“Men can be sweet, caring, and respectful toward a woman without having to place her on an unreachable pedestal,” writes Bethany Casey in a Huffington Post op-ed.

The fact is, chivalry is a standard that is based on sexist ideals—created during a time when women were referred to as damsels in distress, and when men with power were so out of control they needed a clear set of rules to tell them not to rape any woman they saw.

While that concept is outdated and misogynistic, the idea of respecting those around us—regardless of their gender identity—should not be.

Some ideas to ensure gender equality while dating (as a heterosexual) include: discussing plans and decisions with open dialogues and letting everyone speak for themselves; and living by the ideal that one party of the relationship is not “weaker” than the other due to their gender.

Perhaps instead of “chevaliers” leading the way for dating ideals, “respect mutuel” should be the new coined term to lead to happy and healthy relationships—regardless of the genders of those in said relationships.


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About and

Audrey Gibbs is a junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, majoring in English with minors in Shakespeare studies and politics. She hopes to continue her education through law or journalism school. In her free time, she is a singer/songwriter and an actress.
Gavi Klein is a rising junior at Brandeis University majoring in American Studies with minors in Italian Studies and Journalism. She is an editorial intern at Ms.