Here is a thing I have done in my life: shared a fancy business lunch at Busboys and Poets with a group of Saudi school administrators. Here is a skill I lack and have shown no interest in developing in my life: pretending I don’t care about sexism. Guess how these two things combined!
So there I was sitting between about eight middle-aged Saudi men within hearing distance at our long table, listening to them insist that there was no ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. I was pretty sure there was in practice if not in writing; Wajeha Al Huwaider’s famous protest video had made the rounds earlier that year, but without the internet on hand to prove me right, I let it slide.
“The reason women don’t drive is not that it’s illegal!” one man eagerly explained to me. “A woman could drive if she wanted, but she never has to! There is always a male relative willing to drive for her!” This was received with a round of enthusiastic agreement. Another man chipped in, “In our culture, women are like gems. We protect them and take care of them.” The others around him nodded in noble affirmation. Yes, they assented, men drove for women as a favor, and this was a way of protecting and showing kindness to women.
This is the way cultural narratives of gendered chivalry work: they foster dependence and propagate the idea that women are less capable, while masquerading as masculine generosity. There is a real connection between “This class of people must always help that class of people do this” and “that class of people is not capable of doing this.” To wit, I’m not interested in being treated like an object, even if it’s a precious object which you value and protect. I want to be treated like a human being who exerts agency and control over her own life.
So what, should we just all be jerky meanie-heads to each other? Wouldn’t it be such a cold, sad world if we no longer encouraged acts of kindness?
Yes, yes it would. Acts of kindness, both small and large, fill my heart with joy. I wax poetic about moments of connection with strangers and reminders of our shared humanity. But here’s the thing: their power is that they remind us of what we have in common. We’re connected as one human being extending generosity to another human being, not as a man doing something for a woman.
If you hold a door for me, I’m going to step through and say thank you. If you stand up from your seat for me on the bus, I’ll sit down and say thank you. If we’re out to dinner and you offer to pay, I will probably accept and say thank you. The flip side of that, men, is that if I do any of those things for you, I would greatly appreciate the same reaction. Being nice to people is awesome; allowing people to be nice to you is also awesome.
Friends. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve held the door for a man, and in response he stops behind me and holds the same door above my head and indicates that I should go through first, briefly launching us into some bizarre door-holding standoff. This has no purpose! We both know I’m capable of holding the door; I’m already holding it! You’ve saved me no effort, done me no favors. All you’ve done is rejected my overture in order to protect your own gender rules. That’s the opposite of kindness; it’s selfishness.
I once had a male friend respond to my typical “Are you sure?” first response to an offer to pay for drinks with this logic: men should pay for dinner because women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men are paid; it’s only fair to try to even that out when it’s time to close the tab. That reasoning creates a vicious cycle, since one of the social norms responsible for higher male salaries is the idea that men are the breadwinners. Beyond that, if you have a problem with income inequality (which you should), then your chivalrous act should be to combat income inequality: write to your representatives and advocate for stronger fair pay laws, fight in your workplaces for the equal value of work done by women. Paying for dinner is not an adequate way to address income disparity because you’re only going to dinner with a small subset of women affected by the issue: your friends, and single, male-attracted women who you find attractive enough to date.
I propose a simple two question test for acts of “chivalry”: 1. Is this something you would do regardless of the gender of the recipient? 2. Would you happily accept this action if a woman was offering to do it for you? If the answers to both these questions are “yes”: Congratulations! That’s not gendered chivalry, that’s just being a decent human being.