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Chivalry or Common Courtesy: The Etiquette of Romance, Or, What Does a Feminist Relationship Look Like?

February 13, 2010
Valentine's Day

from flickr/Sister72

Don’t worry, this is not yet another takedown of Valentine’s Day. Some people love the holiday, some people hate it; I’m mostly indifferent and have nothing new to add to that particular debate. However, the approaching holiday reminded me of a different dispute that has simmered among feminists for decades: is chivalry dead, and is feminism its rightful assassin?

I noticed that particular theme in recent editions of two advice columns in the Washington Post. (Yes, I always read the advice columns. I think they’re tiny windows of insight into the human condition. Don’t judge.) In the January 20th paper, Miss Manners responds to a letter from a woman who is miffed by the responses of men when she holds a door open for them. The woman writes,

The other day, I was walking into a coffee shop as a man was walking out. His hands were full balancing three cups of coffee, so I held the door open for him. Two other men followed behind him and one said to me, “Don’t you just love equal rights?” Not long ago, a man in the office where I work was coming through a door behind me while he carried a heavy paper box, and I held the door for him. He made such a big deal out of it (“Wow, this is the first time a woman has ever held the door for me!”) that for a second I wished I had just let the door slam back in his face. This just seems like a matter of common courtesy to me. Why can’t they just say thank you instead of trying to make it into some kind of gender role issue?

I could relate somewhat to the woman’s dilemma—as I imagine most women (and men?) these days are, I’m accustomed to holding the door open for anyone, no matter the person’s gender. Sometimes I’ll receive a polite “thank you” from men, but other times the response is less gracious. I still remember one instance when I was leaving my college Laundromat as a guy carrying a bulky bag of laundry was entering. Judging by the icy glare he gave me, this guy thought I was taking a potshot at his masculinity by holding the door open for him.

So what does Miss Manners have to say about this? Her wry reply is one of the best summaries of the US feminist movement I’ve ever read, and it’s a little defeatist.

Gender was injected into precedence when chivalry came up with Ladies-First to replace Out-of-My-Way-I’m-Important-and-You’re-Not. But in a shocking oversight, the new principle was not applied to such other areas as money and power.

In the 20th century, some feminists attempted to make a trade — forgoing minor courtesies for major gains. As it turned out, they were instantly successful in having the courtesies dropped, but somewhat less so in making the gains.

Unfortunately, courtesy was lacking on both sides. When gentlemen attempted to follow the courtesies they had been used to, they were often treated as if they had offered an insult, and were insulted in return. Apparently, it is payback time. Miss Manners asks you to bear with it while it lasts, which can’t be much longer.

I don’t quite buy the explanation that real or imagined past ingratitude from women excuses these men’s snarky remarks—surely Miss Manners of all people would believe that two wrongs don’t make a right? I’m of the opinion that simple acts of consideration such as holding a door should be practiced by both genders, for both genders, with appreciation on both sides.

It seems like a simple solution until you move from the realm of interaction with strangers to the complicated world of heterosexual relationships. This brings me to the second advice column, Carolyn Hax’s February 3rd response to man who says he purposely avoids traditional acts of chivalry out of respect for women, and has no love life as a result.

I am 29 and single. I have a very strong mother, who raised me to treat women with respect. I was taught women are strong, intelligent and independent. And that women don’t need any special treatment.

When I go on dates I treat them that way. I respect them, but I don’t offer to hold their door open, or always take my car. I ask if they want to drive. And I always split the check rather than pay for them. I think it’s insulting to think women are fragile and we need to treat them as if they are.

As you can imagine, I don’t get very many second dates. And most of my female friends say I act like a jerk. Am I a jerk? Should I change my way of thinking, or stay strong to my beliefs . . . and remain single?

This man’s problem reveals the fine line between treating someone as an equal and treating someone as though they are not worthy of special consideration despite a special relationship.

Carolyn Hax’s response is a spot-on endorsement of gender-neutral common courtesy (emphasis mine):

Dates have nothing to do with scoring political points. If you ask someone to dinner, you pay. Not because your dinner companion is financially dependent upon you, but because you are the host and the pleasure of someone’s company is more than worth paying the tab.

If you get to a door first, you hold it for the next person. Not because that person is too frail to handle the door, but because it’s the courteous thing to do.

If you are amenable to giving your companion a ride, then you offer a ride.

Note that none of these is gender-specific. Each is one person showing kindness to another — and people of all varieties appreciate kindness, even (especially?) the strong, intelligent and independent ones.

As far as I know this new vision of chivalry is agreeable to most feminists, and is becoming the norm in many circles of young people. More people especially seem to be adopting the new version of “going dutch” whereby the person who initiates the date pays for it, and things even out in the end.

But the spectrum of traditional gender relations in heterosexual relationships is wide, and many feminists are still questioning which traditions they want to keep and which to discard. For example, take feminist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s June essay in Marie Claire, where she complains about the pitfalls of having a feminist boyfriend:

When a fancy new French restaurant opened in my neighborhood, I had visions of going with my boyfriend — me in my sexiest halter dress, him wearing an expression halfway between desire and pride. “You’ll have to take me there,” I said to him. He corrected me: “We’ll take each other there.”

Here we go again.

He explained: It’s not that he didn’t want to go to dinner with me, or even that he wouldn’t pay. But he objected to the notion that I should be “taken” anywhere. “It sounds like I’m putting you in a briefcase and carrying you along,” he said, slipping his arm around my waist. “I mean, you’ll be eating, too, right?”

Whitefield-Madrano goes on to say that while she loves being able to talk about feminist issues with her boyfriend, she wishes he would woo her with gifts and compliments as in a “traditional” relationship. Her boyfriend thinks such things as complimenting his girlfriend’s appearance contributes to “the female-objectification pile-on.” I get the impression that this guy, like the one in Carolyn Hax’s column, is defining good feminist behavior in a relationship a bit too narrowly. Knowing better than to catcall women on the street is one thing; refusing to voice appreciation for one’s partner, when presumably her appearance is at least a small contributing factor to the attraction in the first place, is another. One commenter on Whitefield-Madrano’s essay suggests that if the author wants compliments about her appearance, she should try complimenting her boyfriend on his looks once and a while—rightly implying that such small acts of appreciation really are not gender-specific. The other commenter sees a very different problem in the author’s relationship, suggesting that the boyfriend’s behavior is controlling.

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting, but he tells you when to be offended and goes out of his way not to complement you? Sounds more control freak than feminist. If he ever suggests that you change the way you dress or stop waxing “because it degrades you as a woman” RUN LIKE HELL! It will only get worse from there.

So if this is not what a feminist relationship looks like, what should one look like? I’m curious to hear from you, readers, what you think a feminist relationship means—be it a straight or LGBT relationship. What aspects of traditional romance do you like or dislike? Can a woman be a feminist and still expect to be “treated like a lady?” Share your thoughts in the comments section!

And in the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to all the couples and singles out there. If you’re looking to make it a feminist holiday, check out Colleen’s post from earlier this week about buying fair trade chocolate, this list of suggestions for feminist date nights by my friend Danielle at the Choices Campus Blog, an exploration of activism tied to the holiday around the world at Campus Progress, and of course see what’s new with Eve Ensler’s VDay movement to end violence against women.

  1. February 13, 2010 8:58 am

    Hi Erin,

    I agree with what I guess is the “new vision of chivalry” for feminists, meaning we shouldn’t expect men to go out of their way to be all chivalrous if we want to be strong and independent, one because it is demeaning, but also because it’s not fair to expect to have our cake and eat it too. We can’t expect everyone to respect us as independent individuals if we insist we must be treated as fragile and delicate ladies.

    Since we as feminists are asserting that we are equal to men, we should do formerly “chivalrous” acts just out of mere kindness, like the example above where a woman holds the door open for a man with his hands full. I do things like that all the time but I haven’t heard any criticism for it. I guess the practice isn’t as widely accepted as I thought. And there’s no reason why you can’t take turns paying for each other when going out, though some guys are still embarrassed by this. And in my opinion splitting a check on the first date is totally acceptable.

    Clearly this way of thinking hasn’t completely caught on yet because I still know couples that abide by traditional chivalry and wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more widely spread.

  2. alicia permalink
    February 13, 2010 10:57 am

    Great post. I’m of the opinion that being a feminist isn’t mutually exclusive with wanting to be romanced.
    Granted I will admit that initially I personally struggled to navigate that terrain. When in a relationship with a man, my struggle was equally as much with how to offer “sweet and romantic” gestures to him as it was how to be on the receiving end of “sweet and romantic” gestures from him. Whether it was having the door held open for me or cooking dinner for this (feminist) man I loved, both made me wonder if I was threatening my strong and independent self. The conclusion I came to was exactly as you suggested – that these are acts of common courtesy and love. They are not in and of themselves indicative of an imbalance in power and I did not need to resist them in order to be a feminist. Now in a relationship with a woman, I find even more truth in the potential of gender neutral romance. The same acts – door-holding, dinner cooking, bill paying – are given and received unquestionably as gestures of love, kindness, courtesy, appreciation, romance. I am optimistic that gender neutral romance is possible – that is, if it’s wanted.

  3. February 14, 2010 3:23 am

    Thank you for describing the problem so well, and including these real world examples!

    In my experience, it’s good to treat people in ways they generally would like to be treated. I know many women (as well as men) who feel uncomfortable when someone else pays for their meal, myself included. But sometimes it’s good to learn to gracefully accept kind gestures. As far as who drives, I have passenger anxiety so I always prefer to be the driver. At the same time, I like to be treated like someone special. I think everyone is special in different ways, so I would do my best to do the things that make my date, valentine and/or spouse feel special too. That means asking them about their likes and dislikes when relating to a love interest or romantic partner. It’s a good conversation starter for the shy types on a first date.

    The most important thing for a feminist relationship, in my opinion, is that the people involved put relatively the same amount of work into it – on both the romantic side of things as well as the practical. It doesn’t mean one person duplicates every gesture made by the other person. Rather, when all is said and done, neither person should feel as though they gave too much away for what they got back in return. Of course it’s not all about what you “get” – but I think give-and-take makes relationships flexible, durable and delightful.

  4. Bonnie permalink
    February 14, 2010 1:20 pm

    Such an interesting post Erin!

  5. February 14, 2010 3:31 pm

    Excellent article! Exactly. There is a difference between appreciating your partner, patronizing, and just not doing “anything” because your view of doing anything falls into such a strict binary. When the actions fall into some idea of “holier than thou” “better than you because I have a penis, so therefore let me help you poor thing”, then yes, you are a patriarchal jerk. But I agree with the one commentator that as soon as they try to use some pseudo-empowerment to tell you when you should or should not feel/think/do something, drop that bad habit!

  6. February 14, 2010 3:34 pm

    Oh and kudos to MissAvarice! I agree as well, it is not about mimicking every gesture, it is about flexibility and honest and real love for the other.

  7. February 14, 2010 4:25 pm

    Great article! A balance of power is necessary in any sort of relationship, at every point. Nicely said. And I’m glad I’m not the only one reading advice columns!

  8. Maguire permalink
    February 14, 2010 8:01 pm

    It would seem that there is another issue being discussed here, common courtesy. Chivalry did die with the major push of the feminist equality movement and that is sad, because I feel that in general courtesy died with it.

    The Ms Manners articles are very resonant in my daily experiences. I was raised by my parents as well to be polite to everyone, to hold the door for anyone, etc, and 85% of the time or more if I hold the door there is no response, not even a grunt. I often find that the case nowadays is that someone will walk in right in front of you as you are attempting to open a door for yourself, I can’t even count the number of times that has happened to me on fingers and toes put together anymore.

    Equality is the key and that means giving up some of the out dated notions in order to salvage the remnants of any courtesy. As a gay man, being asked out on a date doesn’t necessarily mean being payed for nor does it mean that if I ask the other person out that I am expected to pay. Going dutch tends to be the standard trend. I see that with women there is a constant double standard, even among very strong feminist friends. They want to be treated like a princess, but want full respect and equality. What does equality mean here? If you want to be treated like royalty on a date, then you are sacrificing some aspects of your identity and asking the other person to hold you up as something fragile and unattainable.

    The most successful relationships I have ever seen are those in which both parties have come into it as equals, as friends. There is no need for special attention from either party, but there is respect and most importantly, communication. That is what I think a feminist relationship is.

    I’ve recently read through an interview series of professional women in online journalism that you might find interesting.
    It was conducted by the University of Iowa Gender and Mass Media Class this past fall and offers wonderful insight into the future of online journalism.

  9. Benjamin permalink
    February 15, 2010 5:12 am


    its my first post here, and have been recommended to this blog by a friend.

    I guess in codifying the shape of a “feminist”, or equal, relationship, we miss out the main point of feminism. And that is the spirit of critique.

    Feminism is first and foremost a critical movement, a questioning of existing structures. It is not an attempt of replacing dogma with dogma. Of replacing an existing social structure with a new kind of (though more equal) social structure.

    I think a feminist relationship is one which is in continuous and frank critique of the very structures which inform the way the relationship goes. Rather than having any well or pre-defined shape per se.

  10. February 15, 2010 10:44 am

    One line really struck me in Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s Marie Claire article – “He’s still a guy—playing handyman with door latches and fixing my temperamental PC.”

    Excuse me?

    So only a big strong man can fix a door latch or a computer, not a weak little woman?

    Perhaps I’m out of line here, but that doesn’t sound particularly feminist to me!

    Maybe I’m a terrible man for saying this, but the women I date are perfectly capable of fixing their own door latches (because you don’t need a penis to use a screwdriver) and dealing with computer problems by calling tech support and/or hiring somebody who’s good with computers to fix the machine (and that somebody isn’t always a guy!)

    I’ve always found the “helpless female” thing a huge turnoff – and there is nothing sexier than a strong, confident woman who can do her own home and car repairs all by herself.

  11. andi permalink
    March 10, 2010 12:34 pm

    Congrats Erin! I’m so happy to see that you are still writing, and doing such a great job! Thanks for the progressive perspective on such a complex issue – it was so great to read someone who wasn’t overly defensive about feminism or aggressive against chivalry, but someone who was taking stock of all aspects of the issue.

    Keep it up, girl!

  12. March 26, 2010 5:00 pm

    I’m late to the conversation but wanted to comment after seeing this come up on an “ego surf.” I’m pleased to see something I wrote be looked at critically by another feminist–Marie-Claire certainly has a feminist readership, but by very nature of being a women’s magazine, its perspective is a bit limited.

    Believe me, I have given a lot of thought to my desires to be treated “like a lady.” When I first started dating my feminist fellow, the absence of niceties related to me being a lady felt refreshing, but I soon realized how much I actually relied on them as a sort of barometer of the relationship, however miscalibrated. If I wasn’t being told I was good-looking, how did I know that my “womanly wiles” were still working? I HATED that I felt so dependent on them, and actually eventually wound up telling my boyfriend exactly that–that I didn’t like that I felt like something was missing, but that indeed I did, and could we talk about it?

    And here’s the thing: He loves me and thinks I’m special, so of course he was more than willing to have that conversation, without hurling accusations at me for feeling ambivalent about compliments about my appearance, and without excusing his choices as the “right” way to be a feminist man. Together, we had a good conversation about what it means to be a feminist in a non-feminist-friendly world; about the relationship between appearance and perception of self; about the very nature of attraction.

    I love what one of the commenters wrote: “I think everyone is special in different ways, so I would do my best to do the things that make my date, valentine and/or spouse feel special too.” Being able to have a conversation about this topic without having it unravel into “But I think you’re pretty!” protestations was one of the gifts of being in a feminist relationship. Because he had an intuitive grasp–or maybe a learned one, I don’t know–about the issues related to beauty, appearance, and identity for a lot of women, we could talk about the issues truly at hand. I agree with the commenter who said that communication was the essence of a feminist relationship–indeed, that’s the essence of any good relationship. I’d go so far as to say that any relationship in which each party felt free to express their desires without fear of judgment has some sort of feminist principle going on, even if it’s not feminist on its face. (And for the record, my boyfriend made it clear that he wasn’t withholding compliments because they were unfeminist per se, but because he genuinely didn’t know when it would be appropriate to tell me I looked lovely–“I always think you look pretty; if I only tell you at certain times, I’m worried you’ll think I don’t think so all the time.” I’d like to think he was wrong, but I also know that with other men I’ve sometimes experienced the “pretty freeze”–he’ll tell me I look beautiful, and in that moment I become so concerned with continuing to look beautiful that I lose the very ease and comfortability that probably prompted him to think that. But that’s another topic…)

    In any case, nice post!


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