Chivalry’s Not Dead, It’s Just Dumb
An article called “50 Ways To Be A Woman” was making the rounds on some Tumblr blogs I follow. The article itself is a well-meaning but rather contradictory list of suggestions to be yourself and be independent mixed with tips on how to appear and behave lady-like. If these are traits and behaviors she values for herself, more power to her. In that case, though, a more fitting title would be “50 Ways to Be the Woman I Want to Be“. A list on how to be a woman really shouldn’t have more than two steps:
1.) Identify as a female human.
2.) Survive until adulthood.
There are a lot of points to criticize in the list (its somewhat obsessive hetero-normativity, its focus on the very subjective concept of “modesty”, etc.), as by its standards I fail pretty hard on a lot of it. My biggest issues with the list can be summed up in these few points:
12. Allow yourself to be treated like lady. If more women would sit down and be ladies, more men would stand up and be men. Just because you are capable of opening your own door, in the presence of a man, you should not have to. Allow men the indulgence of being men and take pride in the privilege of being a lady.
20. Do not restrict yourself to gender stereotypes, but do not blatantly defy them for sport.
32. Do not outwardly reject society’s conventions of a woman just because they differ from your personal convictions.
These points led to some discussions about “gentlemanly” behaviors like opening doors, offering seats on the bus, and taking on physical labor tasks so women don’t have to do them. It was pointed out by some that this is intended as a sign of respect toward women, and not intended to be degrading.
No, those acts generally aren’t intended to be degrading, but they very much can be. Here’s an example from my own experience:
My two most recent jobs (with the same company for which I worked 10 years) involved a pretty significant amount of warehouse work. I was management, but I was still loading trucks with a non-powered pallet jack and otherwise moving heavy materials on a fairly regular basis. Particularly in my most recent position, it was not uncommon for male employees to insist on stopping me from doing these tasks myself. Some would go so far as to actually grab the pallet jack away from me.
I don’t believe any of them did this maliciously. I believe they all meant well, but it made me uncomfortable and often angry. This was part of my job, which I took seriously. Their insistence on taking these tasks from me, even if they didn’t intend it, came with the implication that I was inherently unsuited to my position based on my gender. This is not only discouraging on a personal level; consider the fact that, whether you believe the wage gap between genders exists*, there are a significant number of people who believe such a gap is appropriate in part because they believe women do less work. When I’m trying to do my job and men consistently take key tasks over for me, is it not likely that what my supervisors see is me doing less of my own work? Furthermore, what they see is someone else “having” to take time out of doing their own work to do mine.
Again, I believe these men truly intended to be helpful, but when I politely turn down their offer and they insist or take it upon themselves to do it anyway, they are undermining my ability to demonstrate my merit in the workplace. It may be well-intentioned, but it is not always harmless.
Even when it’s not a matter of feeling degraded, I find it very uncomfortable. I truly believe that my gender should not be a factor in how I am treated as a default. I believe a man should show me no more, and no less respect than they would a man of comparable familiarity. If a man holds the door open for every woman, but doesn’t do so for other men, how is that not considered weird? How do you explain that behavior without just using an “it’s tradition” argument?
I defy quite a lot of cultural gender conventions, but I don’t do it “for sport” as the author suggests. I do it because those conventions feel completely unnatural and uncomfortable to me. Even when it comes to the appearance suggestions in the article, I don’t follow those conventions because I am profoundly uncomfortable wearing heels (I don’t like the way they make me feel “artificially” taller). I don’t adhere to “modesty” guidelines because low-cut, sleeveless tops that show my cleavage and shoulders look good on me and feel good on me, and much “conservative” clothing makes me look and feel even more awkward than I already am.
So, if I find these conventions restrictive and unnatural for myself, why wouldn’t I outwardly reject them? What reason is there to reject society’s conventions if not because they differ from my personal convictions? My gender is part of me. It does not define me, nor do the expectations our culture has for it.
This does not make me any less of a woman.
* It does exist, but I don’t want to derail this topic with that argument. The point here is that there are plenty of people who don’t think it’s a problem if it does.