I will give Emily Esfahani Smith this: She’s got a much lighter touch than anyone in the Schlafly family. After that, the comparisons start to get more even.
Phyllis Schlafly herself has long been arguing for a return to “traditional” gender relations. She’s also long been known for making rather bizarre claims in support of that argument. A couple of weeks ago, her niece, Suzanne Venker received lots of attention–and derision–for doing the same.
Then, yesterday, Esfahani Smith had a piece published in The Atlantic calling for a return to chivalry. Yes, chivalry. Yes, The Atlantic. Not only that, but people I would normally expect to react to appeals to tradition with at least suspicion weren’t incredulous.
So, well played Esfahani Smith. Well played. That said, let’s look at what you’re actually proposing.
First, the problem:
This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, as the ship was on its maiden journey from Southampton, UK, to New York City, it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. About three hours later, it sank. Three-quarters of the women on the ship survived; over three quarters of the men, by contrast, died. In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”
About a year ago, a group of today’s men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves.
Oh, our degenerate times. Why are we no longer like those brave men of yore who heroically sacrificed for the helpless?
In large part, we are no longer like that because we never were. Aside from the passengers on the Titanic, that kind of gender disparity just didn’t happen. When an economist looked at more than 100 fatal wrecks over the last 300 years, he discovered that men survived at twice the rate of women and that children fared far worse than either.
The Titanic was an anomaly. Nor was it an anomaly because it was a luxury liner and, thus, full of noble souls. It was an anomaly because the captain gave a specific order to prioritize women and children over men. He also is generally have presumed to have gone down with his ship, which is almost unheard of in maritime disasters.
So, we’re not really less heroic than we were 100 years ago. Still, maybe we could be better. What does Esfahani Smith recommend? Chivalry.
Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.
“We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is,” argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. “It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.”
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.
My first thought on reading this, of course, is “And they say feminists hate men and demonize masculinity?” My second thought is that I’m going to point every person who cites Hoff Sommers as an exemplar of social thought at this. My third: “Chivalry? Really? Chivalry?”
The first thing you need to know about chivalry is that it was a military code. It was not, despite Forni’s statement, a way that men treated women. It was the way that knights–professional soldiers–were supposed to treat everyone. It put, in theory at least, limits on the power of those who were allowed to wander around with weaponry, military training, and the kind of preferential feeding that produced big, healthy, muscular men. These soldiers agreed to temper their power and put it at the service of those who didn’t have it. That meant the peasantry as a whole, at least those who were Christians, as well as the monarch who allowed them to hang out armed.
That form of chivalry? That’s fine. (More or less. The part where it codified a culture of continual warfare not so much, but I can see how that might be invisible to some people in our current culture of continual warfare.) In fact, we already do something very similar in how we temper the power of our professional soldiers with the respect to the populations we serve.
That isn’t, however, what is being proposed here. Esfahani Smith is not saying the strong and the armed should feel a particular duty to everyone who is weak or unarmed. She, and the people she cites, are saying that men should have a particular duty to women.
This too has historical precedent. This too was not what Esfahani Smith and friends are trying to tell us it was.
This sort of chivalry, to the extent it existed, was based in the idea of courtly love. You know, the stuff of ballads. For those of you not immersed in folk tradition, ballads generally means tragedies. There’s a fun little bit on the Wikipedia page on courtly love that tells you how the stories that make up this particular chivalric tradition go:
- Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
- Worship of the lady from afar
- Declaration of passionate devotion
- Virtuous rejection by the lady
- Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
- Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of love-sickness)
- Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
- Consummation of the secret love
- Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection
Sound appealing? Whether it does or not, the important thing to note is that there are very strict roles for the players here. This tradition of chivalry is a purity cult. The lady (and lady is used advisedly; this was a court game) is worshiped first for withholding sex and later for fidelity and sharing the risk of detection. She is cared for exquisitely because she is worshiped. Other women are cared for carefully because they are, like the knight’s lady, pure and worthy of worship.
If you can’t tell what that means for any woman who is not so pure, it’s worth looking at those story elements again. That’s a rough timeline, meaning that the elements happen in order. So all that trouble that our romantic couple meets, the endless subterfuge, etc.? That’s what happens after sex, when the purity ends. And although the list doesn’t specify, this doesn’t go on until old age.
Our chivalrous lovers don’t die in a cottage some place with gray hair and wrinkles while holding hands. They undergo punishment until the balladeer is tired of taking it out on them. Then one of them dies, if not both. The other, if female, does religious-y work or penance after that. If male, he sacrifices himself in some battle, not infrequently for the benefit of the king he wronged by stealing a wife or daughter or sister-in-law or whatever.
No one lives happily ever after in these things. They can’t consummate and go unpunished and maintain the purity myth. There has to be separation and there has to be sacrifice.
That, of course, is all story. However, traditions based around stories take some cues from those stories. In the case of chivalry, one of the cues taken is that women are worth protecting based on their “virtue”, their sexual purity, along with the nobility (of the political sort) that is the background for these stories.
So, you want a world in which men treat women according to chivalrous codes? Then you’re looking at a world in which chastity plays a big part in determining whether you’re safe from violence. A world in which being the object of a man’s sexual interest determines how you’re treated. A world in which we have one standard of behavior for dealing with women from the upper classes and a different standard for all other women. A world in which a woman who is no longer “pure” has rightfully earned punishment of some sort.
A world in which nobody much cares about how guys treat each other.
The traditions of this kind of gender-based chivalry are traditions of carving very small, coercive exceptions to violence out of the world. It’s not the world I’m working for. Update: See Andrew Tripp for a good take on this modern end of things.
It’s not the world Esfahani Smith acts like she’s selling us either, but she is, and with a certain amount of deliberation. Look at the rest of her writing. Look at her article on hookup culture that sells the degradation as the cost of casual sex. Look at who she quotes and what they’re selling you in the way of gender and sexual politics. Esfahani Smith is waving a world of reduced violence under your nose and hoping you won’t notice the repressive gender roles she’s got tucked behind her back.
I have to give her credit for creativity. I’ll even hand over a bunch of style points. But I really hope people give that offer a good solid look before they buy. It’s just the same old lemon dressed up as a suit of armor.
Image by Sue Talbert Photography. Some rights reserved.