Chivalry and the Working Woman

On Chivalry
Nice piece on how “traditional” male politeness towards women constrains and undermines women’s participation in the public sphere:

I like to pay my share of the meal, or treat my [significant other] to a movie on occasion. I like to be involved in major decisions, outside of perhaps a couple surprise parties or whatever. I like being a partner in my relationships, both intimate and friendly. I’m not a delicate flower, and to treat me as such is the deepest insult to my personhood. It is a dismissal of who I am and what I stand for. It is not courteous, it is rude.

My own objections are similar, though as a man I’ve often felt the expectation of chivalry to be as limiting as some women find the application of its “politeness” to them. It’s a weird thing to realize that, however much you love or respect someone, unless you participate in certain to-my-mind exceedingly corny rituals — the jump to get the door, the red roses, the heart-shaped chocolates, diamonds on special days, casually getting the check, tasting the wine, etc. — you are somehow hurting that person.

But my big objection is the classism inherent in chivalry. Today’s chivalry dates back to the Victorian era (with some changes — for instance, the commenter whose brother demanded to stand between her and the street “to be polite” was protecting her from mud splashed by passing carriages; these days, though, the man is supposed to stand on the other side, to protect the woman from would-be attackers who might leap out of dark alleys or doorways and snatch her purse) and is the embodiment of the disdain for women’s bodies as weak and non- or even dysfunctional, and the concomittant conception of women as a man’s property the value of which needed to be protected.

The thing is, these notions demanded an income high enough to support them, high enough to allow women to indulge in weakness and delicacy. Poor women had no such luxury, embroiled in the demanding and often unsafe and unsanitary work of keeping a home (e.g. making soap with lye and rendered fats is neither safe, clean, nor delicate work) or the even less safe, less sanitary, and more physically demanding work ofered by mills and factories. While the upper-class women of Massachusett’s Mandarin class endulged in months-long “laying up” periods while pregnant, swooning, and the late 19th century romanticization of consumption made possible by medical care that could keep a consumptive woman alive for years, even decades, the working women of Massachusetts, like the millworkers of Lowell, has an average life expectancy of 23-25 years, faced police and even military truncheons when they striked, and were forced off the line in their early 20s when their bodies gave out — often disabled by the same consumption (tuberculosis) that gave their upper-class “sisters” their bright eyes and pale complexions.

The standard of female treatment encoded in Miss Manners-type rules was a luxury reserved for women who could afford them — or for members fo the working and nascent middle classes whose notions of “class” were shaped by the emulation of their social “betters”. For a Lowell millworker or Lower East Side sweatshop worker or Iowa farmwife, the trappings of chivalry offered empowerment, for themselves and their “uncouth” men, and the hope of advancement; of course, the upper-classes profited from the additional expenses that working people were willing to take on to be “classy” while remaining comfortably protected from workers clearly identifiable by the obvious (to them) gap between emulation and habitus.

[Via The Uncommon Man]

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