In my interview with Annika, I remarked:
...chivalry and feminism are not incompatible.
That might need a bit more explaining.
My family was not a religious family in the conventional sense. Neither of my parents were believers, nor were (with a couple of notable exceptions among some cousins) were any members of my extended family. But growing up in a family led by my late grandmother, we did have our own brand of religion: civility. And if civility was the highest spiritual ideal, than good manners at table and in company were the required daily observances of our faith.
At age five, I was given handshake lessons by an uncle. I was taught how to apply exactly the right amount of pressure with my right hand (no "fish grips" or "vises"). I was taught to make eye contact, smile, and say "How do you do." Because of the forgetful nature of five year-olds, these lessons were repeated for an entire summer until I had mastered the art of the handshake to the satisfaction of all. In addition, my family made the young folk take part in brief improvised skits before parties or holiday functions. We would practice our pleases and thank-yous, and practice leaping to our feet when anyone older than ourselves entered the room. We were taught about holding doors, and pulling out chairs for all women (even our younger cousins).
I have to admit, I rather liked the manners lessons. Well, most of them. While I liked the interactive bits, I had a harder time learning not to speak with my mouth full. (My grandmother finally put a mirror in front of my plate to force me to watch myself masticate. It was a very helpful trick.)
My grandmother told me over and over again that the purpose of manners was very simple: "to make other people feel comfortable." It was a lesson that served me well until I went to college, when I discovered that the very behaviors that I had been taught would make others comfortable actually offended certain people. I was a freshman at Cal when I first was snapped at for holding the door open for a good friend of mine.
She: "I can get it myself", she snapped.
Me: "But Dara, I'm just trying to be polite."
She: "I know, Hugo, but your opening the door for me implies that I can't do it on my own. It suggests that I'm weak. It's a subtle way of reinforcing male domination.
"Dara", of course, was as young as I was. She was "trying on" feminism for the first time. As is usually the case with folks who begin this work, she was hyper-attuned to both real and perceived injustices. Misogyny lurked around every corner, and virtually all male-female interactions had to be filtered through the lens of feminist theory. I'm not being patronizing, nor am I making fun of the Daras of the world -- heck, for years, I was one of them! That intense sensitivity is a necessary phase in one's development, because it marks the first time one questions the "normal" gender roles one has been taught. But it is still a phase, and one that happily, most of us who do gender work get to grow out of.
Once I began taking women's studies courses, I grew more conflicted about the appropriateness of the manners my family had taught me. I was not prepared to be rude, of course. Rather, I decided that I was going to be "gender-neutrally polite", and treat everyone the same way. This worked well with doors, but not so well at dinner parties with chairs. Once I held the chair for one of my roommates at a graduation dinner for the seniors in our co-op. He gave me a withering look and told me "cut that sh*t out now, man." Not long thereafter, I tried to hold the chair for one of my male cousins, who simply pretended to ignore me and forcibly pulled the chair from my hand. Clearly, treating everyone with the exact same politesse was not going to work.
Gradually, I began to re-embrace the traditional "chivalry" that I had been taught. As I reached my twenties, and then my thirties, I found that the vast majority of women, including self-identified feminists, very much appreciated the gestures. Most of them already knew me before I ever held their chair, or opened their car door. They were thus less likely to be troubled by these simple actions. On a few occasions, I would still run into women, who, like Dara, would ask me not engage in these courtly rituals. I decided never to argue with them. After all, I remembered my grandmother's admonition: "manners are to make other people feel comfortable." The corollary to that, I decided, was that if what you think is polite is making someone else uncomfortable, stop it. Manners are not a particularly subtle weapon in the gender wars, though they can be used that way!
I vividly recall an incident my brother and I had on a train in Wales a few years ago. At that time, my brother was living in the West Wales market town of Carmarthen. I was visiting, and one day we took a very crowded train for a short ride down to Swansea. There were seats for us when we got on, but by the next stop, there were none. The train was filled with young Welsh teens and twenty-somethings. A middle-aged woman and her young daughter boarded and stood in the center aisle, just inches from my brother and me. I mouthed to him "Let's get up", and I started to rise. "Don't", he said, and leaned in to explain why. "Everyone can already tell you're American", my brother said. "They'll think you're trying to be posh and show up every man on this train. What you see as manners, they'll see as aggression. Trust me." I was floored. As much as I trusted my brother's knowledge of working-class South Walian culture (heck, he had learned to speak their notoriously difficult language, which is pretty impressive for a boy raised in California), I still couldn't believe that that would be how my actions would be interpreted. Later, I retold the story to at least half a dozen of my brother's Welsh friends -- and they all agreed with him. I learned something very important on that train.
So, what do I do now? Well, I hold the car door open for my fiancee. When she excuses herself from the table during a meal, I briefly rise. I go down the stairs in front of her, and up the stairs behind her, just as I had been taught. She does countless, wonderful, sweet things for me. In our relationship, traditional gender-based manners are a small way in which we can show appreciation for each other. We each feel validated and affirmed by the other's kindnesses. We are fully and completely aware that "equality" and "sameness" are not synonyms. In many small ways, our relationship is enhanced by the way in which we each choose to play these roles.
My kids in youth group and even in college classes often ask about gender roles. Indeed, they seem nearly obsessed with them. (How many teenage girls have said to me something like "Oh, I'm not a feminist; I like doors being held for me"!) I try and remind them that manners can be used to make people feel comfortable and affirmed, but they can also be used to make people feel small and weak. I tell the guys that it's okay to go ahead and be "chivalrous", but if it meets with displeasure, don't force the issue.
After all, the point of manners is not to prove how wonderfully polite and well-brought up one is; the point of manners is to make the other person feel seen and valued. We would do well to always remember that.