I have mixed feelings about “chivalry.”  If you look at the actual definition, chivalry is “a term related to the medieval (middle ages) institution of knighthood which has an aristocratic military origin of individual training and service to others. It is usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love.”  In other words, it is a prescribe set of moral values and standards for behavior.  Standard etiquette for well-groomed men, so to speak.

It’s taken on a new definition, however – to mean how a man treats “the fairer sex.”  Opening doors, carrying heavy objects, etc.  I go both ways on this.  I think it’s appropriate to be polite and accommodating to people when you are able to do so and when the circumstances merit this.  For example, if you are on the bus and there are no seats left, and an elderly woman gets on, you stand up and offer your seat.  This doesn’t need to be a man/woman thing.  It’s simply a decent person thing.  And, yeah: if you’re twice the size of your girlfriend/wife, it is not far-fetched that you’re probably physically stronger than her, too, and offering to carry a heavy bag for her is, again, a decent person thing.  Offering your coat or opening a door for her, well, I’m not so stupid as to think that is nothing more than a man whose parents raised him well, to have good manners.  It’s a gesture, not a statement.

Even still –  I can carry my own bags, dress appropriately for the weather, and open my own doors just fine.  I don’t need someone to do things for me that I am capable of doing myself.  I don’t think though, in 2011, that most men do these things for women because they think they’re incapable of it themselves, but rather as a, well, chivalrous gesture.  (For the record, late at night, yes I do want to be walked to my car/house.  There is power in numbers, and I don’t want to walk alone if I don’t have to.)

A coworker abandoned an old issue of Time Magazine in our break room, and while heating up my coffee this week, I came across an interview with Jon Hamm.  Being a huge fan of Mad Men, I was excited to read this.

This Q&A stood out:

What qualities do you think men lack today that were present in those from the Mad Men era? —Octavio de la Torre, PALMDALE, CALIF.

“There’s a cordialness that men had when dealing with the opposite sex, even when they were being blatantly sexist. It’s a weird conundrum. But that’s been replaced with men treating women like absolute garbage and not even being polite about it, which is too bad.”

That cordialness?  I suppose one could call that modern-day chivalry.

Women want to be treated like human beings.  Not like lesser members of society, not like objects.  In many ways, he’s right – a lot of men still do treat women like second-class citizens, except now they’re not even nice about it.  These aren’t mutually exclusive – you can be a chauvenistic asshole and not be chivalrous in any way; you can also treat a woman as an equal while still treating her with respect.

In other words, chivalry =/= chauvinism.  I have mixed feelings about it because modern-day feminism implies that I should, when in reality, I know the difference between being treated with respect and deference and being treated like a second class citizen.  My husband opens doors for me and offers to carry my bags, but he also treats me like an equal partner.  You can accept “chivalrous” gestures with grace and still be secure in your independence.

I think, sometimes, we feminists get too ahead of ourselves, and choose battles that aren’t worth fighting.  This is one of them.