Pierce Harlan, for instance, recently wrote an article about feminist reactions to the sinking of the Titanic. Back in 1912 the men on the Titanic accepted certain death by giving up their places on the lifeboats to women and children. Many women were impressed by this act of chivalry, with one group of American women erecting a memorial to the men who had sacrificed their lives.
But there were feminists in 1912 who did not wish to accept that the men had made any remarkable sacrifice for women. Some feminists argued that the women had it just as hard as the men as they had to watch from the lifeboats as the ship went down. Others argued that it was a part of natural law for women to be saved as they were more necessary to the survival of the race.
In other words, the feminists denied the existence of a chivalry which accorded them certain privileges in the way they were treated.
Pierce Harlan's take on all this is that society in 1912 accepted the existence of a chivalry which privileged women in certain ways, but that our society, just like the feminists of 1912, denies its existence:
Now, almost 100 years later, chivalry is still a potent force in our society affording special treatment to women in countless ways, but we've done a 180 from where we were in 1912: we've adopted the attitudes the suffragettes held in 1912 of denying that chivalry exists. Their denial -- so marginalized and disparaged in 1912 -- has become the norm in 2010. Denial that chivalry exists is necessary in order to pretend we embrace gender equality. It's a charade. We were more honest about gender in 1912.
Harlan believes that feminists were right to aim at gender equality, but that we don't have true gender equality because women are still privileged by the "potent force" of chivalry.
He supports the views of one of the feminists of the Titanic era who recognised the chivalry but who thought it misguided:
The memorial was not without its detractors. "Some feminists criticized the memorial, saying it was inappropriate to not only commemorate but perpetuate the notion of chivalry. Margaret [Molly Brown] responded that she thought it was very brave that some men had chosen to step aside and let women and children live -- but the gesture should never have been required by law or custom."
Molly Brown, of course, "got it." If only her kind of rational thinking had prevailed.
Now, almost 100 years after Titanic, in important ways, we are less honest about gender than we were when the mighty ship sank. In 1912, women did not have the same rights as men, but society freely acknowledged the chivalry at work on Titanic.
Today, we claim to embrace gender equality, yet chivalry is alive and well and manifests itself in countless ways -- and we pretend it doesn't exist. Like the elephant in the room, it leaves its imprint on virtually every institution, but it's entirely too politically incorrect to acknowledge.
The argument is straightforward enough: modern society promises us gender equality, but men don't get to enjoy equal treatment because of an influential chivalry which can't be openly acknowledged.
Despite its virtues of being simple and clear, I think the argument is wrong.
Chivalry is not the main driver of modern society. It is not a "potent force". There may be a residue of it left in the lighter sentences handed to women in the legal system and in the reluctance to commit women to combat roles or to the military draft.
In general, though, women have been given preferential treatment for an entirely different reason. They have been given preferential treatment because of the way that "gender equality" is understood in liberal societies. Therefore, men's rights activists ought to be wary of accepting the aim of "gender equality" as it is understood today.
The problem is this. Liberals believe that the key good that defines us as human is autonomy. We are autonomous when we are independent, when we have the power to enact our will, when we can choose our own life path etc.
This idea put women at a disadvantage. It made the lives that women traditionally led seem inferior. After all, women were tied biologically to motherhood rather than choosing amongst a range of career options; they were financially dependent on men; and they did not have the same political power that (some) men had to determine social outcomes.
So the early feminists declared that women, as a matter of equality and justice, ought to be free to live the same lives that men did. They rejected the idea that women lived different lives to men because of natural differences between the sexes. Instead, they explained historical differences as a product of socialisation that could be overturned.
The more radical feminists went further and claimed that one class of people ("men") had enjoyed an unearned privilege by oppressing another class of people ("women"). The oppression was systemic throughout society, and was embedded in the culture and institutions of society, including marriage, romance and chivalry. Domestic violence and rape were used by powerful men to maintain their patriarchal privileges.
This is the set of ideas that has been accepted by the Western political classes. The assumption is that women have been historically oppressed and that it is therefore serving the aim of "gender equality" if they are given special treatment in order to lift their status.
In theory, it ought to be enough to give women equal opportunity. After all, if men and women really are the same, and sex distinctions are just social constructs, then men and women with equal opportunities ought to end up having equal outcomes.
But this hasn't happened. Men have continued to earn more, to dominate boardrooms and so on. Liberals don't respond to this by accepting the fact of gender difference. Instead, they assume that historic oppression is still at work and stubbornly resisting women's liberation. They then enact various forms of affirmative action until they get the outcome they want.
This will go on no matter how much men's rights activists argue against chivalry. Let's say that men's rights activists argue that women should serve in combat roles just as men have to do and that this would mean that women are not being given preferential treatment because of chivalry.
What would happen? First, the liberal establishment would be more than happy to take on board the suggestion. Most Western countries are moving in that direction anyway. Nor would most feminists object. Most of the feminists I've debated think it's their right to fight in combat.
But would this stop women getting preferential treatment? The answer is no. When the next round of earnings statistics appeared, and they showed women not earning as much as men, there would still be the same outcry about inequality, and there would be further attempts to rejig the system to favour female earnings. The same with superannuation. Or boardrooms. Or number of MPs. Or women in engineering.
So, again, I would ask men's rights activists to question the assumptions behind liberal notions of "gender equality". Once you accept the liberal version of gender equality you are committing yourself to the view that:
- sex distinctions are just social constructs
- personal autonomy is the overriding good in life, and not relationships, the good of society, love, feelings of connectedness, the welfare of children and families and so on.
- women are not being treated as fully human until society creates the conditions in which they can live as men do
- preferential treatment for women is justified to overcome historic oppression
However, I do remember the culture of chivalry from my youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a matter of everyday culture back then, at least in middle-class Melbourne, for men to offer up seats for women, to hold open doors, to change tyres, to offer to carry bags and so on.
My memory is that it was largely a positive thing. You would make such a gesture for a woman and she would accept graciously. It was something that marked gender differences in a positive way and which helped to create a good feeling between the sexes.
The feminists of the time were not amused. When I first arrived at campus in the mid-80s there were meetings being held in which such practices of courtesy were strongly criticised. A small number of feminists began to attack men who held open doors, word got around and by the late 80s men had mostly given it up.
My point is that it would be wrong to see chivalry as something that feminists have used against men. There may have been instances of this, but to a considerable degree chivalry was something that expressed a positive feeling of mutuality between men and women.