What Ever Happened to Chivalry?

Scott Farrell comments:

Although the courtesy and gallantry that Ms. Lichter discusses in this article are only small parts of the true Code of Chivalry, those small parts are important and powerful ones. As she points out with typical insight and eloquence, chivalry (and the self-restraint which accompanies it) addresses aspects of personal responsibility that laws and ordinances can’t even touch.

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When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank more than 81 years ago, only about a third of the great ship’s passengers survived. Most were women and children. Several male passengers refused to enter lifeboats because they weren’t sure all the women were safely aboard.

When a surviving ship’s officer was later asked whether “women and children first” was the captain’s rule or the rule of the sea, he replied that it was the rule of human nature.

The men who lived by that rule would be appalled to learn that today the fair sex is routinely verbally assaulted and that even obviously pregnant women are denied seats on trains. They would wonder how we could fight to put a few women on the Supreme Court and in corporate towers while stripping all women of the freedom to walk our streets in safety.

This erosion of civility is due in part to feminists who saw chivalry as tyranny dressed in kid gloves. But that’s not the only reason. Since the 1960s, an entire generation has gleefully rejected Victorian manners as rigid and snooty. Worse, manners were seen to perpetuate that great Puritan bugaboo — self-restraint.

It was not always so. During the Civil War, American Victorians were stunned by the horrible evidence that, as Charles Darwin had lately pointed out, humans were not one step below the angels, but a few steps above primordial sludge. People took comfort in a greatly expanded etiquette code, which proved they could rise above their roots. The code covered every action from debating delicate subjects to the proper folding of a calling card. And self-restraint, taught in homes, schools and churches, came to shield women and blunt the sharp edges of a Darwinian world.

In our era we have opted to replace that code of etiquette with a cultural anarchy encouraging immediate gratification and maximum self-expression, whatever the cost. Yet I venture to say that many women like me would welcome a little old-fashioned restraint.

People know that life a century and a half ago could be tough, but was also safer and smoother. In New York City, three out of five arrests were for nothing worse than drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Custom confined louts who smoked on lower Broadway to the east side of the street because the west side had fine ladies’ shops. If a man failed to bow his head to the lady of the house when raising his first glass of wine at the dinner table, he might not receive another invitation.

In the words of one mid-19th-century etiquette book, such practices form “a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch.” This code of etiquette was far more effective than today’s fuzzy hate-crime and hateful-speech laws.

We cannot recapture the past any more than we can escape it. But women can demand civility as well as civil rights. This is no trivial quest by pinkie-crooking tea drinkers. (Actually, polite people never crooked their pinkies.) When men relearn respect for women and the self-restraint it implies, violence against women will decline and everyday life will be a shade more pleasant. To my mind, incivility is sexual harassment.

Before women had the vote, we had the moral ground. It is time for us to put one foot back on the pedestal while keeping the other planted in the executive suite. It can be done; a sex that can survive pregnancy, childbirth and menopause while still running an office and organizing car pools can do anything.

© 2003 Linda Lichter and Readers’ Digest magazine

Copyright 2003 Readers’ Digest magazine. This article originally condensed from a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Linda Lichter.

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