Chivalry Never Was

by Raywat Deonandan

September 26, 2003

This original Podium article was re-pinted in The Ottawa Citizen on Oct 6, 2003, under the title, “Men and women shouldn’t stand for this: True equality between the sexes will never exist until we stop treating women like weaklings, while ignoring the well-being of men.”

As I write this, I’m on a train from Toronto to Montreal, scheduled to stop at several stations on the way. Unbelievably, Via Rail has managed to sell more economy-class tickets than it has seats. As a result, about thirty of us are standing in the aisles as the train pulls out of Union Station.

No, this is not a tirade against Via Rails inability to do simple math, though their failing in this regard is truly bewildering. Rather, I am intrigued and a little disturbed by the event that has ensued. The Via staff, you see, have discovered 18 empty seats in the first class car. They have decided to apportion these prized seats in the following manner: all elderly people and women first, then, if there are any seats left over, men travelling the full distance to Montreal.

Ill give you a minute to read that last sentence again.

Now, no good citizen is going to argue against the need to promptly find seats for the elderly or infirm. But isnt it odd that now, at the dawn of the 21st century, when women have flown in space, hiked to the South Pole, fought in war, performed brain surgery and boxed professionally, they are still assumed to be so physically fragile as to require priority seating, lumped together with other types of physically disadvantaged persons?

I understand that there is a substantial sector of modern society that still believes in the myth of chivalry, this code of conduct that supposedly guided men of yore to romantic and noble actions, self-sacrifice and the occasional orgies of mutual bloodletting on European fields. It is this same sector of society that insists on letting the sole woman out of the crowded elevator first, even though shes standing in the back and has to wrestle past a crush of sheepish male bodies to get out. Each of us is, of course, entitled to exercise our own principles and philosophies of polite behaviour. However, when such personal philosophies intrude into the realm of officialdom, reflected, for example, in the seating policies of the national railway, pause must be taken.

It is worth pointing out that such a chivalric code never really existed, at least not in the way it is understood today. Historic chivalry was a set of rules to govern the behaviour of combative knights toward each other and toward other families of noble caste. They were free to abuse the peasant class both men and women as their tastes decreed.

Surely such sentiment has no place in a modern civilization that claims as its prime directive the unqualified equality of all its citizens –at least not in any official or commercial capacity. We have done away with the legislated inequalities of class that characterized the supposed chivalric period. And we have done away with the official inequalities of race that have plagued all nations. Of course, at the unofficial level, such disparities persevere, and we are all sensitized to them. If the Via Rail conductor had declared, for example, that the free seats would go to white people or rich people first, how would such an announcement have been received? Poorly, I should think.

Yet no one in the train today raised an eyebrow over the separate treatment of the sexes. Indeed, every standing woman eagerly rushed forward to claim her seat, and every man seemed content to stand proudly and display his virile ability to remain vertical. Where were the equality activists demanding that we recognize a man’s right to sit and a woman’s right to display her own vertical strengths?

Yes, this is a little thing, a silly thing. But it belies a greater truth, that society still seeks to insult and deny the resilience of women while devaluing the comforts and welfare of men. During the invasion of Iraq, newscasters expressed horror that a building being bombed might contain women and children. And the cry of women and children to the lifeboats! is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a disaster film. The value and power of women is oft equated with that of children, while the lives of civilian men are not noted so long as other lives are in peril.

Rather than respecting and cultivating the skills of women, this is an attitude that serves to deny women full participation in the social physical roles traditionally dominated by men, such as emergency and military services. Such a philosophy is insulting to both sexes, and must end before true social equality can be realized.

I have to go now. They’ve found me seat.

Raywat Deonandan is co-owner and operator of The Podium magazine and author of Divine Elemental, to be published this fall. He lives in Toronto.