More Than Just Holding the Door: Reflections on Chivalry in the Light of John Paul II6:00:00 AMRose Deemer
“It is the duty of every man to uphold the dignity of every woman.”
-Pope St. John Paul II
It was a cold, windy morning in early December. I was walking from my dorm to the cafeteria behind a couple of guys, none of whom I knew. When we got to the cafeteria door they all headed in, and the last one absent-mindedly pushed the door open in my direction as he went through. But then, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw me, registering the fact that I was a girl. When we got to the next door, he opened it all the way and stood back with a smile, letting me go ahead of him. It was a little thing--just a small gesture of courtesy and respect--but it brightened my morning like you wouldn’t believe. By that one small action, he acknowledged the dignity of my womanhood and gave it the respect it deserves. To reference John Paul II as quoted above, he fulfilled his duty as a man by upholding my dignity as a woman.
Sadly, however, many people today don’t understand the true significance of acts of chivalry. A guy friend of mine once held a door for a woman, only to have her kick him in the shins for treating her with such “blatant chauvinism”: an extreme but unfortunately not uncommon reaction to this gesture. About a year ago, I saw a video by Jordan Taylor of the Youtube channel Blimey Cow in which he argues that the gesture of opening a door for a woman is an act of service and kindness, but that as such it should be a standard for both sexes. As Jordan comments at the end of the video, “If you’re only opening doors for women, that probably is some form of deep-seated chauvinism...you [should] only open doors for girls if you’re cool with girls opening doors for you, too.” While I agree that holding a door for someone is, in and of itself, just a simple act of service, and therefore there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman holding a door for a man, I’m not quite satisfied with Jordan’s solution to the problem. I believe that there is deeper meaning to this gesture, small as it is, when it is performed by a man for a woman, and that it is not merely an act of service with equal meaning for both sexes. This deeper meaning has as its roots the now commonly misunderstood concept of chivalry.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “chivalry” as “an honorable and polite way of behaving, especially toward women”. Clearly, the controversy doesn’t lie in “honorable and polite” behavior; everybody wants to be treated with courtesy. The problem phrase in this definition is, of course, “especially toward women.” The fact that the female sex is singled out as particularly deserving of honor and politeness seems, to some, to insinuate an underlying belief in the inferiority of women (though this is not very logical, considering that people of exalted positions--presidents, monarchs, military commanders, etc.--are also customarily treated with particular honor). In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”), Pope St. John Paul II takes a firm stand against this theory. He states, “One must speak of an essential ‘equality’, since both [man and woman]--the woman as much as the man--are created in the image and likeness of God.” (68) As is quoted at the beginning of this post, John Paul also staunchly holds that men have the responsibility to uphold the dignity of women. I would argue that chivalry rightly understood is a synthesis of these two ideals: the “essential equality” of men and women as children of God, and the duty of man to protect and uphold woman. When these two are joined, a simple action like opening a door becomes the sign of a deeper reality, and is transformed from a mere token of common courtesy to an action of true chivalry.
The truly chivalrous man does not use his service to women to belittle them or to glorify himself, for he knows them to be his equals in dignity and value. Rather, by his service he affirms and shows respect for their dignity, both as children of God and as women, and fulfills his God-given responsibility and privilege to uphold and protect them.
What about us ladies, though? Isn’t there a way in which we’re called to uphold the dignity of the men around us? I would argue that there is, and it’s vitally important. Just as men are called to use their strength properly, to serve rather than to dominate, women are called to use their God-given beauty to inspire and bring joy to those around them, rather than to seduce or manipulate. I posit that modesty (something perhaps even more controversial than door-holding) is the realm in which women are primarily called to exercise a sort of chivalry of their own. What better way to uphold and respect the dignity of men by showing ourselves to them as we really are: not as sex objects or near occasions of sin waiting to happen, but as human persons made in the image and likeness of God, with a beautiful dignity which is in no way inferior to theirs, and a set of incredible gifts and attributes which are equal to theirs, but beautifully, wonderfully different.