Chivalry is not an obvious idea. It is not as plain as a pike-staff or as a palm-tree. It is a delicate balance between the sexes, which gives the rarest kind of pleasure to those who can strike it. – G.K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (1920)
We may come to remember 2017 as the Year of the Cad. We all know the names of the sex-abusing men and rather more than we’d like about their sordid escapades, so I won’t rehash all that. Instead, I want to address the white-hot temper of much of the news, which might lead one to conclude that the old “war between the sexes” has gone nuclear.
The women who have come forward to accuse their abusers – some after years of silence – are justified in doing so in every case in which the truth is being told. Feminism has many faces – from Christian feminism to “gender” feminism – and, disparate as the tenets and temperament of each kind of feminism may be, each is premised on the entirely sound belief that women are not chattel and that men must never mistreat them. And there is an assertion by some feminists of a kind of absolute equality between the sexes, which is certainly credible in the legal, intellectual, and moral senses.
But we must not imagine that male-female differences do not exist. Even the most ardent gender feminist must admit that men and women are differently endowed, and the question for them becomes: can we change those endowments. The affinity of this kind of feminism for transgenderism, transhumanism, and transformational social theories only confirms this awareness of essential differences, even if the goals of these ideologies are impossible and often immoral.
Innovations such as Title IX (1972) have given legal force to the push for sexual equality – with some negative effects on male sports in high school and college – but few among even the most extreme feminists believe that half of the Ohio State Buckeye football team should be female or that the NFL should desegregate to achieve sexual parity. Title IX has had the effect of bringing college enrollment to beyond parity: today women comprise 60 percent of all students in American higher education, despite the fact that women comprise just 51 percent of the total U.S. population.
Thus women continue to make progress in nearly every aspect of American society, and it’s progress at a speed few would have predicted a generation ago. Yet some men still act more like beasts than angels towards the women with whom they live and work.
As some TCT readers know, I wrote a 2004 book about chivalry and the idea of the gentleman. One chapter of that book is devoted to the relationships between men and women, i.e., to romance. As the Chesterton quotation atop this column suggests, those relations are a balance weighed in the scale we call chivalry.
When I wrote the book (shortly after September 11, 2001), I was convinced that chivalrous men – or compleat gentlemen, as I put it – are a diminishing and somewhat beleaguered cadre. Recent events have done nothing to encourage greater optimism. Indeed, the somewhat poisonous atmosphere concerning masculinity probably sees chivalrous men, no matter how many there are, as yet another gang of privileged males for whom machismo is the summum bonum. That’s compleat nonsense.
Truly powerful women want truly powerful men. However, this power – on both sides – is not the sort in which domination is in play. Rather, it’s the power of self-sacrifice. And this selflessness in not simply the deference and love a husband gives to his wife, it is also the respect, loyalty, affection, and restraint a boss shows to employees.
I very much agree with the comment of Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison (1850-1928) that to be “womanly is one thing, and one only; it is to be sensitive to man, to be highly endowed with the sex instinct; to be manly is to be sensitive to woman.” By sex instinct, however, Professor Harrison was not referring to lust, which is disordered sensitivity.
I mentioned restraint, which I consider among the lost virtues of our age. The reasons for its disappearance are too many to mention, but among the obvious culprits is pornography. I’m not just talking about the Internet plague. Everywhere we look women, men, and even children are being sexualized to such an extent that it is difficult not to see one another as “sex objects.”
The public revulsion against caddish male behavior is largely being driven by liberal feminists. They should beware, because a further retreat from masculinity, which is – in some cases – their desideratum, may have disastrous consequence, suggested in this quote by another lady don, this time from Oxford. Rachel Trickett (1923-1999), late of St. Hugh’s College. She called the quest for absolute sexual equality “inevitably anarchic” and worried that the evolved rules of behavior between men and women cannot be jettisoned except at a great price:
When all ideas of a code of conduct collapse, when the concept of courtesy disappears, a condition of primitivism prevails, and its principle is, inevitably, brute force. There is no other way in which to assert some sort of predominance, some sort of pack leadership. And in this situation men will inevitably prevail for the simple, biological reason that they are stronger than women. So that women, without some code of deference or respect, become increasingly victims, however much they try to compete with their superiors in strength.
Curiously, this is not far from the view taken by the medieval diarist Christine de Pizan (1364-1430): true love is a disaster without the virtues of civility.