Further, a lot of commenters seem to be confused about what exactly does the word "chivalry" mean. When asked to give an example of chivalrous behaviour, they will usually point to Titanic with men surrendering their seats in life boats to the ladies, or start talking about opening the doors for women and the like.
Obviously, it's impossible to discuss something without first agreeing on the definition so I again turned to my 1992 Longman and that's what it said: chivalry 1 (in the Middle Ages) the beliefs or practices of noble soldiers (knights) as a group 2 the qualities (such as bravery, honour, generosity, and kindness to the weak and poor) which this system aimed at developing
Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary of 1996 defines chivalry in the following way: 1. the sum of the ideal qualifications of a knight, including courtesy, generosity, valor and dexterity in arms. 2. the rules and customs of medieval knighthood. 3. the medieval system or institution of knighthood. 4. a group of knights. 5. gallant warriors or gentlemen: fair ladies and noble chivalry.
The first thing which we can deduct from these definitions is that chivalry is something which pertains to men (warriors and gentlemen) so while it's possible for a woman to perform a noble deed, it would be wrong to call her behaviour chivalrous.
The second point is that chivalry as such was an honour code which was not specifically about women, but rather about how a warrior should behave. In one of my previous posts I touched on this topic by linking to the Knights' Code Of Chivalry , which I now want to quote in full:
To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
To protect the weak and defenceless
To give succour to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
To live by honour and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honour of fellow knights
To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honour of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Never to turn the back upon a foe
As you can see, women are only specifically mentioned once. The chivalrous ideal was not about opening doors for ladies, but about behaving honourably and doing your duty to God and Fatherland. Since it was an ideal enforced by upper class men on upper class men, it's logical that not everybody subscribed to it, and that every epoch had its fair amount of cowards, cheats and scoundrels.
This takes me to my next point. When a certain ideal is upheld in society it doesn't mean that 100% of the population will subscribe to it and live according to it. The ideal for women in the 1950s was a domestic goddess and yet many married women worked. The modern ideal is an empowered career woman and yet I know plenty of housewives. It doesn't mean, however, that we should have no ideals or standards at all, only that we should be realistic in our expectations of our fellow men.
As society became more democratic in Victorian times, the chivalrous ideal spread through the middle and lower classes which probably led to the Titanic phenomenon. Medieval times are too far removed from us anyway to try and copy them, so when people talk about chivalry they mostly mean the Victorian ideal of it, hence the Titanic reference. However, is it realistic to expect that this ideal of men voluntarily sacrificing their lives for women could be upheld in our society?
To answer it we should first decide why men were expected to sacrifice for women. Is it because women were considered to be more deserving or more valuable? No, it was because women by law, custom and tradition were considered weaker and the original knight code mentioned protecting the weak and defenceless. Some conservatives seem to have forgotten it, but feminists never do hence their incessant shrieking about benevolent sexism.
Nowadays we live in the times when the law and custom say that women are equals of men. They have equal political rights. If they marry they are not considered legally to be under their husband's authority. They can join the army. Movie after movie portrays them besting the men at every endeavour. They are more often shown with a machine gun in their hands than with a baby. It's obvious for everyone that in such moral climate it's utterly nonsensical to expect men as a whole to subscribe to the idea of sacrificing their lives for random women.
We can't have it both ways. Either women are equal to men, or they are fragile beings in need of male protection in which case they should surrender their political rights and equality before the law. This said, since I personally don't believe in equality I think that the chivalrous ideal is a noble one and individual men could still subscribe to it, but it is unrealistic to expect that an egalitarian society as a whole will.
The last point which I'd like to make is that chivalry was/is a moral code specifically for men and it was enforced by men. Women can't force men to become chivalrous, but they can inspire them. That's what Helen Andelin says about it in Fascinating Womanhood: "Men only feel a sense of duty to protect women who need their masculine care and protection...To awaken chivalry we must return to femininity. We must stop doing the masculine things and become the gentle, tender, dependent women we were designed to be, women who need masculine care and protection. When we do, men will delight in offering their chivalry." (P. 133, Bantam Books, 1992.)
I say amen to that.