A common refrain in society today is that people have lost the ability to be nice. Manners are in short supply as every conceivable niche has turned political.
Could even something as benign as “ladies first” be controversial? If you’re on an American campus these days, the answer is “of course it can.”
University of California-Santa Barbara student Miya Herzstein relates what transpired when she once held open a door for a male colleague:
“After you,” I assert with a humble smile as I hold back the steel staff-entrance door for my coworker. While adjusting his silky red tie, my co-worker responds with a courtly grin, “No no, after you, miss. Ladies first.”
“Please,” I insist. “I already have it propped open.” As I kindly tilt my head, gesturing for him to enter, he counters with “I can’t, miss — ladies always go first.”
“Why did his gesture of politesse supersede mine? Why did I have to succumb to his wishes just because that’s ‘how it’s done’”? Herzstein wonders.
Despite the intent of the gesture, the “ideology” of the “ladies first” statement “upholds patriarchal dominion,” she says.
“Writer, poet, performer, [and] educator” Caroline Rothstein showed a few days ago that she agrees with such a philosophy:
Saying, “No thank you, I got it,” to the middle-aged white man on the airplane who offered—and began—to take my suitcase out of the overhead compartment for me was a quickly calculated act of resistance.
— Caroline Rothstein (@cerothstein) July 31, 2019
On a basic level, it reinforces the gendered stereotype that women can’t and shouldn’t do hard physical tasks and implies that men must accommodate women’s inherent weakness. We can never be equal if women are assumed to be dependent on men to get to where we want to go.
Beyond simple day to day life, such forced male dependency is also de jure. Dr. Lucy Delap of Cambridge University argues that the British elite vehemently propagated the Titanic legend to prevent women from obtaining suffrage. In other words, women had no need for the right to vote because men, even in the face of death, would put the interests of women before their own.
While simply being unequal on a male-female binary, such ideology fails to account for the multitude of gender identities that exist in our world. Where does someone who identifies as nonbinary fit into the doorway passage hierarchy?
Herzstein claims chivalrous norms have consequences; after all, the US women’s soccer team is paid less than the men’s team despite better performance (false), and there’s the old canard that women are only paid 83 cents to every man’s dollar (also false … and isn’t it supposed to be 77 cents?).
“We must abandon notions of gender equality, and strive for intersectional equity,” Herzstein concludes.