(See comment at end)
Chivalry enjoys an odd position in today’s society. I would say that it is politically correct at least in public to espouse that there is little substantial difference between genders. There is an ongoing debate between those who say that there are (statistical) non-physical differences between men and women and those who say that there are not, but by my judgement this is mainly an academic debate – I’m pretty sure most people on both sides of the issue still support equality of rights.
My conception of modern day chivalry is that it is a notion of how men should treat women. I think this usually manifests in behaviors such as opening doors, refraining from returning play-hitting, paying for dinner, and acting as a protector in times of danger. Many (though not all) of these behaviors fall in the purview of general politeness if applied to both genders – the one that stands out the most is the protection clause.
I remember one of my friends saying one day that he considered himself old-fashioned-ly chivalrous. Though his tone came across as somewhat self-deprecating, I did not feel that he considered this a negative thing – he seemed to me to be acknowledging that his position probably went against what is today considered politically correct.
Honestly I think chivalry is somewhat just putting a nice word to the fact that heterosexual men pay more attention to being nice to women (not that there is anything wrong with such an inclination, its just that chivalry complicates the subject).
That aside though, I think most who are engaged in the conversation of women equality do believe in the importance of protecting women – not because of inherent inequality, but because of societal norms that disadvantage and sometimes endanger women.
This brings me to the topic I wanted to talk about – the notion of saving women and children first. This is not an official law, but I do think it is a noteworthy motto in today’s society (I would be surprised, in applicable emergency situations such as shipwrecks and escaping burning buildings, if it did not at least come to the minds of those involved).
I don’t think that the children aspect needs much exploration. The more interesting aspect is whether women should be saved first.
The kind of emergency situation where this question is raised tosses out a lot of the complexity of whether women need additional protection in society. The question is reduced to the more direct issue of whether women’s lives should be saved before the lives of men. I’m inclined to say that there is no particular reason that woman should be saved first. The question is usually posed as one of self-sacrifice, it is those in danger who are choosing who gets to be in the life boats, or who gets to get out first. Woman first is not an imperative aimed at women (it is not saying that ‘I, as a woman, must save myself). It is an imperative that men should sacrifice themselves to save women. Men, the agents, save the women, who are acted upon.
I don’t think that there is a good answer to questions like ‘who should die and who should live in this emergency.’ I think that the ‘women first’ adage springs from a societal inclination to make men the actors in the scenario. I wouldn’t say that it is a ‘bad answer’, given that there are no good one’s in that kind of situation, but I wouldn’t say that it really carries any moral truth to it.
Let me know what you think,