I grew up around lots of women. On my mother’s side the woman to man ratio was over two to one. Having a mother who was stay at home during my formative years meant most of my days were spent in the shade of her and the other heroines of our family. As such I feel and several therapists have confirmed I possess a rather sensitive side. I resolutely proclaim a relationship with my femininity without any shame. None of this is to say that I ever was or am now free of those callous behaviors attributable to the average male as my sister and the Queen could attest; but I feel most would concede that among the spectrum of typical manhood my hue is a bit more delicate than most.
Those years spent soaking in this pool of estrogen have left me with a thick coating of respect for women in general and in particular the conviction that women deserve the same opportunities as those afforded to men, minus impartiality. Yet none of this should be mistaken for feminism; the same southern upbringing that produced this enlightened outlook is far too influenced by traditionalism for such left wing ideologies. So attached to this open mind is a belief that in certain aspects of life there are things men can simply do better than women, which shouldn’t come as any more of a surprise than the fact that there are numerous skills women are clearly more adept at than men. And the failure to recognize either is pure folly and in direct opposition to physiology and centuries of wisdom.
It was partly this very understanding of the nuances that naturally separate men and women that the code of chivalry found its footing. The medieval knight, by whom the chivalric code was first established, swore oaths of duty in three areas – countrymen, God, and women. The latter shouldn’t be unexpected; King Arthur didn’t presume Guinevere could protect herself from the Saxon onslaught any more than Sir Tristan’s love for Iseult was contingent on her battlefield exploits or her skill with a lance. Both understood that the sexes come with individual strengths and weaknesses, and it’s was the former that required of its owner greater responsibility in deed and conduct. So whether factual or merely literary, medieval chivalry was seen as a celebration of these differences and not the exertion of one’s power over another as some might claim.
The knight errant unbridled his stallion and stowed away his armor centuries ago yet the ripples of his influence are felt today. Where I’m from boys were raised with an understanding that in the presence of the opposite sex, and especially older women, their behavior was to exhibit those of the valiant knight – courtesy, respect, and thoughtfulness to name a few. My continued use of formality when addressing men and women as sir and ma’am is a throwback to my childhood when such protocols were set forth upon exiting the womb.
But this general rule didn’t just apply to the widow whose yard I mowed; there was an expectancy that women on the whole, no matter the age, were to be viewed on an entirely different plane – as one might a rare artifact that required special care and handling. But never during my childhood did I – or my friends – take this posture as a form of charity or pity. We simply believed it was part of what being a boy and man was about. We viewed females as beautiful flowers who may find themselves in need of protection from the winds and storms of life and as boys who would eventually grow into men it was our job to heed that call when and if necessary. While there may never be a damsel in distress or a dragon that needed slaying we were to be at the ready just in case.
Yet this wasn’t a fundamental principle reserved only for those south of the Mason Dixon. I’ve met men from all walks of like that exhibit the same intrinsic awareness that, as men, we are called for much more than the protection of our own self interests. It’s a fundamental understanding that manhood brings a greater responsibility. It’s something every boy knows; when my son is fighting imaginary attackers he’s protecting something – or more likely someone. Most men don’t need to be told who gets off a sinking ship first; it’s stitched into the fiber of his being.
But what happens when these natural tendencies and inclinations are stifled or better yet rejected? What is the outcome when men are led to believe that this fundamental need to protect is unneeded and for that matter demeaning? Where does it lead when those gender nuances, which helped motivate the knight to risk life and limb, are erased and instead the damsel orders him to hand over the armor and sword and move out of the way so she can fight her own battles?
The sad fact is the man ceases to become who he was designed to be.
It’s often wondered where all the gentlemen have gone, the men who would open the doors for women, give up their seat to the lady standing on the bus, and regard all women with the same reverence they were shown in King Arthur’s court. Even I feel the vacuum left by generations of men who have lost touch with the knight they were born to be and many women feel it also. But when a man is told his masculinity is ugly and that impulse he feels to protect and serve is little more than an attempt at control he will begin questioning that very part of himself. When the damsel he was born to save is doing her best to be and act no different and persistently rebuffs his chivalrous acts he will start to doubt his very purpose. When he’s told enough times that those character traits of a gentleman his father and grandfather pressed into him as a child are now seen as degrading by the ones for whom they are intended he’ll begin wonder if what they said was a lie and he’ll wonder if he should now even bother. When the world stops appreciating the virtues of chivalry for what they are and the gentleman for what he represents the world will wake to find chivalry dead and the gentleman vanished.
I have the responsibility to teach my son a proper and healthy view of women. To understand and appreciate the differences between males and females and show him how to embrace those distinctions and what they symbolize and the duties they engender. But as culture in general and women in particular do everything in their power to eliminate virtually all contrasts I can’t help but wonder if its futile to try and mold him into a gentleman when the world doesn’t seem to care if he is one? And I struggle in how to prepare him to treat a woman ‘like a lady’ when it’s becoming more and more apparent she’d rather be ‘one of the boys’.