The argument has been made alike by feminists and Men’s Rights advocates, that chivalry is nothing more than a bastard of the dark ages whose time has come to die. The narrative of each group may differ in particulars, but the gist of the agreement is this: the Nice Guys of today who hold open doors for ladies in the hopes of getting laid are the descendants of some douchey tradition whereby a man who helped a damsel in distress was automatically given that damsel as a reward for his obedience to arbitrary, trifling nicety.
The historian in me has chosen now to point out that none of this is remotely accurate.
The origin of chivalric ideals have nothing to do with the acquisition of sex or any obligation on the part of lady to the well-mannered man. At its core, chivalry can be seen as a medieval answer to PTSD – a tool for organizing all the messy moral and psychological concerns that happen when standing armies normalize warfare as a means of livelihood. Raping women or allowing women to be raped as battlefield conquests were foremost among the items on the no-no list – important psychologically to the knight, important culturally to the Catholic Church leadership, and important economically at the state level, as the king’s interests in war revolved primarily around an increasing tax base – which just would not be accomplished by the addition of whole populations of widows wounded in body and mind beyond forgiveness and pregnant with unplanned-for bastards.
The courtly manners that emerge when knights were at home served the same purposes, to a subtler extent – manners kept the knight on leave mindful of his duties and training in an ongoing capacity as they kept the rest of society mindful and reverent of the station of the knight. A knight speaking ungraciously to a lady was a knight demonstrably lacking in military vigilance, forgetful of the sociological standards preferred by the brotherhood-at-arms, by King and by Pope, and mentally unprepared to do battle in the interests of others. A knight failing to uphold the laws of chivalry could not be trusted by neighbors to take up the mantle of power and put it down again when the time called for it.
The courtly manners of a knight, then, were nothing less important than a continuing, visible pledge, in acknowledgement of his own power, that he would never use it to abuse or antagonize others. Thus, a number of knights on horseback happening upon a carriage of ladies on the road could remove their hats or helmets and convey, instantly, over distance, their intentions to protect and serve those women. The ladies could rest assured they wouldn’t be driven off the road and raped – the horsemen were good guys, their weapons devoted to their safety in the event of bandit attacks or rabid animal sightings or any other danger that could be helped with a horse and sword.
The door-wielding gents of today might not be volunteering to jump in the way of feral raccoons or bands of thieves on my account, but still, convey some incarnation of the chivalric tradition. A guy I don’t know holding open the door for me at a gas station after work one night. A male friend offering to walk me to my car. The implication in these instances isn’t that said male is putting a down-payment on a future action of mine – it’s not a transaction between two people. It’s the renewal of a social contract, acknowledging certain inequalities between genders that are more pronounced in some circumstances than in others – an effort expended in recognition of higher levels of danger faced by lone women in public. Implicit in these displays, one might read the same message as the ladies of yore – that of a man sensible of his own privilege and troubling to communicate a benign or supportive intent, to give a bit more peace of mind to a lady he may or may not know.
Sure, there are modern guys who flaunt their manners as a matter of ego, and who wind up getting in the way or going so far in their demonstrations for concern as to undermine a lady’s choices for herself. If I want to take a walk alone and have assessed my risk-level to be low, for example, a fellow refusing to leave me alone is a creep, regardless of his stated intentions. But the codes are here still, and relevant, because we haven’t come to an age where women aren’t targeted, specifically for being women, by strangers with rape in mind.
* * *
The basis for apparent and growing suspicions over chivalry has to be the same assumption shared by feminists and men’s rights activists intent on dismantling old manners – that men and women have achieved equality, or are so close to there, that these niceties reminding everyone that some of us are women and some of us are not have no function and will only hold us back.
This, is wrong.
Socially, manners do the opposite of what you think they do, and marriage does the opposite of what you think it does. Because you think it’s all been about the subjugation of women, when it hasn’t. You think I’m crazy, over there. But I’m right, and if we look at biology, I can prove it to you.
The assumption goes that marriage has most traditionally been about women being the property of men. Actually, biologically there is no incentive for men to own women. To the contrary, what is in the interests of an individual male’s heredity is to impregnate as many women as quickly as possible, limiting the amount of intimate time spent with any individual woman. Human males, as predators at the top of the food chain, have no personal, biological incentives to stick around after a partner becomes pregnant.
Women, on the other hand, are limited in terms of descendent-production. We can only produce a handful or two of offspring over the course of an entire life, which means we have a biological incentive to be very selective and to maintain lasting relationships with high-quality genetic investors. Hence, the hymen – an inbuilt, generationally reliable disincentive against incautious sexuality that only works because of human socialization. Without the given that mothers would tell their daughters about the scary-bloody-pain of a too-heedless initiation into sexuality, it would have no effect on behavior. A torn hymen doesn’t mend in correlation with a woman’s cycle or change of sexual partners, as might have been the case had it existed to serve the interests of males, who could benefit from knowing whether a female’s eggs have accepted applicants already. Rather, the hymen serves as a biological message carried on through an assumed matriarchy, wherein a female having selected a high-quality male and initiated an ongoing intimate relationship with him would have no further impetus towards caution in sex acts.
The biological propellant for marriage puts the favor, as well as the responsibility, far in the ladies’ sphere of interests. Polygamy, popular in ancient societies, is something of a biological compromise allowing sister-wives to share a high-quality mate. This practice disenfranchises low-quality males, and it still caps the production of the high-quality male’s descendants according to the number of wives involved. There really isn’t a biological disincentive to any of the women in the arrangement.
You’ve been told, as I have, that humans evolved from other animals and that by looking at the structure and commonalities among animal hierarchies, we can gather some clues as to the natural biological order of human affairs. What rarely is explained to anyone is the fact that human mating patterns by and large don’t look like the mating dance of lions or other species that are unequivocally male-centric. Where the genetic interests of males over females are served, it’s only competition with other males that limits the number of females any dick knocks up. Lions do it that way; humans don’t. That’s good, because lions are dumb.
Male lions can send female lions into heat by killing their babies. Human males, can’t. What’s served the interests of our species has been that women select the highest quality partners to optimize their offspring’s odds of survival, thereby optimizing all human potential. The flower-giving date-taker hails of a legacy that still remembers this: the biological interests of females over males benefit the whole of humanity. If the human standard for reproduction were the ability of males to beat each other senseless, we might have been bigger creatures, with talons and horns and poisonous teeth. Instead, what we have thanks to this matriarchy of sapiosexual natural selection is the ability to talk, and to do awesome things with our hands.
* * *
Gender relations between men and women have long been portrayed as exploitative – going back a lot farther than the Middle Ages. Women didn’t work much outside the home, and women weren’t kings, and this means women weren’t very well-regarded (so the story goes).
In fact, women have historically had a hell of a lot more power than some are comfortable admitting. Women have fought in wars and led wars, women have ruled over countries and towns and businesses and nonprofit ventures, even in the deepest depths of what we call the Dark Ages, when you thought none of that was allowed. Sometimes it was a case of hereditary accident, when the males who might have been expected to fill those positions had died without male progeny or been left in charge as kids. But not always. Powerful families vied to get their daughters voted into institutionalized positions such as Abbess, where they might be wielding imperial immediacy over entire cities. Armor was crafted specifically for the wives of knights, who often rode with their men into battle. Farmers’ daughters planted and millers’ daughters ran mills and merchants’ daughters learned to balance ledgers, because as long as these things need doing, who can afford to give etiquette a damn?
The truth is, women have always been able to do the things that men have done. There were women explorers and lady Vikings and warrior queens in every century. There was room at the front for Joan of Arc before Anglo political bullshit got her executed and room at the frontier for the pregnant Sacagawea, and where there wasn’t room but a big explicit “keep away” sign, women who felt inclined dressed up like men and went off adventuring anyway. Sometimes they were caught and made examples of, but other times when they were caught they had commanders like George Washington who didn’t make such a fuss, and remembered to grant gals like Deborah Samson their pensions after discharge.
This isn’t to say that patriarchy didn’t happen and doesn’t exist – it did and it does. But how this happened is an issue of transient pragmatics – a re-establishment of values in light of changing evolutionary goals and survival expectations. To assume women were the voiceless serfs of men until the enlightenment assumes a biological subservience that just isn’t there – as though the majority muscle mass of men over women worked out to be some kind of societal arm-wrestling match we just kept losing, until the painters came and made things better.
How about the fact that empathy is a thing that happens even to powerful people that makes us feel kind of bad when others are unhappy? How about the fact that women aren’t stupid, and have always been able to figure out when we’ve had a raw deal. Why, then, did we accept the raw deal historically?
Because the survival of the species depended upon it. And it still does.
* * *
Forget every argument you’ve ever had about gender. I’ve had a lot of them, and I can’t remember more than a handful that more than marginally touch upon the one root cause of gender inequality, that continues and will continue to cause us issues for all time. The fact is that the only real, undeniable, conclusive and significant difference between women and men is the fact that women can get pregnant, and men can’t.
Not all women can get pregnant. But enough can to have merited the systematic identification and designation of male from female in every human society that has ever lived. Meanwhile, no male alive has ever given birth. Socially, historically, this has meant that any number of young boys could be stupid and go off hunting elephants alone and if they died it would suck, but the tribe could survive it. Five sets of balls would do to maintain the population, if enough healthy young women remained. Given the risks of childbirth as they always have been, risking the life of a woman unnecessarily was a level of stupid few societies ever could afford.
So men, who lack the white elephant of a people-making anatomy, have always been afforded the right to take risks with their own lives. You might make a village safer, richer, or more powerful by some venture that requires putting lives on the line, so men became by default our gamblers – waging war against the neighbors, exploring the deepest depths of our untrodden jungle, sailing in boats across the ocean. Triumph was never guaranteed, and that made it that much more impressive when men returned with the heads of predators no longer a threat, or sacks of jewels and gold. A man who was clever, as well as risk-willing, might earn the trust and devotion of his tribe with the initiation and execution of multiple successful ventures. Other men might follow his plans and join him in future quests (none of which would be possible without the matriarchal mating system, which, in assuming women will choose their mates, allows men to see each other as partners instead of as genetic rivals.)
So men became chiefs and kings as societies began to take survival enough for granted as to suffer more men to go venturing, and then to depend upon constant expansion through channels of bodily risk, and clever risk-taking men became important enough to enshrine in seats of power. Patriarchy became a thing by social accident, within a biologically engrained matriarchy.
Now we’re approaching the point in human history where bodily risk in pursuit of innovation is unnecessary, and for that reason women are increasingly visible in power roles. Now, too, infant mortality is at an unprecedented low, such that in industrial societies it’s more or less taken for granted that any baby you have will live. What happens in other species at points like these is a state known as dynamic equilibrium, where fertility rates naturally drop to about what is needed to replenish the current population. In places like India, though infant mortality rates have been dropping, there is no cemented expectation (yet) that children will survive – hence the current population explosion, regardless of the prevalence or lack of birth control.
What this means in terms of gender is that even occupations that require bodily risk, such as active combat and stuntwomen roles, can increasingly suffer the participation of women. It’s not that we’re better people than our gender-exclusive forebears – just that we’re in a way better flesh-and-blood situation than they were.
This won’t last forever.
This period, in which a global surplus of childbearing renders it unnecessary for everyone to consider it a duty of women to get pregnant, is an historical reprieve. A woman like me can choose, today, not to have children, and should I decide I want to start a family, a woman like me can adopt children borne by other women. Likewise, any males unable to find an accommodating womb can adopt an already-made baby and start a family without asking any woman to suffer on his behalf.
There is coming fast a cultural clash, where biological demands will again outpace our ideals – where we will no longer be able to ignore the biological basis for all gender inequality, because the burden of childbirth will again fall as a moral duty on every woman able.
* * *
It’s amazing the lengths to which people will go to ignore this.
Women of the second and third wave feminist movements have been incredibly consistent in downplaying the role of women as mother in literature and in action, preferring to tackle issues like the pay-gap and (exclusively non-procreative) sexual freedom. It was necessary, that women could shake off the accident of patriarchy and participate fully in all the lucrative and non-life-threatening new waves of human enterprise born of the digital age. For a generation or so, women like my mother worked 12-hour shifts as nurses and came home to do the cooking and the cleaning and help the husbands with the yard-work and nurse the young – doing it all, just to prove they could, affording no excuse to the anti-feminists who might have argued that they didn’t want for anything to change.
Now that their effort has paid off, and it has been irrevocably established that women can be other things besides mothers, I’m going ahead and pointing it out again that women are the only ones who can be mothers. I’m pointing it out again that women and men are not and can never be equal.
Being a woman still carries a load of biological, fiscal and social responsibilities that men just do not have to deal with, and this makes us different, still. Not in a little way. Like it or not, women still have a monopoly on the fetal real estate, and we pay our taxes for it. Monthly, no king or senate necessary – our bodies do the figuring, setting aside layers of nutrients and resetting our circulatory systems, often painfully, in support of the continued ability of our species to reproduce. We bleed out and soak it up, walking around like normal, buying the gauze to stanch that flow ourselves.
The dynamic equilibrium of our population also requires tax, which many women pay in the form of birth control. There’s a financial tag to that, and there are physiological and psychological tags as well. The Pill requires setting a timer every day, and never forgetting to medicate. It creates an increased risk for blood-clots and for strokes, and carries with it the weight of any chronic medication – it requires paperwork and doctor’s approvals and sometimes legislation. IUD’s don’t involve medication, but they hurt like a bitch to install, and they increase the pangs of menstruation monthly. Female sterilization is invasive surgery, and not often approved for younger women anyways. Inevitably, these are burdens women alone come to shoulder who involve themselves in monogamous relationships with men. Monogamy remains a mutual concern where the majority of sex acts aren’t procreative because STI’s exist and the only protection against those (condoms) tend to reduce sexual gratification. The sexual revolution happened because birth control happened, and within committed lifelong monogamous relationships childbirth is among the only concerns outside of inclination that could thwart somebody’s sex-drive. Liberating though that revolution has been to sexual partnerships inside and outside of marriage, the movement isn’t free. Women pay.
It can only be explained as cognitive dissonance that so many men and women fail to recognize these sacrifices as anything significant; an inability to reconcile the knowledge that people can be whatever we like, regardless of gender, with the knowledge that only half of us are biologically equipped to bring life painfully to bear. It can only be explained as a felt need to perceive gender primarily in sociological terms that a well-educated history teacher, such as one I engaged in high school, could repeatedly and without contest tell a class that “the only difference between women and men in modern America is the fact that men have to register for the draft and women don’t.”
The thought doesn’t make sense unless you ignore physical reality, no matter what direction you turn it in. And I’ve turned it over through the years from many angles, holding it as up as a standard at times to judge the culture, as we do with the words of our teachers. Sure, he may have been speaking of legalities, but in legal terms women and men are only equal if you ignore everything that has to do biologically with being a woman. Like any of the scores of laws dealing exclusively with the conditions under which a woman is compelled or not to give birth or the hoops she’ll have to run through to qualify for long-term birth control options. Or like the fact that women are legally required to cover our breasts in most public areas, as well as our genitals. Or in the very arena Mr. History had referenced as unique – that of the armed forces – where we have not seen an active draft in over a generation, yet there have been laws keeping willing women out of active combat right up until the present.
This is to say nothing of the still-sociologically engrained hurdles that make the top tiers of every institution of the world so predominantly male, nor of any of the endless ways that having a female body will hurt you regardless of how supportive your fellow people are of your femininity. The clumsy sexual initiation experienced by most women involves a real, undeniable burden of pain such that sex as an act of mindless greed becomes a physical impossibility – and the experience occurs as an act of sacrificial love or intrepid curiosity alone.
It’s by the same willful dissonance that so many have for so long comfortably attributed the slightly lower life-expectancy of men in developed nations to more physically rigorous jobs. As though the Appalachian coal-miner’s stereotypically barefoot-in-the-kitchen wife isn’t undergoing extreme physical duress for each of her 14 pregnancies-followed-by-live-births.
Pregnancy isn’t no big deal. It’s a near-year of physical illness that will probably include in varying and increasing degrees nausea, vomiting, back pain, body aches, sleeplessness, fatigue, loss of bladder control, periods of depression, mania and anxiety, rapid and significant weight-gain, difficulty standing and so on, all while abstaining from medications taken for granted by the rest of the population, and such pervasive pleasures as alcohol, coffee, and perhaps sexual activity. Then culminating in one of the most painful, multi-hour (probably multi-day) ordeals known to humankind and not uncommonly resulting in vaginal tearing and other organ damage, postpartum depression, sickness, and sometimes death. You can find a more detailed and gory description of the horrors of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding here: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/01/22/becoming-mother-made-me-pro-choice
If you add it all up – a day or two for the initiation of sex, a quarter of every month for menses X 20-40 childbearing years, 9 months of pregnancy plus a year or two of shifting bones, mending organs and breastfeeding X 2 children, then 5-10 years for menopause (which involves a lot of the same physical and emotional tolls seen in pregnancy and menstruation) – your average woman has somewhere around 20 years of pure physical stress over your average man before you begin factoring in any of their chosen labor.
Then when you consider the facts that toddlers are heavy and your stereotypical stay-at-home moms are slinging kinder and vacuum cleaners up and down stairs and risking greater exposure to baby germs than the men risking death by cave-in at the mines, that most men aren’t miners in industrialized societies, and that women in those societies can and do work in mines although at lesser rates, and when you factor in non-industrialized societies where men more frequently may chop wood for a living, but women frequently walk miles daily balancing giant water pitchers on their heads and nurturing relatives caught up in contagions, the fact that men don’t live as long because of harder living doesn’t sound much like fact. It sounds like a giant flipping assumption based on the total brain-fart that is society’s ability to take for granted the price that women pay to ensure the continued existence of our species on this planet.
How about we ask ourselves whether women’s bodies aren’t just better at managing physical stress over the long-term, because we’re used to dealing with it? Because, a normal, healthy woman’s body causes her pain, and a man’s doesn’t. That would attribute women’s longevity to women’s bodies being in one particular way superior to men’s, though, and while I’m comfortable doing that, others, aren’t.
This is the kind of world it is for us. Women and men both work, and women and men are equals. Except that the bodies of women don’t belong to women. Women laugh it off or are taught not to mention it, but it’s not the way of the world to treat the behavior of women as sacrifices or as favors. It’s the way of the world to take it all for granted, so that no one ever mentions the fact that breastfeeding hurts while debating how healthy or important it might be for the child or whether it’s appropriate in public.
Individual women know this, whether we ever have children or not, because the rest of the world knows it and reminds us – a woman’s body is one made for others. Her diet, her exercise, her drug use, her health are not relevant exclusively to her, but directly and physiologically relevant to the health of her descendants. Women live with the awareness every moment of every day that what happens to our bodies happens to our children’s bodies, and to our grandparents’ bodies, because our ancestors gave us these imperatives within our genes. Whether we choose to ignore those little voices and live for ourselves, or obey them, can be a constant, engrained, struggle.
I can’t speak from experience, but am comfortable assuming that whatever powers of instinct, psyche or spirit exist to complete human understanding are also affected by that group consciousness through which gender is codified – such that a transgender woman born without a womb may experience these societal demands personally at the level of consciousness alone. Were women and men to begin reproducing artificially and the female womb to become obsolete, I don’t see why any consciousness or personal experience of gender would continue beyond a handful of generations. That, however, is not likely to become the priority of innovators, as long as women are ok with being women and having it harder than men.
This, being ok with being women, is a choice women have made and by and large, remarkably, have refrained from pointing out when challenged to quantify our social disadvantage. There’s nothing we can do about the burdens of our bodies, and it’s so glaringly and obviously unfair as to merit no remark. You’d have to be stupid not to recognize it. So how do you begin to discuss with a pro-lifer who literally does not see the relevance of women to pregnancy how abortion is neither murder nor a solution to mere “inconvenience”? Roe vs. Wade hinged not on bodily autonomy (because such a concept in relation to pregnant women seems to only just be recently dawning), but on the controversy of when “personhood” begins.
We’ll just have to get used to stating the obvious. In terms of civil rights, it does not freaking matter whether a fetus is a person. When my body is given to another – when I suffer to benefit him or her – I’m either a motherfucking hero for that chosen sacrifice, or a slave who belongs rightfully to somebody else. There is no ground between “owned” and “free”.
* * *
Some Men’s’ Rights’ Activists express concern that at the rate women are becoming educated, we are overwhelming men in the market and in the social fields. You may have felt tempted to argue, to say that was crazy, that the patriarchy’s still a thing we’re struggling against. But why bother? When you read the biology and do the math, they’re right. Underlying the paternal fuck-ups over the ages have been all the biological underpinnings of a perfectly good matriarchy. At that ever-nearing point in time when nothing’s different between genders but our baby-making powers, we must come to terms with the stark reality of the situation: that, in terms of reproduction, men need women more than women need men. We saw attached to similar concepts a sense of reverence in traditions surrounding women of the past.
Don’t be scared. This, matriarchy, has worked out well for our species. I like my big brain and my ability to talk. And I’m from one of those communities at the privileged end of our global population surplus, low infant mortality, and cheap and effective birth control options. I don’t have to feel personally responsible for physically producing 2.1 descendants, and I don’t. If I decide to have kids, I’ll adopt, as I was adopted. I recognize that my position is one of luxury over the women of past ages, over the present in less privileged situations, and of future ages, too. I’m not going to deny this advantage. Neither am I going to reduce my feelings of guilt by trying to find someone who has it easier than I to point and shrill against.
In fact, I don’t feel guilt. What I feel, is gratitude. I would hope that a male in my society, whose personal risks and sacrifices are less than mine, less than the physiological taxes and less than the sociological pressures, can acknowledge and feel grateful for the constant work and pain of my body in readiness of reproduction. It’s not your fault or ours that women have more to deal with than men. It’s all biology. It all makes primal sense.
In the spirit of either gratitude, or duly stating the obvious, I’d like to remind everyone again that childbirth isn’t funny. Breastfeeding isn’t funny. Menses isn’t funny. Menopause isn’t funny. Though humor has been the dominant of the only two lenses through which to view these phenomenon in recent popular culture. Reverence is the other, rarer lens.
Humor may help break the ice around these taboo tolls of womanhood, but all men would do well to remind yourselves, they suck, and the species needs them. Reverence isn’t a ridiculous attitude to have.
Think about this before we mock our door-holders.