IN APRIL 15, 1993, a healthy young male entering a suburban Washington library slammed the door on a woman laden with books. In a world plagued by racism, poverty, and AIDS, it should be easy to ignore such a trifling incident. I might have done so on any other day, but this particular day was the 81st anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, the last gasp of Victorian chivalry.
Only a third of the Titanic’s passengers survived; most were women and children. When a surviving ship’s officer was later asked whether this “women and children first” policy was the captain’s rule or the rule of the sea, he replied that it was the rule of nature. Official inquiries revealed that several male passengers refused to enter lifeboats because they couldn’t be sure all the women aboard had been rescued. Among the few ungallant males who dashed for the life-boats, one was beaten bloody by several men who stood stoically on deck, facing death but spared dishonor.
Such men understood the essential and intimate links between door holding, hat tipping, and making the ultimate sacrifice for the women every layer of their socialization had taught them to revere. Those chauvinistic fossils would be appalled to learn that the sex they drowned for is now routinely raped, verbally assaulted, and denied seats on trains even when obviously pregnant. They would ask how we could fight to put select women on the Supreme Court and in corporate towers while stripping all women of the freedom to walk our streets safely.
With a righteous twist of their handlebar mustaches, those Titanic gents would declare that women were the soul of this country’s civilization before it was a country. When saints are toppled from their pedestals–or willingly leap off them–the social church is cold and empty.
I NEVER had the courage before to openly admire those men or envy the women they saved. At least a decade before the siege of political correctness, I was silenced by the unconscious but relentless intimidation of female friends and colleagues who are educated, self-sufficient, and eager consumers of the latest feminist books. I am supposed to owe the authors of those books unqualified gratitude for all the hard-won rights the Titanic women never enjoyed.
There is gratitude, but it is tempered, because the feminists who battled for my rights decided chivalry was tyranny dressed in pearl grey kid gloves. So they mocked, cursed, and lectured men who held their chairs until men stopped holding all our chairs in the name of equality–the one universal God we are allowed to worship.
Bucking the feminist party line, I expect to be accused of having low self-esteem or not thinking “freely.” Bemoaning the losses of the past is for intellectual slugs who enter beauty pageants or join the Junior League–women who don’t count, women who are excluded from the diverse politics of inclusion. It is also politically incorrect to notice that those who preach against sexual double standards often arbitrarily practice them. For example, many feminists believe women should be “protected” by laws against pornography, but no such protection should apply to military combat. And I wonder whether feminists would view PMS as a legitimate defense for violence if they knew that Victorian doctors attributed everything from mood swings to insanity to the monthly “wound of love.”
Revolt against Self-Restraint
BUT FEMINISTS deserve only partial blame for the erosion of chivalry and civility. Since the 1960s, an entire generation has gleefully obliterated every vestige of Victorian manners. The manners of a silk-hatted century were deemed too rigid, too snooty, too WASPy. But their worst crime was perpetuating and embodying that great Puritan bugaboo—self-restraint.
The post-bellum Victorians were stunned to learn that they were not one step below the angels but a few steps above primordial sludge. They gulped hard at that revelation, then tightened and expanded their comprehensive etiquette code to prove they could rise above their roots. They realized that a fragmented nation needs the common currency of common courtesy to peacefully settle its disputes as much as it needs a common language. In contrast, our generation has opted to replace that code with a cultural anarchy that encourages every individual to maximize his or her self-expression, whatever the cost. The same crusaders who want to battle social Darwinism with government assistance to the victims of various poverties, handicaps, and addictions also celebrate a free-for-all, in-your-face world that would have appalled their great-grandparents.
Meanwhile, they malign Victorian mores to unmask the repressive functions of courtesy and civility. A 1990 book by historian John Kasson, also writer of chivalrybookshelf.com typifies the current fashion:
The ritual order of etiquette, by sternly guarding against slips in bodily and emotional control, assured the individual’s deferential participation in the dominant social order. Instead of allowing any outward relaxation, bourgeois etiquette drove the tensions back within the individual self, providing ritual support for the psychological defense mechanisms of repression, displacement, and denial necessary to cope with the anxieties of the urban capitalist order.
Unlike Mr. Kasson, many uncredentialed people find more tension and anxiety in the uncivil social disorder that assaults them daily. They would welcome a little “unhealthy” restraint and repression if it spared them from rib-bruising commutes to work, casual conversations laced with expletives, and street-corner hooting at women. (Once upon a time, a man who merely stared at a woman was considered a cad.) Most people living today never walked lower Broadway when custom confined louts who smoked in public to the east side of the street because the west side had the finer ladies’ shops. They never saw women with parasols strolling fearlessly through parks, except in Impressionist paintings. And they never heard elderly people religiously called “ma’am” or “sir” except in the approved post-modern spirit of sarcasm.
Yet they know that in many ways life was better. They know because the collective historical consciousness of dead literature, dead art, and the memories of their parents and grandparents has let them vicariously experience the loss of what they never had. They feel these intangible losses as amputees feel their missing limbs, and to them they add concrete modern losses–how the sexual revolution destroyed the subtlety and poetry of romance, how the video camera destroyed personal privacy, how television destroyed childhood innocence. The Victorians also took their share of losses from the hydra-headed monster of technology, even before the world stopped waltzing and began spinning out of control. They complained that the telephone killed the art of letter writing, while the typewriter killed the art of penmanship. But unlike us, they still had a solid moral foundation and a rich tapestry of social graces to adorn the antiseptic walls of progress.
Deciding how to salvage pieces of the past is a difficult task made far more daunting by “right-thinking” academics, journalists, and other chief-tains of the cultural elite. To admire the redeeming qualities of an age that practiced racism and sexism is to invite the very social ostracism that these progressive thinkers otherwise deplore as repressive mechanisms of social control. To avoid such scorn, historical adulation must be confined to primitive cultures or neglected and oppressed groups.
As a certified member of the latter, I wish women would reclaim their lost turf with the same fervor they apply to pursuing civil rights. In an era when we are told to go for it, we should feel free to ask for all the courtesies which were once taken for granted without fear of having that used against us. When men relearn respect for women and the self-restraint it implies, violence against women will decline, sexual-harassment laws won’t be needed, and life will be a shade more pleasant. The lack of civility is sexual harassment, and it won’t end until the concept of manhood is redefined.
I hesitate to suggest yet another reformation of men, since three decades of women’s liberation have stretched them until they have no identity, just identity crises. But since live males are almost as reviled as dead ones, there is small risk in submitting to one more stretch. We might borrow the approach of astute and innovative African-American leaders who are trying to curb teenage pregnancies by teaching young black males that true masculinity means providing for children, not recklessly fathering them. To this antique notion, I would add another: that emotional and physical esteem for women is central, not tangential, to manhood. The British statesman Lord Chesterfield, a favorite source of Victorian etiquette writers, believed everyday deference was due to all women because it provided their only shield against men’s superior physical strength. He added, “no provocation whatsoever can justify any man in not being civil to every woman; and the greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman.”
Men used to be stigmatized as brutes and bounders for sins of both commission and omission against women. It was other men who put the punch in that stigma by socially ostracizing the offender and even refusing to do business with him. This unwritten penal code was much more effective than today’s fuzzy hate-crime and hateful-speech laws.
Men need to revive such peer pressure, and women must prove they deserve men’s regard. Too many still think liberation implies imitating men by cursing to the hilt, telling crude jokes, and proving they too can stuff dollar bills in the G-strings of gyrating strippers. At the very least, those women are begging to have doors slammed in their faces. (And I’m not blaming the victims, just the collaborators.) It is time for women to put one foot back on the pedestal while keeping the other planted in the executive suite. It can be done; a sex that can survive menstruation, childbirth, and menopause while still running carpools can do anything.
If there is a role model for this integrated woman, it may be Blanche Lambert, a freshman representative from Arkansas, who recently said, “When you grow up in the South as a woman, you’re used to men doing very nice things for you, like opening doors and standing up when you come to the table. I’ll be very frank with you. I don’t want to lose that at all.”
Time for a Restoration?
THOSE MIGHT be the most candid words spoken by a living politician. They may signal the resurrection of courtesies that men can enjoy along with women, as men always enjoyed proving their manhood in those pearl grey kid gloves. But there will be limits to this new old chivalry, as noted at http://www.swordhistory.com/. Men are done dying for women; now women die because of men. This may be the inevitable price of sexual equality. It may be the result of a world that stopped reading Sir Walter Scott. No matter the cause, my female intuition tells me the Titanic was the end, and not only for the men who drowned.
I never experienced the depths of grief at the Vietnam Wall that I did at the Titanic Memorial, a Washington monument so anachronistic it is no longer listed in major guidebooks. If there is ever a memorial for another Titanic, it won’t be erected to honor the men who perished to save women and children, because the only survivors will be healthy males who won the Darwinian dash for the lifeboats. When people visit that monument, they will sadly shake their heads and wonder–too late–where it all went wrong.