Chivalry is dead, goes the cry. Gentlemen no longer hold doors open for ladies, they expect the weaker sex to pay for their own restaurant meals and tickets to the picture house, men no longer stand or doff their hat when in the presence of lady, etc., etc.
Which makes the historian wonder when the golden age of everyone behaving properly towards the fairer half of our population actually was. The 1980s? The 1950s? The thirties? Well, of course, the answer is always and never. There never was a golden age and people have always been complaining that chivalry is dead.
At the end of the end of the 18th century, English philosopher Edmund Burke declared “the age of chivalry is gone” and “the glory of Europe is extinguished forever”. These lines were later invoked to oppose the suffragettes, who were “boring” men with their constant claims for equality.
Here in Australia, in 1884 women were allegedly being “degraded” on roads and in parks, but only because chivalry was dead. By 1905, someone calling herself Beatrice said young ‘hooligans’ were only walking their girlfriends to the bus and forgetting to lift their hat to say goodbye, and not even opening the bus door for her. ‘Jack’ responded to Beatrice, claiming that if women wanted men to be more chivalrous then women should be more thoughtful and ladylike. It’s always the woman’s fault, always.
Try catching a tram from Victoria Park in 1926, because it was clear chivalry was dead when young men were so obsessed with their iPhones (sorry, penny dreadfuls) they weren’t standing for the gentler sex. The following year the West Australian ran a picture of a woman changing her own tyre with the headline “Is chivalry dead?” To which a feminist responded that she bloody well hoped so, since women could change tyres without any help from men.
And this brings us to the real point: few people (read men) ever bemoaned the lack of chivalry without turning it into an anti-feminist rant. If women would stop demanding equality, men would behave better. Curiously, some suffragettes tried to turn this to their advantage by noting that the truly chivalrous should understand women’s claims to basic human rights.
So the next time someone complains that society ain’t what is used to be, just ask them when their golden age was. And then laugh.