Feminism, wrote Rebecca West, is the radical notion that women are people. But of course, that’s aiming far too low: feminism is actually the radical notion that women are equal to men. This should hardly be worth stating, but I encounter an amazing amount of people who simply believe this isn’t the case. (A lot of these people, inexplicably, have internet access.)
At this point, almost mid-way through the second decade of the 21st flipping century, we have abundant evidence that if women and men are given access to the same opportunities, the same encouragement and the same social belief in them, they can perform equally well at pretty much everything.
Three obvious caveats apply: 1. These conditions still do not exist in many, if not most, contexts. 2: There are certain physical tasks at which strong men will probably always out-perform strong women, due to certain basic differences in musculature. 3. Individual women will out-perform individual men in certain tasks, and vice versa.
But here’s the thing: if you truly believe, as I do, that men and women are equal and deserve to be treated as such, then there’s some nice stuff that you have to let go of. I’m talking here of what is traditionally referred to as “chivalry”. I cannot tell you how frustrating I find it when the same women who will argue vociferously for their right to equal treatment to men in the workplace, for instance, express anger or disappointment when a man does not open a door for them.
Let’s make a distinction here between “chivalry” and plain “good manners”, which I heartily endorse in all situations. But for heaven’s sake, let it cut both ways. If you think ceding right of way at a door is a friendly, polite thing to do, then do it irrespective of gender. If you see a man or a woman struggling to carry something, then offer to help. It is, to quote our national broadcaster, the right thing to do – or at least, a nice thing.
You can take this further. “Men’s rights” activists complain that notions of chivalry lead to men’s lives being treated as more disposable than women’s, and they give the example of the “women and children first” rule, traditionally operational when ships have to be evacuated. The first thing to note here, however, is that studies have shown that in actual emergency situations, the rule rarely applies.
Two Swedish researchers looked at shipwrecks between 1852 and 2011 last year and concluded that women actually have a distinct “survival disadvantage” in these contexts.
But putting that aside for a second, the men’s rights activists have a point. It seems plain wrong to me that women’s lives should be blanket prioritized in that setting, if true gender equality is what we claim to want.
Surely a fairer rule of thumb should be that those who are physically stronger – and thus have a greater chance of surviving the open water – should make way on the lifeboats for those who are weaker?
This is, presumably, what the “women and children first” rule is intended to mean, but we all know that in real life it won’t be the case that all women are weaker than all men. I am a scrawny woman, but I am certainly stronger than a child, an old man, or an infirm man. And I know sturdier women who are stronger than some healthy adult males.
Don’t misunderstand me: it is clearly not the case that women and men currently operate from a level social playing-field.
They don’t, and this is why affirmative action policies which give women a leg-up are necessary in some contexts, for a finite period, to address the centuries in which women were not given access to the same opportunities as men.
It’s also why feminists like me get upset about sexism in the media: because women and men are still not treated equally. But systemic discrimination is not what I’m talking about here. I’m saying that if you’re a woman who truly believes that men and women deserve equal treatment, it’s hypocritical to complain when a man doesn’t open your car door for you – unless you’re equally likely to do it for him.
Follow Rebecca Davis on twitter
Follow Women24 on Twitter and like us on Facebook.