Posts Tagged ‘masculine identity’

I don’t usually waste much time lamenting that the meanings of words change. It simply happens, and little I can do can change the results one way or the other. However, having grown up on stories of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gareth of Orkney, I do regret the loss of the original meaning of “chivalrous.”

Today, if a man is described as “chivalrous,” the speaker means that he has a condescending attitude to women. At best, he has an old-fashioned gallantry that a handful of women might find charming, but that most would quite rightly find irritating.

Either way, “chivalrous” is not an adjective that I would care to have applied to me. If it ever were, I would wince, and immediately ask the speaker what I had done to annoy them. Somewhere along the line, I would most likely apologize.

However, “chivalrous” used to have other meanings as well. The most basic one is derived from “cheval,” the French word for “horse,” and means a mounted warrior – by implication, a member of the medieval social elite.

But the meaning whose loss I regret means a sort of ethical activist. Influenced, interestingly enough, by the Moorish culture of the Iberian peninsula, this meaning was partly an effort to control the medieval warrior class when it wasn’t fighting.

By this definition, a chivalrous man was one who did not abuse his strength, but was self-effacing and used it on behalf of those unable to help themselves. In the courtly love tradition, this chivalry was especially extended towards women of the same social class – hence the modern meaning – but in medieval tales and ballads, the same obligations were supposed to extend to other men and other social classes. By this definition, a chivalrous man was an admirable one, doing his best not to abuse his privilege and act socially responsible.

So why does this lost meaning matter? Aside, I mean, from the fact that, if I had grown up to live my childhood dreams, I would be spending my days wandering the highways and back roads and looking for wrongs to right, preferably on horseback?

Simply this: it would still be useful to have a word that covered this original meaning. Specifically, it would refer to a man who was aware of male privilege and did his best to disavow it – or, failing that, turned male privilege around on itself, and used it to advance the equality and dignity of women, minorities, and the powerless. We need the word to describe what I believe is an important ideal, to answer those who say that social progress has nothing to offer men by offering an imaginative concept to live by that would promise to bring out the best in men.

Unfortunately, if such a word is ever coined, it is unlikely to be “chivalrous.” The current, debased meaning of the word is too entrenched, and is an important referent in its own right. But I think that having a name for such a desirable male role model would be no bad thing, even thought one of the most appropriate is already subsumed by another concept.

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In an era when many women hesitate to call themselves feminists, I consider myself a male one. This self-identification is not always easy. On the one hand, some women believe that a man can never be a feminist, and only makes the claim in the hopes of getting laid. On the other hand, many men ridicule the claim as proof of effeminacy or homosexuality, and while I haven’t been called a traitor to my gender in so many words, I have been called a “neutered male” and worse.

Fortunately, I am more inclined to laugh at both these extremes than be insulted, because, as I usually tell people who ask why I take this position, I suspect I have little choice in the matter. If I weren’t a feminist, then I simply wouldn’t be me. I certainly couldn’t live with myself.

If I were feeling flippant, I’d say that I call myself a feminist because that’s what I am. In the simplest terms, a feminist is anyone who believes in the equality of men and women. Since that is what I believe, what else would I call myself?

However, when people ask me why I call myself a feminist, they’re usually not looking for taxonomy. What they really mean is: what makes me a feminist, anyway?

One reason, I suspect, is that I have always quicker to see similarities rather differences, and patterns and continuities rather than chaos and separation. I am not unaware of the biological and social differences between men and women (I am, in that sense, a healthy heterosexual), but except in matters of sex, gestation, and lactation, they mean little to me.

With this perspective, I never got the habit of thinking of men and women as separate species. As I have observed before, gender is not a large part of my self-identity, so I am always surprised to find a man or a woman for whom it is.

More – I remain unconvinced by studies that claim innate gender differences. I consider most of them poorly designed efforts to prove the researchers’ own prejudices. Admittedly, men and women are socialized differently, but watch them talking and thinking about important matters, as I did as a university instructor, and these differences disappear. Or, at the very least, they become no greater than those between individuals of the same gender, or people from different cultures. So, to me, the idea that men and women have the same range of intelligence and talent requires no great feat of imagination. Based on what I notice, the idea seems merely self-evident.

Another psychological reason for my feminism is that, having started life with a speech impediment that caused many people to denigrate me, I have an instinctive sympathy for anyone who is too quickly dismissed by society. And when such a person attempts self-assertion, my sympathy only increases. The frustration of not being taken seriously, the anger at being held back, the mixture of self-despair and determination to prove your judges wrong – few of the attitudes expressed by feminists are completely foreign to me, and I could not ignore their positions without denying some essential parts of me as well.

Still another reason that I call myself a feminist is that I am a clumsy liar, both to myself and others. My sense of self depends strongly on me being the sort of person who faces facts – even unpleasant ones – and I would be ashamed to pretend that the inequality of women didn’t exist for no better reason than my own convenience.

True, I may not always see an observation first for myself. Yet when someone points out (for example), that my life has probably been shaped by male privilege as much as my own abilities, I have admit that they have a point. Although I squirm, evading the obvious would only make me ashamed.

That same interest in truth also leads me to want my life to be based on something solid. If my sense of self-worth were based – like many men’s’ – on a sense of superiority to women (or anyone else), part of me would know how meaningless it was. It would be like mistaking a job title or empty praise and an award for actual accomplishment. Instead of clinging to such a fragile sense of self-worth and being afraid of womens’ equality, I would rather cultivate a generosity of spirit and support it. To be perfectly selfish about it, I know that the only way that I can be confident of my own self-worth is if I support the right of other people to assert theirs as well.

At any rate, even if I were not temperamentally inclined to be a feminist, do you realize how much feminism has done for modern culture? My own chief field of literature has been transformed in the last thirty years because of feminism. Its re-examination of the past alone would make it worthwhile. Without feminist scholars, Aphra Behn would be less than a footnote, and Ann Radcliffe barely a name. Only two of the Bronte sisters would be known, and each of them for one book apiece. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would be the writer of a handful of conventionally soppy sonnets, and Christina Rossetti dismissed as a quaint writer of children’s doggerel. Or so I would have been told, and without feminism I would have happened on the truth inconsistently, and probably missed it sometimes altogether.

Thanks to feminism, dead branches of the past have flowered unexpectedly, and literature is enriched – no, better than it used to be. And you can make a similar list for all the arts and many of the sciences. These changes are so far-reaching that, even if I disagreed with the criticisms or aims of the many branches of feminism, I’d still be grateful for the broader artistic and scientific perspective it offers.

Really, how can people keep asking why I am a feminist? Under the circumstances, what else could I be?

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