By Caroline M. Cole
In 1983 Marilyn Frye, professor of philosophy and feminist theories, published an essay in which she examines the use and misuse of the word “oppression.” Drawing examples primarily from male and female interactions, Frye examines what, in fact, constitutes oppression (the restrictions and criticisms individuals face because of their membership within a larger group), and what does not (frustrations or limitation, especially those experienced because of self-imposed limitations). Although the essay itself is 16 pages, one discussion that stands out for many readers appears roughly one-third of the way through her argument.
Having illustrated cases in which oppressed people in general, and women in particular, experience what she calls the “double bind—situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation,” Frye explains why oppression can be hard to recognize: Focusing on individual, microscopic double-bind moments makes it harder to see the larger, restrictive structures that maintain stratifications of gender, class, race, and so on. To demonstrate, she offers the male door-opening ritual, and it is this discussion that seems to move even neutral, if not disinterested readers to rage.
“How can she say that opening the door is an ‘oppressive’ gesture?” male and female readers often ask. “It’s a sign of respect,” others exclaim. “It’s just courteous,” some add. And even those who dismiss the entire debate as a relic of the women’s movement that was resolved decades ago still express annoyance at the mere suggestion that a man opening the door could be something other than “a nice thing to do.” Frye both recognizes and addresses these challenges by explaining that it is not the door opening gesture per se that’s oppressive but, rather, the fact that these and other considerate actions are held up as being helpful, attentive, and respectful even though larger, more obvious moments where assistance is needed or would be appreciated (e.g., housework, childcare) go unheeded on a regular basis.
Yet regardless of what readers think of Frye’s argument, in-person and online discussions about the door opening ritual continue to spark comments, questions, and controversy. Some males say they always open the door because “that’s the way [they] have been raised,” while others note they’ll only make a conscious effort to reach for the door when they’re trying to impress someone, say a client or a date. Others admit that they’re haphazard, either because they’re no longer sure what the protocol is or because most doors they use are revolving or automatic. And some males say they actively snub the ritual because they’re tired of being called misogynistic or insensitive when they’ve only tried to be polite. Females also weigh in on the issue, offering comments that range from disgust to suspicion to nonchalance to appreciation to expectation. Little wonder that people remain confused about what do with the door in order to extend or retain good will, even in the presence of strangers.
Many suggest the custom of opening doors for females—as well as other analogous chivalrous behaviors, such as males walking on the curbside of the street and males following or leading females upstairs or downstairs, respectively—originates in aristocratic codes of conduct, particularly those associated with medieval knighthood. Understandable as chivalry, a word that has become synonymous with gentlemanly behavior, is grounded in the French word chevalerie (horse soldiery), referring to the warriors on horseback guided by a code of conduct grounded in the laws and morals of warfare, similar to the Samurai’s warrior code, Bushido.
Protecting the king—God’s representative on earth—or his liege was a knight’s primary focus but, over time, the Knight’s Code, which valued honor, loyalty, bravery, and service, came to include more refined courtly behaviors to reflect the contexts in which a knight began to move. Honoring women was eventually folded into these expectations with the increasing veneration of the Virgin Mary during the Crusades.
As devotion to Mary as “the new Eve” grew, so did ideas of courtly love, an affection that transcended marital love by combining spiritual inspiration, adoration, and unrequited erotic desire. It was this tension, depicted in literature’s “Petrachan woman,” that helped put women on the proverbial pedestal, ironically for the very traits they could never embody or sustain as humans; that is, someone who arouses and inspires love, devotion, and servitude even as she must remain forever distant, detached, and unobtainable lest she loose the very characteristics that make her worthy of admiration and service in the first place: absolute purity and piety.
This context is partially responsible for the criticism opening a door gets when it’s offered as an example of how women are honored and respected, yet other connections between venerating women in general and door-opening rituals as extensions of chivalric codes are also suspect.
The veneration of the Virgin Mary, for example, may have elevated women from their otherwise subordinate and marginalized, if not cursed place in society, but women were still consider morally corrupt, physically weak, and ever-prone to immoral and socially disruptive behavior. They were, after all, “daughters of Eve.” As such, it is unlikely that they would have been granted the so-called place of honor in moving through doorways that’s assumed in the gallantry of today’s door-opening rituals.
This discrepancy has prompted some to suggest that letting women through the door first was actually a means of self-preservation, for in cases of ambush, women would be attacked first, leaving the more important members of society, men, unharmed. An interesting theory, but history suggests it’s folklore more than anything else; after all, females that would have been in the company of knights—noble women and, beyond the court, widows, elderly women, and young children—would have been under a knight’s protection. Moreover, using anyone as a human shield would be considered an act of cowardice, violating the knight’s code of conduct.
Others suggest that opening doors for women was a matter of courtesy originated in matters of practicality. For instance, the exterior and interior doors of courtly residences were generally so large and heavy—mostly for protection—that they required multiple individuals to open them. But even here, those who opened the door were seldom knights, royals, or other noteworthy males aiming to impress females; they would have been slaves and laborers working under their masters.
Women’s clothing may have played a role in door opening rituals, for the long trains on a dress, pannier petticoats, hooped skirts, bustles, and the like made it necessary for others to help females maneuver through doorways. But, aside from the fact that such clothing styles put the ritual of opening doors later than conventional codes of chivalry, once again the individuals who moved within the systems dictated by decorum and propriety did not touch the doors themselves. That was a job for domestic servants and other low-status individuals, many of whom were females attending their ladies and mistresses.
Legends and lore, child-raising practices, social and religious protocols, and ever-evolving gender roles continue to fuel debates about who can or should open a door for whom, but within the contexts of these arguments we see another trend emerging: people who seem either oblivious or indifferent to door handles at all.
Assuming the doors are neither automatic nor revolving, watching people enter and exit buildings reveals behavior that seems contrary to claims that door-opening rituals are indicators of simple courtesy: Lines of people pushing to enter and exit through a single, open door—often simultaneously—rather than opening the second, adjoining door to increase the flow of traffic; people watching or even harrumphing behind those who may be fumbling with packages, walkers, hand trucks, strollers, wheelchairs and so on, rather than offering assistance to get or hold the door; people flinging a door open without looking behind to see if someone is there to catch it; people assuming the first individual to arrive at or move through the door is obligated to hold it for everyone wanting to pass through, not just until a representative from the next party comes along; and people skirting around doors altogether, refusing to touch any part of the door before it snaps closed. As more people walk through life with handheld devices captivating their attention, individuals also seem increasingly unconcerned with doors in the presence of others, apparently assuming that those without a device in use or even in hand are default door openers.
Such observations are not to suggest that we return to the days where males are expected to dart ahead while females subtly slow their pace when approaching a door to comply with gendered obligations with unclear origin—especially when such actions have the potential to suggest power differentials that can embarrass one or both parties, such as putting one’s hand higher or arm behind the person’s who originally started to open the door so as to take control of the gesture, or simply refusing to go through a door held by someone that convention says should be helped through the doorway.
If, as people argue, opening the door for someone else is a common courtesy or a “considerate” behavior, it should be an action that can be offered up and accepted by any able-bodied individual—regardless of sex, race, age, class, and so on. By opening and holding the door for others and, in turn, graciously acknowledging when others reciprocate the gesture for us, we participate in helping each other move through life a little more easily.
Working toward Areté…
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