Chivalry Is Dead? No Kidding

The age of chivalry is gone, they say.

If we think of it as an individual wrong, it isn’t much, that a certain Mr. Thomas (the memory hole known as Wikipedia has buried his masculine first name) has decided to call himself a woman, and to swim against real women and to defeat them, stealing their honors. But it is most telling as a mark of our insanity. Perhaps this form of unreality has gotten leverage on us, because most of us live far from bulls and cows, stallions and mares, boars and sows, bucks and does—you get the idea. Why, most of us can go a whole year without ever having to chop down a single large tree, or clear a field, or hack away at solid rock, or dredge a bog—again, you get the idea.

The mutual duties of man and woman arise from their physical differences. The man begets, the woman conceives. The man does not carry the baby in a womb, the man does not give birth, the man does not feed the nursling at his breast. Meanwhile, he is generally taller than the woman, a greater percentage of his weight is in muscle, his bones are thicker, his heart is larger, and his blood is more highly oxygenated—so that, if we are talking about healthy young people near the peak of their condition, as the necessities of life compelled almost everyone in earlier societies to be, the result, for all practical purposes, will be a thorough and decisive separation between the men and the women. No Amish woman in the village is going to be as strong as the slenderest Amish man, if they are both in good health.

That being so, the only way girls and women can have their sports is by excluding boys and men. Each year, as I have learned from the copious records the state school athletic association keeps, there are several boys in one state (Florida) who clock times in each of the main events in track—forget about football, rugby, shot put, boxing, weightlifting, basketball, baseball, or anything that rewards a bigger body and sheer muscular power—that are better than the all-time world records for women. In the 200 meters, nine Florida boys have already done so this year. Five have done so in the 400 meters. Three have done so in the 800 meters; just one small region of the world, and in just three months. And that is despite the head-start, so to speak, that the women have over the boys, because they can compete for more than four years, and because at their level they are like professional athletes, while the boys are still just amateurs, doing what they do on the side.

If the WNBA—heavily financed by the NBA—admitted high school boys, there would be no WNBA, as there would be no women’s tennis or women’s golf if they did the like. These are plain facts. Open your eyes. But we permit the exclusionary policies, the discrimination, in order to procure for girls and women the good of athletic competition. And there are people who do enjoy watching the women compete, just as there are those who like watching the over-50 men on the PGA’s Champions Tour, or junior high basketball, or Babe Ruth League baseball.

Now then, it strikes me that this sane and generous modus operandi with regard to women’s sports cannot be justified by any current jurisprudence regarding the sexes in any other realm of American life. We might say that the stopwatch, the tape measure, and the scoreboard—those stalwart resistances against the fantasy world of ideology—bind us to reality in sports, when we are not so bound when it comes to far more serious and even deadly things that bring into play the difference between the ram and the ewe. And that, of course, makes no sense. 

If women, as a group, cannot compete against high school boys on a football field, if we would ask not what the score would be, but how many plays the boys’ older sisters and mothers could stop from scrimmage, if any, why then should we expect them suddenly to defy reality in their competition against full grown men on a battlefield, or in a street brawl? Why am I permitted to notice the obvious on Monday, on the athletic field, but not on Tuesday, when a house is burning down and walls need to be battered in, or an unconscious man needs to be carried to safety?

Chivalry, we see, goes both ways, and is most properly understood as a relationship of gratitude rather than of retributive justice. But gratitude, not just as a feeling but as a real offer of a gift, is ruled out by the ideology of sexual indifference. The good man should go out of his way to protect a woman, and not simply because she happens to be lighter than he is; otherwise we are back in a fog of confusion, wherein we shrug and we say that such a woman in the middle of the riot might, who knows, be stronger than such a man next to her, and by the time we have decided the matter, the damage has been done. The reaction should be immediate, and from the heart: A man should not raise his hand in anger against a woman, ever, end of sentence; and men should protect women from harm, and from all kinds of violence.

What should women give to men in return? A consideration—not to make their necessary work more difficult or dangerous or confusing than it need be. Perhaps another consideration—that just as we permit discrimination so that women’s sports can exist, so we might also acknowledge reality and notice that boys, as a group, need sports and can profit from sports more than girls do, and that, as a group, they are more interested in them, and thus we might allow need, profit, interest, and the greater physical ability of boys to count when we reckon up ways to be fair and generous to everybody.

That cannot be done by some abstract rule. Gifts are not gifts if they are extorted by rule. But we might also consider that those who govern, if they are to govern well, must often defer or set aside their own interests and the interests of the groups to which they belong, and govern to benefit the governed. It requires a good deal of historical and anthropological sensibility to judge how men have treated women in this or that place and time and society. One must place an entire culture in the balance. Were the Zulus fair to women? The Japanese samurai? The Berber nomads? New Yorkers in the late 19th century? The Swiss in the canton of Appenzell? The Chinese in the Han dynasty? Sparta in the time of Lycurgus? Algonquins, Sioux, Cherokees, Iroquois, Navajos, Seminoles? The men of pagan Iceland? The Maori in New Zealand?

Fallen men are not usually saints, nor are fallen women. My point is not that every human culture has been a paragon of chivalry, but that the question is admitted, and it ought to be answered. Meanwhile, the converse question, in the case of women among us who do assume responsibilities for the general welfare and therefore also for the specific welfare of men, is not asked at all. Men, I guess, can take care of themselves. But boys are not men. Yet I do not know of a single case in which a prominent female lawmaker has gone out of her way to take their needs—and a need can reflect a weakness, or an undeveloped strength—into consideration. What form would such consideration take? Whatever form it takes, it cannot be dictated by feminism, insofar as feminism requires, in its least toxic form, sexual indifference, and in its most toxic form, ingratitude and a severance of the sexes, a celebration of women as apart from and against their brothers.

Of course, Mr. Will Thomas should not be swimming against women, no matter what he calls himself. Of course a lot of things.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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