When Do Manners Stop Being Polite and Start Being Sexist?

When Do Manners Stop Being Polite and Start Being Sexist?

I remember one specific, repetitive scenario that I’ve become accustomed to as a woman from the Deep South.

Whenever I approached a door and a man was nearby, he’d open it for me. I’d offer a polite “thank you” and he’d respond with a polite nod or “have a nice day.” This ritual had become so engrained in my daily routine that whenever a man hustles past me to a door without holding it open or even looking behind to check that I grabbed the door before it swung in my face, I feel irked. Why is this? Why have I been taught by society that I should not, even as a strong, able-bodied, independent woman, open the door myself?

The tradition dates back to earlier times, when men held open carriage doors for ladies, showcasing their strength and ability to help the poor woman, who had to lift her 10-pound skirt off the ground to get in the vehicle. Also, when you think about it, holding a door open for someone else is a sign of respect and even status. In older movies, you don’t see royalty opening their own doors—they have their servants or other people lead the way.

I distinctly remember visiting other cities and feeling slight chagrin when a door wasn’t held open for me. As it turned out, I chose to go to a school in the South where these manners persevere, so it’s actually not common to be in a situation where a door isn’t held open by some young Southern gent (or a Northerner who learned our ways). In my Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, we spent an entire day in heated discussion on this age-old tradition. I was surprised to see how some of the girls in my class felt about the subject. Some thought it was belittling to a woman or showed how she’s inferior to the man because she cannot open a door on her own.

The conversation began by distinguishing the difference between holding open a door versus “holding space” for a woman. One was the physical act of holding the door open while the other was to be there for someone in a meaningful way when they need you the most, from an emotional standpoint. I thought that both ideas should be revered, not the latter over the former. Growing up in a society where it’s expected that a man act this way, I never once felt like it was something done to belittle me or my capabilities, it was just a polite gesture.

I can remember when my father taught my brother this sort of proper etiquette. Around the age of seven or eight, my brother was learning not only to hold open a door, but also to wait for all women to enter or leave an elevator before stepping on or off. He also learned the even more old-fashioned nicety of standing up when a woman approaches a table. It was not until my brother began learning about these traditions that I began to question them myself. He would whine, asking why he had to let my mom and I through first or why his sister couldn’t just open the door myself because he knows that I can. He didn’t mean to be rude; he was just questioning the purpose of the exercise. Now he wouldn’t think twice before he kindly opened a door for a woman.

One ritual that stands out, sometimes in a controversial way, is when a man insists on opening all car doors for a lady. My father always insisted on opening all car doors for me and even made me wait inside while he walked around to my side to open the door. I sometimes thought of this as a nuisance. At least the part when I was told to wait inside while he walked all the way around to my side to open the door—sorry, but I can definitely handle that part on my own. But I must say, I always am a little more impressed when I go on a date with a guy who politely opens up the passenger door of his car to let me in. I can actually count on one hand the number of times this has happened. While he may open all other doors, the car door is more of a neutral ground these days, especially since women drive all the time, just as men do.

Overall, I find the simple act of holding open a door to be polite, not belittling. It’s also something that I do for others, especially when I find they are carrying something in their arms and I happen to get to the door first. In my mind, if the opportunity allows itself and it’s not awkward, then why not let him open the door? The man shouldn’t race to the door to get there first just for the sake of opening it. We are strong and independent women, but it doesn’t mean we have to let manners go by the wayside.

To read more about this topic from a man’s perspective, take a look at this blog post.


Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.