One of my male friends calls it the Day of Relationship Atonement. On this day, he says, speaking for men everywhere, "the onus is on us to do something nice for her because if we were more observant, we'd look back on the romantic year that was and recall she was the one doing the nice things all along."
Valentine's Day is still more than a week away so there's ample time to prepare your good behaviour, but the impending celebration of courtly romance also got me thinking about the state of chivalry and gentlemanliness in general.
My former father-in-law stands - well, sort of half stands - when a woman leaves or approaches his table at a restaurant. He's also good about taking his wife's coat and carrying things for her. While I like to think of myself as a modern man who treats women as equals, I can't help feeling there is something incredibly respectful and pleasingly protective about these old-fashioned gestures. I've tried them out - sometimes awkwardly - and I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my head the imagined voice of feminism calls out, "Don't bother, we can do it ourselves." And then I'm stuck - will these chivalrous acts degrade all the progress feminism has made toward equality? Will opening a door for a woman or sending her a bouquet of flowers start a slippery slope back to before women's liberation?
In an e-mail, Amy Mullin, a professor of feminist philosophy at the University of Toronto, informs me my imagined voice of feminism is heavy on the imagination.
"One could argue, I suppose, that men and only men opening doors for women and only women reinforces the idea that women are helpless … but this is just not a topic that greatly concerns many feminists today," she wrote.
"There's nothing wrong with protectiveness," Dr. Mullin continued when we talked. "Many men are physically stronger than many of the women in their lives, so there's nothing wrong, for instance, with carrying heavy stuff for them." Feminism, she reminded me, is about equality of opportunity, not sameness.
As for sending flowers or buying jewellery for women, she says this isn't really a problem unless it's meant to reinforce the increasingly outdated norm that men are always the romantic pursuers. "You don't want men to have to be in a certain role and women to have to be in a certain role," she says. "There should be freedom. To the extent that men are still supposed to be the older, stronger, bigger, richer pursuers, and women are supposed to be the more helpless pursued, that's not good for men or for women."
I've personally been asked out enough times by women - and dumped by them, too - to recognize that things have changed. Men are not (as much as they may still like to think) running the romance show any more. Based on the call I put out on Facebook, asking women if they enjoy men performing acts of chivalry and sending them flowers, they've recognized the same thing. The consensus was, "Yes, and more please."
"Because of the brawny way that I exist in the universe, I tend to emasculate men a lot," my friend and irreverent memoirist-about-town Kathryn Borel Jr. told me. "But I love romantic gestures." She says her extensive knowledge of restaurants and wine make it so men tend to defer to her in these typical ways guys try to impress on dates, but she wishes they'd not drop the chivalry altogether. "They forget the little accoutrements of dating - holding doors open, rising up when I'm leaving the table, pulling out a chair or opening a car door. I love it when I notice a guy make a point of going around me and positioning himself between the street and me, just like in olden times so that my lovely parka will not get splashed by the carriages going by."
Lizzie Post, author and great-great-granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post, agreed that gentlemanly acts are still welcome, though she says guys don't have to feel any more like we're alone in figuring out the terrain. "In my father's book, Essential Manners for Men, he talks about how chivalry is not dead, but women aren't incapable of doing things for themselves. He says: You never know what a woman's preference is, so why not ask her? Ask, 'Would you like me to get your coat for you? Would you like me to hold the door for you? Would you like me to hold your chair for you?' "
Ms. Post says, however, that when it comes to romantic gestures, women should be stepping up their game as well. "I'm not about to run out and buy my boyfriend a bouquet of flowers," she said. "Not that I couldn't or that some guys wouldn't appreciate that, but my guy wouldn't be into that." Some of the things she does for her beau, she says, include sending an "I love you" text in the middle of the work day or leaving a note on the bedside for him to discover after she's left in the morning. "All of us have hectic days where you're trying to get done whatever you need to get done, dealing with traffic and dealing with other people, and what a relief it is to find some kind of a small romantic gesture throughout that day," she says. "It's like, 'Ah, someone loves me and cares about me, even though the world can be tough sometimes.' "
So guys, maybe it is time to ramp up the chivalry again. But, of course, the next time you approach a door with a lady, in the spirit of chivalric equality, you might ask, "Would you like me to open this door for you or would you like to open it for me?" You know, complex measures for complex times.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.