Are men kind to women?

The predicament of women a propos the dominant reality is complex and paradoxical, as is revealed in women’s mundane experience of the seesaw of demand and neglect, of being romanced and assaulted, of being courted and being ignored (Frye 1983). Even if women’s survival is threatened by male violence, which is inescapable, and even if women are isolated by men, a fourth element— women’s perception of kindness from men— would be necessary for women as a group to develop Societal Stockholm Syndrome. In this section we ask if women perceive men as showing kindness.

Men are kind to women in a number of ways, creating hopes that they really do care about women and will stop their violence against us. Chivalry, male protection of women from other men’s violence, courting behavior, love (including affection during sex), and heterosexual privileges (access to men’s income, power, and prestige) that accrue to women for coupling with men provide examples of such kindness. These facts— that men show women these kindnesses, and that women perceive these acts as kind— are themselves sufficient for affirming the presence of the fourth precursor (some show of kindness, however small) in men’s relations with women. However, further analysis reveals that none of these kindnesses comes free. We will examine each of these acts of kindness.


Chivalry is one of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of male kindness toward women: men opening doors for women, lighting women’s cigarettes, and so forth. But, as Richardson (1983) has pointed out, “Manners … provide the modus vivendi by which our cultural values are maintained and our self-images as ‘males’ or ‘females’ are confirmed.” In other words, these chivalrous acts, performed almost unconsciously a thousand times a day, reinforce sex-role stereotypes. And, as Richardson notes, sex roles are an instrument of oppression:

It is not a cultural accident that the personality traits associated with a male’s performance in rituals between the sexes are precisely those traits which this culture values the most and considers socially desirable and mentally healthy activity: efficacy, authority, prowess, independence. Nor is it a cultural accident that the personality traits associated with the female’s performance are exactly those that our culture writes off as immature and childlike: passivity, dependence, weakness, frailty, ineptitude.

The effect of chivalry, then, is to reinforce sex roles, a system geared to the creation of dominant males and submissive females.

Protection from male violence

It is to men that women turn for protection from male violence. A man who protects women is seen as kind, no matter what else he may do. Because the possibility of violence is ever present, women seek out the company of kind men for virtually continual companionship. This need for protection (and for other kindnesses which only men can provide under patriarchy) stimulates many, if not most, women to marry. In our gratitude for men’s protection, women forget that it is men’s violence against us that creates the need for such protection. We overlook the fact that our coupling with “kind” men strengthens our dependence on men, sets the stage for men’s one-on-one oppression of us, and furthers our isolation from other women.

Donna Stringer (1986) argues that women gain physical protection from violent men by giving a man, usually a male partner, power over women’s lives. Table 3.3 describes “rights,” or “rewards,” women receive when we give up our power to men. The table also shows the responsibilities of men to whom women have given up power. Notice that in exchange for physical safety, a woman is required to submit sexually to her (male) protector and to birth and parent his children. The point being made here is that women pay, and pay dearly, for the “kindnesses” we receive from men. However, Stringer notes that because men have the right to label women’s behavior, even a woman who perceives herself as having given a man power over her life can be labeled out of line and thus be subjected to male violence.

Courting Behavior

Most women are aware that the time they will get the most attention, gentleness, and warmth from a man is during what is called the courting stage. With marriage, their work for him begins in earnest: washing his clothes, cooking his meals, cleaning his house (see Hartmann 1987). Once he is married, a man’s amorous attention toward a woman quickly drops by the wayside, for he assumes she now belongs to him. For a few months or a couple of years of real kindness during courting, a woman offers a man a lifetime of domestic labor.

Heterosexual Privilege

The material and social advantages (kindnesses) women obtain through coupling with men are referred to as “heterosexual privilege.” According to Bunch (1983), heterosexual privilege gives women “a stake in male supremacy” and thus “a stake in their own oppression.” She warns that “heterosexual women must realize— no matter what [our] personal connection to men— that the benefits [we] receive from men will always be in diluted form and will ultimately result in [our] own self-destruction.”

[For example] because of the difference between women and men in average income, women know we will have a higher standard of living if we align ourselves with a man. Certainly, a high or just decent standard of living may be experienced as a kindness which particular men provide specific women, particularly since most women are “just one man away from poverty.” However, it is men who keep women’s pay lower than men’s, creating women’s need for this male kindness.

Men’s Love

Perhaps the kindness most valued by women is a man’s love (affection). Frye (1983) offers an interesting perspective on men’s love:

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking) exclusively with (or upon or to) the other sex, i.e., women. All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire … those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving. (Emphasis added)

Hacker (1981) also has noted the limitations of men’s love of women, the compartmentalization which men show in marrying women but not wanting to have much to do with women. Men who marry nonetheless limit their associations with women in other situations. One example is the male physician who doesn’t want female physicians as members of the hospital staff. Another is the poker player who doesn’t want women to participate in his game. Similarly, hunters don’t want women to join in their sport with them. Another example is the man who would not want to consult with a woman lawyer.

Hacker notes, “Men will accept women at the supposed level of greatest intimacy while rejecting them at lower levels.” But this is understandable if intimacy (“love-making”) is the time that the bodily characteristics determining membership in dominant versus subordinate groups (male versus female) are most apparent and the time that the dominance of the penis over the vagina is reenacted.

Loving to Survive by Dee L.R. Graham

Psychologists Eugene Nadler and William Morrow (1959) reasoned that if chivalry was a form of anti-womanism then a scale measuring attitudes toward chivalry and attitudes toward openly subordinating women would correlate positively; if chivalry was a form of pro-womanism, then scales measuring chivalrous attitudes and the open subordination of women would correlate negatively.

Their Open Subordination of Women Scale measured attitudinal “support of traditional policies which openly restrict women to a subordinate position” and “stereotyped conceptions of women as inferior, hence deserving of subordination.“

The Chivalrous Attitudes toward Women Scale assessed attitudes regarding providing “superficial ‘protection and assistance’ in conduct toward women, … [showing] special ‘deference’ in conduct toward women, … [and showing] special pseudo-respectful ‘deference’ toward women as a value; and stereotyped conceptions of women as ‘pure,’ ‘delicate,’ unassertive, and relatively ‘helpless.’”

When these two scales were administered to a group of eighty-three men, a significant positive correlation was obtained. (A positive correlation was also obtained in an earlier pilot study.) The positive correlation indicates that the men who supported openly subordinating women were also the men who supported chivalry.

Though it is apparently ironic, the man who insists on opening doors for a woman often is the same man who argues that a woman should not be considered for a high-level job and that women should make less money than men. Similarly, it is entirely likely that the man who marries his wife to protect her from harm is the same man who beats her (for a case example, see McNulty 1980
—  Loving to Survive by Dee L.R. Graham

The Dream Roll

Table 3.3

Stringer’s (1986) List of Male and Female Rights and Responsibilities Regarding One Another

a) Note that male rights are all proactive while female “rights” are reactive and depend on the male’s executing his rights and responsibilities. Female “rights” could perhaps most appropriately be labeled “rewards” for staying within the female role.

b) Because core values are most strongly embodied in Male Rights and Female Responsibilities, these are most resistant to change. The easiest reforms occur in the areas of male responsibilities and female rights. For example, removing male legal responsibilities for providing alimony payments occurred quickly and easily as did requiring women to enter the labor market to contribute to financial support for families. On the other hand, reducing male control of women through outlawing marital rape or spouse abuse have been difficult changes to achieve.

Reprinted with permission from D. M. Stringer (1986, March 9). A model for understanding male response to female efforts to change violence against women. Annual Conference of the Association for Women in Psychology, Oakland, Calif

Loving to Survive by Dee L.R. Graham