Once upon a time, men walked on the street side of the sidewalk when accompanying a woman so that if a carriage wheel splashed water from the gutter he and not she got wet. Or wetter.
Later, auto makers put running boards on their cars.
The old movies suggest running boards were specifically made for gangsters toting machineguns, but they also enabled women to get in and out of a car without having to show too much ankle.
In the days of horse-driven carriages and cars with running boards, the sexes were separated by fashion and manners, remnants of the days of male chivalry and modest maidens, differences in style and custom, illusions that made life more charming if not less difficult.
And now ol' Virginny, where a belle maintained her blush (if sometimes artificially applied) and a gentleman drew as heavily on the flattery as on the bourbon in hand, has sounded the final death knell for that era. (Maybe. There have been other final death knells for the customs of the Old South.)
Two legislators, both Republicans, have proposed that the Virginia General Assembly remove an 81-year old state law that makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine, for a man to defame a lady by falsely imputing that she is not virtuous or chaste.
The two delegates insist they don't want to remove all chivalrous pleasantries, such as opening doors for women, but that the law has to catch up with culture.
This specific law, they say (with a certain lack of chivalry) is not only old-fashioned, but discriminates against men - a woman can call a man a promiscuous cad and/or womanizer and not have to pay a cent. (Poor babies.)
All this sounds quite frivolous in discussions about equality, of course, but it demonstrates how far we've come in changing attitudes toward the differences in the sexes. Women no longer need protection from verbal slanders against their virtue. "Oh, if only there were enough chaste women left to protect," says Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative women's public policy group in Washington. "As for the few that remain, perhaps they deserve protection." No man would dare say that, enlightened times or not.
Coinciding with the call for erasing the chivalric code in Virginia, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the creation of a Web-based program of services to victims of domestic violence. "Toolkit to End Violence Against Women," was created by the department of Health and Human Services (toolkit.ncjrs.org) to help communities help abused women.
"Violence against women crosses all economic, educational, cultural, racial and religious lines," Attorney General John Ashcroft says. "This invaluable tool was developed to aid in the effort to eradicate such violence from our society."
Laws of chivalry are a long way away from laws against violence, but they all grew out of a similar impulse, that women need protection from men. If anatomy is not destiny, as Freud said it was, it sure has a lot to do with the difference. Women have been regarded as the weaker sex because they were smaller and carried the babies.
That insight was also used to subjugate women. The Pill (and its attending cultural changes) probably had more to do with contemporary liberation of Western women than all the radical feminist rhetoric about equality. But women still need help, more than occasionally, to defend themselves against male brutality.
The war against al Qaida and the Taliban exposes incredible brutality against women. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice sounds like something from "Saturday Night Live" (or George Orwell), but it was real enough, punishing such offenses as wearing high-heeled shoes and applying cosmetics.
Laura Bush, who gathered together 11 women exiled from Afghanistan and seated them under a portrait of George Washington at the White House, says, diplomatically, that she's in no position to make choices in the structure of the new government for Afghanistan, "but I sure hope that one principle of that new government will be human rights, and that includes the rights of women and children."
Some critics with more sensitivity than common sense scold her for not being sensitive to the strictures of Islam, or for not speaking out against the brutalization of Afghan men, or for not rising to the defense of women in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, or for being late in arriving at her observations.
Such nonsense. The first lady has a bully pulpit to use where it can do some good, when it can do some good. While drawing attention to the rights of women in Afghanistan, she draws attention to the rights of all women who are abused by men. Power to the (female) people!