Is chivalry dead? Or just civility?

Pregnant women find Metro riders in D.C. reluctant to relinquish their seats.


Tracy Clark-Flory
May 12, 2006 2:57AM (UTC)

Who doesn't appreciate a seat on the subway or bus ride home after a long day's work? Especially when the other option is being sandwiched between two sweaty and grumpy fellow passengers while desperately searching for a handhold that is, ideally, not a stranger's body part? But I'd take this hugely unpleasant alternative any day -- no matter how much my feet ached -- over the chivalrous surrender of a seat just because I'm a woman. According to John Kelly's column in the Washington Post, though, this is a nonissue; chivalry is dead. (Anyone need a moment to mourn? Didn't think so.)

While I'm not ready to shed a tear over the death of chivalry, the article does point out what seems a worthy issue: Metro riders in the Washington area are unlikely to offer up their seats to pregnant women. But this seems more an issue of civility than chivalry. Surprisingly, the worst perpetrators are young women in their 20s, according to Giselle Zimmerman, who has been observing the reaction of fellow passengers to her bulging belly. "They maybe look at you and then try not to make eye contact," said Zimmerman, now 33 weeks pregnant.

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Past studies (you know, actually conducted by scientists or sociologists) have shown that pregnant women are treated differently; one study found that people stood much farther away from visibly pregnant women while on an elevator and stared excessively at their bellies. But it's unclear whether people's response to women on the subway -- going along, for a moment, with this anecdotal evidence -- is a result of discomfort around pregnant women (note the shifty eyes observed by Zimmerman) or plain ol' selfishness.

The second informal sociologist mentioned in the article contradicts Zimmerman's observations. Kara (who withheld her last name) said that women were more likely to offer up their seat than men were. Most interesting was Kara's observation about women with young children: "One time, a woman came on holding a child, and like four people offered their seats. I thought it was interesting: Holding the child outside your body gets you a seat versus holding it inside your body."

Kelly, of course, recognizes the fallibility of this anecdotal evidence and concludes his column by suggesting that these accounts at least suggest the need for actual scientific inquiry. Could be that the results will have something interesting to say about societal perceptions of pregnant women.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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