Is a Man's Life and Safety More Expendable Than a Woman's? Questions about the Masculine Chivalric Ideal

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in a fascinating conversation on Tales from the Crib with Mike in Co on the topic of teaching boys to fight back when faced with conflict in order to raise them to be protectors of women and children. The conversation also circulated around questions of chivalry and men’s “natural” instinct and duty to fight and protect.

I thought I’d throw out some of the nuggets Mike in Co suggested (and he’s not LDS, but I thought he represented a very traditional perspective of maleness vs. femaleness.) I’d love to see how many of you agree with his perspective, as some of the (women) bloggers at TFTC apparently loved what he was advocating.

Mike in Co says:

I tip my hat to all of you ladies who are not afraid to be what us men cannot: nurturing, feminine, motherly; and you’re all very articulate. I must inquire, are you the last generation of such? …

Anyway, wanted to add a little bit to this discussion. Mothers don’t want their children to be fighters, and that’s natural. And that’s fine for girl children. Girls didn’t used to fight. I blame TV. But boys need to be the fighters, because when we grow up, we are your protectors. If we’re taught not to ever, ever, fight – to always be passive and weak – how will we learn to slay the dragons and fight off the Indians to save our wives and children?

He and I engaged in a brief discussion, with me arguing that a) violence should be a last resort and b) both boys AND girls should know how to protect themselves when those last resort situations arise.

But his comments about slaying dragons etc. brought up some interesting issues for me. While I enjoy a good romance with a testosterone-laden, primitively protective, skilled with a sword male as much as the next gal, I just don’t know how healthy it is to truly embrace this strict gender dichotomy in real life.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that one of my roles is to be “the protected” while my husband’s is to be “the protector.” That his duty in times of conflict is to fight, and mine is not to fight. Sure, if I was getting attacked, I would hope that my husband would come to my aid. But if he was getting attacked, I’d like to think that I would come to his aid as well. Likewise in a bullet situation. Mike probably would throw himself in front of a bullet for me, and I hope I’d do the same for him.

I think there’s this very old fashioned, chivalrous ideal out there that indicates that a man’s life is more expendable than a woman’s. The old “women and children in the lifeboats first” mentality. I’m fine with the children part, but I question the woman part. What is it about my femaleness that makes my life more important than my husband’s?

Yet I understand that many people are perfectly comfortable with the traditional idea of the man fighting and risking his own safety for the woman, but not vice versa, and I’d like to know why. Why do you (or others you know) think that men should forfeit their lives for the safety of women, but not the other way around? Or are you like me in envisioning a more egalitarian world in which people try to help and protect people, regardless of gender?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. TftCarrie says:

    You know I’m right there with you on this one. Thanks for joining me in the conversation with Mike. I was just as surprised that no other Tales readers spoke up in disagreement with Mike in Co on this one.

    I totally understand the attractiveness that some women find in a strong, male protector, but I don’t think it’s a good reason for teaching all our boys to fight and all our girls to be passive.

  2. AmyB says:

    I’m with you, Caroline. Especially now that we live in industrialized/technological society. While it is true that an average male has more physical strength than an average female, that’s just not very relevant anymore in most cases.

    However, it does comes into play in reality right now concerning the armed forces. I’m not clear on actual practices, but it’s my understanding that although women are in the armed forces now, they are still not in the front lines of combat. Do you think they should be? I’m not sure what I think. I hope this isn’t derailing the thread train, but this is what came up for me when I thought about it.

    I do agree that both boys and girls should be taught to avoid fighting when possible, but also to be able to defend themselves.

  3. Starfoxy says:

    I saw that conversation as well. I was going to chime in but I didn’t have anything nice to say. 🙂

    I think that during the golden age of chivalry women risked their lives possibly more frequently than men, but they did it in childbirth. Because childbirth was so very risky it makes sense that women were the last to risk their lives in other areas like war. In the developed world death by childbrith is rather rare, and there is little need to protect women as breeding stock. In my mind those things that make chivalric chest beating protectors practical don’t exist anymore.

    Also, the argument that men ‘naturally’ want to protect women, and women ‘naturally’ want to be protected should have no bearing on how we raise our children. If these differences are so natural why do we have to spend so much time drilling them into children and enforcing them among adults?

    Either way we’re *all* meant to emulate Jesus, in his entirety. As a woman I should be as willing to chase the money changers out of the temple as He was, and a man should be just as willing to see the little children as Christ was. Teach your children correct principles and their natural strengths will find their own expression.

  4. Eric Russell says:

    Is a Man’s Life and Safety More Expendable Than a Woman’s?

    Yes. There’s no rational explanation for this, so I’m not going to try. It’s just a matter of conscience. If I’m the Captain of a sinking ship and there’s one place left on a lifeboat that a women could take, but a man takes in her stead, I’m going to shoot him. That’s just the way it is.

    But let’s tone it down for a moment. What about a man opening a car door for a woman? Death is but an extreme end of a chivalric ideal that seeks a special respect women. I realize the response is that men and women should serve and respect each other anyways, and that’s good. But what is wrong with this extra chivalric respect? I’ve yet to hear anything that has convinced me that it undermines either men or women in any real way.

    I think the conflict of ideas here is in the notion that parallelism is the same thing as equality. That anything lacking in the former somehow means that something is lacking in the latter. The concept of unparallelism in gender is perhaps a disconcerting one, even an irrational one, but I would contend that it is by no means a necessarily unethical one.

  5. JKS says:

    I’ve had this conversation before on the bloggernacle. It disturbs me.
    I am comfortable with my husband feeling like he would give his life to save mine.
    It bothers me that my daughters may marry a men who don’t feel that way and they’ll argue about who goes in the lifeboat and who stays behind. And it bothers me that my son might do rock/paper/scissors to see who gets in the lifeboat.
    I used to be perfectly content with the fact that my son might be asked to die for his country, but my daughters will not register for the draft. But the world has changed. Since so many people around me have changed their minds about this, I realize that my daughters will no longer be viewed as what the soldiers are trying to save.
    I am not happy with this change. I am still surprised that so many people on the bloggernacle say that their children would be better off with the father vs. the mother, or either one, and so there is no need to have preference.
    My son will not be taught the chivalry that I think he should be. No one ever says “don’t hit a girl” because they are so busy saying “don’t hit anyone.”
    Yes, some good comes from this, but we lose something too.

  6. Amanda says:

    I don’t *need* someone to protect me.

    But… I still want to know that he’s both able and willing to do it.

  7. Wes says:

    I have never had to actually fight on behalf of my wife. I have never had to run a burgler out of our house. I have never had to use violence in defense of my family. But I would if it were neccessary. I teach my sons to look after their sister, and I teach my daughter to look after her brothers. But in an actual fight, with a real bad guy, of course the man is going to be the main source of protection. Though guns have changed the way fights and wars often take place (my wife is a good shot) the instinct to violently attack another person and the genetics to do it, whether neccessary or not is predominately male. Of course there are exceptions. I know women who are ready to fight, and men who would prefer to let them. I have no problem with people who feel that way. But I think they are a minority.

  8. Heather O. says:

    Amanda said, ‘I don’t *need* someone to protect me.’

    You may not *need* it, but don’t you want it? Don’t you want to know that somebody will fight for you if the *need* arises? Don’t you want to know that somebody would give you his lifeboat, his lifebelt, his entire life for you? I fail to see how a man wanting to keep his family safe translates into male chauvenism. And the reality is that if you are in a situation as extreme as we are talking about, i.e., a full frontal assault of some kind when you are in the victim position, we as women are unlikely to be able to defend ourselves solo. Especially, ESPECIALLY ESPECIALLY if we are with our children. Mothers with children in any kind of conflict are totally screwed.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    It’s not just a matter of war or emergency. It’s also a matter of who provides for the family through daily hazardous labor. In 2002, 5,524 people were killed on the job in America. Guess how many of them were men? 3,000? 4,000? The count was 5,083, or 23 out of every 25 deaths. If workplace hazard were shouldered equally by men and women, then women would die on the job twelve times as often than they do now. From 1991 through 1999, an average of 93 people a year were killed and 21,351 were injured in mining accidents. When twelve people died in the Sago Mine in West Virginia in January and one was rescued and when five miners died in Kentucky in May, all those people were men. Their sex wasn’t even noticeable because that’s just the way it is. Contrast with how much more shocking and undesirable it would be for twelve women to die on the job together.


  10. Mark IV says:


    I saw an incident yesterday that has bearing on your question, and it was kind of charming/funny/touching all at the same time. An older man with a cane was approaching the door to the store, and a younger (16-17 year old) woman arrived at about the same time. The man was an old-style gentleman, and he motioned with his cane for the woman to proceed. She had obviously been raised to respect older people, so she smiled, shook her head, and motioned for him to go first. They repeated this process several times until the standoff was resolved when he offered her his arm and they went in together, arm in arm and laughing.

    I am comfortable with a social convention that dictates that people should protect and help those who are physically weaker. You acknowledge as much when you say that children should go into the lifeboats first. I think that was the dynamic at work with the old man and the young woman – they were trying to decide who needed help the most. Speaking for myself, I simply couldn’t live with myself if I took advantage of my size and strength to save my life at the expense of someone smaller or weaker. And most men are bigger and physically stronger than most women. So, the social convention that says we should serve and protect others gets translated into a shorthand version that says men should protect women. I agree with you that girls should not be taught to be passive.

    Not meaning to threadjack, but I think the appeal to chivalry is a good way to teach young men to not participate in pr0nography. I work with AP quorums a lot, and the best success I have had is when I can help a young man understand that the woman being depicted is probably very vulnerable in real life, and to participate in pr0nography is to participate in, and consent to, her degradation. In our town the news reported that a man responded to sexual assault charges with the defense that the woman was asking for it by the way she dressed. In stake priesthood meeting, our SP was visibly shaking with anger as he talked about this. He said that a woman should be able to walk down Main Street “buck naked” (that’s the first time I had ever heard that phrase from the pulpit!) and she should be able to count on the men and boys who hold the priesthood for respect and protection.

  11. Caroline says:

    My understanding is also that women are not on the front lines still. Personally, I think that if a woman can pass certain stringent physical tests that proove that she can be an effective fighter (perhaps as effective as a male), I would have no problem with her choosing and being allowed to fight on the front lines.

    Interesting historical perspective. I think you might be on to something regarding the urge in the past to protect women as breeding stock.

    Eric Russell,
    What about an ill man vs. a healthy woman in the lifeboat situation? Would you shoot him still? Is it simply a matter of the strong trying to protect the weak,and if that is the case, shouldn’t a strapping, healthy woman give up her seat for an ill male?

    As for opening doors…. my husband generally does that for me, and it’s nice of him to do it. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I wouldn’t be mad if he stopped. I guess I think of it as a non-essential sweet action. Though it’s become more essential recently now that I’m 8 months pregnant and not feeling very strong.

    JKS, I think we’ve had this conversation before 🙂 How about teaching a son “Don’t ever hit anyone weaker than you.”? I think that would cover boys not hitting girls 90% of the time.

  12. Caroline says:

    Amanda and Heather O., I also want my man to be willing to protect me if the need arises. But I also feel like I should make a good effort to try to help him if he’s in danger. Reality may be that he’s stronger than I am, and therefore may have a better chance fending off an attacker, but I still think, if I were healthy and strong, that I should also make some type of effort, within my strength and abilities.

    Do I want my man to give up his seat in the lifeboat for me? Yes. But I also want me to be willing to do the same for him. And Heather, good point about mothers with children having a more difficult time defending themselves.

    I’m glad you teach your boys to protect your girl,and your girl to protect your boys. Works for me.

    John Mansfield
    Interesting numbers. I imagine that the reason that men have so many more dangerous jobs than women (and therefore die more often) is because these jobs, like mining, take a lot of upper body strength, and most women probably just don’t have enough to want to go into those careers.

    Mark IV,
    A very sweet anecdote 🙂 Personally, a healthy teenaged woman seems to be to be in a better physical position than an old man with a cane, so I also would have tried to let the old man go first.

    I think I also (generally) like the idea that the stronger should try to protect the weaker. Though I do think that a healthy woman should make a good effort to help herself and others out in times of need, even if there are strong men around. I suppose my ultimate worry is that, like you, I just don’t want girls to always feel like someone is going to come and help them, so they should just sit back and be passive. Teaching girls to be proactive about their safety and about standing up for themselves seems to be a good idea to me.

    Interesting connection to pornography. I actually like that approach since so much of porn really does feature desperate, abused women and children, and viewing such things does create even more of a market for more women and children’s degradation.

  13. Eric James Stone says:

    As Winston Churchill said, “There are 3 things I like about being on an Italian cruise ship. First, their cuisine is unsurpassed. Second, their service is superb. And then, in time of emergency, there is none of this nonsense about women and children first.”

    But I think there is something noble in in the idea that men should be protective of women. (That doesn’t mean women must be passive and rely on men to protect them, and I have no problem with the idea of women learning to protect themselves.)

    I think our society loses something by telling men that women aren’t worth protecting any more than a man. I doubt that leads to men who are more caring about other men; rather, it leads to men who are more callous in general.

  14. Duane says:

    From a survival-of-the-species standpoint, a man’s life is more expendable than a woman’s.

  15. Dave says:

    Plato anticipated the current debate about women in combat over two millennia ago in the Republic. In Socrates’s perfectly just city, women were to learn the arts of war and fight alongside the men, since justice demanded the distinction between the sexes be considered no different than that between bald men and men with hair. But this utopian city could only exist in speech, for its realization (as Socrates details) would require a radical assault on human nature: the utter destruction of marriage, the home, the privacy and sanctity of the family, and the relations of parent and child, even to the point of tolerating incest.

    A fascinating book is “The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars” by Stephanie Gutmann.

    The author is a female, and a product of the anti-military youth of the 70’s who did more than her share of demonstrating against and disparaging of America’s fighting military forces. Her conclusions are not what you would expect… including that “The Clinton Administration’s move toward a complete sexual integration of the armed forces at all levels has been a major disaster which may be the very undoing of our National Defense posture.”
    Its very interesting reading.

  16. Jim Cobabe says:

    My favorite anecdote on this topic —

    One summer I was hanging around downtown Salt Lake City. There was a work crew out on the street with a backhoe breaking up a section of pavement. Several laborers were taking turns picking up the pieces of asphalt and tossing them into the back of a nearby dump truck.

    One of the workers was female.

    By my observation the males all chose the largest chunk available to heft and throw. Or they picked up more than one. The female consistently selected a smaller piece.

    I might have been less impressed if the males had all been bigger and stronger. But in fact, this female was visibly larger and more muscular than several of her coworkers.

    My suspicion is that she justified her inferior performance with some kind of physical excuse. Like, she couldn’t risk a broken fingernail. I’m sure the males groused about the phoniness of the “equal pay” premise, but probably only to themselves, as they would justifiably fear retribution for making “sexist” comments.

  17. D-Train says:

    Chivalry isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but it can’t be separated from the larger pattern of discourse that is connected to it. Why, after all, do we want chivalry? It seems that all the answers come down to some mention of the following:

    1) Women just can’t protect themselves (untrue, and doesn’t justify a socialization that fulfills that prophecy).

    2) Women shouldn’t protect themselves because it would erode their nature (we don’t know what nature actually looks like and this doesn’t explain why we would create men that can’t approach that nature).

    3) Men are naturally protectors (who cares what’s natural? Natural and right are different questions).

    4) Women are valuable in some way in which men aren’t (given the way power relations work in most societies, this is little better than the “women are inherently righteous” dross we hear at church sometimes. Patronizing at best.)

    5) Some evolutionary argument that stresses a unique need for women (fine, but we don’t really live in a world where this argument applies any more. This argument also only applies if you’re willing to accept polygamy so that no womb goes unused. If you’re strictly monogamous, the loss of one woman probably doesn’t mean as much for this argument. Also, the question of the need for population growth is debatable at best right now.)

    The bottom line is that you can’t just accept chivalry without critically examining the pattern of discourse that it reifies.

  18. dangermom says:

    I think male protectiveness is, in fact, pretty ingrained. Yes, we have to teach it too–I think that we have to take all these male/female instincts that are sort of hardwired into our brains and channel them productively, or they go wrong and turn into abuse and machismo and so on.

    But when you look at the studies people have been doing, you find that on the whole, under stress, men want to go out and fight and protect their families, while women tend to congregate together and take care of children and stuff. These are strategies that worked very well for thousands of years, when people needed to have lots of children just to keep their societies stable (an ancient Greek couple had to have 6 children in order to replace themselves, or so my classics prof claimed). Biologically speaking, a woman is more valuable than a man.

    We’re still primitive; we live in an industrial society and no longer need to protect child-bearing women so much, but our hardwiring has not caught up to that at all. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but I think it might be. I do know, without having to think about it, that my husband falls definitely on the protective end of the scale. Nothing arouses his contempt more than a man who does not respect and protect women and children. (At the same time, our daughters take martial arts.)

  19. Eric James Stone says:

    d-train, you’ve missed one:

    6. Socializing men as protectors of women channels male aggression away from women.

  20. D-Train says:


    I concede that this is a possibility, but do not see any empirical support for it (there might be some, but I’m not aware of it). In any case, this explanation/justification doesn’t get away from the substantive problems associated with the other five that I mention. It doesn’t do anything to change power relations and still allows chivalry to be used as a justification for the perpetuation of traditional gender roles.

    This argument also doesn’t explain why women should be protected. It’s not essential to do that in order to embrace this explanation, but it must be done in the course of implementing it, which will mean bringing one of the other five positions to bear.

  21. mullingandmusing says:

    I’ve always sorta gotten the feeling that God wants His sons to protect His daughters and the children in their care. Protecting even falls into the “divine design” thing in the Proclamation for the men. That seems a compelling enough reason in my mind.

  22. Mark Butler says:


    Protection, yes. Respect, absolutely not, except in the most formal sense. More like call the police.

  23. Caroline says:

    Interesting anecdote Jim. But I have a hard time believing that a female construction worker is really all that concerned about breaking a nail. She was probably just a lazy individual or an individual dealing with some sort of injury.

    Excellent breakdown. Those arguments you list and dismiss certainly sound fallacious to me as well.

  24. Lindsey says:

    In my understanding, men are more expendable because the women must raise the children. However, I think that in today’s society, that is no longer relevant and perhaps never was. Men are being encouraged to be more domestic, even as women are being encouraged to work more outside the home. Roles are not reversing so much as they are merging, making both parents equally capable of raising the children singly were the other to be killed.

    At the risk of being a bit too bold, I might go so far as to say that women are now more expendable than men. Despite the ERA and other acts of congress, men are still paid more than women. Thus, a woman in a relationship with children (especially if she doesn’t contribute monitarily by holding a job)would be more financially unstable without her husband than the husband would be without the wife.

    Granted, life insurance should support the family if one providing member is killed, but that doesn’t always cover all of the bases. I know this argument is flawed, but I don’t want to take the time (or the space) to refine it. I’d just like to hear your comments.

  25. Serenity Valley says:

    I’m going to back Starfoxy up on this one–honestly, in societies where childbirth is very dangerous, it makes sense to limit the rate of early death among women by keeping them out of dangerous occupations, wars, and so on. In societies which rely on large families for economic stability, there’s even a kind of economic equality in chivalry.

    Beyond that, one man can have many more offspring than one woman; and until very recently, women were utterly indispensable for early childrearing–breastfeeding, you know? So it made sense to conserve women as a less replaceable reproductive resource than men.

    In modern America, this kind of thinking just doesn’t make sense. We ought not to base our ideas about the common good on biological and economic realities which are no longer, well, reality.

  26. Starfoxy says:

    Can I say that if it comes to lifeboats, were I childless or empty nested I would rather give up my place on the lifeboat so a young father could stay with his wife and family, even if that young man is stronger than me.

    If a young man wrestles an old lady out of the boat to take her place that would certainly be bad form on his part. But if she took advantage of his chivalry towards her to save herself and in so doing put his wife and children at a lifelong disadvantage would she be any better? Traditional chivalry would tell that man that the old woman should have his spot, and I think that is flat-out wrong. He isn’t just sacrificing himself, he’s forcing his family to sacrifice him as well.

    I guess my point is, chivalry should be about those teaching *everyone* to help *anyone* who needs it. When we actively and artificially separate it along gendered lines we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. It makes men less willing to accept help from anyone, and women less likely to offer it to men.

    I really like what Caroline said to JKS “How about teaching a son “Don’t ever hit anyone weaker than you.”? I think that would cover boys not hitting girls 90% of the time.” I don’t have a problem accepting that women may often need assistance, and that men are often in a place to give it. I do have a problem saying that men should never accept a woman’s help just because he is a man and she is a woman, and I think chivalry as it stands often teaches just that.

  27. AmyB says:

    I agree with many here that the traditional gender roles promoted in the chivalry discourse are problematic in current times.

    Some are arguing that doing away with the chivalrous ideal means that people won’t help each other anymore, women won’t be rescued, etc.

    I’d like to see an ideal where circles of care and compassion are increased. It’s not that we do away with coming to aid, help, or respect people, but that the urge to protect and care for people extends to all humankind rather than only certain types of people.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Very pretty design! Keep up the good work. Thanks.

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