DEAR MISS MANNERS: In my eighth-grade history class, we came upon the subject that women have equal rights to men. We talked about how men used to be the dominators and that women were known as wives, end of sentence.
Women have come far in their fight for equal rights. But men still pull out the chairs for women to sit down in, and they still open doors for women and say, "Ladies first."
So, for the sake of manners, is it still right that men are treating women better than women are treating men?
GENTLE READER: Are they? Surely someone in your class must be arguing that such gestures of deference are actually bad treatment, intended to humiliate and handicap women by marking them as helpless.
Not that Miss Manners is taking that position, or yours, either. But then, she has had enough advanced etiquette history to know that both have elements of truth, and neither tells the full story. (Nor does your conclusion that women were "wives, end of sentence." Many managed to distinguish themselves in various fields despite barriers and prejudices.)
Chivalric etiquette was an improvement on the previous system of "Ladies never." Nevertheless, symbolically declaring women too superior to run the everyday world had an amazingly similar effect to declaring them too inferior. And, by the way, chivalry originally applied only to upper-class ladies, and while a version of it was extended to the middle-class in the 19th century, it never inspired anyone to defer to the lower classes.
In order to debate whether remnants of this system should still be practiced, you must understand the cultural and sentimental part that tradition plays in history. The manners at any given time are not an exact fit with a society's philosophy, nor should they be. It takes awhile for consensus to build, even -- or especially -- for the most morally sound changes, and progress is not helped by the abrupt condemnation of familiar ways.
Still, everything evolves, and sometimes needs help to do so sensibly. The trick is to distinguish practices that might be harmful from those that are merely graceful.
If the boys in your class opened doors for the girls and pulled out their desk chairs for them, it would emphasize gender differences just when you are supposed to try to forget them and concentrate on your work. But would you welcome a rule that, as everyone is equal, you all have to dress alike for the prom?
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was eating lunch in a mall restaurant a few days ago, when a woman who was eating alone a couple of tables to my right paused in her eating/reading, reached into her purse, and pulled out a cell phone. She looked at the screen, put down her fork, and, as she raised her phone to her right ear, she raised her left hand to her mouth and cupped the phone.
The resultant conversation was only barely distinguishable from the restaurant background noise and much quieter than the live conversations around us.
As I was leaving, I thanked her for her courtesy and said I would pass her practice on. She thanked me.
GENTLE READER: But did you get her telephone number? Miss Manners only asks because she would be happy to thank the lady, too, if only she knew how to reach her.