Don't give up that bus seat for me yet, sonny
Column: The arrival of a properly pregnant woman on a train can still trigger a chaotic panic
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, with Patrick Macnee as John Steed, in the 1960s television series The Avengers. Photograph: PA
You’d expect an interview with Diana Rigg to cast some nostalgic vapours about the place. Sure enough, in her recent chat with the Radio Times , the distinguished actor warbled a tune that hasn’t been properly popular for decades. Back in the days when feminism was still called Women’s Lib, opponents of the movement would occasionally turn to an argument that assumed whole hillsides of easily flammable straw men.
“Women’s Lib is all very good,” chaps (and some women) would say in a voice that suggested it was not good at all. “But if they want this equality then they’ll have to get used to not having doors held for them and not being offered seats on buses and not having chairs pulled out for them at dinner.”
Take that, Gloria Steinem. Bet you feel stupid now, Betty Friedan. Imaginary fathead at golf club bar has, with one brilliant parry, annihilated the philosophy for which you both stand. There is, surely, barely a feminist on the planet who, if offered the false choice between a door held open and genuine equality, would plump for the former. As a result, the argument tended to wither away.
Dame Diana, former Avenger and respected classical actor, has, however, returned to a sort of corollary to the thesis in her much-quoted interview. She has taken the line that the world throngs with feminists who take the greatest offence at being ushered first through a door or having seats tipped in their direction.
“I was thought to be [a feminist], but never was really,” she said. “If a man holds a door open for me or pulls back a chair so that this old bag can sit down, I’m delighted. If they put an arm round a woman and say, ‘You look good today’, they could find themselves in the small claims court.”
Rigg’s apparent bolting together of lingering chivalric etiquette and the more serious ambitions of feminism scratches at skin where no itch is felt. In half a century of door-opening, I cannot remember a single woman objecting to the offer of unobstructed passage. Some may, for all I know, have sighed inwardly at my presumption, but, if so, they kept their frustration to themselves.
The kerfuffle does, however, point up certain lingering questions concerning social protocol. Given that a man may very well give way to a man when entering a building, no sane woman could take offense if treated in a similar way.
What about the issue of public transport? Age is a factor here. A few years ago, my somewhat younger partner and I were travelling on the Paris Metro. It is probably fair to say that nothing – not a night’s viewing of Fawlty Tower s; not full immersion in the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre – has triggered quite so much mirth in her as the young man who, in a spirit of innocent decency, offered me his seat .
Obviously, it is right and proper to give way to older people in such situations. It is, however, best to keep such offers for folk within spitting distance of their old age pensions. Heck, Martina Navratilova won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon at about the same age as I was during the Great Metro Disaster of ’09.
Hint of condescension
The time has, however, probably passed when a man should feel obliged to offer his seat to a youngish woman on bus, train or tram. She’d be a jerk to object too strongly. But a tiny hint of condescension hangs around such gestures: a suggestion that frail ladies can’t cope in public places.
The obvious exception concerns pregnant women. It really is most unfair of only mildly expectant persons to go anywhere near public transport. A healthily proportioned woman can all too easily be mistaken for somebody in the early stages of that happy condition. Offering a seat can, in those circumstances, be seen as tantamount to blowing out your cheeks and imitating the tuba music that used to sweep Hattie Jacques on set in the Carry On films.
In contrast, the arrival of a properly pregnant woman on a train can still – not always, but sometimes – trigger a chaotic panic as every second man struggles to prove he is not the biggest cad in the carriage. Fail to make the exchange and you spend the rest of trip scouring the platform for another pregnant woman.
It is probably best – even if acting under decent motives – not to make gestures that imply somebody is stupider, weaker or less capable than their appearance suggests. Standing back from the doorway shouldn’t fall into that category. Throwing your cloak over a puddle is probably overdoing it. Which is not say Dame Diana wouldn’t appreciate it.