Waiting for the doctor today, I wondered whether I should rise when she entered the room. I never have before. Certainly if one is in a johnny it would be awkward, but this wasn't that sort of appointment and I was fully clothed. I did rise, and shook hands. I had heard of the custom, especially as a young man, and seen other men do so. Older men used to do it automatically. I think I shall do more of it. I can't rise every time a female coworker enters my office, but I could on first introduction. I think I will apply it equally to men, come to think of it. It just seems polite.
From that starting point, I wondered if it would be taken amiss by some women, or regarded as archaic as kissing the hand. How far back does the custom go? My search skills may be poor, and someone else may discover the answer, but I was only able to uncover the following: The custom of rising as a sign of respect is common to many cultures, and goes back to prehistory in western Europe, at least. In medieval times, a knight took of his hat or other headgear in the presence of a lady. My wife assures me that in Regency romances men rose when ladies entered the room.
That's the story for women of a certain status, but I could not find when the practice expanded to include all women. It sounds very American to not make such distinctions, and I would like to give us credit for it, but I have no evidence.
Here is the fascinating part. On discussion boards, nearly all the younger people, especially the women, regarded it as a sign of disrespect, or an assertion of male dominance. The reasoning was that we know that women were regarded as inferior up until last Tuesday. Therefore, any difference in how women were treated must be an expression of that. It seems an amazing thing. People rise when a judge enters the courtroom, they stand in the presence of the king, or of any authority or superior. They rise in respect for the elderly. Nurses used to be required to rise when a doctor entered the room. (I recall a few nurses who still did that automatically.) Men rise upon introduction to shake hands (as they do with women), some rising in respect even for an obvious inferior, such as a small child, if it has been a while since they have seen each other.
It is clearly an expression of respect, which was extended to women somewhere along the way. To accord women more respect or special respect does seem a bit artificial and Victorian. I can see why a modern sensibility might begin to sniff out some condescension in that, making an elaborate show out of something that was a falsehood. Yet it wasn't a falsehood in the 19th C. The cult of mother-worship ran high in sentiment. Noble unstained womanhood was protected from the grim and raw vulgarity of the workplace and the outside world, and so became a finer, more elevated, more moral being. You may protest all you like that this was also a prison and a limitation, but there is no getting around the observation that women were regarded as superior in at least some sphere by the society of the time. What we think about that now would have been of no importance to them.