Chivalry has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with manipulation

If that’s respect, I’m Chrétien de Troyes.

So feminists don’t do chivalry? Frankly, I find the very suggestion reveals a complete lack of politesse. I’m a feminist yet I’ve always been a friend of courtoisie. Indeed, I’ve read whole books that seek to define appropriate ritterliches Benehmen (I didn’t study medieval literature for nothing  – well, actually, it’s starting to look like I did. But still …).

The debate on chivalry has been “restarted” by an article in the Atlantic (a publication which I sometimes feel was set up with the sole purpose of rewriting Femail in Pseud’s Corner-friendly language). You know all that stuff about how feminists get really mad if men hold doors open, so then men get told off for holding doors open, then women – who are not the same as feminists – get pissed because the told-off men have stopped holding doors open etc. etc.? Well, it’s that. Again. “The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.” Blah blah blah – you know the drill. Except – except! – there’s a sort-of social sciencey bit.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, a recent study has shown that “chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place” – so a world not unlike the end of an episode of Mike the Knight. Who could possibly be unhappy with that? Well, the authors of the study to which Esfahani Smith refers, for starters. What Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker actually observe is that benevolent sexism – a term which the Atlantic piece immediately dismisses as a kind of Orwellian doublespeak – “is indirectly associated with life satisfaction for both women and men through diffuse system justification”. This isn’t quite the cause and effect scenario that Esfahani Smith would like to suggest. Still, never mind – where made-up social science stumbles, let’s throw in some made-up history instead!

Here’s Esfahani Smith’s handy potted history of chivalric codes:

Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding.

The trouble with making such sweeping statements about what chivalry “was about” is that you end up treating those who actually lived in the Middle Ages not as complex, thinking human beings but as cardboard characters in a substandard morality play. It’s taking what was effectively medieval marketing speak and assuming that it broadly corresponded with mindsets and motivations. Rather like someone in a thousand years’ time arguing that women with low self-esteem were highly valued because “what made them beautiful was not knowing they were beautiful” (1D, 2012).  It’s the kind of thing historians do if they’re lazy and normal people – like me (the mere partner of a medieval historian) – do all the time. So I asked my partner how he’d define chivalry instead – and I quote:

Fucking hell. I don’t even know which type of chivalry you mean. It can mean anything from a Davidic ethic – you use your power for the good of those who are weaker than yourself –to just the mores of the medieval aristocracy, with a particular focus on masculinity and warfare. But in terms of medieval aristrocratic women’s lives – even then you had the tension between the professional, managerial role of the woman managing a whole castle while her husband was away and the chivalric ideal of the weak, elevated woman. Women and men carved out partnerships within existing inequalities that were very different to what a trite narrative of chivalric conduct might suggest. And in every society there’s always someone saying that it was better when women knew their place because they were more respected. And dig deep and you’ll always find women and men being unable to live their lives in this way, which is why the recurrence of this narrative is so poisonous.

I do disagree with my partner on a number of things – the correct interpretation of Chris de Burgh songs, for instance – but on this particular point I think he’s right. After all, he’s looked into this in far greater depth than “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, whom Esfahani Smith nevertheless quotes approvingly:

Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, [Hoff Sommers] explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.

The leap between men not beating/raping/murdering women simply because they can and said men actually valuing women is unclear, part of a twisty narrative used to justify oppression. And yes, some men might risk their lives to protect women, but the threat won’t come from dragons or sorcerers – usually it will come from other men.

I agree there are some basic truths underlying all this, to wit: people are different from other people! And that means they can do different things! For instance, my partner is almost a foot taller than me and several stones heavier. So he’d be better at fighting a burglar, whereas I’d be better at, um, Middle High German. So if our house were invaded in the dead of night, I’d have to pacify the burglar by quoting selected extracts of Walther von der Vogelweide’s poetry (if that failed I’d attack him with my size 13 knitting needles – I’m also better than my partner at knitting). Anyhow, what I’m saying is, human beings have this amazing ability to be flexible and to share. Mutual respect is not based on the idea that half the human race could defeat the other half but kindly chooses not to because they, like, totally respect women and their womanly ways. This is psychological manipulation. At best it’s irritating and at worst it’s plain abusive.

And as for door-holding? Well, I’d put it on the more benign end of the spectrum. That’s not to say I like it when it happens to me. To be honest, I usually feel stressed because I haven’t quite reached the door and I can’t decide whether to run (which will make the door-holder feel guilty for rushing me) or walk (which will mean he has to wait around door-holding, and that’s hardly fair). It’s a bloody minefield (metaphorically of course – although it’d be even worse if it was a door at the end of a minefield). And yet, what’s really going on? Is it still about power? Or does someone just not want to slam a door in my face? I’d like to think it’s the latter. Because that’s why, despite the risk of social embarrassment, I, a mere woman, hold doors open, too.

This post first appeared on Glosswitch's blog here

A gallant deckchair attendant rescues a woman from the advancing tide. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle