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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses