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.