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Ladies present! How to deal with chivalrous sexism.

August 17, 2011

     During my lunch-break today (having recently become Gainfully Employed) I was sitting in my favourite cafe, drinking tea and eating a slice of lemon cake. Two or three men walked into the cafe – all, like me, regulars. I know them by sight. They recognise me. One of them commenced telling an anecdote of some variety to the man who works there (who I chat to frequently). Now, I’m not sure exactly what the anecdote was about, but the words “useless fucking cunt!” were uttered by the teller. The guy working there immediately said “Shh, ladies present!” and gestured to me.


It’s difficult to know how to deal with this kind of comment. It’s certainly sexism, albeit of a more benign kind than some.

  • As the only woman in the cafe, I was singled out in a way which made me uncomfortable.
  • The comment “Ladies present!” made it clear I was to be considered something different and separate. I wasn’t like them. I’m a lady.
  • Not only am I a woman, and thus different, I also need…I’m not sure what. Protecting? Maybe I wasn’t meant to know what words like that meant. In which case it wouldn’t matter if I heard them, right? Or maybe I’m meant to know what they mean, but be utterly horrified at the sound. I really don’t know. But clearly, being a lady, I shouldn’t hear things like that.  Guess I’m all delicate or something.

This is what I tend to call “chivalrous” sexism. It’s predicated on the idea that women need more respect and looking after and caring for than men. We need to be protected and guarded. Men opening the door for a woman because she’s a woman. Men not swearing in front of women. Men always paying the bill in a restaurant. Yeah, the intentions are usually good. It’s meant to be nice.  But ultimately it buys into the narrative of women’s weakness and inferiority. There are more disturbing implications, too: often the refusal to swear in front of women goes hand in hand with a belief that women shouldn’t swear. I’ve heard people say in all serious before now “Oh, it’s much worse to hear girls swear than it is boys. You’re not allowed to say that, of course, or you get called sexist.” ……there is probably a reason for that. So women get treated with a particular delicacy and respect based on the idea they’re a particular kind of person, and then if they don’t live up to those standards, they’re criticised. Great. Furthermore, there’s often a lack of genuine respect; for example, male customers to the cafe are usually called “Sir” or “Guv’nor”, while I’m called “love”, “darling”, “sweetie”. I don’t want to be deferred to, and I happen to like endearments like that sometimes. But once again, there’s a sharp divide in how women are perceived and how men are perceived.

This kind of sexism is incredibly difficult to deal with, though.

  • It’s very hard to point it out. Sometimes, even to know if it’s happening. If a man opens the door for me, it’s quite likely it’s because he’s trying to be a gentleman. It’s also likely and possible he’s a polite person who does it to everyone. Also, how do you ask someone to stop being polite? In the cafe-case, okay, I could just have laughed it off or said “Oh, I’m no lady!” but if you’re on a date and the guy insists on paying for everything…seems like an awkward time to say “Excuse me, I hope that you aren’t doing that based on outmoded ideas about gender relations and are expecting me to pay for everything on the next date.” Conversely, saying “Let’s split the bill,” can sometimes send out signals about something not being a date when you’d rather it was. Also, I don’t want people to stop doing some things. I just want them to do things equally. I’d understand if the guy in the cafe had said “Hey, don’t swear, there are customers in here,” or “Keep it down,” or whatever. That’s fine and dandy.
  • People can get very touchy if called out on it. Now, when I say “called out”, I’m not talking about saying “How dare you buy me dinner, you fucking agent of the patriarchy bastard!” Even a casual comment from a woman about how she’d rather she wasn’t treated differently because she’s a woman can elicit extremely defensive reactions from men. Case in point: I mentioned on twitter I was writing a blog post about “chivalrous sexism”; someone tweeted me, without knowing anything about what I was writing: “If I hold a door open for you it isn’t sexism, I do it for everyone.” Other responses can run along the lines of “Oh, it’s respect, you should be grateful.” I’ve seen people blame feminism for no one being able to hold doors open for anyone. (Things To Blame Feminism For: People Being Less Polite. Jeez.)
  • Commenting on “chivalrous sexism” often makes me feel guilty myself for moaning about something benign when there are more important issues I could be focusing on.  There’s always a nagging feeling that I’m ranting about people being nice to me when I could be launching campaigns on Female Genital Mutilation. This is silly, of course; there’s no reason why just because I choose to make an issue of one thing, I can’t do so with something else as well. There’s not a limited supply of “Things I can care about”. But, however irrational, the feeling’s still there.
  • A lot of women too resist any effort to make a stand on this. While I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t make an issue of it, it does piss me off when I get criticised for doing so. I’ll be blamed (again) for stopping men being polite to women. Or something. A bit hazy on that, actually.
  • A lot of people who do this to me are genuinely nice people who I like (guy in the cafe a case in point) and I don’t want to offend them. However much it bugs me, it often just doesn’t seem worth the risk of damaging good will to bring it up.

So. What should be done about chivalrous sexism? Thinking about the cafe-incident (I didn’t say anything at the time) I’ve come to conclusion that I should have laughed it off, and made it clear I didn’t mind swearing around me. But in other cases, it’s not that easy.  I’m not going to enter into a debate on the nature of the patriarchy every time someone offers me a seat on the tube. I guess the best thing to do, if possible, is to refuse politely whatever noble gesture is being made. Offer to split the bill. Turn down that seat on the train (I admit, I never do this. If only because I like to read on the train, and it’s a lot easier if I’m sitting). And, if the occasion arises, or if it’s at all possible, explain that you don’t want people to stop being polite, but you do want equal politeness.

Oh, and obviously – if you’re a man reading this….please, please treat men as politely as you’d treat women, and vice versa.

I’m not putting this forward as a definitive answer (especially as a lot of people won’t even agree there’s a problem). This whole post is really me musing on how I can deal with it in the future. The cafe-incident wasn’t a biggie; it didn’t affect me much except to irritate me mildly and set off the train of thought leading to this blog post. (Just to pre-empt people accusing me of making a fuss about nothing). And I can see that even my idea of refusing chivalrous gestures is very imperfect. When someone offers to pay for your meal, or makes something easier in any way…it just seems easier to accept. So ultimately, I still don’t know what to do. *sighs*

Suggestions would be welcome.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 7:36 pm

    Very interesting, I really enjoyed reading it. I agree about the swearing thing. I’m not a huge fan of swearing – although I do it – but I don’t much like it. I don’t think it’s any worse for women to swear and I don’t look shocked if a woman swears (unless it’s a word I particularly object to, in which case I treat men equally).

    But…I don’t think it’s wrong to hold a door open for women. I do do it for everyone. But I do also probably do it more for men than women. I And I don’t see that there’s anything wrong in that. I probably, like Inspector Morse, treat women better than men. I don’t view them as weaker – in fact, many of the women I know hold more positive attributes than many of the men I know. (Especially, it should be noted, my girlfriend).

    I also don’t think it’s wrong to pay for a whole meal. I like being generous. But I also don’t call women by pet names because I feel they are a little patronising.

    I probably am a little patrician. I don’t like to offend people, and if I do then I am truly sorry about that. But by the same token, my mildly patrician nature is tempered by a strong belief in the equality of men and women, a despair at the lack of pay equity, etc. Does this make me the full-throated egalitarian people want me to be? I’m afraid not.

    I also don’t think you should be afraid to challenge people if you feel it is wrong.

    • August 17, 2011 7:39 pm

      Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold a door open for a woman – it’s when it’s done especially for women that it bugs me.
      Ditto, I don’t think it’s wrong to pay for a meal! Just…not the assumption that the man HAS to be the one to pay.

  2. August 17, 2011 8:01 pm

    I liked this post, it was well thought out and pretty fair.

    That said, I think it’s based on an understanding. Many feminists (and I can sympathise with this) view the word ‘cunt’ as a fundamentally anti-female word. Let us imagine the scenario a bit differently. What if you were an Asian Gentleman and the man at the desk said ‘That fucking ‘paki’. No doubt the man at the desk would have made it clear to the gentleman that such language is unacceptable, especially when there are Asain fellows about.

    Alternatively, many men like to pride themselves on being a Gentleman in the classical Victorian sense, as no gentleman would want to be seen swearing around the lady it’s understandable why they pointed out your presence.

    Perhaps it’s not that they think such language would hurt or cause offense to you, but such casual swearing in the presence of a female would expose them as the swearing working class gentleman that they are. And as such “mind you language there is a lady about” is merely a formality to maintain the pretense that these people are of ‘a better class’.

    And I agree with you on the whole buying dinner thing. I think whoever asks the person out should pay for the first date, and the second date the other person can pay. But again, often buying a women drinks is more about feeling like a gentleman rather than implying a women cannot buy things for herself.

    Further, with regards to people calling you ‘love’ and such things, you said yourself: ” I don’t want to be deferred to, and I happen to like endearments like that sometimes.”. It is precisely because some women like such things that leads men to say it.

    Also, “But once again, there’s a sharp divide in how women are perceived and how men are perceived.” Of course there is. I hate to be blunt, but men do not want to fuck other men usually, and so when in the presence of other men, men feel that they can talk freely without harming their chances of reproductive success (and I cannot stress the importance of this) and so they are more direct and straight up.

    However when a women is involved mens behavior changes hugely and no matter what feminist activists do, that will always be the case. You may hate being called ‘Sweetie’, but if you got in a car crash which severely disfigured your looks I think you will quickly find yourself being treated more like a man by other men and quickly envy how you were treated when you were better looking.

    Enjoyed the article,


    • August 17, 2011 8:06 pm

      Very interesting reply. I thought about bringing the idea of “cunt” as an anti-female insult up in the article, but…well, forgot basically. That is a good point, (and good point bringing up the class dynamic, too!) but if the man thought it was fundamentally anti-female, surely he should have objected to the word no matter whether I was there or not?

      And I get what you mean about “feeling like a gentleman”. But I don’t think that’s a specifically gendered thing, so much as trying to behave a certain way towards a prospective partner. I’m queer myself, and if I were asking a woman out, I think I’d behave in a gentlemanly way towards her just because I wanted to be courteous and nice to her.

      “quickly find yourself being treated more like a man by other men”.
      Interesting to see how I’ll be treated when I dress in a more masculine way…

    • August 17, 2011 8:07 pm

      Seriously, thanks for the reply – it’s a lot more well-thought out than a lot of the responses I’ve got, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

      • August 17, 2011 8:13 pm

        No problem, again I enjoyed the article. And indeed the class dynamic is always present even in finer dynamics of ‘Chivalrous Patriarchy’!

        And you’re right, he should have objected to the word cunt anyway, I try to do it myself when anyone mentions the word paki in casual conversation but it does wear you down, especially in a place like Burnley where every reactionary idiot says it.


    • August 17, 2011 8:46 pm

      Great reply. You come up with some good reasons for men treating women differently. I think though, that they are very much reasons and not excuses.

      That men treat women differently based on breeding potential is because they believe that women want to be treated that way. It’s not that women do want to be treated delicately (although some invariably do), but that men think women do.

      Therein lies the problem, and it’s one deep seated in a) biology and b) millenia of president. It’s not something that can changed over night and it’s not something, I think can ever be changed once the idea as cemented itself in the subconscious. That doesn’t mean we should just let it continue of course, without trying to nudge it out of the reach of future generations.

  3. August 17, 2011 8:37 pm

    I used to get really riled up about chivalry. It still grates on me, especially when it comes from people of my age or younger. Being walked home from the pub or a friend’s house is the worst. I mean, who’s going to walk them home once they leave me on my doorstep?


    If it’s a friend being chivalrous I’ll ask why; why do you think I need walking home, why shouldn’t people swear around me (although any friend of mine should really know by now I have the vocabulary of a drunk Irish sailor), why do you want to spend all that money when we could split the bill (who pays in a same-sex couple?!) etc..? Open up a dialogue and gently educate (but don’t come off superior and pompous… that don’t work).

    I think in that particular cafe situation you should have just laughed it off, as you said. I was in a similar situation last week. My boyfriend and I were at the local pub and it was deathly quiet and there was only one other customer. He asked if he could join us and we said yes.

    He was in his fifties, was an old labourer/navvy and had worked all over the world; a really interesting character. Every now and then he’d swear and apologise to me, because I’m a laaaadyyyy (bwahaha). I kept explaining that I used worse and didn’t care. I drew the line at actually swearing at him to prove the point though. I think that might have given him a heart attack or something. Other situations I might have done.

    I think we just have to have a softly, softly approach. Don’t let it just lie, but don’t make an epic issue out of it. Unfortunately I doubt this will make much of a dent. Winning this battle will most likely merely be a side effect of winning others.

    Great post, by the way.

    • August 18, 2011 12:31 pm

      “Being walked home from the pub is the worst.”

      Come on, really? I hear feminists complaining all the time about ‘rape culture’ and how unfair it is that women need to be afraid of men in case they might rape them etc.

      But you actually dislike being walked home? I went to Uni in Belfast and in the student housing area a young girl would be raped every couple of months after walking home alone, usually a bit drunk. Even in safer area’s I would have no respect for any of my friends if they let a female friend walk home alone after a night out and I know they feel the same.

      As a female you are a target for things men are not, further than this you are physically weaker and less able to defend yourself. If it was dark or a sketchy area and I was looking after my younger male cousin I would still walk him home, it is the responsible thing to do.

      Whether you like it or not females are the physically weaker sex and I wonder if you disdain for being walked home stems from your resentment of this fact.

      • Meline permalink
        June 26, 2012 1:16 am

        Excuse me? Men can be raped and sexually abused just the same as women, women are not the weaker sex, men are with their huge egos and there’s -no-way-I-should-have-lost-to-girl and their ‘women are weaker then men and need protection. Your comment kpjust proves this. Sexist bastard.

        • Sadairrea permalink
          November 17, 2012 1:58 am

          Don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is scientifically proven that men are stronger than women because of the Y chromosome. It’s a fact in life that is proven. Intelligence wise, well, it varies…

        • Lilium permalink
          February 21, 2013 5:54 pm

          To be fair, it seems far more sexist to say ‘women are not the weaker sex, men are’ in the way you do, as you seem to be talking about mental or intellectual weakness. In terms of either of those, most people would agree the distributions are about equal. Dan’s post was, perhaps not as delicately worded as it could have been, stating the fact that on average, women are physically weaker than men. This is of course a broad generalisation, but stands once this is recognised. Further, it is a fact that far more women than men are sexually attacked when walking home on their own at night and that this is a reason why many men feel they should walk their female friends home.
          One reasonable argument against this is to point out that the majority of night-time attacks are not sexual in nature, and that proportionally more men are victims to these attacks than women.

      • Grace permalink
        April 29, 2014 5:14 pm

        I totally agree with what’s being said in this article and definitely with the being walked home thing it really annoys me. Dan, you said “As a female you are a target for things men are not” and that’s why we should be walked home. But similarly, men can be targeted when in the same situation a woman wouldn’t. For example, a man walking home alone could be mugged by another man. Some muggers wouldn’t mug a woman (chivalrous muggers I suppose!). Therefore, the woman is not at any more risk than the man, they just might be targeted by a different crime.
        Also, you say “I would have no respect for any of my friends if they let a female friend walk home alone after a night out” – that’s the exact point. A girl can walk home on her own. She doesn’t need a man to LET her or not let her. She can do whatever she wants

    • vera ciously permalink
      August 18, 2011 6:11 pm

      I agree that pretending stupidity for the sake of making somebody think about their own attitudes is a great way of opening conversation. Simone, you could have been like, “why don’t you think it’s okay to swear in front of a woman?” and whatever their comeback, it would probably stem from some sexist idea, like “oh ladies with their delicate ears”, and by the time they say it, they probably realise how silly it sounds.

  4. August 17, 2011 9:02 pm

    Great post. Thank you for writing it. I shared it in my various social media circles.

    I’m not really sure what to do either when I come across this sort of thing. For me the difficult thing is what to do when men want you to “go first” while they hold the door or elevator for you. In many circumstances it is quite clear this is a matter of gentlemanly conduct towards a women rather than general niceness. I usually smile and say thank you and let them be the gentleman but I do find it a bit bothersome. I really have no answer for what to do about it. I’m not going to get a philosophical debate on the issue with a complete stranger who in his mind is doing a nice thing for me.

    So while I puzzle to myself and do nothing I will content myself with supporting those among us a bit braver than myself such as you in speaking out about it.

  5. robert the crip permalink
    August 18, 2011 9:46 am

    Some of us in society of course need people to get up give us a seat or a space , I need people to hold a door open, and the rarity is it’s mostly older ladies who do it for me, most young men do not give a shit and most young women do not even see me or my wheelchair.

  6. August 18, 2011 1:55 pm

    Solution – curse like a sailor in their presence.

  7. August 20, 2011 9:05 pm

    Suggestion: “Gentlemen, please feel free to continue your conversation about your cock and balls or your latest sexxual conquest, complete with crude language. I can assure you my ovaries can handle it.”

  8. September 5, 2011 10:12 am

    I’ve just spent the last ten minutes trying to decide whether the door I held open for a woman this morning was because she was a woman or because I got there first. I *think* the latter…

    If you want equality as a customer, you should come and study in Wales (never mind Oxford!); everyone is referred to as “my lovely”. It’s a bit odd, especially for grey-haired men in their forties, but after ten years of working here I’m beginning to get used to it.

  9. Len Northfield permalink
    December 4, 2011 11:06 am

    Good piece. I think part of the problem is that men are unsure how to act and so revert to what they’ve been taught. The lack of certainty is because there’s no consistency within, or between, the sexes. You’re right to highlight what is an issue for you and you should be given the respect you deserve and demand but, whilst you have definite views that there should be no difference in how you’re treated, there are still many women who demand and expect to be treated like ‘ladies’. It can be very confusing.

    There’s also the issue of how a man’s interaction with women affects his self belief. That’s potentially a biggie.

  10. themanfromconnemara permalink
    December 30, 2011 12:18 am

    Seek help, I implore you.

  11. Adam permalink
    February 6, 2012 1:49 pm

    I am interested in how offering a seat on public transport is a form of sexism but accepting it is not.
    As humans we play the sexual attraction game out of adaptive habit, males try to impress and females accept / notice the display, it’s not something peculiar to humans only.
    I think perhaps the trouble arises when we attempt to apply the rationality of conscious decision making to an unconscious and instinctive behaviour.
    In a social situation as described the male listening to the the use of a profanity which his experience over time has taught him may be offensive to a female (he probably finds attractive) his instinct is to make himself more attractive than any potential competitor by behaving in a manner which is most likely to gain him favour which may include an attempt to distance himself from a word he perceives to be offensive.

  12. likestoopendoors permalink
    April 16, 2012 7:35 pm

    my dad’s response after repeated attempts to explain why chivalry makes made me feel coddled – ‘oh, and I thought you were meant to be educated.’
    but anyway. It makes me happier to insist I open my own doors and carry my own things and pay for my own stuff. Tell people it gives you an illicit thrill.

  13. April 23, 2012 4:43 pm

    Much appreciated comments — been trying to say the same for fifty years!:-)

  14. Louis (Rockybalboa211) permalink
    April 29, 2012 4:35 pm

    The reason why I open doors for people is because it is a kindness. I don’t really like cursing in front of women, not because they have delicate ears or something like that. The reason why I don’t is because it feels as if I am lowered as a person if I curse in front of others, especially women. I try to act like a gentleman in everything I do in life, and such actions go against what I stand for.

  15. Pip permalink
    May 10, 2012 4:54 am

    Hi, I am a female 27 year old graduate currently working as the youngest employee in a 99% male dominated environment. I have to maintain an incredibly thick skin, suppress my anger and shock at the extent of sexism I encounter on an almost daily basis, including the chivalrous sexism you describe.

    One day in the office, I got fed up with the fact that I was being apologised to by men every day for swearing. After asking not to be excused from their swearing on a number of occasions (“you can fucking swear as much as you cunting-well like around me”) and being ignored, I persisted until a male member of staff eventually spoke to one of the main culprits on my behalf: “she said you don’t need to apologise; she said she wants to be treated like one of the lads”. Now, they apologise less but I am still a little annoyed that they only took notice when the request came from a man and that I’m now apparently being treated “like on of the lads” rather than a female equal who is capable of dealing with swearing without it affecting my delicate sensibilities and causing me to faint into a heap before screaming hysterically for a man to come and rescue me.

    I try to be myself as much as possible at work; a generally happy and friendly person who swears as much as the men in the office, opens doors for them (which makes them smile at the novelty), remaining professional and taking an interest in their expertise (which I am genuinely interested in) but at times, they are clearly frustrated with my behaviour and I think it’s because I have subverted their expectations of female behaviour. They have consequently been trying to chip away at my confidence, questioning my expertise and accusing me of naivety on two counts; the first of which they justify by reminding me of how much I don’t know about the work they do (which has little to do with my job), and the second of which is simply because they have confused naivety with idealism.

    Despite the stressful nature of the job, I have managed to deal with my emotions until getting home when I can usually shake it off (with one exception in which the sexism, stress and workload toppled me for an afternoon), but it’s incredibly difficult to deal with the relentless sexist attitude of these mostly uneducated, judgmental, closed minded and sexist individuals.

    I have found using long words that they don’t know the meaning of (including ‘delicate sensibilities, believe or not!) occasionally helps to stunt their sexist remarks so I’m just doing my best in a pretty tough situation. Unfortunately, I am in a position where I am lucky to have found a job at all as there are so few jobs about and I do not have the option of just quitting.

    If it’s equality we’re striving for, we have to set an example. If a man holds a door open for a women, surely she should just just assume he is being polite and make sure she is just as polite back when the opportunity arises to hold a door open for the next person that comes through, whatever sex or gender they are?

    Admittedly, some women collude in their own oppression and prefer special attention from men but this is no reason to cater to that. Women and men need to set an example to these women to educate them and show them that equally is better. It might be their right to want to be treated in a sexist manner, but if a man said he wouldn’t be happy unless he was your slave, would you let him be your slave, or would you try to educate him and convince him that it’s better to be free?

    If we treat the issue seriously by acknowledging that gender roles are socially constructed and can therefore be changed, we are much more likely to achieve equality.

    Thank you for your blog:)

    • Pip permalink
      May 10, 2012 5:05 am

      P.S. I didn’t mean to imply in the last paragraph that the issue wasn’t being treated seriously, just that arguments that focus simply on biological difference are less likely to help in the case for equality.

  16. August 7, 2012 10:16 pm

    uhmm they were more likely worried about being stuck in front of HR.
    hate to buzz kill your article.

  17. Nathan permalink
    February 5, 2013 12:25 pm

    Very interesting article! I don’t open the door for a woman in the sense of moving ahead of her to open it for her but if I walk through a door and see someone behind me (anyone male or female) its generally polite to let your hand linger on the door till they put their hand on it. It’s just rude to let it close in someone’s face, I’ve have plenty of women hold the door for me too! I work with a lot of female colleagues and they often ask me to carry things around, the request usually ends with “be a gentleman”, which I find highly annoying so snap back “you have arms!”. A woman is my equal so can lift a box, don’t try and use your gender! Women have wanted to be a mans equal and I agree you should be equal, so not carrying stuff for you!

  18. Jens permalink
    April 10, 2013 1:14 pm

    I think this is too much work to think about every day. You can’t go through life examining everything you do and say, whether good or bad, to see if a feminist might feel bad about it. You do what you want, and if someone takes offense, that is their right and their problem. I don’t want to be friends with somebody who puts everything I do and say under a microscope anyway.


  1. There’s girls, there’s women and there’s ladies* | accidento bizarro

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