Chivalry has always been a tool for political discrimination in the American South

What are your true intentions?
What are your true intentions?
Image: Wikimedia Commons
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Tuesday (Nov. 3), voters in Houston, Texas killed a city ordinance that would have ensured equal rights to a number of minorities in the city in cases of pay, housing, and public utilities. How, in this day and age, could the most diverse metro area in America—a city where constituents have elected a gay mayor, in fact—vote against this legislation? The answer is tied to a seemingly innocuous tenet of American Southern culture.

As a woman growing up in Texas, I was constantly assisted by members of the opposite sex. In middle school, boys held the door for me. In high school, they drove me around in the passenger seats of their cars. They carried bags for me. They insisted on paying for things. I was strong (“for a girl”), had my driver’s license, and was financially secure. I also genuinely enjoyed driving and doing things for myself, still do. But to deny men the right to help me was, in my community, to come off as a hard-nosed feminist. 

“Sweetheart, it’s a sign of respect,” older women told me. “Just go with it.”  

When I came home from college for the first time, I started to see things in a different light. I realized the South was the last place in the country where most boys still took girls on formal dates. The “hook up culture” of the Northeast was not for me, and I began to rethink the concept of “female privilege.” Perhaps it really was a sign of respect, perhaps it was even empowering. 

Now I’ve realized: it is not about me. 

The specific brand of chivalry practiced in subtle ways every day in the South has always been leveraged to political ends, as we’ve just seen. 

Opponents of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) staged their campaign as a matter of protecting women and girls from being molested in public bathrooms. They claimed that allowing transgender women to use a women’s bathroom would allow any male who chose to identify as female “that day” to enter the semi-private space of the bathroom to violate unsuspecting, vulnerable females. Never mind that in states where transgender women are allowed to use women’s bathrooms this does not happen.

This position is encapsulated by an ad that ran on local TV, which shows a man following a young girl into the stall of a creepy bathroom, complete with flickering fluorescent lights. The narrator says:”Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger. Vote no on the Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance.” (Notably, no one seemed to be worried about privacy in the case of transgender men using men’s public restrooms, despite the greater lack of privacy in those spaces.) 

Dan Patrick, Texas’s far-right lieutenant governor, celebrated the bill’s defeat with a laundry list of “victims” anti-HERO campaigners were working to protect. “It was about protecting our grandmoms, and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters,” he told supporters at an election night event. 

In fact, as Dan Patrick very well knows, it was about barring many people in Houston from receiving legal protection for their rights. HERO was much broader than the “Bathroom Ordinance” the opposition made it out to be. In fact, the so-called “bathroom bill” included no mention of bathrooms at all. The ordinance, which was put into effect by City Council in May before being repealed on Tuesday, prohibited discrimination in matters of housing, employment, and private and public services—such as public bathrooms—for a total of 15 protected classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

That opponents were able to rally enough votes to oppose the ordinance based on a misconstrued technicality speaks to how blindly people will follow the code of chivalry. This is by no means the first time the protection of women has been used to mask bigotry. In the first half of the 20th century, the word of a white woman (or a white man) trumped the legal system, which led to the lynchings of black men in the South and the rest of the United States.

Much more recently, before shooting nine black church members in South Carolina in June, Dylann Roof used the safety of women as justification for his violence. According to a witness of the shooting, Roof said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.”

In the week following Roof’s attack, white female writers responded to his statement with written manifestos commanding men to stop committing violence on their behalf. Unfortunately, it will take more than the actions of a few to stop such an ingrained cultural tradition.

Until they are fully revealed to be tools of manipulation, arguments that infantilize women will continue to shape the political issues dividing the South. The reasoning used by Roof and in the campaign against the “Bathroom Ordinance” is the same as that of the “War on Women.” The underlying message: women are in need of protection. Conservative activists in the South (and how active they are) campaign against Planned Parenthood with the misleading rallying cry, “Abortion hurts women.” This statement, which seemingly puts the woman first, actually undercuts her by presupposing she can’t make the decision of whether or not to get an abortion herself. It hurts her behind the guise of its help.

So do not mistake these political overtures of chivalry for respect. Respect is something different. It is letting a woman choose whether to get an abortion herself. It is treating people of all ethnicities and sexual identities equally. And it is passing a proposition that legally ensures their right to the same services enjoyed by people of majority identities.