The last century was a pretty good one for women. Women stopped being property and started owning it. Women have started businesses, sat on the Supreme Court, and just generally done our best to kick ass. But, it’s not over. Enduring sexism is still a significant part of the average American woman’s daily life. There are some more obvious issues, like sexual assault, domestic violence, and representation.
But sexism can be subtle. This sneaky little minx is known as benevolent sexism, which is sexism dressed up to appear kind and fair but in actuality treats women with the same condescension and negativity as any other sort. It subtly reinforces the sexist framework laced in our culture. Justifying and ignoring benevolent sexism has been shown to have damaging effects to women’s involvement in economic activity and correlates with hostile sexism across the globe. What does this subtle stigma look like? Here are 5 everyday examples.
1. Politeness in Unequal Supply (Chivalry gone wild)
There are certain blowhards newspaper columnists who seem the think that the only alternative to chivalry is being an asshole. Benevolent sexism isn’t holding doors for women. It’s holding them for women and no one else. It’s also letting a woman hold a door open for you, so she can be polite too. When I open the door for a man, half the time they go behind me and try to hold it open for me, a completely unnecessary maneuver and a vestige of protective sexism.
Chivalry is probably the most heavily romanticized horsemanship code in the history of time. It’s not read or understood but it’s certainly regularly referenced as reason to continue treating women differently from men. Chivalry is, in essence, a centuries-old code of conduct intended for knights to follow, placing God and country before everything else. In the 21st century, when people no longer carry swords or regularly ride horses and when women are filling positions in all industries, its medieval definition isn’t remotely useful in modern society. Be good to all people, not just women. We women can handle our own shit. We’ve got this opening doors thing down and won’t be offended if you get off the elevator before us.
2. Gendered Epithets
Have you ever made a list of the things women are called, just in general? Probably not—that would be an odd hobby. They aren’t exactly the powerful labels of world leaders. Sweetheart, dear, honey, young lady—I’ve heard all of these seemingly-polite-but-actually-patronizing-as-hell nicknames in my daily work life. Hearing grown women called “young lady” makes my skin crawl. I still remember the first time a colleague called me that—not a superior but an equal. It sounded like he was chiding his daughter. The last time I heard someone called a “young man” was my cousin at his bar mitzvah. Being casually referred to as “sweetie” is a surefire way to feel like my professionalism is being undermined. How should you refer to a woman? When in doubt, names are good.
Women get painted with the same brush almost all the time. Seriously. Some men seem surprised to hear that different women may have different opinions on the same subject. A cashier at a grocery store once asked me if I thought his beard was attractive (Author’s Question: does this happen to men? Ever?). I’m not a facial hair lady so I answered in the negative. He seemed perplexed, since another woman had told him something different. I had only come in to pick up some asparagus but ended up explaining to a grown-ass man that not all women have the same opinions.
Women are not all one person. Pamela Anderson and Condoleeza Rice are both women. So are Laverne Cox and Tilda Swinton. So are Serena Williams, Emma Watson, J.K. Rowling, Lea DeLaria, Hillary Clinton, Maya Angelou, Sofia Vergara, and literally half of the population. Women are scholars, politicians, artists, engineers, leaders, civil rights activists, doctors, and lawyers. We don’t all have the same goals, like the same movies, or have the same attraction to facial hair. We aren’t simple equations—we have all the same complexity that you already expect from men.
4. Purporting Women’s Superiority (At Terrible Times)
Have you ever heard a woman gush about how her boyfriend or husband “helps” around the house and seen a group of people swoon? Or maybe you’ve heard a father say he’s “babysitting” the kids for the night? Have you ever seen a group of only women cleaning up after an office party? Did you ever stop to wonder why the hell that is? How did men get to skip out on all these things? An astounding number of people in our modern time still just casually assume that women are better at certain things than men—and those things are usually mundane, repetitive, and undervalued. Childcare and housekeeping, despite their essential nature, are routinely devalued, metaphorically and literally, as people in these positions often make very little.
Women are not inherently better at raising children, cleaning, or cooking. But we end up carrying the bulk of the domestic load, even when working full-time. If you want to talk about equality, look no further than your own kitchen sink. Many professional women, especially young ones, will tell you how frequently they end up bearing responsibility for some of the random “housekeeping” tasks that go along with running an office. Is your office’s party planning committee all or almost all women? If you don’t have one, when food has to be set up or a room needs to be decorated, who does that? Who cleans up after a lunch meeting? If you’ve never noticed, start paying attention. It’s not any nicer to women to assume that we’re good at these things and it keeps us from doing our jobs. Jump in there and throw away some paper plates, scrub some pots, sir. If you don’t know how, ask. I learned how to clean my cast iron skillet through YouTube—no one gave me the “women’s work” manual. You can handle it, I promise.
5. Not Speaking Up
So, you can pat yourself on the back extra hard now for not doing any of these things, right? Maybe nothing I’m discussing is new to you. Really, it really shouldn’t be. This is basic human decency. This is the definition of equality—not having a different set of standards for one group of people than another. But then, what happens when your coworker makes a sexist joke? Maybe a friend of yours is trying to grab a waitress’s ass at a bar. Do you say something? Stop him? What are you actually willing to do to make this go away? People who argue this is just a trickier form of sexism are actually wrong.
Benevolent sexism is prevalent because we don’t currently recognize it as sexist—just like it used to be considered not sexist to slap a woman on the ass or across the face, depending on your mood. How do you spread change in society? You have to recognize it when it happens. It requires people, as individuals and together, recognizing behavior and saying it is wrong. If you know something is wrong but don’t say anything about it, how is your knowledge helping anyone?
Sexism is a “women’s issue” but it’s really men’s problem. You created this. You started it. We’ve been tearing it down limb from limb but you have to uproot the tree. You have to get this shit out of your head and out of your life.
Anyone else experience benevolent sexism, at the office, with friends, or just when going out in public while female? Tell us about it in the comments!