Several months ago, my friend Jean sent me the article I discuss below, told me that I should write about it on my blog, and that she wanted my “Teresopinion.” Not only did I feel strongly about the article in question, but I LOVED the term “Teresopinion!” So, I’m making that a regular feature on the blog.
If you have an article, an issue, or a specific problem about which you’d like my Teresopinion, email me at theteresajusinoexperience[at]gmail[dot]com with “TERESOPINION” in the subject heading! I will only mention you by first name, and if you don’t want that, tell me, and I’ll call you Anonymous.
Submission: “Benevolent Sexism” by Katherine Connell (National Review Online, December 2012)
Feminism is the idea that women and men are equal, and as such should have equal agency in their lives, and an equal ability to design their lives however they like without fear of legal or social consequences based on gender. Taking that one step further, I’d say that feminism is the idea that “the masculine” and “the feminine” are equal, and as such no one should face legal or social consequences based on which part of themselves they choose to present.
In short, your gender, whatever it is or however you choose to present it, shouldn’t prevent you from living life as an autonomous human being.
If you believe that – CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a feminist! Whether you choose to call yourself that or not. You might not be an active feminist, but you’re a feminist, make no mistake. And the fact that so many women don’t want to call themselves by that name has a lot to do with sexism, which is the very thing that active feminists are trying to eradicate.
In this article, a skeptical Connell concludes with the following:
Because benevolent sexism is so much more insidious than old-fashioned “hostile sexism,” social scientists are forced to be creative in their attempts to measure it and analyze the negative effects they know it has on women. Consider the scenario constructed by Juliet Wakefield and her colleagues in their study of how women avoid seeking help in the context of “a dependency-related stereotype.” The university women selected for the experiment are individually allowed to “overhear” a fake phone call the female researcher supposedly receives from Joe the plumber, who is working in her apartment and has moved some of her furniture around without asking. After she hangs up, she says to some of the participants in the study, “Sorry about that — my plumber is such a typical man — he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!” To the others she says, “Sorry about that, my plumber is the most impatient person in the world.” It turns out that the young women exposed to the former statement — which sounds as if it is describing something a bit more hostile than benevolent — were subsequently less likely to ask for help with solving some anagrams, and they felt bad about themselves when they did ask for help. Conclusion: “All in all, our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women’s emotions and behavior, and is, therefore, anything but banal.”
I tried to reflect a little on whether my banal interactions with benevolently sexist men have been undermining my emotional health and affecting my behavior without my realizing it. The other day, I asked a male co-worker for assistance with a technical issue. It’s hard to know if he was subtly robbing me of my agency, because he didn’t reply, “Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you,” as did the man in a script presented to students in the 2011 study “Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn’t: Consequences of Accepting versus Confronting Patronizing Help for the Female Target and Male Actor.” Instead, he just sent me the relevant link and went back to work.
I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.
Here’s what I think about all of that:
- While I think that Juliet Wakefield’s study is flawed (so…are you saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing to ask for help? What exactly are you trying to prove?) Connell is missing the point of the experiment. The point isn’t that men shouldn’t give help when asked. The problem is when men offer unsolicited help on the basis of gender. Long story short, if you’re a dude and you’re offering the same unsolicited help to a woman that you would offer to another dude? That’s cool. Thanks. Very nice of you. If you’re a dude, and you’re offering unsolicited help to a woman that you wouldn’t offer to another dude because she’s a woman and you assume she needs your help? Not cool. When Connell ends with her example of asking a dude for help in her office? SO not the point. She asked for help, and he gave it to her. Done and done. That’s how it should be. Now, I’ve heard guys complain when women want to offer help by making them talk about their feelings; the guy doesn’t want to talk, and the woman insists that it’ll make him feel better and that guys need to “learn” how to talk about their feelings more. That’s annoying, right? Let’s make an agreement right now: no more unsolicited help based on gender stereotypes. If you’re offering someone help, ask yourself if you would offer that same help to someone of your own gender. If you wouldn’t, chances are, you’re offering it based on a gender stereotype, and you should probably rein it in until you’re asked. Yes, that goes for women, too. Because that guy will talk about his feelings when he’s good and ready.
- All women are not the same. There isn’t such a thing as “what women want” or “what men want.” That’s kind of the point. Things like behavior and emotions are only gendered insofar as human beings have made them that way. When Connell ends with: “I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.” it DRIVES ME CRAZY. First of all, no one can speak for “most women.” Secondly, women shouldn’t be judged negatively if they DO want to carry their own heavy suitcases or propose marriage. Thirdly, men shouldn’t be judged negatively if they say YES to a woman who proposes, or if they don’t insist on helping a woman with her heavy suitcase after she’s already declined.
- Lastly, I wish people could just be honest about what they want and need without having to hide behind a specific gender role. This way a woman could say “I want to marry you” or “I want to join the military” and a dude could say “Lauren, could you help me carry this up the stairs?” or “I want to join a ballet company” and both people would get a resounding “meh” from everyone else BECAUSE WE WOULDN’T EVEN CARE THAT MUCH.
Making the world safe for that kind of honesty is what feminism is all about.
- Benevolent sexism? Totally a thing. It’s especially dangerous, because it seems nice, but it’s one of many things that contributes to the larger problem of prescribed gender roles. And small contributors to large problems are often the most difficult to fight, because they’re the easiest to ignore, and when left ignored for too long, they fester.
- People aren’t afraid to call themselves feminist because feminism is “too feministy,” they’re afraid to call themselves feminist because of what people who buy into prescribed gender roles think about feminism (and do to people who call themselves feminist).
- All anyone who labels themselves a feminist wants to do is make the world safe for all people to live autonomously without being prevented from doing so by their gender, no matter what it is, or how they choose to present it. If you believe that, then call yourself a feminist proudly! It’s nothing of which to be ashamed.
- Yes, I wrote this, and yes I stand by it. My point was that women shouldn’t consider themselves less feminist for receiving help, and I was using the agony experienced during our periods as an “out.” Like, if you feel guilty about letting guys carry heavy stuff, don’t, because you also have to deal with a gremlin chewing on your entrails. It was a semi-joke post written when I was hopped up on ice cream and Little House on the Prairie.