How women contribute to sexism: nutshell edition

From this fantastic piece talking about a current firestorm of sexism in the atheist community:

But women aren’t raised in a culture that tells them they’re entitled to attention from men. We’re told instead that we have to earn it. And one reliable way of earning positive attention from men is to bash other women, especially women who speak out against sexism. If you’re really good at it, you can make a career out of it. See: Ann Coulter, S.E. Cupp and many right wing women like them. But even if you don’t do it professionally, there are many rewards. See this woman’s tweet. For selling out other women like this, she is rewarded by so much positive male attention. Fears of rejection are safely silenced for a long time. Granted, she’s getting positive attention from assholes, but sadly, many women don’t realize that there’s an alternative.

I realize that some people might turn around and declare that criticizing the women who do this is also somehow part of the problem. Needless to say, I disagree, not the least because the logic involved is the same as the people who argue that being intolerant of intolerance is hypocritical: the goal is not the elimination of intolerance entirely, but the elimination of intolerance that harms people. Likewise, in this case, the goal of feminism is not that women should be considered above reproach, but that their gender should not be an excuse for treating them unfairly. Holding them to a reasonable standard of behavior (while recognizing the influence sexism can have) is, in fact, quite fair.

Bad behavior is bad behavior. It’s at its worst when it’s being committed by someone with great power and privilege against someone with less, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for people who are lower in the power rankings to perpetuate the structures that allow that abuse. This happens two ways: when intersectionality means that a given woman has more power over another; and when women behave in sexist ways that set examples for others in their peer groups.

Let me explain both of those things:

1. Intersectionality

As I believe I’ve noted here before: all else equal, a given woman is going to have less privilege than a given man, but that doesn’t mean that the lack of privilege all women have is equal. Many, many other factors come into play that mean some women have considerably more privilege than others (and may even in some cases have privilege over a given man. See: wealthy, white straight woman vs. working-class, Latino gay man.) Race, gender identity and presentation, ability, orientation, body size, class and hundreds of other things get involved. Very few people are all-powerful or all-weak. We all have advantages compared to some, and disadvantages compared to others, and the key to ending oppression is knowing when we do have privilege, and not abusing it.

Gender performance, in particular, is a huge factor where sexism is concerned. Women who are sexism-compliant in how they look, dress and act with men are often given a pass, or at least more benefit of the doubt, than women who buck these demands. Of course the “privilege” they get from their compliance is tenuous and mostly illusory, but it’s enough that they do have some measure of social power over other women. And when they use that power to perpetuate the structures that force other women to perform gender that way or face abuse, they are, in short, part of the problem.

After my other recent posts along these lines, someone asked me whether I might not be spouting something similar to the anti-heterosexuality, anti-marriage things that some radical second-wave feminists touted. They implied that because my body is coded as female (though I ID as genderqueer) and I’m legally married to a cis male, that I’m being a hypocrite when I criticize women who adhere to other standards of gender performance.

And … no.

Women having sex with and marrying men are not the problem. A culture that demands that this is the only way women should be allowed to have sex and relationships is the problem. Having a wedding isn’t a problem. Perpetuating a wedding industry that promotes gender inequality is a problem. Marrying a man isn’t a problem. Marrying a man who is primarily interested only in your looks, your fecundity and/or your domestic skills and who wants to prevent you from having the ability to financially support yourself is a problem.

Extending this out to other bits of gender performance: Women who are physically attractive by their culture’s standards are not a problem. Women who wear dresses, jewelry and lipstick are not a problem. Women who pursue casual sex are not a problem.

Women who adorn themselves with products from sexist companies, act like their looks are the only thing that matter and have sex with men who don’t think of women as human beings? They are the problem.

Now, many women who do this do so because they feel they have no other choice. This is especially true for working-class women who feel–often with good reason–that they won’t survive unless they cater to the men in their culture who can support them financially. Also, an awful lot of women are brainwashed from birth into believing that this is what true femininity is, and that they are qualitatively better and more respectable when they act like this. Lastly, women want and need to get laid, too, and because sexism is at its worst when it comes to the cultural dance of hooking up, putting on a stereotypical Hot Chick costume for the purposes of pulling a partner is often the only way to do so. (I’d argue that merely getting laid isn’t reason enough to perpetuate this stuff–masturbation, folks. It’s a good thing!–but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.)

There are however millions of middle- and upper-class white women who have the choice not to do stereotypical femininity, but do it anyway, because they like the (illusory) perks that come with it.  Some women have bought into the princess myth, and believe that being some dude’s pampered trophy wife is a life lived well. Other women play with these things because they know their subculture gives them the choice not to, and they (mistakenly) believe that it’s impossible for their exercise of this choice to negatively affect other women. This group is the one I tend to find the most irritating when trying to talk about these issues.

I’ve lost count of the educated, professional 20- and 30-something white women I’ve run across who are completely unaware that other women don’t have a choice not to dress and act this way, and thus merrily play Marie Antoinette. They’ve never lived outside a city or a college town, or a blue state and have therefore never seen the serious damage done to other women by the gender-performance standards they’re reinforcing. They are surrounded by other women who have the same privileges they do, and thus believe that there’s no such thing as a woman who could suffer from sexism now.

Or, to wrap this all up in a neat little package: they are the kind of women who will vote for Republicans because they believe that that party’s policies on reproductive health and equal pay are unlikely to affect them. As with the gay men populating the Log Cabin group, they’re either ignorant of the fact that their race and class grant them enormous privilege, or they sincerely believe that those privileges are all they need to protect them from policies that would otherwise do them and others like them great harm.

2. Setting an example

But, of course, it’s not only privilege imbalance that can lead to women perpetuating sexism.

This issue is most critical when it comes to what girls learn from the adult women around them about how they’re supposed to be, but it’s also common in peer groups. One woman, perhaps at a slightly higher status than the others around her, behaves in a way that reinforces sexism, and her peers come to believe that that behavior is normal, and even desirable, and thus ape it. Next thing you know, millions of women wear shoes that cause them pain and even structural damage because doing such harm to themselves has been normalized by millions of other women. Millions of women in fact don’t even question the damage that they do to themselves in the name of cultural standards of femininity, because it’s been so normalized that they believe that pain is part of life.

If you grow up seeing the women around you harming themselves for the sake of “beauty” or compliance with what sexist men want from them, you come to believe that that’s a normal part of life. In extreme cases, this is what leads to the underreporting of rape and abuse. Other women will tell victims that what happened to them was no big deal, or that it’s not worth “ruining” some guy’s life over, and thus the victims remain silent, believing that their own pain doesn’t matter.

Now, of course it’s true that most of the women who do one or both of these things are themselves suffering from sexist conditioning. But–and this is key–so are the men who perpetuate sexism, too. We readily (and legitimately) blame men for perpetuating sexism, because they are the beneficiaries of it, and because we know they have privilege. However, just as we understand that men have the social, economic and political power that enables them to get away with doing harm to women, so, too must we understand that some women have greater power than others, and thus can get away with enabling what those men do.

(There’s also another post in here about how men, too, suffer consequences for not perpetuating sexist gender performance, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Men do, of course, bear the lion’s share of responsibility for perpetuating sexism. The men who actually do sexist acts bear the most, and the other men who stand idly by while they do so bear the second most. But that doesn’t mean women are off the hook entirely. We are half the population, and even though we have less social, economic and poltical power than men in general, many of us actually do have incredible amounts of power compared to others. When we don’t use that power responsibly we are, most definitely, part of the problem and must be held accountable for that.  As mentioned before: this isn’t a matter of blaming the victim. It’s a matter of blaming enablers. Fighting sexism is hard enough as it is without women of privilege merrily reinforcing it because they don’t feel the bite of it as much as other women do.

Now, I know some folks think this is misaimed somehow. They believe that the pressure should exclusively be on the people at the top who start this whole cascade of crap that gets perpetuated down the line. But, let’s be frank: unless we were to all rise up en masse and revolt, there isn’t a damn thing we can do to convince these guys to stop. We have no power to give them any real consequences for their bad behavior, and they’re reaping the benefits of it, so they have no incentive to stop. Appeals to compassion? Not going to work, because they have none. We can scream at these people until our lungs give out, and they will never stop.

Which means that if we want to lessen the power they have to do harm, we have to start working on the lower rungs of the ladder. We have to start pointing out to the people a couple of levels above us that hey, being stepped on sucks, and you know it sucks because the guys above you are stepping on you. If you want to stop being stepped on, doing that to the people below you isn’t the way to make it happen.

So, yes: this appeal goes out to women because let’s face it: most men aren’t going to do a damned thing to stop sexism. Our only hope is if women stop helping them do it.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Feminism, Intarweebz Drama and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How women contribute to sexism: nutshell edition

  1. Lyz says:

    Man, you nailed it. I’m concerned by how much of an enabler *I* am just by not being as ‘out there’ a feminist as I could be. I have (constrained) choices after all.

  2. Guess says:

    Per the Wall Street Journal… women in their 20s now out earn men in their 20s in the US.
    Far more women go to and graduate college then men (don’t have the actual numbers).
    Women on average live 4 years longer than men.

    Due to the difference in college graduation rates it is reasonable to think that women will be earning more than men as they age as well.

    Yet… women still expect guys to pay on dates. This has always bugged me. In a sense it perpetuates sexism. Doesn’t this put guys in the power position? I am in my 30s and I rarely see women offering to pay half and if they do, I am wondering ‘is this a test and will she hold it against me if I go ok’. CNN just ran a poll showing that the vast majority of women expect guys to pay for at least the first 6 months.

    I actually wonder how this dichotomy will change with younger people. If women are making more money, can guys really afford to pay? I don’t have anything empirical, but I rarely see women dating guys who make far less money than they do. They are routinely attracted to guys who make good salaries. I am rather successful, but I go out of my way to downplay that since I want to make sure she isn’t interested in me just because she thinks I will buy her stuff. Many, many women who jobs still expect guys to be a bank.

    I don’t get the impression that you are like that. Just pointing out that this is rather annoying. That being said, I have found that women who identify themselves as feminists tend to be far more likely to pay on dates. Just personal experience. I actually find that attractive.

    • Unfortunately, even feminists aren’t immune to cultural conditioning that pressures them into cliché gender roles. We are taught from birth that we are supposed to be princesses who make ourselves pretty in order to attract a handsome prince who will take care of our every need while we raise his babies. The entirety of romance culture–including dating standards–is built on this notion. So when women “expect” traditional romance like being asked on dates that are paid for by a man, they’re really only reflecting what they’ve been brainwashed with. A man who appears to be financially flush is read as a man who can provide for them while they are pregnant and minding young children, and (supposedly) unable to provide for themselves.

      While a smidgen of this is based in biology, most of it is just culture–one designed around the idea that men are able to get jobs that will support a family, and will never, ever cease providing that support for any reason. Conservative economic policy has made that basically impossible in the U.S. now, because only a rare handful of jobs are stable and well-paying enough to ensure that kind of support. All the family-wage jobs have been eliminated by automation or outsourced to countries with cheaper labor. The only other jobs available are retail and service sector (and even those are going away, because the number of people who can afford to spend money on those goods and services is shrinking; if you want consumers, you have to give the working class enough money to spend.)

      All that said: the notion of men paying for dates is a nominal nod to cultural romance tradition. Many women who are perfectly capable of and interested in supporting themselves just like that sort of thing because it’s a romance cliché, not because they really do expect men to pay them for eventual conjugal, housekeeping and child-care services. It’s really no different than men who expect women to spend loads of time and money making themselves appropriately decorative. Such a thing is meaningless and even counter-productive in modern relationships, but the culture still expects it, so most straight people still play that game.

      Unfortunately, the people who are most dedicated to these cultural rituals often find themselves wondering what they’re supposed to do with each other after the wedding. The framework for dating and getting married is well-established, but after that, the reality of the uselessness of rigid gender roles sets in. It’s not a surprise that divorces are incredibly common within a few years of a young, first-time marriage. Once the show is over and reality starts, people don’t know what to do.

      All this is why I recommend that anyone still in the dating pool entirely throw out any expectations they have for traditional courtship behavior. Playing those artificial roles doesn’t actually help you get to know someone well enough to be sure you want to share living quarters with them for decades. As long as both of you are keenly aware that it is just a silly game, there’s nothing wrong with getting dolled up, bringing flowers and playing it like a Disney movie. But if there’s any sense that folks are taking those structures seriously, it’s probably wisest to move on–chances are they aren’t mature enough for a healthy relationship anyway.

      One last caveat: if you’re just looking to hook up, rather than dating with an eye toward serious relationships, that requires another set of cultural coding. It’s extremely important to be certain that you’re both playing the same game in that case, which means traditional romantic behavior is even less advised. And that includes trying to chat up a stranger in a public place other than a singles bar. If the goal is sex, go to spaces where everyone there knows that’s what the goal is. Don’t try to make it happen anywhere else.

  3. Amanda says:

    Your writing is so well articulated. Thank you for putting into words what I have not been able to.

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