I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are all men?” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t you find some women that are also qualified?” And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.
-Mitt Romney, in response to a question about equal pay for women
You’re probably thinking, Oh God, this “binders full of women” thing is getting so old! PLEASE don’t make me read another blog post about this!!! Well, I have two things to say: (1) You don’t have to read any further if you don’t want to. And (2) If you do choose to read further, you’ll perhaps get another slant on Romney’s attitudes towards women – and towards LGBTQ people – that hasn’t yet been addressed (at least, not that I can see). So here goes.
Lots of people have noted the “women as commodities” subtext in Romney’s comments. And a few journalists and bloggers have pointed out that, by seeking out women’s groups and asking them to “help us find folks,” Romney used affirmative action in his hiring practices. But it’s the attempts at damage control Romney engaged in the day after the debate, when he was back on the campaign trail, that disturbed me even more than the original “binders full of women” comment. These are the statements in question (again, he’s referring to women in the workplace):
This president has failed America’s women. They’ve suffered in terms of getting jobs, they’ve suffered in terms of falling into poverty. This is a presidency that has not helped America’s women (emphasis mine).
Mitt Romney doesn’t engage in Archie Bunker-style sexism. But he does seem to view women as “things” – fragile, delicate, suffering “things” that need to be cared for. This is a much more subtle, insidious, and dangerous form of sexism – and it’s a form of sexism that is inextricably linked with homophobia and transphobia.
In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske wrote a landmark paper titled, “The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In their paper, Glick and Fiske made a distinction between two different kinds of sexism. Hostile sexism involves overtly negative attitudes towards women – your garden-variety sexism, if you will. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it sounds complimentary and positive, but it conveys the assumption that women need men’s protection and care. Moreover, benevolent sexism is less likely than its hostile counterpart to be taken seriously as sexism.
A perfect example of this happened to me recently: One morning in one of my classes, I couldn’t get the video equipment to work properly. After trying a couple of things that didn’t work, and then pausing a moment to consider my next action, two male students jumped up in an attempt to “come to the rescue.” While I’m grateful that they got the equipment to work in relatively short order, there was something about the incident that just felt wrong. It could be read as two students being polite and helpful, or it could be read as the knights in shining armor coming to rescue the helpless princess.
So why get all upset about knights coming to the rescue, if it ultimately gets the video equipment up and running? The consequences of benevolent sexism are made abundantly clear in a later paper published by Glick and Fiske. This paper, titled, “Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures,” surveyed 15,000 men and women in 19 different countries and found that, in countries where benevolent sexism was prevalent, women had lower participation rates in politics, while men had longer life expectancies, higher literacy rates, more years of education, and more purchasing power than women. In effect, benevolent sexism and tangible gender inequalities go hand-in-hand.
Benevolent sexism, as it turns out, also goes hand-in-hand with homophobia. In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, Rachael Robnett found that people who endorsed benevolent sexist attitudes were also likely to hold traditional marriage values – including supporting the idea that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. In addition, a recently published dissertation study showed that men who hold benevolent sexist attitudes are also highly likely to have negative reactions towards effeminacy in males (and, not surprisingly, are also likely to be homophobic). But here’s where thing get really interesting. In a 2008 study published in Sex Roles, Julie Nagoshi and her colleagues found that benevolent sexism (among other attitudes) is associated with homophobia and transphobia – more so for women than men. And a 2010 study that investigated attitudes towards same-sex adoption also found differences between men and women: For men, hostile sexism was associated with negative attitudes towards same-sex adoption – but for women, it was benevolent sexism that led to these attitudes.
So, let’s recap: Benevolent sexism is dangerous because it’s linked to gender inequities. Benevolent sexism is dangerous because of its association with homophobia and transphobia. But one of the most dangerous things about benevolent sexism is that many women don’t view it as sexism; in fact, they may find it to be quite palatable. And once they drink the proverbial Kool-Aid, they’re more likely to find other forms of gender-related oppression – such as homophobia and transphobia – to be acceptable as well.
Many political pundits are saying that women voters could decide this presidential election, which may very well be the case. But the degree to which women (and men) voters buy into benevolent sexism is what will really impact women’s rights – and the direction of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.