Sweet, nice, polite – and wrong


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.

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10 Comments

Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, sexism, stereotypes, transphobia, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Sweet, nice, polite – and wrong

  1. janishaag

    Good blog post, Gayle! Well said!

  2. Gayle — I’m with you! Personally, however, as a gay man I still struggle with sexism in my interactions with my women friends. I want to be genuine, I want my friends to be genuine, but I KNOW there are gaps in knowledge and experience I cannot bridge.

    Since I believe the personal IS the political, I have a couple of questions about the video equipment malfunction situation:

    1) How could your two male students have been helpful to you without something about the incident feeling wrong to you?

    2) Would you have felt differently in the situation if it had been some other mix (in gender and in number) of students coming forward?

    Putting myself in your place to the extent possible, I know I would have trouble answering these questions. I am terrible with video equipment and, as a gay man, might have been in a similar quandary if two (apparently straight) male students had come to my rescue! But, then, I am not sure I would have been happy with ANYONE coming forward because I would have been frustrated with myself for not being able to fix the equipment without help.

    One last thing: I think the Obama campaign may have crossed the line into the “benevolent” sexism category, especially with the “your first time” ad directed at young women who have never voted before.

    — Keith

    • Those are really good questions, Keith. I might have felt differently if the gender mix of the students was different – but honestly, I’ve had this kind of situation happen a number of times in my 14 years of teaching, and every time it’s been the male students who have come to the rescue. I think what troubled me was that no one asked me if I would like some help – they just swooped right in. If I had asked my students if anyone with some technological savviness could help me, that might have created a different tone.

      Of course, the complicating factor in all this is that I was actually very appreciative, because I WAS helpless, and I really had no idea how to fix the video equipment, and the students who “came to the rescue” really did help to minimize the disruption the technological glitch caused. I think it’s common for women (and members of other oppressed groups) to find themselves in complicated situations like this.

      One last thought. I hadn’t seen the “Your First Time” ad – I had to look it up on YouTube. I have one word – CREEPY! Sexualizing voting is pretty gross and sexist, and frankly, it’s pretty racist too, since it feeds into the stereotype of the “oversexed Black man.” I know that Obama is courting the young people’s vote, but seriously – what were they thinking?

  3. I wondered if asking you if you needed help (or waiting until you asked for help) might have been the missing ingredient, Gayle. Thanks for your honest and detailed response!

    – Keith

  4. 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.

    This is common in every culture, including ours, especially when women pay a higher price for health and life insurance for example.

    • Very true. I think it’s so important to see that benevolent sexism isn’t just about chivalry – it is associated with serious barriers to equality and empowerment for women.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Sometimes chivalry can be abused for instance like a man doing favors for a married woman which can sometimes be misinterpreted as luring a married woman to cheat on her husband and thus destroy her family, for example, knowing our society glorifies men for dating married women. Or even a man feeling emasculated and intimidated by a woman being chivalrous to him.

  5. That’s a really good point, Lisa. Chivalry, in and of itself, is sexism in a prettier package – and this is what makes it, and other forms of benevolent sexism, particularly difficult to address.

    • That’s true that it labels confident, assertive women as sluts, whores, bitches, maneaters, playgirls (bad girls people condemn), lesbians, ball-busters, etc. especially for dating men they want and opening up about what they want and other things.

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