Benevolent Sexism

Being asked what women are ‘fighting for’, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because we get to educate someone new, and a curse, because we
come face to face with people who don’t see the ways that women still struggle for equality – and that is mind numbingly irritating.

Aside from the glaringly obvious trends in sexual assault, the lack of autonomy over our bodies, under representation in politics, prevalent pay gaps and the occasional old man asking why we aren’t in the kitchen, women in the western world in the 21st century have it pretty good, on a glance. But the third wave of feminism isn’t about the right to vote, it’s about the hidden sexisms that are ingrained into society in a way that offers people plausible deniability.

Benevolent sexism is defined as “a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men's protection.”

Some context?

On a sinking ship, let’s take the Titanic as a known example, all of the women get on the lifeboats first. Without reading into the situation, the assumption might be that women are valued and worshiped, perhaps even on an instinctual level given our role in the continuation of the species. But the underlying truth is that the women were put on the lifeboats first because they were thought to be weaker, and more in need of help. The men, without the help of a lifeboat, would have a better chance of surviving than the women.

This policy is blatantly sexist, and we can be sure now that if a boat sank there wouldn’t be a gendered preference as to who got to go in the lifeboat (I hope). But I think we could be relatively confident that, as women, the men might be inclined to let us on the lifeboat first even without the strict rule.

Having a man buy you a drink that you don’t return, or hold your shopping bags, or defend your ‘honor’ is the modern day equivalent of all of the women getting onto the lifeboats first on the Titanic - hard to resist in the moment, but rooted in a hidden assumption that there is something involved that a woman cannot handle. It’s hard not to play the gender game when confronted with these social norms. But when we surrender, we lose a part of ourselves that gives in to the assumption that the man makes more money than us, is stronger than us, or is braver than us in the face of drowning. We have the short term win of a free vodka soda, but in the long term we lose our pride, principles and the respect that women have always fought so hard for. By letting ourselves be saved, over and over, we become damsels in distress that cannot save ourselves.

Sexism does not only exist in assault and pay gaps, it exists for the most part in everyday norms that society has taught us so well that we forget they are as much a construct as gender itself. Sexism is most prevalent in the subtle holding of a door, the way your boyfriend lends you his coat and the way only women get into night clubs for free. Sexism disguises itself as a compliment, when in reality it is an insult - assuming that women are weak, poor and to be used only as bait for strong men with money who want to follow us into the night clubs that beckon us in.

Imagine the next time a bouncer tells you that women go in free, that he’s not looking at you at all. He is, in fact, looking behind you at a man. That man has a bulging wallet and follows you only to leer after you on the dance floor, assuming you put on those heels and that skirt for his pleasure, because he owns you - he’s the reason you got in for free. He covered your admission, darling, and he knows it. In the three-point relationship between this man, yourself and the bouncer, this man holds all of the power, and the night club and the bouncer think that’s ok. They aren’t doing you a favour letting you in for free - they’re selling you. And they’re assuming that you’re too naive to notice.