A friend of mine recently shared a Vox article written by a self-proclaimed progressive dude titled, “Democrats should start accepting pro-life liberals like me” (spoiler, he’s really pro-choice). While the piece has its points, one line in particular didn’t sit well with me. The author, in an attempt to prove his progressive cred, begins listing the values that make him left of center: BLM: Check. Socialized healthcare: Check. Climate change: Check. But when he gets to declaring his support for feminism, the author’s reasoning is odd: “I support feminism. When we oppress women, we are missing out on a wide range of skills and talents that I believe were gifted with a purpose.”
At first, his feminist embrace seemed only “weak sauce,” as my friend put it. But then his words really began to bother me. “Women are oppressed” is feminism 101. But the reason why we are oppressed and why that is wrong is not because the world is missing out on the “skills and talents” we have to offer it. Gross. And then there’s his following line of women being “gifted with a purpose,” which is all kinds of Handmaid’s Tale creepy.
As a feminist and a woman, I find it crucial to emphasize that we women are not special. We do not have a special purpose nor do we require special treatment. While such beliefs may appear complimentary at first, even pro-woman, they are anything but.
The idea that women are unique and gifted with a special purpose is one I am deeply familiar with. Growing up in the evangelical church, I was taught that men and women are different with different (but complementary) roles. It’s called Biblical complementarianism: different, but equal. Sound familiar? Unsurprisingly, the “roles” for women turned out to be the ones that catered to men and servitude.
But complementarianism isn’t unique to Christianity or conservative religious interpretation. In the secular world, it manifests as the gender binary (the belief that there exist two distinct and opposite genders) and in “benevolent sexism” – the more insidious cousin to hostile sexism.
Hostile sexism is the sexism our culture spotlights and familiarizes us with: Domestic violence, sexual assault, sexist insults, etc. It’s no surprise that when most people hear the word “sexism” they think wage discrimination and calling a woman a bitch – outward displays of abuse and gender discrimination. But benevolent sexism is just as damaging, if not more so, than outright hostile sexism.
Wikipedia differentiates between the two manifestations this way: “Hostile sexism reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about a gender (e.g., the ideas that women are incompetent and inferior to men). Benevolent sexism represents evaluations of gender that may appear subjectively positive (subjective to the person who is evaluating), but are actually damaging to people and gender equality more broadly (e.g., the ideas that women need to be protected by men).”
The danger of benevolent sexism is that it seems harmless – even feminist – at times. Benevolent sexism manifests as the enforcement of beliefs in inherent gender differences and roles – specialness. It looks like men holding the door open for women, the governments banning – er – “protecting” women from combat, and the belief that women are more gentle and kind.
Carried out on a purely individual level, these things are nice (well, except for military exclusion). But when applied to an entire group based solely on their gender/sex, they become restricting and oppressive.
For example: The belief that women should be protected by men implies and manifests as the belief that women are weak and in need of male supervision and protection. The belief that women are inherently maternal and kind manifests as the pressure to have children and in the conflation of women with wombs. And the general declaration that women hold unique “skills and talents” and are “gifted with a purpose” is exactly the kind of logic that regulated women to second-class status for thousands of years.
Someone once defined feminism as “the radical idea that women are people.” I couldn’t agree more. Until women are respected as fully human and fully unique, we will continue to be placed on pedestals and in boxes that define us by our gender and determine our destinies.