‘We Love Women’: On The GOP’s Endless Display Of Benevolent Sexism

Hearing the GOP candidates say they “want only the best for America’s women” makes me want to run as fast as I can in the opposite direction. 

Watching the GOP debate last night, I was struck repeatedly by the ways in that benevolent sexism permeated, well, everything. First, it was an actual patriarchy party. All men, and a classic loophole woman, trying her hardest to flash her “I’ve got more balls than any of you and now I’ll list some military equipment,” bona fides. The men, though: “love women,” “protect women,” “think women are beautiful,” “cherish women,” and “want only the best for America’s women.” My instinct when I hear these expressions is to run as fast as humanly possible in the opposite direction and to take every woman and child I can grab with me.

Benevolent sexism encompasses attitudes and beliefs that support men and women in traditional roles, which means, ultimately, ones in which women are granted safety and security, and men are granted power over them. Benevolent sexism is characterized by an emphasis on how women look, by persistent paternalism, by the cultural messages that women are hyper-vulnerable and weak, by sexist humor, and by Madonna/whore idealizations of women and sex. The sly cousin of overt sexism, benevolent sexism is expressed in what are considered positive ways: unnecessarily gendered solicitude, manners and acts of kindness like men insisting on opening doors or sitting last, “women and children first,” complementing women on their looks, and street harassment. We see it in everyday paternalism that renders women, financially, psychologically, emotionally, politically and even legally in many places, less than full adults and turns men who would be their peers and partners into their functional fathers. “Benevolent sexist men hold women in high regard and are willing to sacrifice themselves to save and protect women,” explains Jin Goh, author of a recent study.

This worldview is self-fulfilling and one that increasingly bears little relevance to the world we live in—on a national or personal scale. Take, for example, the idea that women and children need men’s protection in the home. Most children in two-parent hetero-marriages that institutionalize complementary but hierarchical roles for men and women are far less likely to need a father to physically defend them from violence than they are to need their mothers to be, for example, computer literate and savvy. While an intruder at the cave door may have been a legitimate worry eons ago, one who forces his way in through your wi-fi router is far more realistic today.

In terms of political discourse, words are very telling: “Uncle Sam,” “our women,” “founding fathers,” “sending sons into war,” although last night you could see the ready evidence of political strategists making sure that male generics were not the norm, so “sending sons and daughters to war,” was notable. Linguist George Lakoff explored related themes in his book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, and suggested that liberals and conservatives could be divided into “nurturant parent,” and “strict father” camps. He related this model to policy approaches, evident last night, to drugs, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and abortion, multiculturalism, Obamacare, crime, and climate change. You can also see the “strong father” in last night’s predictable attempts to show that President Obama isn’t “man enough” to “keep us safe.”

What is perhaps most interesting given the debate, however, is where sexism and entitlement come together. For example, entitled men are far more likely “to hold hostile views of women and entitled women are more likely to endorse views of women as frail and needing extra care.” In addition, entitlement and sexism are both primary predictors of tolerance for and enactment of violence toward women.

The same principles inform GOP policies regarding women’s ability to govern their own lives and make moral decisions in the absence of men. Birth control permission slips or mandatory waiting periods for abortions are only the tip of the iceberg.

Benevolent sexism institutionalized in the law and in rape and domestic violence myths has for decades ensured that women are more, not less, vulnerable because they are most likely to suffer harm from the very men who say they will protect them.  Benevolent sexism permeates our legal and judicial theory regarding autonomy and agency—a fact that is highly evident in todays consent and rape debates. But violence is only one dimension of the problem. For years now we’ve been subjected to paternalistic and rights-stripping legislation designed to make sure that a man and even sometimes a woman, assess a woman’s choices to make sure that they are moral.

These beliefs and ways of organizing life are also routinely undermining women’s workplace equality and success. A study conducted by professors at Harvard University, New York University, and the University of Utah, “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace,” concluded that “Employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

The people managing our government, corporations, and religious hierarchies (if even married) are overwhelmingly men (84-100 percent). A survey of 1,200 executives conducted by the Families and Work Institute revealed that 75 percent of male executives had stay-at-home wives. What effect is this having on women’s careers? Of the Fortune 1000, only 14.3 percent have female board members.

The term benevolent sexism was coined in 1996 by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske  who wrote a paper delineating the difference between hostile, benevolent, and ambivalent sexism.

We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking.

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.

I mean, really, what was considered the least important question of the debate, about which woman each candidate would nominate to appear on our all-male currency, said it all. Two men picked their women: a wife and a daughter. Two more picked Rosa Parks, whom they didn’t realize had served on the board of Planned Parenthood, Bush picked, get this, Margaret Thatcher, and Kasich went with Mother Theresa: neither of whom is American. Then, someone mentioned Abigail Adams. Lastly, the only woman on the stage, in what I can only describe as a fantastically ironic woman, said that we should leave the men as they are on the money because it’s a meaningless gesture to make a woman publicly visible. I don’t think, between them, they could list 10 women whose historical contributions helped shape the nation.

Conservatives seem unable to consider how deeply immoral the exclusion of women from public cultural authority, and the injustice that results, really is. While 43% of Americans think having more women in politics is important, the breakdown is telling: 60% are Democrats and only 23% are Republicans; 49% are women, only 36% are men. The persistent, systematized exclusion of women from positions of power, leadership, and authority means that we continue to muddle through what amounts to a global collective ignorance about what it means to be human.

Benevolent sexism feels good because it confirms the key aspects of cultivated masculine and feminine identities that frame our lives from birth. The problem is that it’s warm and comforting, easy and familiar. Maybe most insidiously, it’s entertaining, cheap and funny. Studies show that “Frequent sexist wisecracks, comments, and office cultures where women are ignored are just as damaging to women as single instances of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention,” concluded a recent study.

The fact that it makes people feel good about themselves, gives them a false sense of security and real happiness doesn’t, however, mean it’s not sexist, discriminatory, or deeply harmful to society.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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