Since first reading this post over at FMH (and the fracas that ensued in the comments) awhile ago, I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of “benevolent sexism,” or more precisely the phenomenon of “benevolent sexism” within the church.
To summarize the previous conversation, Angry Mormon Liberal tried to link “violent misogyny” and “benevolent sexism,” essentially saying they were two sides of the same coin, or that benevolent sexism can help enable violent misogyny (before we continue, it was already agreed upon that saying/implying they were exactly “the same” was not the best wording). There were a couple of responses to post, aside from the complaints over wording that I found interesting.
1) Quite a few commenters disagreed with the connection Angry Mormon Liberal was trying to draw. The commenters made the point that although benevolent sexism exists in the church, most of the people who get labeled sexist are just trying to be nice, and they need to be given a break (i.e. not told that they’re enabling violent misogyny) because they’re good people and not trying to be sexist.
2) In a post over at BCC, HP/JDC argued that trying to link benevolent sexism and violent misogyny was “unhelpful”:
To use the terms of the FMH site, we all use some form of “benevolent sexism” or “benevolent racism” or something else in order to get through the decisions that confront us each day. To state that these forms of everyday discrimination are one end of a continuum with violence is to state a truism that is accurate but unhelpful.
To summarize, HP argues that judgment is necessary in our daily lives and that benevolent sexism is closer to the everyday judgments that we all have to make than it is to violent misogyny.
Now, before I continue I want to say I am very appreciative of the underlying concerns behind these statements (and the conclusion that HP eventually comes to): we need to try to be understanding of others and err on the side of Christlike behavior towards them by not judging them unfairly and recognizing that we all are imperfect. None of us, including myself, can say that we are perfect when it comes to treating others the way we should treat them, and I will confess that in my interactions around feminist issues I am sometimes more apt to start judging others that disagree with me than I should be.
That being said, I think that in the craziness of the comments over at FMH an important point was lost: there is sexism in the church, and although quite a lot of it is of the benevolent kind, even benevolent sexism can be a problem.
I think a comment by SilverRain on the original FMH post illustrates the point that many were trying to make on the thread.
In attempt to clarify what I think is being said, are you saying that benign sexism and violent misogyny are related because the benign sexism is essentially the petri dish for misogyny? In essence, if it were not for benign sexism, the violent misogynists would find no climate of acceptance, and would therefore exhibit their violent hatred much less spectacularly and often?
So it is not so much that benign sexism leads to violent misogyny, but that benign sexism is more socially acceptable, so it leads misogynists to an active expression of their feelings.
Although SilverRain was asking in order to clarify the positions of others on the thread, I thought it was a great restatement of what a number of us were trying to argue. Benevolent sexism, in and of itself, is not an earthshattering problem, and as HP/JDC argued, none of us are perfect.
However, benevolent sexism does not exist in isolation. It exists in a world where there is violent misogyny (and more moderate levels of sexism in between the poles of “benevolent sexism” and “violent misogyny”). So, to discuss a specific example (I’m drawing here on the Kathy Sierra story, which was one of the inspirations for AML’s post), when women are told that they are making “a big deal out of nothing” if they complain about violent misogyny or sexual harassment, the benevolent sexists who say this are enabling the harassers. And the extent to which the benevolent sexists (and others) believe that the women are actually making a deal out of nothing decreases the likelihood that the violent misogynists will suffer consequences for their actions.
So, now I have a few questions for y’all:
*To what extent should we be concerned with benevolent sexism? Or, to what extent is it a problem? Is it disingenuous to claim that it enables violent misogyny?
*When it comes to the church, is a certain amount of benevolent sexism unavoidable? Since we have a hierarchical, patriarchal structure that affirms traditional gender roles, is there inevitably going to be a certain amount of sexism that is inescapable? If so, should we just accept that?
*(To those who do not identify as feminists) How can those of us who are feminists (and believe that there is a problem with sexism in the church) best address the problem of benevolent sexism (without making people feel bad for trying to be nice)?
*(To those who do identify as feminists) What have been the best methods you’ve found for pointing out (and eliminating) benevolent sexism? What do you think we could do to further address this problem?
- 4 July 2007