I was walking down the right side of a sidewalk (as literally every sidewalk etiquette article insists is correct). A man was walking toward me and, as our game of sidewalk chicken escalated, he frenetically gestured for me to move over to the left. Why? Because, he said, “ladies walk on the inside.” I told him (yelled after him after I sheepishly moved aside) that was incorrect and sexist. He told me (yelled behind him as he walked away) that was absolutely NOT sexist. Perhaps he fancied it was 1850 and he was putting the lady he was escorting on the protected part of the sidewalk. That was a thing, I guess, because gentlemen needed to guard ladies from the ruffian side of the sidewalk where carriages and horses and puddles dared to exist. I think sidewalk guy was attempting to be gentlemanly by enforcing this old-fashioned gesture of female protection. But he was actually telling a woman what to do with her body, making her move around him in spite of contemporary norms, and disrespecting her space and wishes. So it was sexist. But it was benevolent sexism.
Slight topic detour: Peggy McIntosh describes how she was taught from a young age to only identify racism in conscious individual acts of meanness. Of course, this type of racism does happen. But McIntosh says this image prevented her—a White woman—from noticing how racist practices and policies were also institutionalized, and then how her own unthinking, non-malicious everyday actions reinforced these systems. Even if someone is not being consciously racist and even if the correlation between that person’s actions and the subjugation of people of Color isn’t super clear, they can still be perpetuating racism by participating in and benefiting from racist systems. You see, intent is not the same as effect.
Is your idea of sexism a manager saying he doesn’t promote women because they’re too volatile during their times of the month? Of course, this type of sexism does happen. But we also participate in sexism via subtle everyday practices that cast women as less qualified, less capable, less valuable, less able, less worthy, less whole, or more naturally inclined toward roles like being sex objects or doing unpaid domestic and menial labor. Sometimes gestures that are intended as genteel or flattering ultimately replicate notions that women are lesser and—here’s the kicker—that a woman’s expressed will is less significant than a man’s beliefs or intentions. Enter benevolent sexism.
Classic example: a man holds a door for a woman. Is this sexist? NOT NECESSARILY INTERNET TROLLS. Holding the door for all people, especially people that need aid, can be super nice! In this scenario, the woman says “that’s ok, I can get it” and the door holder insists because he’s a gentleman and he always holds doors for ladies. But why always and only ladies? And why does he insist? Is it because he’s trying to be polite? Yes. It is because he’s trying to treat women in a flattering way? Yes. Is it because he thinks women should be held to a different standard when it comes to labor, even when the labor isn’t really laborious? Yes. Is it because he thinks his idea of chivalry outweighs the woman’s expressed wants? Yes. Ah, now we’ve slipped into sexism. Door guy’s insistence is based on a sexist belief that women are generally less capable and also that what men think is correct for women is more important than what women think is correct for themselves. It wasn’t intended to be sexist, but the effect nevertheless was. Intent is not the same as effect.
Lets do some more: once, a man on my bus detoured on his way off to tell me I was so pretty. A man in an airport gestured to me and said it was great to be next to one of the most beautiful women here. A man approached me at bar to say I had a “yoga” body. Another told me I was the perfect size but not to lose any more weight. So here’s the benevolent part: these interactions were clearly intended as complimentary and I strongly suspect that no comment would have been made if I did not pass the test. But I did and these men felt I should know. This knowledge was given, I believe, to make me feel good. But here’s the sexism part: the reason these men felt entitled and even obligated to tell me their personal judgments about my body is because our sexist institutions and our sexist media says that women’s value goes up when they are deemed desirable. Looking good—especially in ways that elicit men’s sexual desire—is an achievement and, for women, often a prerequisite to other forms of status and power. Chimamanda Adiche calls this bottom power. Rosalind Gill calls this a postfeminist sensibility. Whatever you name it, the sentiment is built on a foundation of sexism: women are of higher value when they are coveted objects of hetero-male desire.
Caveat: I like physical compliments from my partner and I liked them from people I went on dates with, provided the date was going ok. And of course some women do like physical compliments from strange men. What’s that you say, not all women are the same? Why, that’s true! But I—one woman speaking for herself—I don’t like them so I try not to respond at all, or say something neutral like “ok.” I don’t smile and I don’t say thank you because I’m not happy or thankful. This is generally met with confusion or indignation and sometimes anger. You see, it’s assumed that I will smile and say thank you because of the complimentary intent, even if the effect is that I am uncomfortable, and even if the effect is that I am being forced into a sexist interaction. Smiling and saying thank you is expected from me because I am woman, as is apologizing, acquiescing, not showing aggression, being ever so pleasing, and staying in my lane. Expecting and even requiring women to placate men above their own feelings, to accept the intent of a comment rather than its personal or social effects, well, that’s sexist.
Here’s where I answer my title: why the fuck should I even care about a man on a bus telling me I’m pretty when White male senators are making decisions about my reproductive heath care, when rape is handled egregiously in our law and order system, when transwomen of Color are murdered every fucking day? Make no mistake, we need to work on this shit. Badly. Loudly. All hands to battlestations! But there’s no limit on the sexist items we can work on. Some sexist shit is more urgent but all acts of sexism contribute to a sexist society. And Kristen Hubby argues that when we let benevolent sexism slide because we’re focused on hostile sexism, we allow a less visible but still very real form of sexism to harden into the framework of our society. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily hostile but it just as effectively forestalls social change. Schooling ourselves on benevolent sexism shouldn’t diminish the focus on hostile sexism. We can do both friends.
**Oh wait I have another caveat. Terms like men and women or male and female are just grossly inaccurate. Not all men do this, not all males do this, and sometimes people who are not men or males do this. It’s a bit more accurate to say these interactions are tied to categories of masculinity and femininity, but of course not all masculine people do this and not all feminine people do that. However, Kate Bornstein argues that if the binary categories of masculine and feminine and men and women and male and female didn’t carry such social weight, then sexism wouldn’t exist because sexism is a direct and intentional result of how our gender system is built. Ok I’m done now for reals.