Benevolent Sexism

The first time I encountered the idea of benevolent sexism was a shock, particularly since it was a context of my own benevolent sexism being confronted. I had a crush on this girl/young woman in high school. I asked her out and she wasn’t interested, but it seemed like we could still get along. There continued to be some unexplainable tension, though, that got worse over time instead of better. She contacted me again about a year after we had stopped talking.

I got to the Tim Horton’s where we were meeting ahead of her and already had a drink when she got there. I instinctively said something along the lines of “go ahead and grab something first, if you’d like.” She visible twitched. That made sense as soon as she explained why she always had a hard time with me. In short, it was some benevolent sexism on my part, including things as small as giving her permission to go get something before joining me.

Here’s the definition for those still confused at the idea, from a recent National Post article:

Psychologists found that a friendly or chivalrous attitude can mask chauvinistic and patronizing views because the men see females as weak creatures in need of their protection.

Many people would call these kinds of things “chivalry”: opening the door, offering your coat, insisting on paying for a meal together. But the underlying impulse is still based on the assumption that women are somehow less-than, at least in those areas. You can’t expect a woman to do the hard work of opening a door when there is a strong man there to do it for her! Or be a little cold when she didn’t plan for the weather if he could be cold instead! Or have her own money to spend! (Tangent: there’s a commercial that annoys me every time it comes on. It starts by saying how he forgot his wallet with her expressing “oh no, what will we do?”. That is answered by it being an all-inclusive resort, but every time I see it I wonder where her wallet went.)

The defense of these things, of course, is that these are simply being nice. In that case, I ask a simple question: why don’t you do it for men, too? Maybe some of you do, which is fair. I do have one friend who last time he visited insisted on paying for lunch for Emily and I, so I insisted on paying for dinner. We’re close enough friends, and since we don’t see each other that often anymore, that wasn’t too weird. Outside of about 3 male friends, though, that would really throw me off guard.

The idea of micro-aggressions is a valuable one. These are small things, almost never intentional, that reinforce harmful ideas like women needing extra help and protection from men. The example of a micro-aggression I’ve heard the most often is from black women with white women touching their hair. The white woman may mean it as a compliment, but for the black woman, it can easily be a reminder that white people often subconsciously still think they have some kind of ownership over black bodies. I think many of these “chivalrous” actions can fall into this category.

Note what I am not saying. I am not telling men to never be nice to women. If you want to be nice giving your coat to someone, you can probably find a person living on the street without one who actually does need that help (of course, you still offer it, not just force it on him/her). I’m also not saying to avoid those things with your significant other if he/she has made it clear he/she appreciates it.

I am saying to not do things that reinforce that women are in any way less than us.  Don’t assume because she is a woman she wants to be treated as frail; you probably are reinforcing the false idea that she is frail. It took me some time to swallow the hard pill that day, learning that something I thought was good for her was actually hurting her. But over time and hearing several other women say similar things, I learned to confront my own benevolent sexism.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Good reflections, Ryan… but I’ll give the same pushback as I did on Facebook. I do, actually, show kindness to others when it comes to opening doors, giving precedence to them to “go first”, to yield the right of way to folks with their arms loaded down, etc… but with regards to the SPECIAL attention I give my wife, I challenge that they are not microaggressions… why? Because I have a relationship with the woman where as I love her and submit in service to her. I hold the door to the car for her, not because I think she is weak and frail, but because of my deference to her as the love of my life, I serve her in that way… I hold her coat for her when we are out on dates, not because I think she is incapable of getting her own coat on and off, but because, out of service and love, I wish to do this thing for her to make things easier (having struggled into and out of a heavy coat while wearing a tuxedo without mussing myself, yes, it IS difficult to do so and still look nice)… I hold her chair for her at a restaurant, not because I think she NEEDS the help, but because I want to help her and show her a submissive love. And I know she sees it as this because of the relationship we share.

    While I agree that benevolent sexism is a problem, I disagree that any so called “acts of chivalry” when done with this kind of servant attitude between people within a relationship is not the same… I don’t do these things for my mother in law or my sister in law because I KNOW they are not welcome by those two women, even though I am in relationship with them… I DO these things with my wife because of Ephesians 5:25, 28-30

    • So it sounds like you’re agreeing with me completely 🙂 As I point out at the end, I’m not talking about:
      1. cases where somebody actually does need help, not determined by gender, e.g. opening a door for a man or woman carrying bags is very different than rushing to get in front of a woman to open the door for her, simply because she is a woman
      2. specific relationships where both parties understand it as an act of love

      So I’m not really sure what you’re “pushing back”/”challenging”/”disagreeing” on.

      • Hrm… well… color me stupid. 🙂

        However, the general idea of Benevolent Sexism from that National Post article that spawned this seems to paint anyone who does these kinds of things as sexist. That the simple fact that I hold the door for my wife lumps me into that… so, perhaps it wasn’t a pushback to you as much as a critique of the extreme end to which this criticism of “acts of chivalry” can be taken… You know, like someone seeing me holding the door for my wife and calling me sexist without actually knowing me… (not that this has happened… nope… never)

        • Fair enough. I read the article and immediately put it in the context of the study: strangers acting differently based on gender. I’m not sure they would have meant to suggest that couples are not allowed to open the door for each other or anything like that, but they also didn’t openly affirm that relational ethic either.