The dangers of benevolent sexism

November 29th, 2016

The term “benevolent sexism” seems like an oxymoron. How can sexism ever be “benevolent”? And yet, this type of sexism is so prevalent and has roots so deep in our culture that it almost goes unnoticed. Most recently, it surfaced in a very public way with the revealing of a tape recording of now-President-Elect Donald Trump in which he described actions of sexual assault against women. Several Republican men spoke out against talking about women with this kind of language, horrified that their wives, mothers, and daughters might be the subject of these vulgar and offensive words and deeds. In the past, President Obama has also framed women primarily from a relational view in some of his speeches, notably in his 2013 State of the Union address.

As the saying goes, feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Through the lens of benevolent sexism, women are not seen as fully people except as they relate to men as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. Because it is not overtly hostile or insulting towards women, benevolent sexism often gets a pass. This kind of sexism, as opposed to hostile sexism, does not see women as inferior to men or incompetent, but it does prescribe specific roles and duties. It is this kind of sexism that is also present in many churches, particularly those that believe in complementary roles for men and women.

The more overtly sexist parts of this view hold that women exist to be protected and kept pure as “the weaker sex,” and the men in their lives are responsible for their health and safety. Particularly popular during the Industrial Revolution, this led to the division of spheres: the public sphere, the realm of business and politics, run by men, and the private sphere, the realm of home and hearth, run by women. The public sphere was too rough and tumble, too dirty and offensive for women, so keeping women at home was not a means of limiting their participation or advancement but a way of protecting them, keeping them pure and unsullied by the ways of the world.

Whether hostile or benevolent, the damages to individuals and gender equality done by sexism remain the same. Instead of men and women being considered as individuals, created in the image of God and gifted by the Holy Spirit, sexist systems would prefer to judge us by sex and determine where our gifts lie. Not only does this discourage and prevent women from holding leadership positions, it also damages men who have gifts for caretaking and child-raising but feel forced to be the “bread-winner.”

Some people have argued that women are more suited to leadership because we are inherently purer, and, looking at history, it is never the women who start wars or embezzle funds or misbehave sexually. Perhaps this is because we have not been in positions of power to have the chance. Currently, protesters are calling for the female president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, to resign due to fraud, scandal and allegations of abuse of power. Leaders who are women can be just as ineffective as leaders who are men.

Whether male or female, we all have our gifts and our weaknesses. We are all susceptible to sin and in need of the grace of Christ. We also are all made in the image of God and have inherent dignity. Put succinctly, we are all people with our own hopes, fears, strengths and desires. Some women are stronger than some men. Some men are gentler than some women. By prescribing spheres based on gender or reducing a woman’s value to her relationships as if she were property, we do a disservice to all of God’s people.

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