Left Side: Women’s Rights and Sexism

It’s no secret that this country is sharply divided. But the polarization is perhaps starkest on the issue of women’s rights.

Consider this: Last year, as Hillary Clinton was campaigning to become the first woman president in our nation’s history, the Pew Research Center asked a sampling of Americans whether women still face obstacles as a result of gender discrimination. A little more than half—53 percent—said yes, while 45 percent said obstacles are now “largely gone.” More telling, however, was the stark contrast in perceptions among men and women. A large majority of women—63 percent—said that women still face gender discrimination, while only 41 percent of men thought so.

The latter pair of statistics gets to the heart of the matter: There is a widespread tendency in this country for groups of people to dismiss concerns unless they’ve experienced them firsthand. This strikes me as the height of arrogance. Indeed, it is a form of mass gaslighting.

If we ever hope to heal as a country, we need to begin by showing more respect—a point made eloquently in last year’s campaign by Marco Rubio when asked about black activists.

“Whether you agree with them or not,” Rubio said, “if a significant portion of the American family believes that they are being treated differently than anyone else, we have a problem, and we have to address it as a society…” [Emphasis added.]

The statement is equally applicable to women who feel they are treated differently than men.

That said, it’s not simply a matter of taking women at their word when they talk about sexism. There is ample evidence to suggest that they’re right. Take Donald Trump’s infamous “pussy” remark, for example. The most troubling aspect of that videotape was not that he said it; far more disturbing, to my mind, was that so many people shrugged it off with some variation on the comment that “boys will be boys.” Nor was that an isolated incident. Transcripts of Trump’s campaign remarks are littered with sexist comments that his supporters either enjoyed or dismissed as trivial.

It would be a mistake, however, to lay all of this at the feet of Trump. To be sure, he brought sexism to the fore. But the problem is systemic and has been throughout our nation’s history—the victories of the women’s rights movement notwithstanding.

To begin with, consider the fact that the prospect of electing a woman president last year was a big deal. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, 59 other countries have already broken that barrier—the first being Sri Lanka in 1960. All the while, Americans are the ones who like to proclaim that we live in the “greatest country in the world.”

Why do we lag so far behind?

One reason is that our mass media continue to traffic in sexist stereotypes, which teach boys and girls alike that a girl’s primary value lies in her looks and the extent to which her face and body conform to contemporary ideas of “beauty.”

The impact of these messages is enormous. According to the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which explores the effects of mass media on women’s psyches, 78 percent of 17-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their bodies.  As a result, many will develop eating disorders at some point in their lives—65 percent, in fact, according to the documentary.

The persistence of sexism is evident as well in the under-representation of women in positions of leadership. While women make up nearly 51 percent of the American population, they comprise only 17 percent of Congress. The disparity is reflected as well on the boards of directors of major companies. At Time Warner, for example, only two of 12 members were women, as of last year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The numbers are similarly low for most other major media conglomerates.

Given the skewed representation of women in the mass media, it should be no surprise that there are still so few women in leadership positions. Boys and girls alike are inundated with the message that women are ruled more by emotion than men and aren’t “strong” enough to be in positions of power. Conversely, women who do rise to power are often depicted in accordance with a double standard. We saw this in last year’s presidential campaign, especially, when Trump was characterized as “tough” while Clinton was often characterized as “shrill.”

It did occur to me last year that leading feminists sometimes undermine their own cause. It did not serve women’s rights at all, for example, to suggest—as some women did—that any criticism of Clinton was sexist. Nor did it serve the cause when Gloria Steinem suggested that a lot of young women were backing the Bernie Sanders campaign because “that’s where the boys are.” Ironically, few remarks in the campaign, to my mind, were more sexist than that.

But the occasional missteps of feminist leaders should not be allowed to taint the idea of feminism in general. This was the case for many years. When I began teaching at Old Dominion University in 2008, I would always ask my students how many of them regarded themselves as feminists. Few if any ever raised their hands, and one day, when I asked one female student why, she said, “Because I don’t hate men.”

This has changed in recent years, I’ve noticed. Far more young women, in my experience, are now identifying themselves as feminists. And young men as well.

I’m happy to see this, and it gives me hope for the future. I’ve regarded myself as a feminist since I was in my early 20s. And yet, often when I say this, it elicits surprise.

Why would I, as a straight, white man, identify as a feminist?

Three reasons.

First, I have a 27-year-old daughter, and I want to see her enjoy every opportunity that men do to fulfill her potential.

Second, it’s a matter of justice. It offends me if any group of people in our society face discrimination.

Finally, it’s a matter of concern for myself. Men, too, after all, are hurt by gender stereotyping—“real men don’t cry,” and so on. I don’t want to feel compelled to live up to a standard of hyper-masculinity any more than I want my daughter to feel pressure to live up to some image of what it means to be a “perfect” woman.

Alas, the Pew poll I cite early on suggests that we have a long way to go in this battle. But based on the changing attitudes among my students, I have hope that in another generation our country will be more enlightened. 

Tom Robotham
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