On the morning of January 21, I woke up and started getting ready to go to the Walkway Over the Hudson to attend a sister event for the Women’s March. I was excited to see the growing enthusiasm for the march in the days leading up to it, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to see as I started scrolling through my social media feeds as I started my day. In a Facebook group, people adorned in pink “pussyhats” had already started posting pictures from sister marches from all over the world. People were marching in South Korea, Kenya, Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Latvia, Malawi…
My partner and I headed to our march and from blocks away, I could see the signs. I could see the hats. There was no parking. We left the car several blocks away and joined the march—along with an estimated 5,000 others. While we all marched for different reasons, and had different motivations, the driving force behind the organization of the Women’s March on Washington was how the “the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us.”
Scholars Glick and Fiske describe two different forms of sexism that women experience in their work—benevolent and hostile sexism. Hostile sexism is typically the form we most picture when we think of sexist attitudes: overtly misogynistic or oppressive behaviors towards women. Benevolent sexism is often not the image conjured up when we think of someone fitting these criteria. Acts of benevolent sexism are chivalrous, kind and seemingly “protective”—but implicit in these acts is the reinforcement of the patriarchal idea that women necessitate help or guidance. When women are treated with deference by men because there are societal expectations that this is what they ought to do, all are learning implicitly that women are in need of this protected status—and men are singularly capable of providing it.
On the surface, we think we are behaving in some ritual accordance of social mores of respect when we practice benevolent sexism. What we are actually doing is reinforcing and normalizing the underlying psychology that suggests a man’s dominance and a woman’s subordinance, subservience and silence. Moya, Glick, Expósito, De Lemus and Hart found that women holding a stronger benevolent sexist attitude were more likely to accept restriction on their activities that men are not subjected to “for their safety.” Dardenne, Dumont and Bollier found that women exposed to benevolent sexism saw decreased in their performance in problem solving task. Dumont & Dardenne came to the perhaps not-so-surprising conclusion that when women are exposed to benevolent sexism, their memories of their abilities shift to ones of incompetence. Becker and Wright found that women exposed to this more polite and paternalistic sexism are less likely to protest against gender inequity. And my students and I found last year that college-aged women exposed to benevolently sexist relationship advice saw decreases in their self-worth related to academic competence.
However, Becker and Wright also found that hostile sexism provokes women to action. Women exposed to overt, misogynistic and aggressive sexism are much more so likely to refuse to tolerate inequity.
And what we are witnessing now is a wave of good old fashioned hostile sexism.
The sexism that our generation has largely faced has not really been the overt, outlandish sexism our mothers and grandmothers protested decades ago. We mostly only see that sexism in films, or read about it or occasionally glimpse it in our older relatives who “don’t know any better.” But we are still surrounded by it—it just hides in subtly, in micro-aggressions, in the subconscious ways that all of us perceive ourselves and each other. If I said that unconscious sexism played a role in how the left behaved this past election cycle, I wouldn’t be the first. I’ve spent more than a decade in universities suffering through mansplaining from well-meaning men who would describe themselves as feminists—and I’m not the only one this happens to.
And there is a corollary to all of this—which is what these messages do to men and the culture of masculinity. When we raise boys (setting aside for a moment the also problematic issues of heteronormativity in these cultural lessons) to treat women with deference, to treat them “like ladies,” we are also teaching them that women are in need of this help and men are required to provide it. We can write sardonic quips of mansplainers mansplaining, but the mansplainer mansplains because he has been socialized to do so. The white knight has been conditioned to see the women around as needing his help and guidance, even when he isn’t conscious that this is what he’s been taught or that this is what he’s actually doing. Good, feminist, woke men still do this—without realizing it. Not with malevolence, but with benevolence. Their well-intentioned behavior cyclically reinforces these mechanisms of harm.
We’ve been dealing with white knights, who—whether they mean to or not—have been fostering complacency and diminishing our power. But all the while, trolls were actually growing in number and becoming emboldened by a frighteningly welcoming media presence.
I was horrified to watch the unthinkable happen on election night. I was with my research assistants and some students from my women’s studies course in a campus conference room, ready to celebrate what we thought would be an historic occasion—and historic it was, but celebratory it was not. In the weeks since I have felt lost and angry—but I have also been witnessing an awakening.
Hostile sexism is not that soft, sweet, paternalistic and chivalrous sexism that pats us on the head, diminishes our feelings of competence and soothes us into unknowing complacency. It’s the sort that makes over 3 million people get out of bed early on a Saturday, put on a pussyhat and march—and keep marching.
Hostile sexism will make us resist and keep resisting. Hostile sexism will make us persist and keep persisting. Hostile sexism might just shape a new era in the movement.