After reading Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege for the first time, a friend asked me if I had a good article to send her way on male privilege. She was looking for a gender-related equivalent to help raise some flags around the way sexism functions in our lives. This left me sitting with the question: how have I experienced sexism alive in my life? It made me think about the day-to-day comments and assumptions that litter my social experience, all upholding the ideas that (1) gender is neatly defined in two boxes with distinct traits (2) which correlate to our biological sex with (3) one box being superior to the other.
So I made a list of the ways I’ve seen 1-3 played out recently. This list is nowhere near comprehensive and is certainly filtered through my experience and other identities, particularly as a White upper/middle class American cis-woman. It is not angry and it is definitely not exclusively a list of microaggressions perpetuated by men towards women. It is a series of observations on the ways in which I see myself and the people in my life promote a view of gender that keeps us locked into an oppressive system.
- On a date recently, the man I was meeting ordered a colorful drink with cherry grenadine and I proceeded to order a whiskey. His jaw dropped, “Are you really going to emasculate me like that?” he inquired. Here’s the thing: the extent to which I do or do not perform according to traditional gender roles should have no bearing on someone else’s sense of self. The expectation that it does puts undue pressure on me to be someone other than who I am so not to threaten their sense of and confidence in being someone other than who they are.
- One of my students suggested— on more than one occasion— that my anti-war sentiments were likely rooted in deep-seated anger and resentment from my previous relationship with a man in the military. The thought that I could have an independent, rational opinion about institutional violence seemed less likely than me being blindly driven by an emotional charge from past love.
- A dear friend (and many women I’ve been acquainted with) seems to think “bitch” is a term of endearment. The idea that an animal being female (originally stemming from a reference to a female dog in heat) is insulting is misogynistic. Thus, for me, the use of this word casually indicates a comfort with the aforementioned view, condoning language that literally equates one’s genitalia and hormones to a lower social value. The same is true of the pervasive use of pussy, cunt, sissy, and tit as insults. When my body and its cycles are used as derogatory terms, my very self is relegated to something one would never want to have— or be.
- Every time I go to a wedding, or fill out a form, I am struck by the archaic symbols that persist in our unions. The changing of names, passing off of the bride, donning of a white dress, all stem from the idea that a woman (and her virginity) is property being passed from father to husband. I understand that people engage in these rituals without holding these beliefs. Yet, in sharing my critique of them, many have defended traditions— such as asking a bride’s father for permission/blessing— as being respectful. My question is, respectful to whom? The extent to which we fail to question the origin of our traditions— and the messages underpinning them— is connected to our acceptance of the power structures in place. My issue is not in maintaining tradition, but in neglecting to raise questions around the histories, significance, and ramifications of such practices.
- A close friend, who identifies as a feminist himself, told me that he is uncomfortable walking through a door when a woman holds it open for him. Do I really need to elaborate?
- As a lot of this is about the messages we take in, lets collect some data. How many songs on the pop-radio station do you hear that are devoid of lyrics that treat women as objects and/or hyper-sexualized beings, or use language that condones violence against us? How many books have you read in the past year with a female protagonist whose main storyline did not revolve around her relationships with men? How many television shows do you watch with a female lead? Really, I am asking you to count. Or, the next time you flip through a magazine or look at the tabloids while standing in line at the grocery store, ask yourself: how are women being portrayed in these stories and ads? Essentially, what does the media teach us about what it means to be a woman and what her place is in society? (This same question should also be asked about men)
- While reading on the porch this week, the three boys (ages 6-8) we are staying with mocked me for having hairy armpits. “Gross!” they squealed. “Girls aren’t supposed to have hair there,” they explained to me. The idea that women are not “supposed to” have hair where it naturally grows— be it leg, armpit, or pubic— likens women to children and dolls, both of which you control and hold power over. (NOTE: I understand that this preference is socialized, that’s my point)
- I increasingly struggle to identify with most worship music within my faith tradition, as gendered images of God are exclusively masculine. And I know that this complaint, or advocating for moving language from mankind to humankind, or problematizing using “he” as the default pronoun, is bashed as being overly concerned with political correctness. I am not interested in being PC. I am interested in my existence as a part of the human race being acknowledged and valued equal to that of a man’s. In learning herstory too. In letting the divine be reflected in images beyond those conjured under patriarchy’s reign.
- I learned growing up that being “cute” is something women are valued for. At some point, I thought small sneezes fell into this category. I am still working on unlearning the habit of putting my tongue to the roof of my mouth to suppress a sneeze and make it “cuter”. I just rewrote my “About me” for this blog with the recognition that this same pattern of a socialized cute-Stacey drove my initial description of myself (chocolate is not actually a core tenant of my self-image or understanding).
- Some people who read this list will dismiss it on the basis that I am yet another “overly sensitive” woman. Within this criticism is the underlying acceptance of gender norms and prioritization of rationality and logic, categorized as “masculine” traits. From this perspective, emotion holds little weight and women’s voices fall into a category less worthy of being heard. My sensitivity, my attentiveness to my emotional experience, is not indicative of my sex, nor is it a handicap. And it does certainly not provide grounds to stop listening or to delegitimize my claims.
There was a point in my life when I would have internalized all of these exchanges as indications of the way I am supposed to behave— measuring my value against the extent to which I performed my gender. Drink fruitier drinks. Shave more. Let’s not put too much stock into your thought in case it’s actually coming from your heart, or your menstrual cycle.
Still today, I find myself believing some of these messages— finding myself less-than for the ways that my natural tendencies, interests, and desires don’t fit into the neat package of a “feminine” woman. This is so far from the liberation I yearn for: a world where people can be who they are and want to be, without power or inferiority imposed on them for this choice.
You don’t have to hate women to contribute to a system that oppresses them. You don’t have to identify as a man, or have a penis, to perpetuate sexism. You merely have to believe the messages you received since your birth announcement, likely scribed in blue or pink. In fact, you don’t even have to be as active as the word belief implies. You just have to live your life without noticing or finding fault in the patterns described above.
I invite you to practice noticing with me. How have you seen sexism alive in your life?