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Why Some Women Are Sexists

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Why is it that so often, when legislative bodies or the Church publicly address issues concerning women's health, they chose women to speak on their behalf? Women make up only a small percentage of either of those bodies' leadership, so their perpetual public appearances and the proportion of editorial photograph are far out of proportion to their actual representational power.

It can't be as simple as Richard Cohen explained this morning, after watching HBO's "Game Change" about Sarah Palin, that these women are simply "pro-choice with a pulse." There are thoughtful, exceptionally smart women with moral conviction choosing for themselves whether or not they are pro or anti-choice. Their disproportionate representation as spokesman (chose that word specifically) for anti-woman policies being pursued by hierarchies, unquestionably dominated by conservative men, smacks of the McCain teams' dangerously paternalistic and condescending choice of Sarah Palin to secure the "women's vote."

Every day people, like me, are banging their heads on their desks, asking "What is wrong with that woman?" "Why is she doing that?" "Doesn't she realize she's being used by a system that denigrates her?" Women in these positions clearly don't see it that way. Complementarianism, a biblically-based idea of separate but equal roles for men and women, is often how "equality" is defined for them -- even though in practically every instance women's place ends up being in the home, bearing and caring for children with a correlating exclusion from any direct authority over much of anything. As one commenter put it to me "I give life. What could be more important than that?" They feel empowered, validated and autonomous in their choices to participate on behalf of organizations that I feel are sexist, oppressive and misogynistic.

How is that possible? Have you looked up what "misogyny" actually means and how it works lately?

Misogyny, the basis for oppression of females in male-dominated societies, is described by Samantha Morgan-Curtis in this way:

Misogyny functions as an ideology or belief system that has accompanied patriarchal, or male-dominated societies for thousands of years and continues to place women in subordinate positions with limited access to power and decision making.

Sounds an awful lot like a description of Congress, state legislatures, all religious hierarchies, Hollywood, Corporate America -- all of which, despite remarkable strides by women in the past 50 years, continue to place women in subordinate positions with "limited access to power and decision making." What have I left out? Oh, professional sports. That's right. If I wrote this as a novel in which the genders were reversed, reviewers would describe this world as an emasculating feminist tyranny or a frightening male dystopia. As it is, it's just "natural." And, I know, girls are doing super well in school and the END OF MEN is imminent. Get back to me when academic achievement is rewarded with fair pay and anything remotely resembling equal representation in government.

As it stands, our culture remains saturated by subtle and pervasive portrayals of women as inferior, incapable, unworthy of trust (both privately and publicly) and hyper-sexualized (either as virgins or sluts, for example). That also has negative consequences for boys and men. To paraphrase Shirley Chisholm, these messages, conveying harmful and often self-fulfilling gender stereotypes, are expressed as early as the moment of birth when doctors are prone to say "He's a boy!" and "It's a girl!" Here is what is particularly notable for the purposes of understanding how women can be sexists, working against their own best interests. Michael Flood continues in his description of misogyny to say this:

Though most common in men, misogyny also exists in and is practiced by women against other women or even themselves... Aristotle contended that women exist as natural deformities or imperfect males [...] Ever since, women in Western cultures have internalized their role as societal scapegoats, influenced in the twenty-first century by multimedia objectification of women with its culturally sanctioned self-loathing.

So what does it mean for a girl and then a woman to "internalize sexism"? Here's how Cultural Bridges to Justice describes it:

The involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society are true. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership. There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys/men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism. But there is a second logical consequence -- the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called "horizontal hostility.") This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.

How do we portray women and how do women themselves comply with these portrayals?

Women as intrinsically flawed and unacceptable: How many different ways in one day do you come across messages telling girls and women to physically "improve" -- everything from their hair, their faces, their bodies, their clothes? The exponential growth of the plastic surgery industry, over-sexualization of young girls, Weight Watchers as a lifetime skill, America's Next Top Model, What Not to Wear... Improve, improve, improve because no matter what you are not good enough as you are.

Women as untrustworthy: A major theme in our cultural life is that women are shallow, ignorant, catty, manipulative, narcissistic and backstabbing. The entire reality TV phenomenon is practically based on this one idea. Women are Good Christian Bitches, they're Pretty Little Liars, they're Gossip Girls. That's just today's TV schedule. These ideas are taken from recurring themes from Greek mythology to the Bible to "we know what's best for them" legislation: Pandora, Jezebel, Eve. Finding examples is like shooting dumb evil bitches in a barrel.

Women as ornamental, supplemental and incapable: The movie Miss Representation is the best summary of the manifold ways in which our culture undermines the idea that women can be capable and powerful. Here's an excellent video produced by the MissRep organization and LoveSocial that neatly summarizes the problem in language that is safe for a six year old.

Why would anyone have confidence in a woman to lead anything or be capable of making wise choices after being saturated by denigrating and belittling messages and images practically from the moment of birth? I include in my definition of denigrating and belittling both extremes of how women are portrayed: both hyper-virtuous and-lustful and everything those imply for gender roles. The best efforts of hundreds of "girl power" organizations and motivated parents on children's behalves have to be magnified a million-fold to make long-term systemic and meaningful impact.

Women as invisible: Where are they? Women have capped out at a seemingly magical top number of roughly 17 percent in the leadership of any powerful arena, in some, like Hollywood it's closer to 3 percent. We tend to highlight women in power, which is good and useful, but it also makes it seem like there are more of them. In addition, boys and girls rarely see anywhere near equal numbers of women visibly and publicly: not in our statuary, textbooks, science narratives, professional sports, entertainment. Yes, I know there are women involved in these arenas, but they are overwhelmingly and visually dominated by men. Guess what percentage of people in movie crowd scenes are women? I am not making this up... 17 percent. Spooky, right?

Women as an insult: What's the worst thing you can call a woman? "C*nt" has to be pretty high up there. A man, same thing, or some variation of... a woman or her vagina. Boys learn this early on: girly, sissy, fag (yes, that's misogynistic, too). Conversely, for women it's a step up if you say "she's got balls." When little boys get away with "you throw like a girl" (and yes, it still happens) they grow up to say, "You're a pussy" and mean it.

Women as subhuman: We are constantly faced with women compared to animals or portrayed as bestial, especially women of color. It perpetuates the idea that girls and women aren't fully human. Just today, this legislative genius in the Georgia State Legislature compared women to pigs and cows and explained that if lawmakers would just stop women from "killing babies, they can have every chicken I've got." He was deadly serious. We're not talking about some backwoods village in the Caucus Region. That was today. In the United States. In 2012. God help them, but this man has been elected to help decide how women in Georgia are "cared for." Hope they like the stables.

I won't even touch on double standards in sexuality except to say that a generation subjected to gender essentialist abstinence-only sex ed is effectively a lost cause in terms of equality.

All of this sounds pretty on target to me when I find myself up at night trying to figure out why some women in particular don't feel as I do about what I consider very basic human rights. This doesn't mean these women are running around saying that "women aren't human" or "women are inferior," quite the opposite. They are much more likely to believe that women are innately morally superior or vitally sexually chaste or naturally better suited to stay in the home as the teachers of our future leaders. That's why gender stereotyping and homophobia are emblematic of conservative cultures and perpetuated by men and women both.

I have close friends with whom I differ tremendously on these issues and whom I may very well have offended in writing this. But, if you are a friend, or a woman who takes umbrage at what I've written, chances are you haven't read any explicitly "feminist" books and it is hard for us to have complex conversations about these issues because we don't have a common language. This is how I feel: I have had the privilege of a classical education in which I read canonical works that represent our cultural legacy. In general, most people educated through college are exposed to some combination of these works as part of a basic curriculum. But, I've also gone out of my way to read as many works by women, whose thoughts and writing and work were historically left out of the canon because they are women, and men who have advocated for equal human rights for women, as possible. Their achievements, theories, and often revolutionary ideas have been ignored for centuries and do not show up in schools, are not taught in history classes, don't show up as commonly referenced classics of literature or political theory. These female thinkers are erased as scientists, political thinkers, revolutionaries and historical examples of what girls can become. Examples for both boys and girls. And, yes, I know it's Women's History Month -- that special time of the year which, though we desperately need it, serves the undermining purpose of demonstrating how women's achievements are "exceptional" to everyday gender-integrated, historical narrative.

When I wrote recently in a post about the polarizing effect of the word slut as a method of social control, I said: "If you're a "good" woman... it means you've spent your life and will continue to spend your life calibrating your appearance, speech and behaviour so that you are not a slut." There are alternatives to scenarios where women have to chose between these options. In order to fully understand the power that culture holds over women you have to consider not only the opposite of what you are used to as an alternative (i.e., slut or NOT slut), but a completely transformed society in which a word like "slut" is meaningless, irrelevant and without power; in which health care includes what female bodies require not as an exception from the male (not-capable-of-being-pregnant) body standard but as basic; and in which subtle gradations of "femininity" and "masculinity" are appreciated for their respective strengths, but accessible to all regardless of gender, as part of being human.

This ability to visualize a transformed world, is I think the major difference between me and women I see arguing on behalf of socially conservative, patriarchal cultures.