Even though patriarchy oppresses, disadvantages and menaces women of all ages and from all socio-economic, racial and national backgrounds, yet despite their shared (although varied) experiences of oppression, women fail to stand in solidarity against patriarchy.
Instead, several women legitimise and reinforce their subordination, defend or endorse patriarchal beliefs, and play out sexism against other women just like men do. As such, these acts – primarily rooted in internalised patriarchy, not only strengthen this oppressive structure, but also as a result, pit them against other women as enemies. I will discuss Glick and Fiske’s explanation as to what drives women to act in this way.
From The Courtyard To The Battlefield Of Women’s Rights Movement
Notwithstanding women’s ability to form deep loving and nurturing bonds with other women; there are numerous incidents in everyday lives where women are seen cutting each other down. They collude with men in perpetrating domestic abuse against another woman in the family; lead the race in slut-shaming and victim blaming other women; and as women in authority, abuse power over or unduly discredit junior female staff members.
Further, history has it that ‘harmful cultural practices’ be it sati, female foeticide/infanticide, female genital mutilation, foot binding or breast ironing, it is the women who mercilessly enforce these practices and actively perpetuate them against women across generations.
Women’s suffrage movements are also littered with examples of how some anti-feminist women crippled victories of women who were fighting for gender equality. In the late 19th century, American women’s struggle for right of vote was thwarted by anti-suffragist groups which called for its repeal arguing that “politics is best left to men“. Even the Equal Rights Amendment was never made part of the Constitution due to opposition by leaders of anti-feminist groups (mostly housewives) who advocated for a submissive role for women. Similarly, contemporary feminist movement is also marred by irreconcilable positions of women in matters of prostitution and abortion (rights).
Women’s Relationship With Each Other
Women’s relationship to each other is complex since they do not see themselves as a homogenous group.. Despite the shared disadvantages that all women face because of their sex in context of constriction of opportunities/freedoms, and subjection to acts of gender-based violence, they fail to consociate along this common thread. On the contrary, some women display unquestioning acceptance of and allegiance to male supremacy/patriarchal values; willingly submit to a subordinate/servile position, and voluntarily preoccupy themselves with self-limiting social roles.
Glick and Fiske observe that it is the interplay of hostile and benevolent sexism that sustains women in willing subordination. It shapes women’s perception of how patriarchy affects them and their position within the system.
We are all familiar with hostile sexism in the way it punishes dissent. Women who challenge male supremacy and dominance or break patriarchal conventions by being assertive, aggressive and ambitious in their actions and choices are pinned down by acts that are out-rightly hostile and subject them to chastisement, tools of which include sexual defilement, forced marriage, honour-killing etc. to name a few. Alternatively, it shames, stigmatises, ostracises, and renders women unsuitable for marriage. Therefore, hostile sexism amputates women’s courage and silences them into submission. By inspiring fear, hostile sexism not only punishes the woman in question, it also defines limits for other women. Since it elicits resentment, anger and a sense of injustice, this brand of sexism could also, as we have seen and read, mobilises women to collectively act to overthrow the unjust system.
However, benevolent sexism is a subtle, soft and sugar-coated form of sexism, so much so that it is not even recognized as detrimental or sexist by many women, since its affectionate undertone camouflages its sinister intent. It sprouts out of men’s reliance on women for heterosexual intimacy, reproduction and domestic chores. On one hand, benevolent sexism tames women to cater to men’s needs, and on the other, also erodes women’s ability to use this dependence to turn the tables against men and reverse the power dynamics. For example, it glorifies women’s conformance to patriarchal construction of femininity and eulogizes women for being non-assertive, non-confrontational, non-argumentative, compromising beings, who have their decisions made for them, finances managed for them and who hold marriage and motherhood as their highest goal.
Further, it celebrates women (only) in the role of a wife, mother, and/or a caregiver and rewards them with male appreciation and acceptance in the form of chivalry (which reinforces women’s physical or intellectual weakness), paternalistic protection (which also includes controlling behaviour, that many women internalise as a part of romantic love) and material benefits. None of the aforementioned however indicates equality. Therefore, women who are conditioned to buy into benevolent sexism, feel flattered, pampered, allured and tempted (rather than offended), and come to see their sex and social status as one that garners advantage rather than discrimination. Several women are also thrusted into the benevolent brand of sexism for the fear of hostile sexism, especially, the fear of men’s and social disapproval and the resultant repercusssions, which could involve violence and abuse of varied kinds.
What Sexism Does To Women
“It is interesting that many women do not recognise themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning” said Kate Millet in her seminal work Gender Justice. Women who are conditioned by benevolent sexism do not see themselves as being discriminated against, subjugated in any way, or, as subjects of patriarchal oppression. Under the illusion of privilege, such women often find themselves guarding the patriarchy (the bestower), endorsing patriarchal beliefs and play out hostile sexism against other women just like men do by shaming, stigmatising and victim blaming other women who defy male authority or traditional gender roles. They get conditioned into becoming allies with the system that confers benefits on them for being a “good girl”.
Further, by endorsing women as “morally superior”, “excellent caregivers” but “uncompetitive” and “poor decision makers”, benevlent sexism induces them to voluntarily throw themselves into tasks that engage these qualities (mostly seen within the private sphere or conventionally less competitive arenas), while it subtly marks them out of what they are conditioned to believe as areas of their inherent weakness, that is the public domain. Women, thus, internalise their powerlessness and come to undermine their own competence, rational abilities and potential, and, consequently, of all women (as a class). This conditioning becomes the foundational setup for women’s dependence on men for their economic needs. Invariably, they legitimise and justify their subjugation to men and regard their subordinate social status as natural (system justification). As such, women then find no reason to fight a system they see as just and fair.
Therefore, despite conscious awareness of their inferior social status, benevolent sexism diffuses women’s feelings of anger, discrimination and injustice towards the system. This obstructs their motivation to challenge their (lower) status in the social hierarchy.
As long as women continue to be conditioned by benevolent sexism, the fight against gender inequality and injustice will continue to remain a Sisyphean task for the lack of solidarity and a univocal voice for emancipation from all women standing together. A parallel and stronger mobilisation by feminist forces that encourages women to see beyond what is served to them as chivalry is how we could deconstruct and diminish the effects of benevolent sexism.
“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
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