Women have a strange relationship with compliments, mostly because so many come unsolicited from strange men whenever we venture out in public. But there are other kinds of compliments that are more backhanded than creepy, and the men offering them aren’t the folks you might expect. These guys respect their mothers, love their daughters, and would take a bullet for their sisters, wife, or girlfriend. Oftentimes, these are men we know and with whom we have close relationships. We love them and they love us…but they are also perpetrators of the deepest, most insidious brand of sexism.
These men are products of a society that forever tilts in favor of the masculine. They are raised to respect women while also reinforcing a women’s biological limitations. They are well versed in gender roles, and the sexism they exhibit upholds and validates those societal norms, taught from cradle to grave, to all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
This kind of sexism works like a lullaby. We walk through life hearing this soothing music, and it doesn’t occur to us until much later that there might be a problem with the underlying melody…if it ever occurs to us at all. Many of us simply internalize the music and it provides the persistent soundtrack to all of our life decisions and movements in the world.
The benevolent misogynist, always marching to the beat of this insidious tune, delivers his gentle oppression by way of a complement:
Women are just natural born nurturers.
That seems like a harmless observation, right? Maybe even a good thing? But let’s unpack the statement.
What roles do nurturers play in our society? They typically concern themselves with the raising and teaching of children. They take care of elderly relatives. They nurse folks back to health. Most importantly, they remain in positions devoid of power while others take care of running the world.
Think about it.
What kinds of ‘compliments’ have you heard about women’s perceived skill sets in the past?
Women are better at raising children.
Women are the backbone of the family.
Women are better at managing a household.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these statements. But, beneath the sparkly pink veneer, they perpetuate stereotypes about women and their so-called limitations. They turn a weakness into a seeming strength, creating a gilded cage that doesn’t simply keep women from rising too high in society, but actually keeps them from wanting to escape the cage in the first place. The cage is good, because women are just the kinds of creatures that must be contained and, therefore, thrive in such places.
Women are biologically equipped to birth children, but that doesn’t mean they should be the sole source of childrearing. As a group, women have come a long way in the last 50 years, but society still expects them to be the primary caretaker of home and family. Wanting more is seen as odd — a woman woefully outside of her element.
Men who reinforce these stereotypes are part of the problem, whether they intended to hold women back or not. Misogyny is systemic, y’all, which means it underpins every institution in American society. We’re all raised with sexist ideas about gender roles and what men and women can and can’t do. And not just can and can’t do, but should and shouldn’t do. Despite the advances in the workplace, things still look like the 1950s inside the home, with women doing the majority of the heavy lifting even if they are employed elsewhere full time. As with most forms of widespread oppression, these kinds of stale ideas hold back both women and men.
Benevolent misogynists seem supportive, and they probably think they are supportive, but they are actively upholding outdated stereotypes about ability on the basis of gender that put unnecessary limits on the women around them. When a man tells a woman she shouldn’t seek full time employment outside the home because he can’t soothe their child as well as she can, that’s not a compliment. It’s a way of keeping her wings clipped, but nicely, so she might not even notice she’s lost the ability to fly.
Socialization plays a huge part in this, and we’re all victims of it as well as perpetrators. Step one is to stop listening to the lullaby. Wake up and be intentional in your words and actions. And never accept a boundary masquerading as a compliment, no matter how nicely it’s offered.