“Mom, do feminists hate men?” my 16-year-old daughter asked as she climbed into the car after school one day.
I mindfully checked the possibility that her query might reflect my own blatant radical feminism. “Why do you ask?”
She explained that “man-hating feminists” came up in English class. Her class is finishing a unit on 19th Century American literature that includes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Both novels juxtapose women’s sexuality and self-expression with conventional and oppressive social structures. The continuing relevance of this theme more or less naturally prompted a discussion of contemporary feminism.
Of course, feminists do not, as a rule, hate men. What they hate is sexism.
Sexism is gender-based discrimination that is traditionally directed at women but can affect men and is increasingly used to limit the socio-economic opportunities available to intersexuals, transsexuals, and people who simply do not conform to traditional gender roles. The sexual double standard that addles Hester Prynne and Edna Pontellier is, for most women in the United States, less relevant today than it was in the 19th century. Yet, as Sam Killerman points out, “sexism is [still] the problem — sexism that a lot of men engage in and a lot of women internalize.”
In practice, (heterosexual) white males enjoy social and economic privileges including: easier access to jobs and higher pay; reduced likelihood of being harassed, beaten, or killed, even after dark; relatively low maintenance costs (hair and body care, clothing, etc.) and standards for attractiveness; the presumption that they will retain their surnames upon wedding; freedom from the need to produce – let alone, bear – a child to validate their masculinity and expectations regarding child care; and the comfort of knowing that most of those in power will look just like them.
What rankles me is that sexism continues to be prevalent on college and university campuses, where one would expect much greater tolerance than in society at large, and far more gender equity. Yet women on college campuses routinely experience “everyday sexism” in the form of gender-role stereotyping and prejudice, degrading comments, and objectification.
I am disgusted that too few colleges and universities do enough to reduce sexist behavior. I am not surprised. My own entre to the political science profession included a hearty “welcome to the boys’ club,” a space initially characterized by an extended workday, basketball pool, and barely nominal acceptance of pregnancy and motherhood.
Sadly, campus-based sexism persists despite the advantages that come with experience and tenure. I have been propositioned, attacked, and discounted because of the way I express my female gender as a supposedly gender-neutral scholar. Student evaluations suggest I am too “hot” to be competent, yet not “approachable” enough to be feminine. Some colleagues regard the blurred boundaries among my existences as a mother-mate, scholar, and recreational athlete that make a balanced life possible as patently “unprofessional.”
It can be worse for untenured faculty, and students. Student protests at Dartmouth College against discrimination based on sex, race, and sexual preference prompted that campus to close for a day of reflection earlier this year. Harvard Business School’s recent “gender makeover” suggests comprehensive campus policy reform may be necessary to institute tolerance and close the gender gap on campus, and off.
Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) on “everyday sexism”: http://www.aacu.org/ocww/volume39_2/feature.cfm?section=1
On racism, sexism, and homophobia at Dartmouth College:
On Harvard Business School’s gender makeover:
Juliann Emmons Allison is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. Her research and teaching interests emphasize political economy, environmental politics and policy, and community-based social change. Recent work appears in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law, and Economics, and the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative.