A few weeks ago one of my friends was telling me about an initiative at her church to get more of the church leaders dating and married. To change things up a bit the women ask out the men, and the man has to say yes, no matter who it is, to at least the first three women that ask him out. I was surprised and delighted by this incredibly progressive sounding idea. Men almost always ask the women on dates, and this archaic ritual leftover from the days of chivalry has always confused me. This was a chance for some of the shyer men at her church to show off their qualities in an intimate situation and skip the burdensome hurdle of initiating the date, or maybe go on a date with someone that they would not regularly have considered.
She continued on, telling me that the men would pay for the dates and...I stopped her there. “Surely the woman should pay for the date, as she is the one doing the asking?” I queried. I would never ask anyone, male or female, to do something and then stare at them expectantly when the bill appeared. She told me that the point of the initiative was to show that men should value women. I was a bit taken aback. This seemingly progressive situation had just taken a dire turn for the worse. Assigning 'value' to women didn't really seem to make sense. As the conversation continued I learned that, as these dates turned into dating, the men were strongly encouraged to save up a certain amount of money before bringing the relationship to a more serious level. So if men want to get the churches blessing for a marriage proposal they must save up thousands of dollars, and the women...nada. Saving is good, don't get me wrong, especially if you're heading into something as serious as marriage, but I was confused as to why both parties wouldn't be encouraged to have money in the bank. All of this seemed wrong to me. This wasn't equality. Don't get me wrong, it's significantly, undeniably, remarkably better than a man choosing his wife without any regard for her opinion, or a couple starting out destitute on day one. But it seemed to me that if you start the marriage in this manner, with the man already taking up the role of sole financial provider, doesn't that set up the tone for the entire marriage? How can there be equality in the marriage if he is taking care of her from the beginning. And what will little Suzy think when she learns that her father wears the financial pants?
The women of this church that I have met seem pretty smart, so I'm confident that none of them would walk into a marriage situation completely dependent on their husband-to-be, but I'm curious why the church is so one-sided.
I'm willing to bet that some of you that read this paragraph thought of me, at least momentarily, as a cowardly cheapskate. I am neither of those things (at least I don't think I am), but don't doubt that I asked myself that same question a dozen times while writing this. But that’s what makes this all so insidious, the fine line between striving for equality and imagining offense where there really is none. As fortune would have it a few days ago I stumbled upon an article aptly titled 'Benevolent Sexism' by Katherine Connell which made me feel a little better about all this. Benevolent sexism isn't a new idea, though it is to me, but it seems to spell out exactly what I was thinking when I had this conversation. The article, and other sources, offer up some of the many ways kindness by men towards women can (not always, but can) actually just be a guise for the sexist mentality which I feel this church is endorsing.
The effects of benevolent sexism are definitely enjoyable in the short-term. One article offered up the example of an elderly woman who didn't like to drive on the busy streets of Miami, so she had her husband drive for her. She grew up in a small town, and that's where she had her family. She had no problems driving there because the roads were safe and organized. When her children moved out she and her husband retired and decided to move, as many old folk do, to Florida. She found Miami driving to be intimidating, there were too many freeways and overpasses, and everyone was always in a hurry, so she had her husband do all the driving. He took this on this task stoically because in our society driving is a man’s duty. The driving situation worked fine at the beginning, they didn't know many people, and so the would spend most of their time together, but as they made more friends are started to have separate lives it became a problem. She found that it began to affect her social life; if her husband was busy and none of her friends could come get her, then she was stuck at home. If she needed to run to the store, but her husband was otherwise occupied, then she was out of luck. She lost agency in her own life, and started to get depressed, all because she now relied on her husband for something that she had done for so long on her own. What started out as a husband doing a nice thing for his wife actually ended up hurting her.
Agency is the key word here. It seems to me that benevolent sexism simply leads to women who are incapable or unwilling to do things they are fully capable of. Changing the oil of a car is not difficult, a step by step description can be found with a simple Google search for virtually any car imaginable, but I have female friends that have never, and likely will never do it because they consider it man's work. Somebody, somewhere instilled this belief in them, and they probably did it with an offhanded comment and a kind offer to do it for them. Maybe this small example doesn’t matter much, I expect my friends will always have someone who is willing to help them, but it’s just one more drop in the ocean of inequality
South Korea, my current country of residence, offers up another example of benevolent sexism which is causing nothing but discord: the male-only mandatory military service. Every man has to spend two years in the military some time in his early twenties; sometimes they do it after university, and sometimes they take a break from their studies to do their time, but all men have to do it. With North Korea nearby and constantly digging 'coal tunnels' and shooting off 'communications rockets' it makes sense for South Korea to have a standing army. And the men are more than happy to do their two-year stint, not thinking, or not caring, about how this paints women as weak and unable to fight. This trickles down into every aspect of Korean society, men are strong, and women are dainty beautiful things. I've seen it at my own school. The students had a soccer tournament not long ago, and one of the ways that they evened out each classes opportunities, so that no team had too much of an advantage, was to force the girls to play at least a quarter of the game. Had these young women been told from a young age that they could play soccer just as well as the boys I have no doubt they would, but since they were young they have been told that boys play sports, and women chat on the sidelines. Women can play soccer, they can play it well. And women are fully capable of fighting. Look up the WASP's in WW2 to see how capable they are.
It is tricky all of this. My father raised me with benevolent sexism as the norm. Don't hit women. Carry heavy things for women. Open doors for women. In the long term these things hurt us as a society. They teach us that there are things women can't or shouldn't do. That's bad for men and women.
The conversation between my friend and I ended rather sourly, with my friend standing by the fact that she feels more valued by the men of her church than outside her church. That's the trouble, I think it's easy to ignore benevolent sexism when you're benefiting so much in the short-term. She does feel valued, and that's good, I just wish that her church members would show it in ways that aren't ultimately harmful. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be nice to each other, and I don't think that I shouldn't open doors for women. I just think that people should be nice to everyone. We shouldn't teach our children 'don't hit women' we should teach them 'don't hit people'. We shouldn't teach anyone that they can't play sports, or that they can't fix their own car. People only have as many options as they believe they have, and we should encourage everyone to believe that anything is possible.
Here’s a KFC commercial that hits the nail on the head. I think she probably just needs nicer people in general in her life.
And some other stuff