Monday, March 9, 2009

Subtle Sexism

So last week, I was invited to the Indiana Commission on Women's Torchbearer Awards. This annual event is where women from across the state who have made an impact on their communities are honored for their service. I was invited by Girls Inc.'s President and CEO, since she was an award winner, and I just happened to be the person who nominated her.

I had two major take home thoughts about the event.

1) I really want to win this award someday. All of the women's stories were so inspirational. If I could win this award someday waaaay in the future, it would mean that I had dedicated my life to a purpose, and that my work would be validated.
2) Sexism is alive and well.

Now, that second conclusion might be surprising, seeing as how I was attending an event that was so female friendly and empowering. And that's just the thing...even at this event to honor trailblazing women, the sexism was there, alive and well, in at least two places. First, one of the commission's presenters said some inspirational phrase...something to the extent of "When man's dreams are achieved..." Next, all the women were escorted to the stage by two Indiana Guardsmen.

If you're a feminist, you probably see what I'm getting at. If you're not, you're probably wondering, "What's the big deal?" And that's just the thing, these two little things aren't "big deals" in and of themselves, but it's all the "little deals" adding up that allow sexism to continue to thrive.

"Big deal" examples of sexism and misogyny are job and pay discrimination, forced homemaking, rape, domestic violence, and other oppressions. Because these topics aren't as bad as they used to be, many people claim that feminism is over and no longer needed.* However, sexism IS alive in the "little things" which is exactly why feminism is still relevant. Let me explain.

Walking a woman to the podium is, in and of itself, not a "big deal." But the messages underlying it are: Women are weak and need help, women are something to be protected, women are something to be treated specially, women are somehow different from men when it comes to walking to the stage. Saying "man" as a way to address everyone is, in and of itself, not a "big deal." But the messages behind this sexist language are: Men are the measure of personhood, women aren't full people, the only important people are men. And like it or not, while language might not seem that important, it is. Language shapes your reality!

I've been fighting another form of subtle sexism in my personal life lately. Since the marriage, and even before, I have been continuously forced to explain and justify why I haven't taken Ronald's name. Now, this is something I knew I would have to do, and I understand I will continue to have to explain and justify into the future. On its face, a name change is no "big deal." But for the record, here's the real deal: The idea of changing your name comes from the times when women were not considered people, but rather property. The change of name signified a woman's transfer from the ownership of one man (her father) to the ownership of another (her husband.) Does that seem like no "big deal?" Sure, it doesn't mean that anymore, but let's be real about our past! Why should I brand myself? My name is my identity. (Plus it takes more work to change your name that to not.)

These "little things" are all around us, and it is exactly because they are little, that they continue to exist. People should be and are outraged by blatant misogyny, but the subtle sexism around us is shrugged of as nothing to worry about. After all, isn't it more important to fight the big battles over the little ones?

At the end of the day, the answer is yes: It is more important to fight the big battles. But when we continue to allow subtle sexism to exist, we are continuing to implicitly affirm the bigger stereotypes that exist behind them.

Just some food for thought.

*My words here are in no way to claim that any of these evils do not still exist in our society. They are still around...But my intention is to point out some gender issues that a majority of people are vastly against and which have been somewhat improved over time.

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