How To Respond To Benevolent Sexism From Your Family

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Do conversations about dads being particularly overprotective of daughters seem off to you? Do assumptions about what women are “better at” when it comes to housework feel like backhanded compliments? These kinds of comments are essentially sexism shrouded in chivalry, better known as benevolent sexism. Figuring out how to respond to benevolent sexism from your family starts by understanding what it is in the first place.

Benevolent sexism is harder to pin down than blatant, hostile sexism. Rather that an outright sexist statement, it’s meant to sound nice and friendly. It’s "supposed" to be a compliment. However, it’s often a sexist ideology wrapped into something that only sounds sweet. Benevolent sexism is heard in comments like, “Women are just naturally more nurturing” and seen in actions like men only holding the door open for women. Superficially, it seem nice; who doesn’t like compliment or a favor? However, benevolent sexism is often about the “why”: Why are we more quick to assume a man is good at working with his hands? Why do we think daughters need protecting more than sons?

We learn how to interact with the world through interactions with our own family. When parents exclusively tell their sons they are strong and their daughters they are kind, what are we actually implying? Here are seven ways benevolent sexism can seep into family conversations and what to do about it.

1When family members determine “appropriate talk” based on the genders of people in the room...

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Ask what deems certain subject matter “not polite” to discuss in front of the women in your family. This sort of sexisim disguised as chivarly can be heard in conversations about who can/can’t “handle” hearing curse words, with the assumption primarily being that women don’t (or shouldn’t) swear. However, it can also be heard in reference to broader subject matter (i.e. “Oh, I don’t want to bore you with sports talk,” directed at women).

Saying, “Don’t talk about that in front of [insert family member’s name here]” based primarily on the notion that certain genders don’t talk about certain things or in certain manners is rooted in sexist ideas. If you don’t swear in front of your grandma because your grandma has said “don’t swear in front me,” that’s an entirely different thing, because you’re basing it on her individual preference. In that case, don’t swear in front of Grandma.

2When family members make assumptions about dividing household work...

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Ask why it’s assumed that a woman would do the dishes and a man would do yard work. There is certainly nothing wrong with dividing and conquering household tasks, so long as those divisions aren’t happening on the basis of gender. If the women in your family end up doing laundry because they’re presumed to be “just better at it,” that’s an example of condescension masked as a compliment. Also, it is a fact that no one of any gender is good at folding fitted sheets.

3When family members display gendered overprotectiveness…

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Ask why they think women need to be protected by men. Being protective is part of being a parent; it’s kind of their whole thing. However, fatherly protectiveness over daughters (or brotherly protectiveness over sisters) gets into dicey territory. When people assume women need to be protected, there is the underlying idea that women can’t protect themselves or that men can protect them “better.” Additionally, it perpetuates the idea protectiveness is more important prevention. For example, families that warn daughters about sexual assault and don’t talk to their sons about consent are putting onus on women to “not get assaulted” instead of telling people to not commit assault.

4When only female family members receive comments on how they look...

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See what happens when you say the same to a male family member. Who doesn’t love hearing a genuine, “You look great”? These kinds of “compliments” can however become a bigger problem when female family members are only complimented on their appearance. Women’s appearance is constantly being discussed, both through compliments and criticism. Only receiving compliments on looks in turn ignores the multitude of other facets about a person.

5When there are conversations protecting daughters’ “purity”...

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Ask why women’s sexuality is any more “sacred” than men’s. From shirts about “dads against daughters dating” to father-daughter “purity balls,” girls are told their sexuality is something to be protected in a way that boys’ does need to be. The trope of the overprotective father is laden with messages about men controlling women and their bodies and that a daughter’s worth is limited to perceptions about her “sexual purity.” If this all seems creepy and gross, it should. Women’s virginity does not have to be “protected” any more than men’s.

6When questions about having kids and work/life balance feel one-sided...

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Ask a dad in the room how he manages to balance family and career. Conversations about have kids are laden with double standards on parenting. Women are asked when they’ll have kids where men are asked if. If you’ve got aunts reminding you about your “biological clock,” remind them that men also have a biological clock. It probably won’t stop the questioning, but at least male family members will also have to bear that familial burden.

7When general expectations of the men and women in your family are different...

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See what happens when you ask your dad to do something your mom would typically be asked do and vice versa. If you feel like your parents make assumptions about you and your spouse based on your respective genders, call them out on it. Sexist ideas about gender roles are deeply rooted in our culture. Disguising them as chivalry or a compliment does nothing but continue to perpetuate them. Making major mentality shifts is difficult, but can start with something as small as a, “Have you thought about it like this?”