Here’s a riddle for you. When is a sexist remark not sexist? No, seriously. Under what conditions can you make a sexist statement and be fairly sure that you will not be attacked by ‘political correctness’ police?
Not sure? Let me give you some clues. Do you think the following quote is sexist?
‘Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon, keep house and bed and raise children.’
It has probably been more than 100 years since you could have made a statement like that without risk of being haunted by public humiliation. Martin Luther, priest and professor of theology made this statement about 500 years ago.
Fast forward now to a statement made by a counsellor to me some years back
The father’s role is very important. Your role is to work to provide financial resources to support your child and your family.
Is this statement sexist?
It sure is.
The counsellor’s statement prescribes the role for one of the sexes just like Luther’s. The latter statement limits the role of the man to that of a breadwinner, just as Luther’s statement limits the role of woman to that of a mother and homemaker.
Curiously, the second statement does not seem somehow to be as sexist as the first. Why is that? What is the difference? Is it because it is less wordy? Is it because it is less image-laden? Why would this matter?
Not that the context should matter unduly either, it is perhaps interesting to note that the counsellor was a family counsellor appointed to the task of helping me and my ex negotiate contact for our son post-separation. The counsellor was a no-nonsense, thoroughly modern, professional woman. I had no illusions about her views on the rights of women. Women had the right to work as she did, or they could raise children (as she had done), or they could do both.
However, the range of rights available to women were not apparently extended to men. A father’s role in her view, was to provide material resources. He had no rights about what life he would like to choose for himself.
To some extent this implies that she considered the woman’s role was to care for children. In fact, she had previously stated that she considered that a woman should be the primary caregiver too. So she actually had quite a conservative view of parental roles. Nonetheless, she saw no conflict with women’s rights.
Perhaps it is not so bad for one sex to comment on their views of the roles of their own sex. The counsellor had made it very clear that her view was that the mother should be the primary carer post-separation. Leaving aside the presumed neutrality of a counsellor, it is still sexist to make such a statement. The declaration from the same sex may be less offensive, but it is no less judgmental.
In fairness, I do believe that specialisation is an efficient way for families to operate. Like any organisation or group of people, it is often more efficient if people share tasks. Even if there are only two tasks and one person is good at both tasks, the law of comparative advantage (go back to Ricardo’s contribution to economics) says that both parties will benefit if each specialises in the task where they have a relative advantage.
It is nowhere specified in which tasks each sex should specialise – other than in sexist statements.
In fact, it is not even necessary for each parent to specialise if they do not want to. Specialising in tasks may be efficient, but it can also be boring. Some people are generalists. They would prefer to do a little bit of multiple tasks even if less efficient.
So the counsellor may have been simply encouraging specialisation, albeit within a sexist framework. To be clear, she was not opposed to men but she was definitely very pro-choice for women. By pro-choice, I mean that a woman has rights to choose what she wants. These rights did not apply to men.
I like to imagine the roles reversed. I am the counsellor. I’m sitting in her seat counselling her and a man who are going through a separation with children involved. She wants to step away from having to care for the child and wants the father to care more for the child.
“You know, your role in the family is essential. You provide the place for the baby to gestate, you breastfeed and you care for the child. You are obliged to provide nurturing care and support for the children.”
Echoes of the sexist father of the Lutheran church!
I was tempted to point out this double-standard to the counsellor during the session. Recognizing that my situation was already tenuous and she and I were not getting along terribly well, I merely screamed in silence. While it may have seemed that I lacked balls in that situation, I think by saying nothing, I saved them from being cut off and hung on her wall as a trophy. Which bespeaks loudly of the triumph of feminism.
Strange however that I felt unable to appeal to the principle of equal rights. It is like equal rights are only available to women.
To return to the riddle : ‘When is a sexist remark not sexist?’ The key determinant seems to be the object of the statement. If the object is female, anyone making that statement is likely to be labelled sexist. If the object is male, it is more permissible to make remarks that limit his role, that prescribe what he should do, that tell him how to behave.
There are equal rights for women, and obligations for men. Women have a right to be a parent engaged in the raising of their children. Men have to fight for this as many feel that this is not his right. If there has been a separation – and no matter whose fault it might be, men are not esteemed for their parental role. On the other hand, they are seen to have a serious and important obligation to work to contribute to the welfare of the children.When is a sexist statement not sexist? It depends on the context. If the object of the normative statement is male, then it’s not sexist.