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Enlightened Sexism

By IAN BETHEL-BENNETT

According to men, women, especially if they are in positions of power (relatively speaking of course) are insane or not quite feminine. They run the risk of being dismissed or marginalised by their male colleagues of they behave too masculine as well as if they behave too much in a feminine manner. How do women leave that position? How can they escape the enclosure of the master’s house, as Lorde argues, when no matter what they do or how they act they are subject to a different set of unpublished rules. She states that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and this has certainly proven so today, although there is no longer racism or sexism that we can talk about. We discuss the equality of women and that we do not discriminate against them, yet every time we open the papers we see yet another case of gender inequality. We must somehow begin to talk about the undergirding enlightened sexism that comfortably exists in the nation.

Many men argue that women are emotional and/or insane and need to look for psychiatric help. Women have always been plagued by such ‘disorders’ from the late 19th century when they claimed that women were hysterical and needed to be institutionalised because they had hormone-induced problems, medically explained, or because they became unwell after child birth, or simply because they behaved in an unfeminine manner. Unfeminine behaviour could range from being too competitive to thinking too much. What is ironic in all of this is that this way of thinking should be so prominent in the 21st century and should play itself out in such an official way. In the events in Parliament recently, one MP slapped another because of what the latter considered unacceptable behaviour displayed towards her. According to her, ‘. . . he put his arm around me, pretending to be embracing me but actually saying some horrific things in my ear. When he did not remove his arm while saying those things, I slapped him’.

A man putting an arm around a woman when it is unwanted is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence as it speaks to the obvious inequality that would allow a man to touch a woman without her consent or desire. Sure, this kind of reasoning can be taken too far, but in this context it is not. We have blatantly disregarded women’s space in public domain and claimed that if they do not want to be asked at or complimented in a sexual manner, they must have an issue. They must be lesbians or they must be, and here it goes again, insane, crazy—in local parlance. So, any woman who does not want the attentions of a man is seen as crazy. This is once again a paternalist understanding of the power of men over women as well as a misogynistic way of understanding gender relations. Further, it allows men to dismiss women and relegate them to the margins of society.

This kind of insanity is seen in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as well as Virginia Woolf’s work, to name but two well-known authors. Have we not moved beyond the 19th century and early twentieth century understanding of a woman as hysterical and insane if she defends herself against unwanted male attention? The MP for Fort Charlotte has knowingly or unwittingly walked back at least 100 years to Freud’s understanding of women as hysterical beings, in my view. In a calamity of partisan politics, no one has spoken out against his statements or actions. To be sure, he has also used the ‘I am not a misogynist’ line to justify or lessen his actions. Words are as powerful as actions, even if we consider them to be less so. By arguing that he is not like the rest of the country that has a problem with gender-based violence, he has drawn attention to the problem and also to the realm of women being perceived as less than men. The MP argues: ‘[p]erhaps she feels in a male dominated arena she has to compensate for what society perceives as her weakness as a woman. I don’t think she has to do as much as she does. I think it’s overcompensation on her part’.

What is her weakness as a woman? Perhaps the MP can explain this. Yes, patriarchal, paternalistic society does view women as being less than men. Ironically, that same system views blacks as being less than whites. Shall we endeavour to work into or against that paradigm too? What is her overcompensation? That she or any woman must work twice as hard as a man to be taken seriously by men? Or that she as a non-white woman must work trebly hard to be taken somewhat seriously in a world dominated by people who do not look like her? Are we then to consider where the rest of us fit?

It is tragic that the MP has taken such a position without thinking about the class, gender and racial/ethnic consequences of his statements. Yes, it is about gender inequality, but this discussion needs to go deeper than simply the gender of the debate. It must begin to grapple with what allows this kind of behaviour to be practiced unabashedly in this country. This, however, is too large for this space, but must be flagged anyway. At the end of the day, gender inequality leads to gender-based violence. It is the same thing when, as has happened too often in the Great House, that men demean their political rivals by referring to them as ‘sissies.’ That is yet another gender slur. The ability to say or do anything because it is gender shows an absolute disregard for and disrespect of someone else’s humanity. It also demonstrates a level of arrogance that would allow such behaviour to occur unchecked or without self-editing. Apparently all respect has been lost. There is no longer a moral code that governs government and the procedures of Parliament.

When the MP says that ‘[s]ome people have been speculating, wondering if I made any comments about her size or things of that nature. . . . I made no insulting remarks about the member for Long Island’. Does he mean to imply that touching a woman without her consent is not insulting? Does he not understand that by doing so he as disrespected her and demonstrated sexist behaviour? He backs up his position by saying:

‘What I did say is that she needs help. I said that, in my view, she needs to seek the help of a psychiatrist. . . . I meant that not in a way to demean her, but to encourage her. She responded very forcefully by slapping me. But I at all times maintained my composure. . . . I can’t say that I was surprised because I have come to understand the member for Long Island and her makeup’.

Ultimately, the MP has decided that the member for Long Island needs help and he has come to the conclusion that it is psychiatric help that would benefit her. She is insane. Again, the discourse of feminine insanity when faced with a ‘man’s arena’ is age-old. He has simply taken the paternalist approach to dealing with the ‘obvious irrational’ behaviour of the member for Long Island. By doing this, he has re-inscribed all the old sexist paradigms without ever needing to overtly validate them. This is not an attack on any person, but an analysis of the enlightened sexism that thrives in the country. Apparently, telling someone that they are crazy does not amount to demeaning them.


In sum, Parliament or the business of government is for men and women who enter that realm must perform to a certain calibre. What is that calibre and who determines it? The MP for Fort Charlotte states as if in closing:

‘It would be untruthful for me to say that we have a good relationship, but I would never do anything to say that as a young man, in a society where one of our major problems is violence against women, I’m guilty of perpetuating the problem.’

Sadly, he has done just that. He has demonstrated enlightened sexism that allows women to participate in the public realm in a limited fashion, understanding and accepting their difference, (their weakness). Should they go beyond that place, they will be reminded of their shortcomings. They will be seen as not demeaned but simply hysterical. Gender-based violence is a slippery slope and we have slid so far down that we can hardly see the top. What have his actions demonstrated to the rest of those young men in the country?




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