News & Politics

University Warns Professors Against 'Benevolent Sexism'

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Chivalry is dead, or at least it should be, on the campus of Western Washington University (WWU). A resource guide for professors at WWU warns professors against two supposedly equal and opposite forms of sexism: “hostile sexism” and “benevolent sexism,” which is essentially another word for men being nice to women.

The WWU Teaching Handbook, created by an ad hoc committee formed in 2011, forms “an online introduction to resources for teaching both at the University and via the online collective of materials related to best practices.” Professors who click on “Student Considerations,” then “Inclusive Teaching Toolkit,” and the “Teach” section will discover under “Gender and Sexuality” an “Ambivalent Sexism Inventory.”

If you answer 22 questions, the website will give you an evaluation for “Hostile sexism” and “Benevolent sexism.” When most Americans hear “sexism,” they think “hostile sexism” — which the site describes as “negative feelings toward women.”

What is “benevolent sexism,” then? The site describes it as “a knight-in-shining armor ideology that offers protection and affection to women who conform to traditional gender roles (e.g., cute girlfriend, obedient wife, etc.).”

Essentially, it’s teaching boys to hold the door open, pick up something when a woman drops it, or just be especially courteous to members of the opposite sex. Why is this so bad? Because — the site suggests — chivalry is really only for demure women, an offensive suggestion that would earn any mouthy young boy a box over the ears from his mother.

The evaluation asks questions to enable WWU professors to “check their sexism,” or something like that. Users are given a sliding scale — six options between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree” with specific statements. Here are a few examples:

In a disaster, women ought not necessarily to be rescued before men.

Women should be cherished and protected by men.

A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.

“Benevolent sexism” would lead a professor to strongly disagree with the first statement and strongly agree with the other two. What’s so wrong with that? EVERYTHING.

“Benevolent sexism can turn ugly when women venture beyond traditional gender roles,” the site explains. “For instance, one study found that benevolent sexists were more likely than others to blame a female victim for being raped after she invited a man into her apartment (presumably because the victim’s behavior violated norms of female chastity).”

Notice the broad brush being used here. The positive side of traditional sexual morality is described as “benevolent sexism,” and associated with victim-blaming. This offhand comment also utterly rejects the possibility that a woman inviting a man up to her apartment (presumably alone) might be interpreted sexually, whether it violates “norms of female chastity” or not.

The evaluation also leaves a great deal to be desired. It asks 22 questions, not all of which have anything to actually do with sexism. Sample questions include, “People are often truly happy in life without being romantically involved with a member of the other sex,” and “Men are complete without women.”

Other questions probe a user’s opinion of feminists, as though support or opposition to a vague political movement reveals inner bias.

This kind of “evaluation” reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ discussion of “conditioning” in The Abolition of Man. The university and its third-party partners aim to fashion people’s consciences in an anti-chivalry direction. As Lewis wrote, “Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning.”

Therefore, there can be no discussion of whether or not chivalry was helpful when women were more vulnerable to stronger men than they are now, or whether it might be a good idea to continue teaching men to treat women well. No, any suggestion of social norms that has anything to do with gender must be emphatically excluded at the outset.

To be fair, the inventory for “benevolent sexism” and “hostile sexism” is not on the WWU website. It appears on an old-fashioned website called “Understanding Prejudice.” Even so, WWU promotes this inventory as a tool for professors to guard against their inner “knight-in-shining armor.”