The Sexism Spectrum

The Sexism Spectrum

By Toni Mester
Why do women have to be groped or raped before male dominance is recognized as systematic oppression? Because sexism spans a wide spectrum of behaviors, many of which are commonly tolerated as human nature or accepted cultural norms. As a result, many men don’t recognize or understand their own aggression, rationalize and defend misconduct, and let other men get away with it. Too often women are shamed into accepting or excusing aggressions, micro or worse. Think Melania Trump and “locker room talk”.

Rather than separate male aggression into discreet categories that fit the criminal code, perhaps we should think of sexism as a mental disorder that spans a spectrum, ranging from rudeness to murder, which sprouts from a common root: disrespect for women and inability to treat us as equals.

The Me Too Moment

On October 5, The New York Times published an article on allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein that started an avalanche of accusations. Men of all stripes have fallen like dominoes: Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Israel Horowitz, John Conyers, Hamilton Fish, Mark Halperin, and the beat goes on. Women and male victims are speaking out, sometimes about hurts from long ago. I’ve even begun to tell people that I’m a rape survivor, breaking decades of silence; the moment seems to have given me permission to do so.

Sexual harassment and assault accusations are a minefield for men, potentially ruining reputations and careers. Many such allegations cannot be proven, since the offense often occurs in a private setting. But when women come forward in numbers with similar stories, they create credibility. Everybody knows this stuff happens. The victims are not only getting even but getting rid of oppressors in positions of power and shedding self-blame, a burden that can also ruin a life.

Now that the floodgates have opened, The Great Misogynist in the Oval House has entered the crosshairs; his victims recounting unwanted advances from long ago, making America grope again. It’s a sweet moment to savor, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that airing old grudges is going to save us from nuclear war with North Korea, climate change, homelessness, loss of medical care, racist violence, threat of deportation, and myriad other cruelties aggravated by this administration. However, allegations of past sexual misconduct just helped to get Democrat Doug Jones elected Senator in Alabama. Attention must be paid.

Most women who experience sexism on an almost daily basis will never formally accuse a man of assault in a court of law or public opinion and will put up with a whole bunch of bull just because it’s not worth the time and effort to try to raise consciousness among the obtuse. When I encounter sexism in my old age, I’m inclined to just to walk away, but this historical moment has rekindled feminism among veterans of the 1970’s women’s movement.

The Arc of Female Life

Women’s oppression starts in the family where girls are treated as second-class, their talents thwarted and their choices limited. Even in the best of families, girls learn lowered expectations. When I graduated from high school in 1965, acceptable careers for girls were secretary, nurse, or teacher in that order of status and intellectual challenge. Few of us imagined ourselves as doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, architects, business people, or politicians. It took the “second wave” of feminism to unlock the professions, where gender equality is still an upward battle. Most of us didn’t even know that there had been a first wave other than reading Susan B. Anthony’s name in a history book.

In the worst of families, girls have been sexually abused at a horrific rate that continues unabated today. While exact statistics are hard to determine because this crime often goes unreported, it is estimated that 20 to 33% of girls are molested. The long-term effects of child and adolescent sexual abuse include higher levels of depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and social problems. According to the Center for Disease Control, boys also suffer sexual abuse before the age of 18, about 1 in 6, but for girls, the frequency is higher.

Talented young ladies who are fortunate to emerge unscathed or sufficiently recovered from adolescence to enter the academic community need to continually watch their backs on campus. Nationwide, a recent comprehensive study sponsored by the Association of American Universities found that more than 20% of over 150,000 female undergraduates surveyed had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Living in a university town, we are all too aware of misconduct at UC, which has seen more than its share of scandal, the administration settling major sexual harassment suits against professors and undergraduate women filing reports of rape at fraternity parties. Cal police reported 16 rapes in 2016, up from 9 the year before.

With higher education on their resumes and hopefully their self-esteem intact, female job seekers enter the workforce looking for opportunities to prove themselves and earn enough to afford the ever-increasing cost of living. From 1975 to 2000, the number of workingwomen rose dramatically but has leveled off to about 57%, even while public acceptance for women working outside the home has grown, according to Gallup. Wage equity has increased slightly with women now earning 83¢ to the male dollar.

A UC San Diego study on the persistence of male dominance in the professions found that women are underrepresented in law, medicine, science and technology. “They are rarest in the most powerful sectors and at the highest level. Women make up only 21% of scientists and engineers employed in business and industry. In science-related university departments, women hold 36% of adjunct and temporary faculty positions, but only 28% of tenure-track and 16% of full professor positions. In the medical profession, women are only 34% of physicians, while they are 91% of registered nurses. In law firms, although women make up 45% of associates, they are only 15% of equity partners.”

Almost every professional niche has a tale to tell of gender oppression. Women in the military (15% of active duty forces) and veterans face some of the toughest hurdles, including higher rates of PTSD, unemployment, and homelessness. MSN surveyed the twenty jobs with the biggest gender wage gap; sales and financial services topped the list. But these are not the worst paying jobs that include food preparation, restaurant work, retail cashiers, ticket takers, farm workers, personal home aids, and other exhausting and badly paid labor. Over 23 million Americans work at such jobs, and two-thirds are women, earning 15% less than men, and the gap is even larger for women of color according to the Women’s Law Center.

There’s a statistical upside. Women are far less apt to become homicide victims, and we live longer, probably due to genetics. Old age is not for sissies because longevity is likely to be impoverished or “economically insecure” says The National Council on Aging. Elderly women live on smaller social security payments because of their lower lifetime earnings. One in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to the AARP, and the numbers will increase as the baby boomers age.

From Insult to Injury

That’s gender inequality as seen over the life span, but there’s also a spectrum of intensity in the enforcement, the weapons by which male dominance is exercised in the daily life of women, the up close and personal methods of squelching the ambition of girls, the power of women in the prime of life, the options of mothers, and the spirit of little old ladies.

We need psychologists to explain sexism; maybe the need to dominate is correlated to an infantile syndrome characterized by lack of impulse control. It’s a mystery. Men are competitive by nature and nurture, learning all kinds of obnoxious behaviors from A to Z. It’s our fate to push back. There’s a library of books on every facet of male dominance from linguistics to war; every woman faces different challenges when confronting insensitivity, injustice, abuse, and brutality in private and public spheres. A female architect of my acquaintance once told me that it was her duty to make sure there were enough accessible toilets for women in public buildings. Every woman’s struggle is different but connected. The personal is still political.

The second wave of feminism saved my life, and I will always be grateful to the collective of Plexus: Bay Area Women’s Newspaper for the sisterhood, support and encouragement that helped me forty years ago. The women’s movement of the 1970’s challenged the basic dynamics of American society; today we must join with other political struggles to save Mother Earth from the powers of hatred, greed, and ignorance. Science applied for the good of humanity is the greatest liberation movement of all: the triumph of knowledge over stupidity.

The persistence and extent of women’s oppression can be depressing, especially given the current climate. But we would be fools to give up. It’s always darkest before the dawn. My neighbor Alicia just knit me a pink pussycat hat in honor of that great march, almost a year ago, when women and male allies took to the streets of D.C. after Trump’s victory. Everywhere women are staying strong. Don’t let the jerks get you down. Light a candle for the unfinished business of women’s liberation, and happy holidays.

Toni Mester is a resident of Berkeley.  She writes the “Squeaky Wheel” column for the Berkeley Daily Planet, where this piece appeared on December 16.  Reposted here by permission of the author.  

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