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December 07, 2006

Inverted Sexism: once supposed gender differences were used to justify a preferential position for men - now supposed gender differences are increasingly used to call for a preferential position for women, argues Prof. Michael Bentley

Posted by Michael Bentley

Women have historically suffered appalling legal discrimination in the UK. This discrimination was often justified on the basis of the supposed different qualities of women and men, leading to a legally entrenched preferential position for men. These legal discriminations have now all been quite rightly swept away. But Michael Bentley - Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews - now finds that arguments about the different qualities of women and men are being made once again - this time to justify a preferential position for women. Prof. Bentley asks, are we now seeing the rise of an inverted sexism?

Historically, the position of women in society has often been one marked by subservience, exploitation and unfairness. One says "often" rather than "always" simply to acknowledge ways in which women in all communities have learned to exercise forms of indirect authority and sway which legal structures and manifest social norms tend to mask.

Victorian historians are used to the plaint that all nineteenth-century women found themselves encased in "separate spheres" distant from those inhabited by their menfolk and exposed to servile tasks that no man would ever undertake. We have a picture of Coventry Patmore's wretched angel (the most over-drawn and over-quoted woman in history). We have an image of desperate working conditions, marginal diet, endless cruelty, forced prostitution; and each of these things lies irrefutable in the record.

Yet many women skilfully operated a form of matriarchy, whether within the particular value-structure of a working class household - wage-packet on the table, spending money given back - or among the grand houses of the nation when aristocratic women constituted the voices ventriloquizing so many "great" men. Social power takes a variety of forms and not all of them are drawn from the statute book.

The book exists, all the same, and its contents hamstrung female existence in Britain for another century at some crucial points in social life: education, ordination, property, divorce.

The refusal of the universities to grant degrees to women, common to most universities, spectacular in Cambridge, formed a signal barrier to female advancement until the First World War. Property and divorce law had to wait another fifty years before balance began to appear in the treatment of women and especially married women. Ordination has been the cause celèbre of our own day and bitternesses still stain the correspondence pages of the press.

But now that these entirely legitimate grievances have had some redress, why do we hear so much insistence that women remain an exploited species whose burden it is to suffer? At one level the response is simply the obverse side of emancipation: no one wants to be partly emancipated and there are regiments of smart women with their finger on the partialities. But there is more to it than that. Relative deprivation is only part of a call that lays less stress on comparative mistreatment than on absolute virtue. Proclaiming that virtue to be gender-specific is the new sexism.

Just last week the press has introduced three forms of unique female virtue. First, one heard that women in the universities bring special care to their students, a pastoral role that is drawn from special female characteristics that leads to an expansion in the female workload and contributes to the dismay (and here the relativities bite) that women are under-promoted and under-appreciated in academic hierarchies. Second, the newspaper carried a report that most car accidents are caused by young men full of testosterone with an implication that there is something special about women drivers that makes them safer. Third, a recent report on the future of the Church of England led readers to understand that its women are the best, possibly only, hope of stopping it sinking because of the particular virtues of female priests who are, despite their superiority, "dumped" in backwoods parishes while the men take the "plum jobs".

Doubtless many accusations of this kind are true and fairness requires their airing. Some women have appalling (male) bosses; some female drivers are indeed superb; many female clerics suffer neglect. Yet we never hear the other side of such issues. Women in academic hierarchies might want to acknowledge - they rarely do - that every short-list has to have a woman on it no matter how hopeless the case or that senior administrators in virtually all walks of professional life are desperate to appoint qualified women to posts of major responsibility. An entire generation of women, now in the crucial 40-55 age range, stands on the edge of, or has already achieved, professional distinction. That is a good thing; but the reason it is good is that it is being achieved by removing obstacles to female advancement rather than by locating a specific form of genius in the female brain, despite pleas from perfectly respectable academics that we need to acknowledge a "female epistemology" that somehow surrounds the world with richer perception than men can manage.

Young men often drive their cars badly and arrogantly and cause accidents by so doing. So do young women who now drive far more powerful vehicles than used to be the case and every driver is aware of the vast, maternal 4x4 a yard from the rear bumper. The men reach the police statistics, to be sure, when they bump into one another or drive up a tree and those statistics suggest that women - taking all ages together - do it less often. But this datum becomes transformed by the new sexism into innuendi about the greater wisdom, considerateness and road sense of the older female driver.

Do we ever learn the identity of the 60-something woman in the felt hat with a thingy dangling from her otherwise redundant rear-view mirror whom the spermatically-challenged were swerving to avoid as she chugged down the central lane of the motorway at forty miles per hour? Bessie drives majestically on, deep in conversation with Doris, while wreckage accumulates in her wake. She will never have an accident because she drives "safely" and will keep her sex out of the statistics that are designed to reflect speed and its dangers. Her husband, Cyril, drives in just the same way, needless to say, which is the precise point. Bad drivers are bad drivers because they are bad drivers, not because they happen to be male or female.

In Church, meanwhile, the distinctive genius of women is despised and rejected. Quite the best response to any expectation that women should make a special difference to the Church of England was made by a (female) clerical friend who pointed out that men had made a hash of it for four hundred years and that none of them had any right to expect women suddenly to turn it round. Dead right: that perspective acknowledges a common frailty that crosses gender. But there is another and growing temper among those who have yielded to the Ontological Whinge which is concerned to say, rather, that the specialness of women - the spiritual gift that they uniquely possess - is being lost through male malevolence.

Complacencies and clichés - the substance of these paragraphs - are hard to resist but a more sophisticated way of putting the matter is to suggest that two propositions about the place of women in society have become conflated and need separating. The first says: No woman should suffer discrimination in any social, professional or legal environment on the grounds of her sex. That sentiment will be shared by most people out of Bedlam and presents the case properly as an argument against doing something unjust by treating equals unequally.

The second and now insidious voice says: Women are possessed of special characteristics, not shared with men that institutional and legal structures should recognize and accommodate. Here lies danger and it is not made smaller by the speaker's whisper. It has already penetrated the divorce courts. There are signs of its further advance in professional life. It infects spiritual discussion as much as material. It marks a journey away from a world in which gender-equality was the ambition and towards one in which an inverted sexism constructs the agenda. This could easily become the universe of recompensing extra workloads that accrue to virtue at the expense of males deemed not to have it, or to reduced car insurance for Bessie as well as higher premiums for testosterone, or bigger and better rectories for the clerically downtrodden, not because they are won in fair competition among equals but because a section of the supplicants claims a form of gift beyond those available to men.

Better still than avoiding these sad consequences might be a more general recognition - the real ground of complaint - that sex does not over-determine social outcomes, that gendered discourse, properly conceived, concerns men as much as women and that the games played by men and women in competitive contexts cannot avoid zero-sum consequences in which some people win through others losing. Women are winning more of those games than they are losing in today's climate and the time may have come to say so in order to counter the sexism of the politically-correct. An intelligent appreciation of female success involves paying attention to the language and assumptions in which it often becomes rationalized and reminding ourselves (women as much as men) that sex is an irrelevance more than a site of superiority.

Michael Bentley is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and the author of Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2001).


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