Warren Blumenfeld wonders how, in this day and age, we can still overtly discriminate against women for the libidinous drives of their male employers.
I thought I had heard of most of the attempted and manifest means of patriarchal control and domination over women’s bodies and minds, until news hit of a court ruling in my former home state of Iowa, handed down first last December, and then on appeal, reinstated July 12, 2013. The state’s Supreme Court, composed entirely of men, voted unanimously each time that dentist, James Knight, was acting within his legal rights to terminate Melissa Nelson, a ten-year member of his staff, to preserve his marriage. During the trials, Knight never charged Nelson with conducting herself improperly or unprofessionally in any way. He never charged that she flirted or acted in a sexually suggestive manner, though on occasion she exchanged some non-sexual personal text messages. Nelson stated that she regarded her 53-year old employer as a “father figure.”
Knight’s wife came across the texts, and, afterwards, the couple went to their pastor for advice, who approved of their decision to dismiss Nelson. The “justices” ruled in December and reiterated again that bosses can fire employees they view as an “irresistible attraction.” Such terminations fall within legal bounds according to the author of the decision, “Justice” Edward Mansfield, since they are motivated by feelings and emotions rather than on the basis of gender.
To paraphrase the Bard, discrimination by any other name would still stink. Fundamentally, the Iowa Supreme Court is placing responsibility on women for the libidinous drives of their male employers. This blatantly falls under the category of “blaming the victim,” just as accusing a woman for a man raping her because she was dressed attractively.
“Sexism” I define as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against females and intersex people, and is founded on a patriarchal structure of male dominance promoted through individual/interpersonal, institutional, and social/cultural systems.
Throughout history, examples abound of male domination over the rights and lives of women. Men have denied women the vote and their reproductive freedoms until women fought back and demanded the rights of political enfranchisement and legal access to contraception and abortion; strictly enforced gender-based social roles mandated without choice that women’s only option was to remain in the home to undertake cleaning and childcare duties; women were and continue by far to be the primary targets of harassment, abuse, physical assault, and rape by men; women were locked out of most professions; rules required that women teachers relinquish their jobs after marriage; in fact, the institution of marriage itself was structured on a foundation of male dominance with men serving as the so-called “head of the household” and taking on sole ownership of all property thereby withholding these rights from women. In other words, women have been constructed as second-class and even third-class citizens, as targets, but through it all, women as a group have challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal constraints.
I often hear men and even some women claim that sexism is a thing of the past, that women have achieved the equality that was once denied them, that we live in a system of meritocracy where one’s success in life is based solely on merit, work ethic, motivation, and abilities, rather than on our social identities or the stations of life to which we are born.
Though females stand as the numerical majority in the United States and many countries throughout the world, we must not confuse majority in terms of numbers with dominance in terms of social power. For example, though black Africans numbered as the vast majority under the corrupt apartheid system in South Africa, white South Africans held the social power to invoke and maintain, for many years, their oppressive control.
While women’s annual salaries have grown over the past decades, and while many studies indicate that women have fared somewhat better during the current economic recession, reports indicate that women continue to make substantially less than their male counterparts when performing similar jobs. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor found that women overall make approximately 77 cents compared to $1.00 by white men. Looking at women of color, the findings are even lower: Asian American women, 74 cents; African American women, 67 cents; and Latinas, 56 cents.
Though many women and men are fully aware of the continuing existence of sexism, male privilege and domination, and they are working tirelessly for its eradication, many others, however, fail to perceive its harmful effects on themselves and others. This apparent invisibility of sexism and male privilege, in fact, not only fortifies but, indeed, strengthens this form of oppression and privilege by perpetuating patriarchal hegemony in such a way as to avoid detection.
In other words, male dominance is maintained by its relative invisibility, and with this invisibility, privilege is neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted by many. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” and when anyone poses a challenge or attempts to reveal its true impact and significance, those in the dominant group brand them as “subversive” or even “accuse” them of being “overly critical.” Possibly those who make these accusations are not themselves sufficiently aware or critical.
I have heard some people refer to our current times as a “post-Feminist” era, where sexism and male privilege no longer impose major social barriers. They are referring to “Feminism,” which can be defined as the cultural, political, economic, and civil rights movement for the advancement of equality and equity for between the sexes.
For me this brings to mind a clever and I believe insightful bumper sticker produced by the National Association for Women: “I’ll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Patriarchy.” Unfortunately, as we can clearly see in the Iowa decision, but also in very subtle but devastating ways, the patriarchy is still alive and fully functioning.
Photo: Jake Rajewsky / AP