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Why Do So Many Women Oppose Feminism? A Psychologist Explains

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By  for The Conversation:

Just when you thought sexism was a thing of the past, revelations about Donald Trump bragging about groping women hit the news. Yet only 13% of female Republicans think he should stop campaigning for the presidency. While women generally favour his Democratic rival Hilary Clinton, 49% of them rate her unfavourably. Despite her life-long commitment to public service, she is often criticised as a bad mother. UK prime minister Theresa May, too, is often seen as cold and unrelatable while Margaret Thatcher was referred to as the “Iron Lady” – competent but cold.

Feminists are often seen in a similar way. Think back to Meryl Streep’s interview about her experience of the gender pay gap in the movie industry. When asked if she was a feminist she did not use the F-word and stressed her love for men – as if pre-empting an attack. But why should there be such unease and reluctance surrounding feminism, which after all just strives for equality of the sexes? It may all be in the nature of sexism.

Contemporary sexism is mainly ambivalent in nature. We often hold both positive (benevolent) and negative (hostile) attitudes to women (and men). Hostile sexism involves old-fashioned and overt negativity towards women, whereby they are perceived as wanting to control men. It reflects beliefs that men should have more power than women, that women may use their sexuality to benefit from men’s higher status and that women are less competent than men.

Benevolent sexism on the other hand is more subtle. It is positive in valence but still undermines and patronises women. It views them stereotypically and restricts their social roles. It includes beliefs that good women are nurturing and that men should protect them, implying that they are weaker. This form of sexism often goes unnoticed and yet has negative consequences for women – making them less interested in activism, under-appreciating their own competencies and even lowering their performance.

The Power Of Status Quo

It may come as a surprise but individuals who score high on benevolence to women in psychological tests are likely to be high on hostility as well. People can often have such seemingly conflicting attitudes without even realising it. This is because people divide women into “good ones” (those who deserve “positive” attitudes) and “bad ones” (those who deserve punishment). It is sometimes referred to as the Madonna vs whore divide. Crucially, both forms of sexism serve to maintain status quo.

Hostile sexism punishes behaviours that are seen as inappropriate for women. Examples include the story of Malala Yousafzai which shook the world in 2013 – she was shot for going to school. Closer to home, Caroline Criado-Perez received rape threats on Twitter after her campaign to have a woman depicted on the next £10 note.

However, open hostility per se often leads to rebellion, which makes it unsuccessful in maintaining the status quo. Thus, this “iron fist” needs a “velvet glove”. And this glove is exactly what benevolent sexism is – it rewards compliance with the system. Women who follow traditional gender roles are put on a social pedestal and are protected. Think about food TV presenters Mary Berry or Nigella Lawson (before the alleged drug scandal) – the exemplar domestic goddesses. Women’s gender stereotypical behaviours are thus reinforced.

Indeed studies have shown this again and again. I’ve shown it to be the case in advertising. Others have found it operates in occupational, educational, judicial, economic and social – including romantic – spheres. By stepping into traditionally “male domains”, women gain in competence but often lose in likeability. This may also be a reason why women often are reluctant to confront instances of sexism openly.

Is it really that surprising then that even some women oppose feminism? Combined, the two sexist ideologies condition and socialise women (and men) to maintain the status quo. It is simply safer to be in line. After all, we all want to be liked.

As a result, women often internalise the stereotypical expectations. They may genuinely hold more conservative views and believe that women are better suited to certain roles. For example, they may enjoy being in charge of the household and children, and feel that feminists are trying to take that power away by demanding that men share responsibility in this arena. Others may not agree with more extreme interpretations of feminism.

Indeed, the belief that women are better than men in the domestic sphere – and that men would fall apart without their help and support at home – can be used by women to justify their opposition to feminism. Other justifying mechanisms include believing that a softer, less confrontational approach to achieving gender equality is more likely to be effective in securing men’s support.

Moving Towards Greater Tolerance

So what can we do about it? Well, just being open about what is going on is a start. Identifying the hidden structures that are meant to keep us all in check could help both women and men question the system. And here’s a great incentive to do it. Research has shown that greater egalitarianism is actually beneficial for both men and women across the board. Not only does it boost organisational performance and the national economy, but couples who share housework actually report having more sex and being happier with their romantic relationship. So why not strive for it?

It certainly can be achieved – but we need attainable female role models, support from men and informational campaigns supported by experiential learning to do it.

My own research suggests that democratisation, with its focus on fostering understanding and tolerance, may help. My latest research also shows that nonverbal behaviour, such as holding “power poses” – physical gestures that communicate power – may help women by increasing their interest in non-traditional domains such as statistics, maths or technology.

Perhaps fittingly, tolerance is the topic of my next open public talk. Together with mutual respect, tolerance could create a safe environment for all to thrive in. One where the F-word could be used safely. Or maybe one where it would not need to be used at all.

Originally published on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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