Why Don't We Care About Misogyny?
Progressives still accept discrimination against women. Why?
1In the New York Times yesterday, Linda Greenhouse published an important essay wondering why corporate America is so unwilling to protest anti-abortion laws, even as those same companies threaten to pull their business from states that push anti-gay, anti-trans, and racist legislation. Bills that would have allowed discrimination against same-sex couples and transgender people were met with swift condemnation from the NCAA, the NBA, and others; a Georgia bill to curtail voting rights led Major League Baseball to move its all-star game from Atlanta to Colorado, and Will Smith to cancel a movie shoot in the state.
All of this is good. But as Greenhouse notes, corporate objections to discrimination don’t seem to extend to women’s rights. When it comes to abortion, she writes, “It’s possible I’ve missed something, but I’ve been listening hard, and so far all I’ve heard is the sound of silence.”
Her whole piece is worth a read. And what strikes me is that the acceptance of discrimination against women (and government intrusion into the most intimate aspects of women’s lives) isn’t just something corporate America accepts; it’s something corporate America itself does. And the acceptance of misogyny isn’t limited to cynical corporations not wanting to get involved in the abortion wars. It extends into nearly all reaches of life, including progressive politics and choices made by ostensibly progressive people.
The big, obvious examples are mostly religious. Catholic colleges and universities, for example, often limit speech on women’s rights; their student health centers typically do not provide or refer for abortions, and often will not provide contraception for the prevention of pregnancy. That kind of flat-out misogynist discrimination is tolerated and justified because, well, they’re private Catholic schools. Other forms of discrimination at private religious schools, though, have rightly engendered huge backlash — like when Bob Jones University enforced its (now repealed) ban on interracial dating. Religious traditions like Mormonism got lots of heat for their racist policies — the LDS church long barred Black men from being priests, a rule that was changed in the 1970s, although the church didn’t repudiate the teachings behind it until 2013. Rightly, a lot of folks found it outrageous that the LDS church discriminated so clearly on the basis of race, saying that a man’s skin color made him ineligible for leadership. And yet, the Mormon and Catholic churches, along with plenty of Muslim, Jewish, and Evangelical congregations, continue to formally bar women from religious leadership, reserving all of the authority for men in explicit patriarchies.
And plenty of liberals, leftists, and progressive folks who I imagine would say they would never support discriminatory institutions not only sit their butts in those pews (or enter those doors), but financially support and defend those institutions. A lot of liberals, leftists, and progressive folks who don’t offer financial or in-person support nevertheless defend those who do, putting religion in its own category of safe space for misogyny. The same folks who would be (rightly) outraged over someone being a member of a golf club that excluded religious minorities or who were (wrongly) outraged by actress Ellie Kemper participating in a debutante ball of an organization with racist roots simply accept that discrimination against women is ok as long as you put a religious gloss on it.
This isn’t to say that sexism is more acceptable than racism, or that discrimination against women is worse than discrimination against other marginalized groups. It’s not to say “we care about racism but we don’t care about sexism” (lots of people don’t care about racism, either, and racism remains endemic). It is to say that discrimination is impossible to stack up on a neat vertical hierarchy — “x group has it worse than y group in all cases,” or “people always care more about z than v” or “tk is the last acceptable form of discrimination” — but is more like a web of intertwining threads, where some corners are stickier than others, and where some of the traps are obvious while others are so widely accepted they’re barely visible. In 2021 America, many forms of discrimination have been outlawed, and laws that wrote discrimination into the books have been overturned. Discrimination persists, and is often obvious, pernicious, and intentional. But when it comes to the kind of discrimination that involves explicit and formal rules that say “If you are a member of this group, you are deemed unfit have a whole set of jobs or be in any position of power,” most of what even progressives continue to accept involves discriminating against women.
Are we surprised, then, when corporate America doesn’t blink when it comes to abortion restrictions?
It would be great if folks on the left were invested in combatting misogyny, but it’s pretty obvious that, feminists aside, they generally aren’t. They aren’t as dedicated to preserving and expanding it as conservatives are, so that’s something, but it’s a sad fact that even folks who pride themselves on their progressive politics simply accept as inevitable that women will be treated as second-class citizens in some of the world’s most revered, influential, and important institutions and establishments. I mean, the Democratic President of the United States attends a church that does not allow women in its leadership — and virtually no one bats an eye, even though the misogyny is not just baked in and egregious, but formalized and explicit. It feels unfair, somehow, to criticize it — saying that Joe Biden is devoted to a misogynist gender-segregated institution where men hold all of the power and authority while women are banned from positions of power solely because of their gender would, I’m sure, be seen as an attack on his faith, even though it’s a factual statement about how his church operates.
Yes, faith, culture, and history are complicated things. But “it’s part of our culture” has been used to justify all kinds of abuse and ill treatment, including sexism and racism. Faith traditions, too, shift and adjust: A great many Christian denominations have brutally racist pasts; the Catholic Church has had to reckon with its centuries of anti-Semitism and has changed its teachings about Jews; the LDS church changed its racially discriminatory criteria for priesthood. So it’s not quite the case that faith is faith and the rules are set in stone. Institutions are created by humans, and humans change them.
People on the left could choose differently. We could say that treating women like second-class citizens — whether that’s barring us from leadership positions or refusing our access to healthcare — is unacceptable no matter the justification, and that folks who engage in or enable misogyny have put themselves outside of the big tent of the left. We could ask why it is that religious institutions get a pass when it comes to discriminating on the basis of sex if we would be outraged to learn those same institutions discriminated on other grounds. We can ask if we’d vote for a politician who was a member of a men-only golf club — and if not, why we’d vote for one who is a member of a church with a men-only leadership structure.
These questions are uncomfortable. But they’re necessary.