Sexism: Still Way Too Normal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

feministTwo phenomena—women’s basic economic inequality and widespread sexual violence against women—should surprise nobody. They are well-documented and receive considerable media attention. For every dollar men earn in the United States, women on average earn 79 cents.[1] In 2012 18.3% of women reported having experienced rape at some point in their lives and 19% of female college students reported an experience of rape or attempted rape since entering college. [2] Yet huge swaths of American society at best pay no attention or pay attention but don’t care and, at worst, affirm the data as consistent with a conservative, patriarchal world-view—often articulated as God’s will—that assigns women a subordinate status to men and, while claiming to honor women, imagines them not as legitimate wage-earners, not as in control of their own bodies, not as self-determining, moral decision-makers, not as heads of families, but rather as, essentially, the property, the play-things, the servants of men. This may sound overstated, but the persistence of the wage gap, sexual violence, behavioral double standards for women in the workplace and politics, inequities in funding for sports programs, inequities in funding for health research, the hyper-sexualization of women throughout society, multi-billion dollar industries causing and then preying on women’s insecurities about body image, weight, and beauty, increasing rates of sex trafficking and other forms of slavery in every state in the union, and a constant wave of smaller, daily anti-woman indignities suggest to me that the old view of women as fundamentally less human than men remains inordinately powerful in society.

I searched for “feminism” on YouTube. For every solidly, pro-feminist video in the queue there were at least ten misinformed, misogynistic, Make America Great Again, anti-feminist rants. I’m not sure what that says about my algorithms, but I have no hesitancy in stating there is a war on women.

This sermon is about sexism, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it was not my idea. A large group of bidders who wanted me to preach on women’s issues won this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Rhiannon Smith and Linda Duncan led this group and have been forwarding articles and statistics to me for the past 6 months. Rhiannon said, “We applaud the recent attention given in Sunday services to racial injustices in light of current events. We think that gender injustices have received less attention but also are central to our social justice advocacy as UUs. Specifically, we would like for the service to focus on the marginalization of women in the workforce, politics, and other arenas of power. For example, the service might address the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and politics, micro-aggressions against women, the disproportionate amount of attention paid to female politicians’ clothing and appearance rather than their ideas, [and] demeaning female politicians in the media….  We had 26 contributors in support of this service, so clearly this is a topic of importance to many people.”

I have preached on racism many, many times. I have preached on homophobia, on transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and on the experiences of people with disabilities. But I don’t remember ever preaching a straight up, let’s talk about sexism sermon. I have preached on issues understood historically as “women’s issues” such as abortion and sexual abuse. I’ve preached about violence against women, the plight of incarcerated women, the challenges facing the primarily female personal care assistant workforce, and the need for paid sick days, family medical leave, a higher minimum wage and gun control which can all be framed as women’s issues. But I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon with the word sexism in its title. I’m embarrassed to say this sermon was not my idea because it should have been—and it should have been a long time ago. I identify as a feminist. I believe sexism is real. I believe I understand sexism well for one who doesn’t experience it. I believe sexism must be confronted. I believe our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to confront it. I am grateful for being challenged to confront sexism in this way.

I’ve been reflecting on why preaching on sexism has felt less urgent to me than preaching on other oppressions. One reason is that Unitarian Universalism had made enormous strides in confronting its own sexism by the time I entered the ministry. Such confrontation began in earnest in 1977 when the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly passed the Women and Religion resolution.[3] One of the more immediate results of that resolution was the removal of sexist and male-centered language from our institutional life. One of its long-term results was the achievement of gender parity in the professional ministry by the late 1990s.[4] That achievement has fundamentally transformed Unitarian Universalism. As a man coming into a profession in 1999 where half my colleagues were women, I had to be attentive to sexist stereotypes and power imbalances in a way I wouldn’t have been if the ministry had continued as a primarily male profession. I know this because I hear my elder male colleagues talk about what it was like in the 60s and 70s. There was no expectation that they would pay attention to sexism, let alone pay attention to it in their ministries and in our faith. And as women started coming into the ministry, there was enormous tension. How do you include women in a club that has heretofore been vastly male?

A major, visible milestone we haven’t achieved in Unitarian Universalism is the election of a woman as UUA president. That glass ceiling will be shattered at the June, 2017 General Assembly when one of three women running for the position will be elected. Will we be a post-sexist religion at that point? No. In fact, once we’ve elected a woman president, we may very quickly become more aware of how deeply our sexism runs.

Another reason the struggle against sexism has felt less urgent to me is that in Unitarian Universalism I have always been surrounded by strong, outspoken, talented, insightful women. I’m not looking for points. I’m stating a fact. In the congregations I’ve served there have been women doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, activists, mathematicians, engineers, psychotherapists, college professors, soldiers, research scientists, marketers, computer programmers, IT specialists, ministers, business owners, photographers, sculptors, biologists, chemists and corporate leaders, not to mention many women working in more traditionally female roles as teachers, nurses, social workers, homeschoolers, and secretaries—and the vast majority of these women, while pursuing these careers, have been raising children, running households and volunteering at church in every role from Sunday morning greeter to congregation president. I’ve been surrounded by strong women, and I am clear that the success of my ministry has depended on their presence.

1960s and 70s second wave feminism envisioned women living, learning, working and earning in all the ways men were accustomed to living, learning, working and earning. While that vision certainly has not become a concrete reality for all women, I see evidence of it having come to fruition in the lives of many Unitarian Universalist women—in their education, careers, earning power relative to women of earlier generations, the life choices they’ve been able to make and their leadership roles in society. But it is precisely the success of that vision in the lives of many UU women that has dulled my sense of urgency around addressing sexism directly. The problem of sexism is slightly less visible here.

But it’s real, and I take it as a truth that regardless of any woman’s education, career, family planning decisions, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or age, all women encounter a bedrock sexism in our society. The more privileged a woman is, perhaps the more she is able to withstand sexism’s most pernicious effects—though even that isn’t a given—but I’m convinced no woman avoids it entirely. Sexism is still way too normal.

It’s not only in those big statistics: 79 cents to the man’s dollar; 1 in 5 women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexism also resides in day-to-day experiences, little slights that add up to a gendered burden men don’t carry. Linda Duncan referred to this as the “social inequality” that comes with being a woman. She talked about micro-aggressions: harassment on the street and in the office; the assumption that women are overly emotional; the strong, decisive woman perceived as bitchy while her male counterpart is praised for the same behavior; the experience of offering a good idea, only to have it ignored until a man offers it a few minutes later; the hyper-focus on looks, clothes and weight; and the ubiquitous, “give me a smile, honey.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” is an effort to combat street harassment. “Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood,” quotes a 2013 Ms. Magazine article, “Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, ‘Women are not outside for your entertainment.’ When a man tells a woman to smile,” says Fazlalizadeh, “he’s expecting her to entertain him. ‘It’s the same as saying, Dance for me; jump for me. Smile is never really a question; it’s a command.’”[5] Even if the man who asks a woman to smile believes he’s just being friendly, he is still telling her what to do with her body.

I found a video on You Tube by a young women named Whitney Way Thore telling the story of trying to buy a pack of gum at a convenient store. The clerk told her to smile. She was angry. People suggested he was just trying to be helpful. She pointed out that helping typically doesn’t require the one being helped to do something for the helper. “I want to help you, so let me tell you what to do with your body.” Thore calls it a “manipulative power play.”[6]

It’s a manifestation of that old, patriarchal world-view that says women are property, playthings, servants. The man may not even realize he’s acting out of that world-view, but he doesn’t need to know. It’s still operating. For women it is exhausting.

Why, because in all these situations women have to make a calculation. Am I safe? Should I say something? Should I ignore it? Should I confront it? Is it me? That’s the gendered burden men don’t carry—the stress of having to calculate. Often the easiest, safest path is non-confrontation, finding some way to de-escalate the situation, but that takes a toll too. In an article for Huffpost Women entitled “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” blogger Gretchen Kelly says, “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to. It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.”[7] In an article in The Guardian Thursday entitled “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” Rose Hackman says “To the initial weight of having to deal with … acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.”[8]

Earlier we heard Jenn Richard sing Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.” This is a resistance song—a declaration of non-compliance with sexism, a proclamation that she refuses to play the roles society assigns to women. “I am not a pretty girl, / That is not what I do. / I ain’t no damsel in distress, / And I don’t need to be rescued.”[9] Taking a cue from this song, why not as individuals and as a congregation adopt an attitude and a posture and a program of resistance to sexism? Many of us already resist in big and small ways. Why not be more explicit, more intentional? Why not proclaim and celebrate our resistance? Why not say, “anti-sexism is central to who we are?”

Unitarian Universalism has made great strides in addressing its own sexism. But knowing that our past achievements can dull our sense of urgency, let’s take a bold new look at ourselves, a deeper look: how might sexism be operating in our collective life? Let’s commit to being a place where women don’t have to calculate, aren’t responsible for the emotional work of de-escalating sexism, and can name it not only without fear of repercussion, but with the expectation that people will want to learn more. And let’s be a place where men are encouraged to take on the gendered burden, where men are skilled in anti-sexist language and behavior and know strategies for resistance as allies to women. And let’s be a place where we have those nuanced conversations, where we understand how different women experience sexism differently—how sexism is different for white women than it is for women of color, different for straight women than it is for lesbians, different for trans women, poor women, rich women, developing nation women, women with disabilities, women with and without children, married women, unmarried women, divorced women, elder women, young women, girls, fat women, skinny women—let’s strive to understand the many ways different women experience sexism.

And let’s develop a women’s social justice platform. We have platforms for racial justice, GLBT justice, environmental justice. We ought to have a  women’s justice platform including equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual and other forms of violence, paid sick days and family medical leave, a living wage, an end to the taxation of menstrual products and diapers, reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services and information and—relevant to CT politics during the recent legislative session—knowing that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by a partner when the partner owns a gun, a women’s justice platform must include removal of all guns from the partner’s possession if a judge grants a woman a restraining order, even if that restraining order is temporary.

Let’s look out into the wider community at the organizations that are doing anti-sexist and women’s justice work and figure out ways to partner with them. And if we find that there are many different organizations working on many different women’s issues, let’s be part of the effort to unite them, so that we can resist together, transform together—so that there is a clear, unmistakable, unapologetic social justice movement for women. Let’s be fully in the movement to end sexism here and everywhere.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hill, Catherine, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap”  (The American Association of University Women, Spring, 2016) p. 7. See: http://www.aauw.org/files/2016/02/SimpleTruth_Spring2016.pdf.

[2] “Sexual Violence: Facts as a Glance,” Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf.

[3] See the text of the 1977 UUA business resolution, “Women and Religion” at http://www.uua.org/statements/women-and-religion.

[4]For more on the long-term impact of the Women and Religion resolution, see French, Kimberly, “Thirty years of feminist transformation: The 1977 Women and Religion resolution transformed the Unitarian Universalist Association” UU World (Summer, 2007): http://www.uuworld.org/articles/thirty-years-feminist-transformation.

[5] Little, Anita, “If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting Harassment With Street Art,” Ms. Magazine, Fall, 2013. See: http://www.msmagazine.com/Fall2013/national.html.

[6] Thore, Whitney Way, “Stop Telling Me to Smile.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RWz9D0166k.

[7] Kelly, Gretchen, “That Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About,” Huffpost Women, November 23, 2015. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-kelly/the-thing-all-women-do-you-dont-know-about_b_8630416.html#sthashSvFmyyeWdpuf.

[8] Hackman, Rose, “The Struggle to Speak Up: How Women Are Pushed to De-escalate Sexist Incidents,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/12/women-sexual-harrassment-sexism-deescalation?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

[9] DiFranco, Annie, “Not a Pretty Girl.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cZ-nAfSkW4&list=RD3cZ-nAfSkW4#t=50.