Among elders who have reached a certain age there is an ongoing conversation about the efforts to unlearn conditioned behaviors we now recognize as sexist. I speak to folks in this demographic who lament accidentally making sexist comments, not because they don’t know better but because so many of the thoughts which generate those comments are reflexive. They regretfully hear and recognize comments as sexist after they have unfortunately already spoken them. When they don’t recognize it immediately the latent sexism of reflexive comments may be identified and accepted but the brain doesn’t automatically begin self-correcting simply because the speaker wants to do better. Arresting these thoughts before they become comments requires challenging the lifetime of neural pathways such thoughts have grooved into the brain. As we know, the brain will always opt for the easiest track, so simply “catching” these thoughts before they come out through the mouth isn’t largely successful. The brain needs new grooves.
I was having a conversation with a fellow about teenagers and how their relationships evolve through high school and college. My participation was largely philosophical commentary and listening. He spoke from his experience as the father of a teen. When I did not offer similar parenting experiences he asked, “You have kids, don’t you?”
It can be argued this question is sexist because it is asked to confirm an assumption about a woman, but it was the next one that really mucked things up. I answered the initial question in the negative; no children.
“But you were married!”
This comment sped lickety-split through a neural groove of predetermination laid down decades ago. Not only must I have children because I am a middle-aged woman, but I certainly must because I’m married, right? If one box is checked, so must others be checked, right? Wrong. It is similar to the questions I constantly get from elders in which they preface “Why did you never have kids?” with “I just have to have ask.” It is sexist to assume this question must be answered by a childless woman, even if it is to satisfy what is classified as harmless curiosity. The curiosity itself assumes and implies deficiency or defect or delinquency, and the question assumes and implies a childless woman must answer for such deficiency or delinquency. It is a demand disguised as a question. It will take years to unlearn this behavior even when someone wants to do so.
In the case of But you were married! I knew the fellow well. Although I believe he did not intentionally mean to insult with a sexist comment, the comment nonetheless slid out reflexively. The sexism had to be pointed out and explained. It was received well and he was flummoxed at how involuntarily the brain (and therefore the mouth) defaulted to it. In order for his brain to do anything else, new neural paths have to be laid down and practiced. This takes time. Putting in the effort and repetition to get our brains to jump the easy track for a harder one is similar to bushwhacking a jungle trail which grows back in every day. We have to wear down that path (and abandon the old one so it will grow back in) before the brain will default to it. He’s trying. In the interim he is reduced to apologizing.
For folks who are trying there is value in extending grace. It makes sense to be supportive when someone is trying. We can’t always tell upon delivery of the reflexive comment but it becomes obvious as soon as you call it out.
For contrast I’ll offer an example of someone not trying. I answered a phone call from a stranger inquiring about a piece of real estate. The fellow ran through the standard slate of questions and then asked why the property was taken off the sale market and put on the rental market. When I clarified that it was purchased for the purpose of a rental he argued with me.
“No, no, no. You had it on the market for sale for a while, you and your husband, I guess. Then you took it off and made it a rental.”
“No. My company purchased it to use it as a rental.”
“Why do you assume a woman in possession of real estate must have a husband?
“Well, it’s just not normal for a single woman to own a house that expensive on her own. Maybe you are a widow or you inherited the house, I don’t know, but you sound young so I thought you were probably married.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I don’t know your situation. It just seems weird. If you were getting divorced you would be selling.”
“I think it is no longer normal to assume any of those things about a woman; especially a woman in a position to be your landlord.”
He became combative and offered me some truly terrible lease terms and less money, which I declined. He decided my refusal to accept his shitty offer evidence that my feelings must be hurt, so he called me oversensitive. I asked if he would say the same of a man who turned him down. He called me a bitch. In truth, he may have believed his claim he did not mean anything by it but this is an example of someone not trying to evolve, ergo grace was not extended. I thanked him for his interest but advised he need not apply. Putting the insults aside, his reflexive comments were not accidental. There is no value in supporting or indulging this.
He certainly meant to invent a husband for me, or at least confirm the existence of one, dead or alive. He certainly meant to invent some other wealthier dead relative in lieu of a husband so my underqualification to acquire such a property based on my gender and marital status was a foregone conclusion. He meant I was surely heterosexual and although I mentioned my company, too young to own it outright without assistance from a penis or penis-sponsored endowment. He also certainly meant if I did, in fact, own this property as a young single woman without the aforementioned prerequisites, I was not normal. When I was resistant to being offered less he resorted to the diagnosis of oversensitive. When I challenged his motives he deemed me a bitch.
This guy won’t be bushwhacking any new neural pathways because he sees any need to evolve in his reflexive thoughts and comments; he will only be doing it to avoid future conflict with oversensitive bitches. One might argue it doesn’t matter as long as he gets there but it does matter. Without the intention there’s no true evolution, only accommodation. I’m being tolerated as equal rather than accepted as equal, which is still less. This is why the ongoing conversation continues to be important.
These two particular discussions happened to be with men but the reflexes in question are not relegated to only men. I have plenty of similar discussions with women as well, especially women who are older than me. The takeway is that both discussions invented human beings to validate my acceptable functions as a woman, which are mother and wife. Both discussions included conclusions based on my assumed age. Both discussions hinged upon my being framed within the context of marriage. My place in society and the way I function within it has already been decided for me, whether or not it happens to be true.
Both discussions also illustrate the overarching social requirements of women in American culture. Get married in order to afford property. Alternatively, wait to inherit it. Have children because you’re married. Don’t expect to retain property of significant value if you get divorced. Expect to be offered less money in business and be prepared to accept less or submit to verbal abuse. Allow strangers to evaluate your normalness or lack thereof. Within social dynamics, accept you must be the one who notices sexism, speaks up, and educates. This will always be your responsibility.
Changing any of this begins with changing the way we respond to it.