Top Conservative Author Endorses ‘Benevolent Sexism’

Charles Murray.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the leading conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, may be the most influential populizer of racist views in the country. His book The Bell Curve, which posits that black people are genetically less intelligent than whites, practically spawned an entire field of scholarship devoted to debunking it. His most recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 even made an appearance on the campaign trial during the recent presidential election.

Murray, however, appears to have set aside his retrograde views about race in order to tout equally backwards views about gender. In a short piece on AEI’s website, Murray recently suggested that “benevolent sexism” might be “healthy.” The only problem is that he appears not to have read the research on which he bases this extraordinary conclusion, which cited strong evidence that “benevolent sexism” was itself linked to discrimination against women and rape victims.

The paper in question, by Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker, studies why “benevolent sexism,” understood as “an ostensibly flattering ideology that idealizes women who conform to feminine norms,” is so commonly accepted by men and women around the world. The authors find that “although benevolent sexism perpetuates inequality at the structural level, it might offer some benefits at the personal level” by giving men and women a sense of order and structure in their lives.

Though the authors see this as a concern, given that so-called benevolent sexism is net-destructive for women, but Murray believes this is knee-jerk liberal prejudice. “When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes, shouldn’t they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive? Healthy” he asks rhetorically. “Something that might even conceivably be grounded in the nature of Homo sapiens?”

Had he read the paper in question, and not just the abstract, he would have understood why: there’s a mountain of evidence cited by Connelly and Heesacker that “benevolent sexism” is extraordinarily harmful to women. As Connelly told ThinkProgress, “it’s pretty well documented that benevolent sexism is associated with negative outcomes for women.” As her paper shows, Connelly is putting the point mildly:

Correlational research also suggests that benevolently sexist attitudes contribute to women’s subjugation. For instance, Fiske and Glick (1995) as well as Pryor, Geidd, and Williams (1995) found that benevolently sexist attitudes are associated with beliefs that excuse sexual harassment. In a multinational study, Glick et al. (2000) found that higher national averages of benevolent sexism predicted greater gender discrimination. Glick, Sakalli-Ugurlu, Ferreira, and Aguiar de Souza (2002) noted that individuals who endorse benevolent sexism tend to hold beliefs justifying spousal abuse. Abrams, Viki, Masser, and Bohner (2003) and Viki and Abrams (2002) demonstrated that men who possess benevolently sexist attitudes reacted negatively to female rape victims who violate traditional feminine norms. Moya, Glick, Expo´sito, de Lemus, and Hart (2007) reported that women who endorse benevolent sexism are more likely to accept men’s behavioral restrictions. Finally, Expósito, Herrera, Moya, and Glick (2010) documented that women who hold benevolently sexist attitudes believe that men will react negatively, and even violently, to a wife’s career success.

There’s also evidence that “merely exposing women to benevolent sexism increased self-objectification” and that “women who read benevolently sexist comments performed worse on a cognitive task and reported increased feelings of incompetence and self-doubt.” So to answer Murray’s question: the authors conclude “benevolent sexism” is bad despite some positive side-effects because that’s what the evidence says. If he wants to challenge that consensus, he’s free to do it — but it would help if he actually weighed the evidence rather than speculating wildly about human nature.