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13 Jan 2016

Know Your Neighbors: Sexism? Feminism? Words Have Meanings

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Donald Trump speaks at a rally. Donald Trump speaks at a rally. Michael Vadon via Wikipedia.org

Words have meanings.

In the hyped-up atmosphere of the presidential campaign season, words are being used as political weapons—apparently assuming the audience is ignorant.

I want to change that, particularly with regard to words like “sexist” and “feminist” and “enabler” and “abuse.”

If a wife defends a philandering husband, is she an enabler? Not necessarily. If a man is a womanizer, is he therefore an abuser? Not necessarily. Can someone be a feminist AND be sexist? Unfortunately, yes, and that can describe either men or women. These words are not interchangeable.

Sexism is an attitude based on traditional stereotypical gender roles. (All definitions used are consistent with both dictionary.com and Webster’s Dictionary.) When someone, male or female, judges another on the basis of the role they’re supposed to play, they’re being sexist. Donald Trump is sexist when he denigrates a female candidate’s appearance based on the stereotypical assumption that women are supposed to be, first and foremost, attractive. Criticizing a woman for her tone of voice not being soft and sweet is sexist. A woman is sexist if she believes that the husband in a relationship should be the breadwinner, and the wife should fulfill the role of mother and homemaker.

Feminism is the advocacy of social, political, legal and economic rights for women equal to those of men. A woman who believes in equal pay for equal work (feminism) can simultaneously believe that women should stay home (sexism); they expect fair treatment out in the world, but they still hold sexist attitudes about what goes on inside a relationship.

A philanderer, or womanizer, is a man who has relationships, often of a sexual nature, where he cannot or has no intention of having a lasting relationship—a man who carries on flirtations regardless of his marital status. A womanizer is the guy almost every woman knows, from junior high school on, who has the compulsion to pursue every woman as a potential sexual conquest. They can be married or single; they flirt with every woman they meet. Some are insecure; others just like women. They’re not necessarily sexist and may be feminists.

When a woman acts in that same manner, constantly flirting whether married or not, she is called a slut or a nymphomaniac—a woman with unquenchable, even “abnormal” sexual desires. Where a man is described as a shameless flirt, a woman with identical behavior is considered abnormal; after all, “boys will be boys.” Sexism is evident in these definitions.

During the 1970s sexual revolution, I knew a couple who believed in open marriage, in which each partner was allowed to have sexual relations with others; they drew the line if the outside relationship included dinner. For them, the sexual act was purely physical, but dinner implied a relationship, an intimacy that would threaten their marriage. One of my friends recently dated a man who was quite happy to periodically “service” the wife of one of his old friends, a man who had become ill and could no longer satisfy his wife sexually. The woman’s husband knew of and was not threatened by his wife’s “affair.”

There are couples who stay together for financial reasons, or who stay married but live separately. Some couples no longer relate to each other with sex as an essential part of their intimacy. There are couples who, despite their partner’s flirtations or affairs, stay together “for the children,” or for financial reasons, or because they love each other in ways that those outside the relationship cannot understand. Some spouses don’t want to know what their partner is up to, evidently believing that “ignorance is bliss”—if they knew, they’d have to do something about it, and they don’t want to change the status quo.

I respect people who have figured out their own relationships and seem satisfied with their arrangements. How they work it out is their business—and shouldn’t be part of a political campaign.

We live in a time when 1950s rules no longer apply in the workplace. Harassing is persistently disturbing, bothering or pestering. What at one time seemed acceptable, or was tolerated, is now sexual harassment—meaning unwelcome sexual advances, especially if compliance is a condition of continued employment or advancement.

“A ha!” you might say. “That means Bill Clinton was a harasser. After all, Monica Lewinsky was a subordinate working in the White House.” But the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship was consensual, not unwelcome, and she was an adult. Did he act inappropriately? Of course he did, and I can’t forgive him for the public humiliation of his wife. Yet his wife seemed willing to forgive him, and they worked out their marriage in their own way, so who am I to judge?

“What about all the other women with whom Clinton was involved?” It’s clear he was a philanderer, but however inappropriate, his extramarital activities were consensual with adult women. (A claim of rape has never been substantiated.)

A good case can be made that Bill Clinton is a feminist and is not sexist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Donald Trump, who does judge women differently that he judges men, based on stereotypical assumptions. Trump would probably not want to be labeled a feminist, but by touting equal treatment for women, he’s a shining example of how one can be both feminist and sexist at the same time.

Trump says Hillary “enabled” (condoned or facilitated) her husband’s extramarital affairs and thus cannot stand up for women. Wrong. Accepting and even defending a spouse’s infidelity does not mean one is not still a feminist regarding public policy.

Hillary accurately described some of Donald Trump’s boorish statements as indicating a “penchant for sexism.” Trump responded with, “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband (on the campaign trail), with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!”

In an editorial responding to Trump, The New York Times said that Trump’s aim is clearly “to dredge up an ancient scandal and tar Mrs. Clinton with it in a clearly sexist fashion.” In other words, holding a wife complicit in her husband’s behavior is based on the underlying belief that if a man strays somehow, his wife is at fault. Her role is to keep him satisfied. According to Trump on Fox News, “She’s not a victim. She was an enabler.” Enabling would mean Hillary facilitated her husband’s behavior, rather than merely tolerating or forgiving it.

How does the general public see all of this? A Fox News poll indicates that voters see Bill Clinton as more respectful of women than Donald Trump—50 percent for Clinton, and only 37 percent for Trump, so Trump’s play may backfire. We’re not ignorant.

Spouse attacks were tried against Sen. Dianne Feinstein and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro based on their husbands’ business dealings, and against John McCain for his wife’s alleged drug use. All of this is nothing more than dirty politics—an attempt to put an opponent on the defensive and dominate the news cycle.

We should not reward such sleazy attacks.

Words have meanings.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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