Short answer: No, what is commonly called “female privilege” is better described as benevolent sexism. Systems like the draft and chivalry often seem advantageous to women at first glance, but when examined more closely they in fact reinforce sexist institutions that keep both women and men from true equality. Also, it should be noted that, while men have what’s called male privilege that doesn’t mean that there must logically be a “female privilege” counterpart. This is because, although many strides towards equality have been made over the years, women as a class have not yet leveled the playing field, much less been put in a position of power and authority equivalent to that which grants institutional power to men as a class.
Why “female privilege” is better called “benevolent sexism”
While feminists do agree that the practices that are commonly ascribed to “female privilege” (such as women being the recipients of chivalric practices) are expressions of inequality, they disagree that such practices should be considered a form of institutionalized privilege. This is because being rewarded for not going against the status quo and being the recipient of institutional privilege are not the same thing. The system of privilege uses that kind of reward system in order to perpetuate itself, but the existence of a reward isn’t proof in of itself of privilege. Instead, they use the term benevolent sexism to describe the practices because of how they are tied to the greater narrative of sexism in traditions/the status quo.
Not only is it subjectively favorable in its characterization of women, but it promises that men’s power will be used to women’s advantage, if only they can secure a high-status male protector.[Glick and Fiske (February 2001).]
Without any context it could easily be seen as talking about “female privilege”, but in fact it’s an explanation of why benevolent sexism is so easily accepted by women. Now, if this were the only factor at work, then saying that “female privilege” is better called benevolent sexism would be splitting hairs. But the reason that benevolent sexism works and “female privilege” does not is because it better identifies the system behind the beliefs.
To understand why the term “female privilege” obscures the root of the problem, it’s first necessary to distinguish the difference between the concepts that make it up and those that make up male privilege. For the most part, women do gain some benefits from the chivalric beliefs that are often chalked up to “female privilege”, just like men gain some benefits from the system of male privilege. However, the difference is that the status quo for men is one which grants them status and power in both the public and private spheres, whereas the status quo for women is one which limits their power to the much smaller, and more specific, domestic sphere.
Put another way:
Eagly and Mladinic (1993) pointed out that the favorable, communal traits ascribed to women (e.g., nurturing, helpful, and warm) suit them for domestic roles, whereas men are presumed to possess the traits associated with competence at high-status roles (e.g., independent, ambitious, and competitive). Furthermore, women’s stereotypically communal attributes are also the traits of deference that, when enacted in daily interaction, place a person in a subordinate, less powerful position (Ridgeway, 1992). Thus, the favorable traits attributed to women may reinforce women’s lower status.[Glick and Fiske (February 2001).]
If we recognize this difference and allow the problematic practices to be combated within the framework of sexism, it becomes part of a greater discourse of eliminating sexist beliefs and practices from our cultural landscape. And there is actually evidence that shows that this approach is effective, as there seems to be a direct relationship between the reduction of hostile sexism and the reduction of women’s belief in and use of benevolent sexism:
Another explanation for women’s acceptance of benevolent sexism is that it is a form of self-protection in response to men’s sexism. Smuts (1996) argued that pair-bonding among humans is, in part, an evolved female response to the threat of sexual violence (because a pair-bonded male mate offers protection from other men). In a similar manner, endorsing benevolent sexism may be a way in which women cope when many men in a culture tend to be hostile sexists (cf. Jackman, 1994). The irony is that women are forced to seek protection from members of the very group that threatens them, and the greater the threat, the stronger the incentive to accept benevolent sexism’s protective ideology. This explains the tendency for women in the most sexist societies to endorse benevolent sexism more strongly than men. Furthermore, the countries in which women (as compared with men) rejected benevolent sexism as strongly as hostile sexism were ones in which men had low hostile sexism scores. As sexist hostility declines, women may feel able to reject benevolent sexism without fear of a hostile backlash.[Peter Glick, Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): "An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality".]
Said in a more accessible way:
See, I think that some of the problems that men face now- some of the things that people like Burton complain about and see as examples of female privilege over males- are a direct result of the flaws a patriarchical system. It’s not that women have more power than men, it’s that patriarchy is an inherently flawed system that sets standards that are harmful to everyone. It’s a double edged sword. And as attitudes have changed and feminists have helped to break down some of the systems that have held women back and prevented them from reaching their full potential, some men are finding that, shock of shocks, there are some serious problems with the way things are.
To summarize the point of this section: When it’s called benevolent sexism it’s recognized to be tied to the system of sexism, and can therefore be fought (successfully) with tools like feminism, whereas when it’s called “female privilege” the solutions called for tend to call for strengthening the status quo, which ends up making it harder to end the offending practices.
Male privilege’s counterpart
I’ve seen the argument floated around that if there’s such thing as “male privilege” that there must therefore be an equivalent of “female privilege”. While I can understand why someone could come to this conclusion if their main reference for “privilege” was one of the privilege checklists, this is actually a misunderstanding of male privilege, which is an institutional — not a personal — privilege.
The tendency of most people is to think of “privilege” in terms of its common usage, which is an individual advantage that a person can earn and possess. But the problem is that male privilege isn’t that kind of privilege; it’s a kind of privilege that is systematic, rather than something that an individual has control over. This system is part of things such as history, culture, and tradition and is one of the ways that power in kept mostly the hands of those who already have it (what’s called the privileged group). This is achieved primarily through denying certain privileges to most people outside of that privileged group. It’s different than the common usage because it’s specifically backed up by institutional authority and, beyond the impact it has on individual people, it is also an important tool for maintaining the various hierarchies that make up the patriarchy.
When one is working within a hierarchy, the logical counterpart to people with power becomes people without power. So, the correct counterpart to “male privilege” would actually “female non-privilege”. Granted, it sounds more than a bit silly being said like that (which is probably why I’ve never heard anyone use it), but the concept that it expresses is that of in-group/out-group dynamics. Or, as it is put most commonly, the counterparts to privileged groups are that of the non-privileged groups.
To summarize the point of this section: Since the concept of privilege inherent in the term “male privilege” expresses a hierarchy (ie. an in-group/out-group dynamic), the placement of men in the in-group (because of the power that their class holds) necessitates placing women and other non-men in an out-group (because of the lack of power). Thus, “female privilege” doesn’t work as a counterpart to “male privilege” because it doesn’t fit into that dynamic.
- FAQ: What is male privilege?
- FAQ: I’ve got nothing against equal rights for women, but we’ve got that, so isn’t feminism nowadays just going too far?
- Feminism Friday: Addressing claims of “female privilege” – The Military
- Peter Glick, Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”
- Roy (No Cookies For Me): This post really is About the Menz…
- John T. Jost and Aaron C. Kay (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, Vol. 88, No. 3, 498–509): Exposure to Benevolent Sexism and Complementary Gender Stereotypes: Consequences for Specific and Diffuse Forms of System Justification
- On why benevolent sexism can be mistaken for a privileging of women:
A central part of our argument is that benevolent sexism is a particularly insidious form of prejudice for two reasons: (a) It does not seem like a prejudice to male perpetrators (because it is not experienced as an antipathy), and (b) women may find its sweet allure difficult to resist. Benevolent sexism, after all, has its rewards; chivalrous men are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to provide for and to protect women.[Peter Glick, Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): "An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality".]
- On why “female privilege” isn’t an advantage after all:
UCLA, the thing is what you call “benevolent sexism” (I have to say it really sounds like an oxymoron), is always accompanied by what you call “hostile sexism” in every society out there. They are often times intertwined, as one can be framed in a way that appears like the other. For example Justice Kennedy wants to “benevolently” protect us from having to face the consequence of our own decisions regarding our own bodies. There are men (and women) out there that would argue that women not being allowed in certain jobs (or all jobs), is a privilege for women: they don’t have to go out in the world and fight. They can just stay at home and bake cookies. Now isn’t that a privilege? I have heard Islamist scholars and non-scholars argue that Hijab is actually for the protection of women. There are many more examples, but hopefully you got my point already.
It is just bizarre to call these instances of sexism female privilege. It’s more like, if we’re good slaves of the patriarchy you’ll throw us a bone every once in a while (also known as chivalry).
- More on why “female privilege” isn’t an advantage after all:
Think of it this way, aleric: it can’t be female privilge when females did not establish the rules from which they supposedly benefitted. Looking at the Vietnam war era, women held little political or social power compared to men – especially as far as the military was concerned. While I would say that not being included in the draft is a benefit (who wouldn’t want to avoid being forced to risk their life when they were not willing to do so voluntarily), I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an example of female privilige because the reasons women were excluded based in sexism. Not only were women considered too weak, too emotional, and too incompetent to serve, but excluding women from service made it much easier to limit women’s rights in other areas.