A new study finds that sexist attitudes are a strong predictor of a person’s stance towards abortion, exposing the deep connections between perceptions of gender roles and reproductive rights.
Researchers from the School of Psychology, University of New Zealand, and the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, reviewed questionnaires from more than 12,000 participants polled over a one-year period and found that both men and women who expressed “benevolent sexism” were more likely to oppose elective abortion.
Further, the study found that these sexist attitudes were based on a person’s idealization of motherhood as an essential element of womanhood. “The idealization of women – and motherhood, in particular – comes at a substantial cost, namely, the restriction of women’s reproductive rights,” say the study’s authors.
Social scientists have known for some time about the link between the opposition to abortion and certain beliefs and attitudes. Studies have shown that religiosity, church attendance, political conservatism and endorsement of traditional gender roles for men and women are all negatively associated with rights to abortion.
Thus, it is no surprise that sexism, too, is correlated with an opposition to abortion. Notably, the researchers distinguished between hostile and benevolent forms of sexism and found that the latter is also predictive of a negative stance on abortion. According to the terminology, hostile sexism involves behaviour that aims to criticize or punish women by appealing to perceptions of traditional gender roles whereas benevolent sexism involves praise for women through similar but often implicit appeal to the same traditional norms.
In this way, where hostile sexism might involve the belief that women are emotionally weak and “need a man’s help” to get by, benevolent sexism would include statements about how women are much more compassionate and giving than are men.
By its name, the benevolent form gives the appearance of being less problematic, even benign in its impact on women both collectively and individually. But experts say it is just as effective in solidifying traditional gender roles due to the fact that it mostly flies under the social radar while affirming traditional roles for men and women all the same.
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“Although Benevolent Sexism -an ideology that highly reveres women who conform to traditional gender roles- is cloaked in a superficially positive tone, being placed upon a pedestal is inherently restrictive,” say the study’s authors.
The idealization of motherhood is thought to be a particularly damaging aspect of the benevolent sexism found in Western cultures. Studies have shown, for example, that women who are of reproductive age are consistently described in more warm and positive terms than women who are past the age of reproduction, and men found to espouse benevolent sexism are less likely to approve of public breastfeeding but supportive of private breastfeeding.
The study’s authors say that both benevolent and hostile sexism end up promoting particular images of women, ultimately as either “saints” when they follow traditional roles or “sinners” when these roles are violated.
But it isn’t just men who are susceptible to sexist beliefs. In another recent study, researchers from Ohio State and Michigan State Universities polled 747 women between the ages of 18 and 24 at a United States midwestern university and found that those who had read at least one of the books in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy were more likely to uphold sexist beliefs about women and to be more accepting of ideas of female submissiveness.