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Institutional sexism is closer to home than you think

We know about sexism at work, but what about when it's passed on from generation to generation?

Laura Bates
Wednesday 12 September 2012 13:44 BST

“At 12 a female relative told me ‘men only marry women who can cook and clean. If they are educated it’s a bonus.’”

We tend to associate the label ‘institutional sexism’ with big, professional organisations or public bodies – the criminal justice system, for example, or the police force; a particular company or a political party. But the entries sent in to the Everyday Sexism Project this week revealed a deeply ingrained form of what might be described as institutional sexism much closer to home – within the supposedly safe and nurturing institution of the family.

I use the label ‘institutional’ because it seems appropriate given the nature of the many reports we have received – reports of sexism that is handed down from generation to generation, applied regardless of character or achievement, assumed rather than considered and apparently so official and recognised as fact that it seems to overrule even the closeness of personal relationships.

“I was told once to “lose weight” by my Dad because no man wants to be seen with a “chubby” wife,” read one report, “I was 14.”

Another said “Was in the kitchen & my dad’s friend came in & said it was 'nice to see a woman where she belongs'... I was 12”

A third woman wrote “when I was a teenager I decided I didn't want to shave my legs if boys didn't have to. Dad wouldn’t let me leave until I did.”

We know from the thousands of stories sent to us from around the world that sexism is endemic – that it is a constant force against which women battle daily. But it was still a shock to realise just how early and from what close quarters so many young girls are facing sexist attitudes.

The reports suggest that sexism within families shapes and dictates girls’ interests, activities and behaviour, with one saying “my dad didn't want me to be athletic as it’s manly and it'd make me 'butch' and 'rough'”, whilst another read “My mum taught me to cook and not my brother, because I'd have to do it for a husband one day.”

Tales ranged from narrowly prescribed choices to downright bizarre demands, with one saying “When I chose to study Art at uni rather than Maths I got told ‘that is a far more suitable choice for a girl’” whilst another read “when I was a child, my dad told me to do smaller, quicker steps; big steps would look ugly [for] girls”.

“Sexually assaulted at 12”, one report read. “My Grandad said I shouldn't have been wearing a skirt. It was my school uniform.”

One woman wrote to tell us that she knew her great-grandmother had “promised my dad ‘a big cheque’ if his firstborn was a boy”

Tragically, hugely damaging sexist assumptions such as victim blaming (whereby, for example, women who are sexually assaulted are often deemed responsible on the basis of their dress or behaviour) also seem to manifest themselves within the supposedly supportive family sphere.

“Sexually assaulted at 12”, one report read. “My Grandad said I shouldn't have been wearing a skirt. It was my school uniform.”

Another woman wrote “My dad referred to me as a slut in arguments with my mother because I was sexually active with my long term boyfriend”. Yet another said “Mum told me sexual assault was my fault for being in dangerous place after dark. I was in a cathedral at 3pm”.

“I tried to tell family about harassment or assault,” wrote one woman, but “they'd almost always imply I'd done something to make it happen”.

It is sad to realise that the damaging messages society sends women about their own bodies – that they do not truly own them, that other people’s responses to them are a woman’s own responsibility, that an assault may be somehow deemed her ‘fault’ – begin at such an early age and within such a supposedly nurturing sphere.

The wide range of reports we received suggested that sexism within the family can start before a child is even born and continue long after adulthood. One woman wrote to tell us that she knew her great-grandmother had “promised my dad ‘a big cheque’ if his firstborn was a boy”, whilst many others also referred to gifts and celebrations on discovering a baby was a boy.

One woman wrote to tell us that she knew her great-grandmother had “promised my dad ‘a big cheque’ if his firstborn was a boy”

Later on, one woman told us “My parents think I'm strange for wanting a career and not wanting to marry/have kids, have used it as a way to insult me.” Another wrote “Both parents discouraged me from graduate education, but tell me they are hurt that I won't give them grandchildren.”

How can we expect to break the cycle of sexism in wider society if it is normalised and reinforced by the family, the first powerful institution we ever encounter? What does it mean to a little girl to watch as a child when people congratulate her parents on having a boy at last? How can we hope to open people’s eyes when those they trust the most have inserted layers of gender prejudice into the earliest formation of their fundamental world views?

In one poignant account, a new mother described her heartbreak that “My dad bonds with my baby son by talking to him about “these women” who “don't understand” (me & my mother).”

Of course these cases are not universal – there are wonderful, supportive families smashing gender prejudice and championing their children’s confidence and individuality. But to hear so many stories from women facing such extreme sexist attitudes within their very own families – to realise this prejudice is so powerful and normalised that it can invade even the most loving relationships - is a shocking testament to the scale of the problem.

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