Back to News & Commentary

Sexism Is Alive and Well on the Interwebs

Galen Sherwin,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women’s Rights Project
Share This Page
January 15, 2014

In documenting how she was stalked and threatened online, Amanda Hess, a feminist journalist, shines an unflinching spotlight on the ugly misogyny that too often pervades online forums, making women feel unwelcome or even unsafe just for speaking our minds. It is for similar reasons that (much as I cherish the First Amendment) I generally try not to get sucked into reading comments posted on stories covering cases brought by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, where I work.

But Hess’ article (along with this thoughtful response from an involved father who got bashed for merely combing his daughter’s hair one morning) got me thinking more about my avoidant response. While I hesitate to bring attention to some of these comments, which I find truly vile, they do reveal something about what we’re up against—about extreme views that are still prevalent, but generally ignored, and that often underlie a lot of much tamer sounding rhetoric. Consider this one, posted by someone with the handle “LiberalsRTraitors”:

Women should be at home with their children instead of having strangers raise them. All this in the name of the almighty buck. Wake up, Support your husbands, fathers, brothers and male friends to change this society and fight for what is ours. Then and only then will you have the chance to stay at home and raise your children. Stand by your man. He’s the only one that can change this.

What provoked the “take off your shoes and get back to the kitchen” outrage? A recent article about the ACLU’s client, Bobbi Bockoras, who was retaliated against by her employer, a glass bottling company, after she complained about the conditions in which she found herself forced to pump breast milk on the job—in a filthy room with no air conditioning and dead bugs on the floor. And this comment was not at all atypical. Take this one, by “Shipwrecked”:

Stay home and take care of your brood and don’t put any burden on the employers or your fellow workers. That you had a child and want to breast feed is your decision, so deal with it. Don’t expect from the rest of the world to cow tow to your crap.

Or this one, by “ChristB”:

Masturbation is a completely natural act and has been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. I demand that all companies have private masturbation rooms. They already have private places where she could use her breast pump, it’s called the ladies room. Uppity b!tch.

Because, of course, requesting basic dignity to engage in a natural function of reproduction that medical experts agree is the ideal for mothers and babies is the equivalent of requesting a private place to jerk off. This is an extreme viewpoint, to be sure. But here’s the tamer version: when federal law was amended to require employers to provide a clean, private place other than a bathroom to pump breast milk, the CEO of Staples grumbled that employers would have to install “lactation chambers.”

This position ignores the fact that the workplace and policies that govern it are and have always been structured around the model of a worker who does not ever become pregnant or breastfeed—in other words, a male worker. Requesting minor job modifications—like light duty during a difficult pregnancy, or breaks and a clean place to pump breast milk during the day—is not requesting “special treatment.” Failing to make room for pregnancy and breastfeeding—which the majority of women will need at some point for a short duration over the course of their lifetime—is giving male workers a special advantage.

Comments like the ones highlighted above make crystal clear that there are those who still believe that women’s place is at home raising children. There is still a deep discomfort at the notion that women should participate in the paid workforce at all, much less dare to request equal treatment. Having children is still viewed as a personal choice, for which neither employers nor society should have to pay the price. (And pregnancy is always, somehow, viewed as an affirmative choice, despite the fact that more than half of all pregnancies are unintended, and abortion is becoming more and more difficult to access).

These comments are clearly extreme, but again, here’s an example of the more benign version: the question frequently asked of a woman who’s expecting or has just had a baby of whether she intends to “go back full time” or return to her job at all. These questions, though well-intentioned, reveal the underlying presumption that it is still the woman’s obligation to “be at home with their children instead of having strangers raise them.” For those of us who love working and are fulfilled by our jobs, whose careers are not defined by the fact that we have children, it’s baffling that anyone would ask these questions. After all, how many men do you know who are asked the same thing when their wives are expecting?

Many women simply don’t have a choice whether or not to return to work—or at least, don’t make it freely. As the just-released Shriver Report demonstrated, for many women, the decision is driven by the economy, which makes it increasingly difficult for most families to survive on a single income. In dual income households, the persistent wage gap—along with social expectations—has a lot to do with who makes the “decision” to reduce their hours or stay home full time to care for children. On the flip side, for families on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, wages are too low, and childcare is too expensive to make returning to work economically feasible. Even for those who affirmatively do prefer to stay at home with their kids and can afford to do so, there are penalties down the line: the labor market doesn’t take kindly to time spent out of the workforce, and social policies (like Social Security) do not place equivalent value on time spent by parents on the work of childcare as they do on time spent in the paid workforce.

So I invite everyone to read the comments. They make it impossible to ignore that sexism is alive and well, and it lives on the internet. But its online presence is a merely reflection and distillation of its life in the “real world.” As long as there are brave women like Hess—and like our clients, Bobbi Bockoras, Asia Myers, and Julie Mayer—who are willing to stand up for their rights to be treated equally, even in the face of ugly blowback, we get a little bit closer to stamping it out each day.

Have you or someone you know experienced workplace discrimination? Let Us Know!

Learn more about pregnancy discrimination and other civil liberties issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page