Last year, I was swiping through a dating site, when I came upon a shocking image.
No, it wasn’t an image of that. Dating sites don’t allow such things, silly!
It was something equally offensive, though—but for some reason perfectly allowable. Tucked amidst a nice-looking man’s selfies and stats was a cream-hued image with a faux-fancy border around the following words:
“Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she’ll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she’ll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she’ll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she’ll give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her.”
I recoiled in shock. Literally. And swiped that dude the hell away from me.
Who Said the Wildly Popular Quote “Whatever You Give a Woman . . .”?
I had to do a bit of Internet sleuthing to figure this out. (And, yes, this quote is wildly popular.) Goodreads thinks it’s William Golding, the British author of The Lord of the Flies (1954). But dig deeper into the Internet and you will find that the originator of the quote was actually (probably) the modern American author Erick S. Gray.
William Golding did, however, definitively say these words:
“I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”
This quote is not any better. So Golding is not off the hook.
What’s Wrong With Calling a Woman a Queen or an Angel?
It’s not just that one dude on that one dating site. Dating sites are full of men knocking themselves out to perfect their flowery language in praise of womankind. I have been called a queen, an angel, and all sorts of other false descriptors, by men who have never even heard my voice, let alone met me in person.
What’s wrong with all of this? Why wouldn’t I like being given the compliment of being compared to a queen, an angel, or an idealized 1950s housewife? Why wouldn’t I like being told that I’m superior to half of the population of the earth?
The winner of the 2019 Booker Prize knows the answer to this question. Girl, Woman, Other, a novel by Bernardine Evaristo, is one of the smartest, wittiest, and most engaging books I read last year. Each chapter centers on a different black girl, woman, or nonbinary person, navigating life in London and elsewhere. The characters are extremely interesting, and the writing is fresh, punchy, funny, and thought provoking.
This is a female-centered and black-centered book that examines the female and black experience from many different angles. The variety is breathtaking: this book is a testament to the fact that people are so unique, so diverse. Why must we entrap each other in so many boxes?
I want to share with you two jokes, both from the opening pages of the book. Because this is an amazing novel, one that uses humor and storytelling to get at essential truths.
“Dad’s a socialist who wants a revolution to improve the lot of all of mankind / literally”
Ha! Literally, he wants to improve the lives of men . . . not women. Sadly, this patriarchal black husband and father wants to improve things economically for his race and class . . . but can’t accept a woman as his equal.
Most of us are familiar with this type of sexism. This is easy to understand by the average modern American. This idea has been mainstream for half a century.
“what it was like when white men opened doors or gave up their seats on public transport for white women (which was sexist), but not for them (which was racist)”
Ha! This is very funny!!!! This character gets it: it’s sexist to assume that someone can’t or shouldn’t cope with riding a bus or a train standing up, just because she is a woman. But if you’re going to be sexist in that way, it’s racist not to extend that same sexism to a black woman. Ha!
This type of sexism, where someone elevates another person’s sex or gender above their own sex or gender, is still sexism. The idea that this, too, is sexism has not yet gone mainstream, so it’s harder for the average modern American to understand or even notice it.
My Big Takeaway From How to Be an Antiracist
Reading the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi was revelatory for me. (Read my previews of this book.) He exposed things about the world that I kind of knew, but didn’t know how to articulate. Here’s a big one:
Racism and sexism include any assumption about an individual based on race or sex or gender, even if the assumption is purportedly positive. That’s putting people in boxes. That’s not right.
Let’s take another look at those quotes and examples referenced above:
(a) “Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she’ll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she’ll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she’ll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she’ll give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her.”
Please don’t generalize all of womankind. Some women will take stuff from you. Some don’t, or can’t, make babies. Some refuse to make a house into a home. Some don’t, or can’t, cook. Sometimes, if you give a woman your favorite remote control, she will throw it into the nearest dumpster. All of the sentences in the quote might be true of one particular woman, or even numerous women, but it’s sexist to say it’s true of all women.
Truly, a man could say such things to or about a particular woman whom he knows well, and that would be okay. It might be a bit sentimental, a bit outdated, and a bit of a generalization (she multiplies and enlarges stuff? what if you give her E. coli? what if you give her a brushfire? you should definitely put her in charge of your finances!), but at least it’s not sexist.
(b) William Golding: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”
Golding was trying here to explain why he wrote about a group of boys, not a group of girls, in The Lord of the Flies. That’s a great book. Everyone should read it. But he had this wrong. Girls can be just as cruel and stupid as boys. They might have a tendency to go about their cruelty and stupidity in different ways than boys, true. But to claim that one sex or gender is superior is false and sexist.
(c) “I am a simple, ordinary man. You are a queen and an angel. I worship the ground you walk upon!”
There’s something very creepy about being put on a pedestal, in a situation where you are looking for an equal partner. If I were running for Queen of England, and some dude called me a queen, that would be cool. If I worked at a hundred soup kitchens, while moonlighting at Victoria’s Secret, and some dude called me an angel, well, okay. But when I’m looking for an equal partner and some dude uses language that is so outside the realm of the situation, I get creeped out.
Especially when he doesn’t know me at all, and is just throwing romantic-sounding words at every mildly attractive woman who pops up on his screen.
Note that I’m not talking about every use of those words, or every action toward women. It’s totally cool to give up your seat on the train to a pregnant woman, or a woman with disabilities. It’s totally cool to call a woman a queen when she just gave an amazing performance, and you’re so proud of her, and amazed at her talents, and the word queen best expresses your awe and admiration.
But putting all of womankind on a pedestal, by mere virtue of their femaleness, is sexist.
It’s Sexist Against Men and Women Both
Let’s be honest and admit that all people have strengths and flaws. No matter what sex or gender or race or etc. you are, you have strengths and flaws. And when we put one artificial segment of the population on a pedestal, this hurts everyone. It hurts everyone first of all because it’s not the truth.
It hurts everyone second of all because (1) the group on the bottom is being disrespected, and (2) the group on the top is being held to unrealistic expectations and pressures.
If I’m your queen, do I really have to shoulder the burden of all the decisions? If I’m your angel, do I really have to shoulder the burden of all the generosity? If you’re ordinary in comparison with my majesty or saintliness, how am I supposed to respect and love you back?
In fact, contrary to the man’s intentions to impress, I see such language as a sign that he lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, self-love, and all of those other positive self- words. I see him shaking in his boots, wondering how to hook a woman whom he sees as out of his league. He showers her with flowery compliments, presumably so she will see how dedicated he is, how big of a fan.
But she’s not looking for a fan. She’s looking for a partner.
What’s the Best Way to Compliment a Woman?
Just honestly say what you like about her, specifically. Don’t pretend she’s an angel and you’re a mortal.
You are both mortals, trying to see if you can dance together on the ice without falling.