Respect: I do not think it means what you think it means

I grew up hearing that men needed to “respect” women, and that one of the biggest problems in our society was that men had stopped respecting women. Except that there’s something really strange going on here, because feminists, myself included, also believe that men need to respect women. It’s just…they don’t mean the same thing. Actually, they sort of mean the opposite thing.

Leaders in the Christian Patriarchy movement says that men don’t respect women today because they don’t open doors for them and give up chairs for them. You can see that men don’t respect women because men are constantly having premarital sex rather than respecting female purity. The movies show that our culture doesn’t respect women, because they show sex and nudity. In fact, you can even see the lack of respect for women in our society in the fact that families push their daughters out of the nest at 18, sending them vulnerable off to college instead of keeping them at home and protecting them, and in the fact that so many men have their wives work rather than keeping them safe at home, and even in the fact that fathers no longer screen their daughters’ potential beaus. Yes, these are all messages I heard growing up.

In the world of Christian Patriarchy, “respecting” women is about protecting them. It’s about keeping them safe and unharmed, and under male authority. Respect is about keeping women in the home, doing the heavy lifting for them so that they can concentrate on cooking and children.

I remember believing all that. I remember feeling that a guy opening a door for me or pulling up a chair for me was him showing me respect. Once in a courtship, a young man showed his respect for the young woman he was interested in by not pushing for physical intimacy. He showed his respect for her by asking her father’s permission to court her, and of course his permission to marry her.

But I just looked it up, and respect is defined by the dictionary as:

“A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” 

The only possible way I can push Christian Patriarchy’s idea of “respect” into that definition is to say that women are to be respected for, like, being women. Their qualities of “womanness” are what must be respected. This is, to say the least, objectifying and dehumanizing. Women are to be “respected” for being . . . women. They are to be respected because they were born with lady parts. And respecting them means keeping them safe and protected and out of danger.

This idea of respect that I grew up with now enrages me. I want to be respected as a person, not as a woman. I want to be seen for my abilities and achievements, not for my lady parts. I want to be viewed as an equal, not as something that needs to be protected.

One of the most universal things I hear from feminists is the desire for women to be seen as persons first and female second. I’ve heard parents of children with disabilities object to their children being seen as a disability first and a person second. They don’t appreciate their kid being called a “down syndrome child,” for instance, rather than “a child with down syndrome.” It’s much the same with gender. I don’t want to be a “vagina person.” I want to be “a person who happens to have a vagina.”

There is nothing that makes me feel more disrespected than having a conversation with a man and realizing that he is discounting everything I am saying, or placing less weight on it, because of my gender. This is the epitome of disrespect. It doesn’t matter if this same man opens the door for me. That is not respect. Seeing a person as a person rather than a gender is respect. Valuing a woman’s accomplishments and talents before her lady parts is respect.

I am therefore sick and tired of Christian Patriarchs talking about how disrespected women are in our society today, and believe me, the ones I keep tabs on do it a lot. The worst part is that they think it’s being pro-women. Similarly, fundamentalist Muslims look at our society and say that we are treating women horribly while they, in contrast, keep their women home and protect them. They are the ones who are pro-women. They are the ones who are respecting women.

No. Just, no.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Contrarian
    • John Morales

      That’s no encomium — that cartoon shows one woman is correct, and the other one incorrect.

      (Outside the bleeding obvious, the corresponding sentiments are also incomparable; the bikini-clad woman can choose to cover herself up in public like the burka-clad woman, but the reverse is not true)

      • Contrarian

        Sure. The last few paragraphs, the difference in perspective between patriarchal cultures and feminist cultures, were what spurred the comparison. There’s no question, though, the bikini-clad woman is demonstrably better off because, as you say, she has a choice.

      • Jadehawk, cascadeuse féministe

        the bikini-clad woman can choose to cover herself up in public like the burka-clad woman, but the reverse is not true

        considering that they’re in the same place geographically, this is of course not true. As much as it doesn’t fit into simplistic notions of patriarchal oppression, some women do chose it; as such, in a western country, a woman often chooses to cover from the male gaze to the same degree that another chooses to satisfy it instead. It’s all a question of acculturation, but it is indeed both patriarchal.

      • Becky @ Becky’s Kaleidoscope

        The vast majority of women wearing hijab, burqa, niqab in a Western setting are choosing to do so voluntarily. Many are even converts, i.e., Western women who chose to do so themselves.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    All too often “respect” means “act the way I want.” It’s like the War On Christmas™. Some folks have decided that Christmas was not being respected. What their real complaint is “people are not celebrating Christmas the way I think it should be celebrated.”

  • Ace of Sevens

    This is really good. Also, respect is about not having sex with women, or wanting to.

  • Libby Anne

    This also brings to mind the old adage, “feminism is the radical idea that women are people.”

    • Anders

      Not so much “women are people” because most fundamentalists would agree. Hmm… “individuals”… the idea of individualism, of self-determination has been one of the greatest forces of civilization in history. Respected for your individual qualities rather than respected for belonging to some nebulous collective whose members are hugely disparate? Something like that.

      • skepsci

        Patriarchies may profess the idea that women are people. Their adherents might even believe that they believe that women are people. But the treatment of women in those communities shows that they actually believe women are male property.

        To quote from Libby Anne’s post, I’m a Person, Not a Doll!:

        Christian Patriarchy forces girls into an impossible situation, where they are expected to act and believe just so and if they differ in any respect they are seen as broken and ruined.

        When you strip from a woman all freedom of choice, you are not treating her as a person. When the male head-of-house expects a woman to act and even think as he chooses, he is treating her as his property.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Respect only applies to virgins and mothers to a large degree as well.

  • Pteryxx

    They’re also framing control of women as “respect” because real respect is earned, and can be lost. If protecting women meant respecting them, then women who were raped or victimized would merit additional protection and concern, instead of slut-shaming them, or punishing them for walking in public unaccompanied. Instead, these women are considered no longer worthy of protection.

    • Libby Anne

      No, you’re absolutely right. For example, see this poster. Jeez, now you’re making me write about this issue too – so much to write about!

      • Ophelia Benson


        Just keep a list, so that your brain won’t fret about keeping track, and the abundance will be a good thing.

        Fantastic post.

      • Meggie

        What a pity that poster is on the internet and not paper – I can’t burn it!!! Rule 1 of reading the bible is to read the entire passage and not to chop bits out of it that suit your argument.

      • Tsu Dho Nimh

        I notice there are no quotes from Proverbs 31 on that poster.

        I like that real-estate buying, industrialist woman who has handmaidens to assign tasks to.

      • F

        Wow. That was disgusting, the pdf.

    • I’m_not

      Would you say it’s a way of demanding respect too? This is what I do, you respect me for it kind of thing?

      • I’m_not

        Well, to answer myself, obviously it is but I wonder if that isn’t as big a driving force as everything else.

    • F

      I would say that there is a basic form of respect for others beyond what one could earn or lose. I don’t mean to imply that you disregard this, I just felt compelled to note it.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    There’s I want I want to say about this, but, sadly, I don’t have time right now. So for now, this: “I don’t want to be a ‘vagina person.’ I want to be ‘a person who happens to have a vagina.’”

    LOLOLOLOL! I think you need to make t-shirts!

    • Libby Anne

      Heck yeah! We have our slogan…now we just need someone to design them for us! :-P

    • Happiestsadist

      It’s kind of a cis-centric slogan, though. Vagina =/= woman.

      • khms

        It’s kind of a cis-centric slogan, though. Vagina =/= woman.

        When the fans of the patriarchy talk, that’s exactly how they define their terms, though. They don’t care what you want to be like, just what they want you to be like.

        As for the rest, well, it doesn’t claim to be a definition of “woman”. So at most you can claim it doesn’t support people with male bits who think of themselves as not-male. And they could easily use the mirror slogan.

        I’m sure I’m overlooking something here, but you’ll have to explain to me what it is.

      • F

        I didn’t see “woman” anywhere in there. If you want to assume that it is implied, realize then that the statement is a response to cissexist patriarchal thinking as explicitly expressed regarding heteronormative cissexual women with vaginas. If you fall outside the norm of that sort of thinking, it doesn’t matter if you have a vagina, penis, or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you choose to identify or live. The owners of that school of though won’t have any respect for you at all. When they happen to recognize that people exist outside their little world, that is.

  • sailor1031

    “In the world of Christian Patriarchy, “respecting” women is about protecting them”

    Put me in mind of the observation somewhere in Sir Thomas Mallory, I believe, that chivalry was “the instinct of a knight to protect a woman from all men except himself”.

  • Stacy

    Women are to be “respected” for being . . . women. They are to be respected because they were born with lady parts.

    To be fair, they think that way about men, too–that they are to be respected simply for being men.

    Of course, they really do think men are automatically deserving of respect. The “respect” they claim women should get isn’t respect at all, it’s control. And good women are those who submit willingly to being controlled.

    • Contrarian

      I wonder if respect is accorded by how well one conforms to gender roles. After all, the “virtuous” woman is deserving of respect; a slut, though, is to be punished and shunned … until she starts to fit into the appropriate gender role. Then one starts respecting her again.

      Something similar for men — how many people in patriarchy respect a man who’s been married three times and has six children by five women? (I mean, aside from Gingrich and other symbols for which they make excuses.) No, the man they respect is the man who works a job that provides for his six children, sets a good example, takes his family to church every Sunday, keeps the house and yard in order, etc. They respect a well-respected man about town, doing the best things so conservatively, i.e., a man who conforms to their gender norms.

      So perhaps there’s something to conservative respect, after all. Perhaps they do indeed feel deep admiration for certain abilities, qualities, or achievements; but the abilities, qualities, and achievements they respect are those which allow, and derive from, conformation to their cultural norms.

      • Marshall

        That makes a lot of sense, but I guess I just haven’t seen it framed quite that way before. It seems pretty clear that the more divisive passages in the Bible that are actually USED are those that can be used to prevent (or at least vilify)deviation from the cultural norm. I would speculate that the teachings of churches in a particular time period could give you a rough idea of the perceived cultural norms of that area during that time period, but that could just be a result of the cultural norms coming FROM the church. I’d almost like to see a survey of what churches commonly taught before, during, and after periods of large scale social change in different areas throughout history. I doubt I’d be too surprised, but it would be interesting reading.

  • Amber

    In patriarchy, respect for women means to treat them like small children.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    In the world of Christian Patriarchy, “respecting” women is about protecting them.

    In the world(s) of (any kind of) Patriarchy, women generally need protection, 24/365.

    Funny how that works out…

    • Contrarian

      It’s a feedback loop, of course. Male privilege gives men* incentive to behave abusively. Women are maltreated. Therefore, they need to be protected. Patriarchy grows stronger, enhancing male privilege …

      * I wonder if this is statistically truer for single men competing for women than for established, married men.

      Where is equilibrium? What forces prevent any small patriarchal impulse from turning a country into Saudi Arabia or the Taliban’s Afghanistan?

  • physioprof

    My understanding is that all this “precious life” shitte is all just a bunch of fucken lies to cover for the fact that what really underlies anti-abortion is hatred for women and the desire for dirty sluts to have to “pay the price” for fucking in an unsanctioned manner.

    • Libby Anne

      I think for some it is, and I think it started that way originally. In my experience, though, for many the whole sanctity of life part has taken a life of its own separate from any of that.

  • michellekleinman

    If you read Proverbs 31 (Woman of Valor) it says nothing about her virginity OR her submission to men. She works hard, makes decisions, and is a leader in her family. She even has cleaning help! That is respect.

    • Marshall

      Well that’s an outlier, isn’t it? I mean, Ecclesiastes says that you only have one life and there is nothing coming after death, so you should enjoy your one life while you can. There are plenty of them, and it’s all the more reason not to trust the rest of it.

  • lordshipmayhem

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s the mind that needs to be respected. Not the surface, for outer beauty fades, not the gender, for idiots and geniuses come in both genders, but the mind.

    Women of intellect get my respect. So do women who have the self-discipline to overcome whatever slings and arrows that Life aims at them. Female firefighters get my respect. Women struggling against “glass ceilings” and diminished societal expectations get my respect. And so on.

    Women who lack self-discipline, stupid women, both I have no respect for. I don’t respect Michele Bachmann – she is truly weapons-grade stupid.

    I respect Marie Curie, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

  • Nadia Williams

    When I was a young girl, I was forever tinkering in the garage, and developed a passion for DIY (sadly, skill doesn’t always equal enthusiasm, but I’m not that bad, either). I remember my first experience of men giving you one look and dismissing you when I had a slow leak in my bicycle tyre, and when finally we took it to the bike shop, they declared, after pumping the tyre and finding it not flat a few hours later, that I should just have pumped it up. I will never forget the two guys coming to watch me fetch my bike, the amusement over this idiot girl who didn’t know flat tyres must be pumped up. The next morning the tyre was flat again. I remember how helpless I felt that these guys could not accept there was in fact a problem, because when they couldn’t find it, their first thought was not: “Well, maybe there’s some reason we can’t see what’s wrong,” it was “Haha, stupid woman doesn’t know how a bike works.” I’d love to bring this up on a computer screen and grind their noses in it.

    It seems such a small, stupid thing, but I’ve had this happen again and again and again over the years, to the point where anytime I discuss DIY with a man I am already defensive.

    • F

      It is exactly that sort of experience which can be so disheartening and annoying.

      In a similar vein, experienced men taking advantage of people who don’t know anything about some domain tend to take advantage of women when they wouldn’t take advantage of men. It’s messed up.

  • Luna_the_cat

    I don’t know if you read science fiction or not, but I would recommend to you Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Read the whole thing if you are into SF and adventure stories, or, if not, then just skip to Komarr and read it. The reason I say this: it is as much a romance as it is an SF adventure, and has a very strong subplot about relationships and a “woman’s place.” I wonder if it would speak to you as much as it spoke to me.

    A relevant paragraph almost at the end of the book, where one of the protagonists has forced the other to reveal a list of his former girlfriends (a daughter of a guardsman now retired captain and shipsmaster, a mercenary trainee now an Admiral, a slave now Master Serjeant, a “technical serf” now a surgeon in an independent clinic, etc.) –

    Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she had at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

  • jen

    YES! And Thank you! This kind of “respect” has confused me for a long time… Feeling like I should be grateful, but not feeling respected or grateful at all…

  • Ariel

    women are to be respected for, like, being women. Their qualities of “womanness” are what must be respected. This is, to say the least, objectifying and dehumanizing. Women are to be “respected” for being . . . women. They are to be respected because they were born with lady parts. And respecting them means keeping them safe and protected and out of danger.

    My impression is that it’s more like a caricature than a good diagnosis. It’s far more complicated, I’m afraid. Some things to consider:

    - Medieval identification of courtly love chivalry with the love of the sublime (definitely not the love of the lady parts!). Closely connected: respect for women as a generalized version of respect for Virgin Mary.
    - Respect for women as a respect for the role (again: not to be confused with the lady parts!). Compare this with a respect to a teacher: it is usually expected from the student, even initially, when the teacher is new and still unknown. The common idea is: if you behave very badly, you can lose a right to such a respect, but the default standpoint is that you are entitled to have it (because of your role). Would you call students showing that sort of respect “dehumanizing and objectifying” their teacher? (Cf. the first reply to comment 9 – in my opinion, a very good one).
    - Respect for women as a sort of a game. (cf. “Dangerous Liaisons” :-)). This is perhaps the most contemporary version. The woman is by no means a helpless victim needing protection – such a description would miss the point very badly! The “respect” is rather a ritual played by both parties … for the fun of it. “You have the pink blocks, I have the blue ones; let’s play”. I saw it many times, both as a spectator and as a participant.

    Oh well, this is just a tip of an iceberg. Reducing all of this to silly respect for the lady parts? No. Just, no.

  • Judy L.

    Men in Patriarchy show their deep disrespect for women when they think that they are ‘doing the heavy lifting’ so that women are free to care for their families. Since when having a full-time job, having a spouse to do all the housework and being told that you are the head of your marriage like Christ is the head of the church and having authority over all the women in your life ‘heavy lifting’? Yeah…cause the 24-hour-a-day job that is taking care of multiple children, homeschooling them, keeping your spouse sexually gratified whilst constantly pregnant, and running a household is just ‘light lifting’.

    Can you even imagine what would happen if Christ himself came down from on-high and gave explicit instructions to the Patriarchy movement that it was now time to switch, that Matriarchy is the new family structure and men had to be subservient to women? It is not until men recognize “women’s work” as valuable “human’s work” and are willing to do it themselves that they will ever respect women.

    And I just have to say, I recognize that women in Patriarchy get the worst end of the deal sexually and in relationships, but Patriarchy sucks for men too in that regard. It really is a totally unhealthy, completely perverted alternative sexual lifestyle.

  • Taryn Fox

    First, having the lady parts does not a woman make. At least, I was going to say that, but then I remembered who’s making the definition here and that they wouldn’t treat trans or intersex people kindly. :P

    Still might want to toss us a bone and make it clear that you’re not an essentialist.

    Second, a lot of disabled people actually use the opposite language. I’m not a person with autism; I’m an autistic person. I say that because that makes it clear that “autistic” is a kind of person, as opposed to “autism” being a thing that a person like you has.

    To me, being autistic means seeing and feeling and experiencing the world differently, not exhibiting certain behaviors. It’s not something that can be separated from me without making me a different person, if it can be done at all. And the idea that I should make myself stop exhibiting autistic behaviors at all costs, even when things like stimming are vital to my well-being, is a problematic one that’s implied in the “person with autism” language.

    • Judy L.


      You make a really excellent point. I’ve always given a lot of thought to how I should mention to people that my niece and nephew are autistic. Are they kids with autism or are they autistic kids? I’ve never liked it when people say that someone ‘happens to be [gay][black][Muslim][autistic]‘ or whatever, as if ‘happens to be’ means that this feature of who they are as a person is no fault of their own or is something unfortunate. I certainly don’t like the fact that being autistic presents extra challenges in life and that my niece and nephew have to work so much harder than everybody else, but I also recognize that autism doesn’t keep them from being who they are, it’s part of what makes them who they are, and they’re pretty awesome little people.

    • Libby Anne

      To your first point, I’m not a gender essentialist. Absolutely not. This post was admittedly rather narrow in focus, but so is the point I was trying to respond to.

      To your second point, I was not aware of that. I’ve been around parents of disabled children before, and have heard them insist quite soundly that their children be seen as children first, and having a disability second. It’s interesting to hear another take on that.

  • Taryn Fox

    You’re a woman, not a “person with femaleness.” That’s how a lot of us see it.

    • Libby Anne

      But I don’t want to be respected simply because I’m a woman. I want to be respected because I’m a person, with qualities and talents, etc. That was the only point I was trying to make.

  • James

    Good points in the article. But respect, in the same dictionary, is also defined as : “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.” Hence holding the door open for a woman is not following the first definition but merely having due regard for the person’s feelings; after all, NOT holding the door open for someone may hurt their feelings. Holding for women has special authority under this definition of respect since it is also a tradition – but under the definition we really should hold the door open for all, men and women alike*.
    (*But not here in Hong Kong, where holding the door open is seen as some kind of obligation to the door-openee to be grateful to the door-opener and is unwelcome but that’s a whole other issue, where respect clashes with cultural and traditional differences).

  • Natalie

    Microsoft Ecarta College Dictionary (1235):

    “Respect (2) NOT VIOLATE to pay due attention to and refrain from violating.”