Typically when people think of sexism, images of cartoon-like villains proclaiming, “Men are stronger and more intelligent than women!” or “A woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant!” come to mind. Other concepts that might be evoked are workplace and educational discrimination or the wage gap. These adversarial approaches to gender relations are generally termed “hostile sexism”. For the most part, people get why hostile sexism falls under the heading of “sexism”. What’s harder for people to understand as sexist practices, however, are ones that — on the surface — seem to be putting women in a positive light. These beliefs are called “benevolent sexism”.
In other words:
Although benevolent sexism may sound oxymoronic, this term recognizes that some forms of sexism are, for the perpetrator, subjectively benevolent, characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete. This idealization of women simultaneously implies that they are weak and best suited for conventional gender roles; being put on a pedestal is confining, yet the man who places a woman there is likely to interpret this as cherishing, rather than restricting, her (and many women may agree). Despite the greater social acceptability of benevolent sexism, our research suggests that it serves as a crucial complement to hostile sexism that helps to pacify women’s resistance to societal gender inequality.
[Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]
In some ways, benevolent sexism is more virulent than hostile sexism. This is mainly because hostile sexism is often (though not always) recognized as such, and at least a certain amount of lip service is paid to minimizing it. With benevolent sexism, it is not seen as sexism at all but rather a “natural” expression of being male or female (see the But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? FAQ entry for an example of this). Add this to the fact that many of the beliefs and practices of benevolent sexism do work out positively for those women whose values and desires are in line with the traits ascribed to women and men and it becomes easy to see why the traditions that make up benevolent sexism have been subject to so little mainstream critique.