Sexism consists of a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that assume that women are naturally inferior to men in a variety of ways and that use this alleged natural inferiority to promote, protect, and enforce male privilege and deny women full participation in society. Societies that institutionalize male privilege and women’s subordination are said to be “patriarchal” in nature. In such male-dominated societies, male privilege is built into virtually every institution and every aspect of culture, so that women’s subordination and men’s domination are normalized and experienced as natural. In this way, sexist attitudes, policies, and practices reinforce the status quo through the workings of everyday life.
As with racism, sexism can be conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. What defines sexist behavior is not the motivation behind it but the consequences that flow from it. In this regard, failing to hire a woman in order to protect her from work the employer believes is too dangerous is as sexist as failing to hire her because of a belief that women are not as smart as men. In both cases, women are denied equal opportunity. In the same way, a well-meaning teacher who compliments female students on what they are wearing and male students on what they are doing perpetuates sexist stereotypes, regardless of his or her intentions. Other examples of sexism include applying a double standard to men and women so that sexual behavior considered acceptable for men is considered inappropriate for women; preventing women from competing in sporting events; forcing women to conform to rigid dress codes; limiting or denying women’s access to education and training; denying women in the military the opportunity to perform the same duties as their male counterparts; and barring women from positions of leadership in religion, government, business, and other institutions.
The term sexism was first used during the 1960s by women activists in the U.S. civil rights movement. These women wanted to draw a parallel between the ways in which black people in the United States were oppressed based on their race or ethnicity and the ways in which women were oppressed based on their sex. In doing so, they hoped to channel some of the moral outrage directed at racism toward the injustices that women endured. In fact, two essays published in 1969 and 1970 bore the telling title “Woman as Nigger.” Drawing this parallel had little early success in winning men to the fight against sexism and often led to heated arguments among activists (women as well as men) over which form of oppression was worse.
Ironically, many of the white women who drew the parallel between sexism and racism proved unable or unwilling to recognize the racism within the women’s movement. Another unfortunate consequence of drawing this parallel was the implication that racism and sexism were separate and distinct systems of oppression. Thus, the conversation was framed so that it seemed one could either talk about race-based oppression or sex-based oppression, but not both, which often led to the theoretical erasure and practical invisibility of women of color. This misrepresentation continues in the early twenty-first century, insofar as accounts of racial discrimination often tend to focus on the experiences of men of color, while discussions of gender discrimination tend to leave race out. This implies that white women are the only victims of gender discrimination. Further, within communities of color, sexism has sometimes been portrayed exclusively as a white woman’s issue. Women of color have often been asked to set aside concerns about sexism and focus all their energy on eliminating racism, and those who have failed to do so have been severely criticized.
In 1969, the activist Frances Beale (who was then New York coordinator of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Black Women’s Liberation Committee) wrote a now classic essay titled, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Beale explored the ways in which issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class intersect to oppress black women. The essay was published in Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970), a pathbreaking anthology edited by Robin Morgan. The volume also included an article by Eleanor Holmes Norton titled “For Sadie and Maud,” which looked at class divisions within the African American community, and an article by Enriqueta Longeaux y Vasquez that examined the situation of Chicana women within the Mexican-American community. These writings, and others that followed, gave rise to the argument that in order to do justice to the complexities of women’s lives, it is necessary to recognize the ways in which systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, class privilege, heterosexism, and homophobia intersect. In 1985 the poet and writer Audre Lorde, reacting in part to homophobia within the African American community and racism within the lesbian and gay community, published her essay “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions.”
Discrimination against women based on their sex has been pervasive worldwide throughout recorded history. As UNICEF (The United Nations Fund for Children) reports on its Internet site, although women do two-thirds of the world’s work, they earn only one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. Globally, women cultivate more than half of all the food that is grown. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produce as much as 80 percent of basic foodstuffs, yet the great majority of people living in poverty around the world are women. In the United States, the richest nation in the world, the poorest of the poor are women caring for children. As reported by both Christa Wichterich and Jan Pettman, women throughout the world are paid less than men for the same or comparable work, they are denied basic human rights and the basic rights of citizenship, and they are subject to extraordinary levels of violence. According to Human Rights Watch, “millions of women throughout the world live in conditions of abject deprivation of, and attacks against, their fundamental human rights for no reason other than that they are women.” In sexist societies, children are raised to believe that physical and mental abilities are correlated with the individual’s sex, and they are encouraged to develop those abilities considered appropriate to their sex while ignoring or denying other talents. In such societies—regardless of whether or not they are permitted to work outside the home, move freely in public spaces, or get an education—women are raised to believe that their primary role is to serve as a wife and mother, and to identify their happiness with the fulfillment of these roles. The poet and writer Adrienne Rich, as well as other theorists, have suggested that such societies rely on “compulsive heterosexuality” as a way of constructing and enforcing male-female relations of dominance and subordination. Both girl and boy children are taught that “normal” sexuality occurs between women and men, usually for the purpose of procreation, and severe penalties are imposed on anyone who deviates from this supposed biological norm.
In patriarchal societies, sexist beliefs and assumptions pervade religion, education, science, culture, and even language, so that these institutions all serve to reinforce the existing distribution of power and privilege by either making it appear to be natural or rendering it invisible. Historically, most of the world’s major religions have been patriarchal and taught some version of the myth that women were created from or for man, and are thus destined to submit to his rule. Education in such societies teaches an andocentric, or male-centered, curriculum that omits or marginalizes the knowledge and perspective of white women and people of color. The world is presented to children through the eyes of men who are privileged and powerful, so that “women’s literature,” “African-American women’s literature, “and” working-class literature “are taught as special-interest fields that inhabit the margins of the discipline. During critical periods in history, science has come forward to provide “scientific evidence” that women of all colors and men of color are biologically and genetically inferior to white males.
Even language has both reflected and perpetuated the status quo by incorporating the sexist and racist biases of patriarchal societies. For example, in many languages where nouns are gendered, there is no female form of the words for doctor, lawyer, or other high-status positions. In English, a man who has relationships with many different women is admired and called a “playboy,” while a woman who behaves in a similar fashion is referred to by a derogatory term such as “slut.” In some languages, the masculine ending functions as the default, so that groups of children that include both boys and girls become “muchachos.” In this way, language is complicit in rendering women invisible. Although taken together, women and men of color constitute the majority of people in the world, in U.S. society the phrase “women and minorities” is used routinely to demote the majority to minority status and portray their interests as being in opposition to the interests and needs of the majority.
Racism and sexism are similar in that both use stereotypes and ascribed attributes to explain and rationalize the subordination and domination of particular populations. For example, the persistent gap in earnings by race and gender—which shows that white men, white families, and male-headed families have significantly higher annual incomes than all other groups—is explained by perpetuating the myth that women work for “pin money” and by portraying black and Latino men as lazy. Mexicans are said to be suited to field labor because of their height and physiognomy. Women in general, and Asian women in particular, are said to be suited to perform delicate work in the electronics and textile industries because they have tiny hands and are physically dexterous. All women are
said to be unsuited to positions of leadership because they are overly emotional.
Ascribing certain attributes to people based on their gender or race effectively absolves the system of responsibility for the unequal treatment and unequal rewards it bestows, while also blaming the victims of sexism, racism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression for their own plight. By constructing men and women as different in this way, the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity is made to appear natural, a consequence of men and women’s different natures rather than the result of discriminatory practices and specific policy decisions made by those in power.
As the historian William Chafe and the sociologists Sandra and Daryl Bem have pointed out, discrimination can only frustrate choices that have already been made. A more damaging form of social control frustrates the very ability to choose. In sexist and racist societies, women of all colors and men of color are taught to internalize a set of negative stereotypes that reconcile them to their socially constructed subordination and teach them forms of behavior that reinforce the prevailing social and economic relations of society. These lessons are often taught to women by other women, and to people of color by other people of color, making it more difficult to recognize their oppressive and harmful nature. While these lessons reflect the internalized sexism and racism of those offering the instruction, they also sometimes grow out of a desire to protect those who are most vulnerable. In both cases, however, members of the subordinate group end up reinforcing the status quo.
While some versions of sexism attribute certain “special” qualities to some women, usually associated with their childbearing function and their supposedly tender nature, even the ways in which women are supposedly superior to men are used to subordinate women in sexist societies. In the United States, for example, men who sought to deny women the right to vote during the late 1800s maintained that women had greater moral sensibilities and more delicate natures than men. They also argued, however, that because voting routinely took place in saloons and barber shops, women should be denied the right to vote in order to protect them from the crass and corrupt world of politics. Yet while white women, particularly those who are economically privileged, have been socially constructed in ways that portray them as both better and worse than men in some respects, women of color have consistently been portrayed as inferior to men of all colors by virtue of their sex and as inferior to white women by virtue of their race.
Societies have differed greatly over exactly which qualities and abilities are “naturally” male and female. It is not sex alone, however, but also differences in race and class that have played a significant role in determining what kinds of activities are considered appropriate to men and women. In some parts of the world, farming is viewed as a male occupation, while in others it is women who have primary responsibility for agriculture. In some countries, only men go to market and engage in buying and selling, while in others doing so is a female occupation. In the United States, the wives and daughters of white middle-class males were once said to be too delicate for physical labor by virtue of their sex, while at the same time African-American women held in slavery were forced to perform heavy manual labor from sunrise to sunset, and white working-class women and girls were forced to labor for as much as twelve or sixteen hours in dark, airless, factories.
In examining the forms of social control that have kept both racism and sexism in place, it is impossible to overstate the role played by physical violence and the threat of such violence. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence against women is condoned in almost every society in the world. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) reports that violence against women is so widespread that one out of every three women will suffer some form of violence in her lifetime. Throughout much of U.S. history, men and women of color have been subject to vicious and irrational physical attacks, including lynchings, rapes, and bombings, by the white community. These attacks have often gone unacknowledged and unprosecuted. Women of all racial and ethnic groups, and of all classes, live in a world where sexual harassment, rape, and assault are ever-present dangers. Data collected by UNIFEM suggest that half of the women in the world that die from homicide are killed by their husband, former husband, or partner, making domestic violence epidemic. Every year, some two million girls between the ages of five and fifteen are trafficked, sold, or forced into prostitution worldwide. In this way, violence, or the threat of violence, plays a critical role in maintaining and reinforcing gender and race subordination and perpetuating white privilege and male privilege.
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