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Gender Prejudice

Gender Prejudice

Each society throughout history has distinguished differences in the social roles of its males and females. These gender role differences reflect biases, also known as prejudices (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience), held by members of a society. Gender prejudice is also referred to as sexism and is based on stereotypes (an oversimplified prejudgment of others, often leading to negative prejudices) held about women and men. Stereotypes of men are usually more positive in societies than stereotypes of women as the males are considered more independent and posing greater physical stamina. Negative stereotypes of women are usually held by both men and women in a society owing to the lack of self-respect and self-confidence imparted to females by societies' prejudices.

Changes in gender prejudice through time have been evident in some regions of the world. By the early twenty-first century, the differences in social roles of males and females in some societies, such as those of the United States and Europe, had narrowed. Opportunities for education and employment in addition to simply participation in society as a whole, such political activities and a broad range of social events, became more equal. However, in other societies—such as those in the Middle East—long-held prejudices remained firmly in place. Behavior based on these prejudices normally placed the female role at considerable disadvantage in terms of freedoms and civil rights. These freedoms and rights include the right to vote in elections, associate with others freely, and various legal protections.

The long struggle against entrenched gender prejudices to establish social equality for women has led in many directions. Besides the right to vote (suffrage), other concerns include reproductive rights such as access to birth control and right to have abortions (to artificially terminate a pregnancy), freedom from domestic violence, freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace and public, and freedom from overall male dominance, a concept known as patriarchy.

The struggle for equality led to the growth of feminism. Feminism is both a belief in the social equality of women including legal, political, and economic equality, and a social movement promoting feminist beliefs, known as a feminist movement. The feminist movement began as an organized movement in 1848. Many leaders of the feminist movement have been women. They view gender prejudice as much like social class prejudice (classism), and racial prejudice (racism). Sexism was just one more form of discrimination (treating some people differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) to keep political power in the hands of only a few—primarily white males in the Western world.

In many societies, the role of the male is seen as the norm (standard), and females are measured against that norm in terms of abilities. Women who behave as men, such as those who act more direct in business relations, are often viewed negatively as being overly aggressive. Men who exhibit those same behaviors are often valued as good leaders.


Deliberate prevention of pregnancy.
Treating some people differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices.
A belief in the social equality of women and men.
Behavioral traits associated with the male or female sex.
A negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience.
reproductive rights:
The right of a woman to choose whether to produce offspring or not.
A form of prejudice aimed at particular genders.
The manner through which people learn and accept roles.
Oversimplified prejudgment of others.

A debate continued into the twenty-first century as to how much social and psychological differences between men and women are biologically based and how much are conditioned by society. The question of how much a person's behavior is based on biology and how much on socialization seemed irresolvable due to the complexities of the human body including its biochemistry. Socialization is the manner through which people learn and accept roles, including those that are gender-based. Family, schools, and the media reveal to the child the accepted norms of gender behavior, such as through product advertising. The family and church discourage unwanted behavior. Though the child has the choice to conform or not, most children follow the gender roles modeled by their parents and teachers. Recognizing some differences do exist between genders, such as physical strength and ability to give birth, a main goal of many mainstream feminists is that women should simply be treated the same as men. Views that arbitrarily (not based on solid fact, random) separate sexes are considered sexist, such as characterizing women as the family shoppers and men as responsible for the house repairs.

Gender prejudice in early agricultural societies

According to the research of physical anthropologists, those who study the physical and behavioral development of humans, the idea of male physical superiority began very early in human history. In early humans, the size difference between males and females was even more distinct than in modern humans, a trait known as sexual dimorphism. The male was the family provider and protector while the female produced and nurtured children and prepared foods for consumption. Other gender differences involving personality traits have been studied by anthropologists and psychologists, such as the male tendency to express aggression in a more physically aggressive manner than women.

The Two Forms of Sexism

Sexism takes two forms. Hostile assertive (aggressive) sexism occurs when males seek to maintain social superiority through gender discrimination and sexual harassment. This devalues women's status. On the other hand, benevolent (meaning to do good) sexism occurs when males act in a seemingly protective manner by demanding that women focus more on their reproductive and caregiving roles rather than become involved in the professional or business world. Both hostile and benevolent sexism have similar effects. They restrict a woman's freedom of choice.

Society's main expectation of women through early times remained to give birth to many children. Women at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century generally had one pregnancy every two years during childbearing age that is commonly considered to be from fifteen to forty-nine years of age. The average household included at least five children. Frequent deaths of infants and youth from illness and injury kept the family average down to that number despite the numerous pregnancies and births. The reason for the demand for many childbirths was simple. Until the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution (the introduction of a new economic and social system characterized by large industries, machine production, and the concentration of workers in urban areas) arrived, communities were economically reliant on an agricultural economy. The more children available to help with work in the fields, the better off each family would be. In addition, the high mortality rate required multiple births to ensure enough children would grow to a productive age for work.

In these agricultural societies, the father was the ultimate authority figure in the home. He was expected to be the provider and family guide. Disobedience met with harsh punishment, such as whippings and beatings. During the early colonial settlement of North America, only two American colonies had outlawed wife-beating. A man beating his wife was considered bad only if it was for no reason. Wives were considered property and had few legal protections. Upon marriage, all of the wife's property became property of her husband. The wife could not own property, sue others, or keep wages she earned. She was expected to raise her children to be morally responsible people grounded in religious faith. Religious orders and laws reinforced these roles. Families that followed these expectations were considered most godly by society. These gender roles influenced all other social values.

Early gender prejudices blocked the right to education for women. Some feared too much book reading or delving into politics by a woman might lead to insanity. The woman's psychological state of mind was considered by society in general during this time to be too fragile and protected to comprehend worldly issues and technical knowledge. A man who read and participated in politics was considered intelligent. Only men had a public life discussing politics at gathering places such as taverns, attending community meetings, and conducting business with others. The man was considered the family's representative to the outside world. Tavern dining, where politics and commerce dominated the discussion, was strictly a man's affair. Women attended dances in the ballrooms, but if they dined, they were restricted to a private guest room. Throughout much of history, people speaking out against these gender prejudices were on their own without the support of larger reform movements and were largely ignored.

Equality not for all

In the late eighteenth century, revolutions led by those seeking a new form of personal freedom and equality erupted in North America and Europe. However, not all citizens in newly established democracies enjoyed the full benefits of freedom. For example, the 1787 U.S. Constitution did not allow women to vote. Of the thirteen original states, only the state of New Jersey allowed women to vote. And that was possible only because of a mistake in the way the law was written. To the dismay of women in New Jersey, the law was corrected in 1807, revoking women's suffrage and giving only men the right to vote. Across the Atlantic Ocean, individual freedoms were brought by the French Revolution in 1789 in which France's population rebelled against the French monarchy. The French people sought personal liberties such as freedom of speech, much like the Americans had the previous decade during the American Revolution against the British monarchy. The new French legislature adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789 recognizing the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. However, the declaration only applied the rights to males failing to recognize the legal standing of women.

The dawn of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century brought dramatic economic and social changes. The industrial revolution was a major economic change from an agricultural economy to one based on industry. No longer was the man found around the house. He was gone earning wages at a factory or business. The wife became the leader of the home. She remained at home to take care of children, cook, wash, sew, and prepare food. Women also often took in extra work, such as washing clothes, stitching cloth provided by shopkeepers, or making hats. Although these jobs did not pay much, the added income allowed a family to save a little money. Some women who lost their husbands kept boardinghouses for travelers and guests in the city or along the traveled roads. These women actually did quite well for themselves and became some of the first women entrepreneurs.

Advances in the freedoms for women were very limited throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Western world; by the beginning of the twentieth century, very few women had advanced educational degrees or held professional positions. In the late nineteenth century, women in France still had to cover their heads in public. In some parts of Germany, husbands could sell their wives as they could any other piece of property. In the United States and Europe, women could neither vote in political elections nor hold public office. A woman could not even conduct business without a male representing her, usually a husband or relative.

Those promoting feminism, who were mostly women with some male supporters, began uniting as an organized movement in the nineteenth century. They were part of a general social reform movement that also sought freedom for black slaves in the world. The term feminism first came into use in 1837 in France by the famous social activist Charles Fourier (1772–1837). The beginning of an organized movement was marked by the first women's rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. Using the Declaration of Independence as a model, early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) drew up the Declaration of Sentiments for the meeting. The declaration contained eleven resolutions including the right to an education, the right to vote, and certain other political rights. As would be the case with the feminist movement in later years, the convention had little relevance to women of the working and lower class since the activists were primarily from upper-class and educated social groups. Working-class women were more immediately concerned with increasing wages, making a healthier workplace, and working fewer hours rather than access to education and the right to participate in politics. In fact, only men in the more privileged upper classes enjoyed many of the rights and privileges sought by the early feminists. Besides setting goals of feminism by asserting equality of women in a document adopted by the convention titled The Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence little other progress resulted as the issue of slavery in the United States dominated the next several decades until after the American Civil War (1861–65), fought in part over the freedom of black slaves in the Southern states. In addition, the idea of feminism largely developed only in Western societies in the nineteenth century. The rest of the world was little affected.

Seeking suffrage

Following the Civil War, interest in feminism grew again after attention had been shifted toward the war. This time feminist leaders adopted a narrower focus than at the earlier Seneca Falls meeting. They focused primarily on a single issue: suffrage. Stanton and activist Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. It was considered the more radical feminist organization at the time. Besides seeking the right to vote for women, the NWSA sought to end job discrimination against women and unequal pay between men and women for the same work as well as greater acceptance of divorce. That same year, the Wyoming Territory became one of the first governments in the world to grant equal voting rights to women. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to establish universal suffrage, meaning voting rights for all adults. The following year in South Australia, women gained the right to hold public office, another first in the world.

By 1910 success in gaining suffrage was seen only in limited parts of the world. To determine what needed to be done, the First International Convention for Women met in Washington, D.C., in 1902. Representatives arrived from ten nations to develop an international strategy to gain suffrage. However, the feminists did not arrive or leave with a unified perspective. This early suffrage movement was split into two factions: those who believed the right to vote was more important for women than for freed blacks, and those who believed the right for black suffrage was equally important. This difference in philosophies caused some NWSA members to split from the group and form their own organization. They rejoined in later years, but the internal strife caused by the split hampered the feminist movement as a whole at this time.

In 1903, the suffrage movement in Great Britain had taken a more militant approach led by activist Emmeline Parkhurst (1858–1928). Parkhurst led boycotts and bombings that brought attention and growing support to her cause. The first European nation to not only grant suffrage but also to allow women to hold office was Finland in 1906. The following year, seventeen women were elected to Finland's parliament (government).

Women gained the right to vote in many countries during World War I (1914–18). Increasing numbers of people believed it was simply unjust to deny half the population of what were considered free societies the right to vote and influence public policy. In 1918, the British Parliament extended the right to vote to certain women in society, including those who owned homes, housewives, and those who held university degrees and were at least thirty years of age. That same year, all German women were granted the right to vote.

Following the success in Britain, social activist and American Alice Paul (1885–1977) organized demonstrations and confrontations with police in the United States. She had joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) upon her return to the United States and promoted aggressive tactics to win suffrage. In Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, Paul led a massive parade of over eight thousand suffragists down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House attracting over a half a million bystanders. A few days later NAWSA representatives met with U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) to express their goals for suffrage. However, it still took several years of picketing and arrests of protesters before the president finally relented and promoted suffrage. In 1920, the United States passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. The first presidential election in which women were able to vote in all states was later that fall. Republican candidate Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) won the election amidst a climate of a struggling U.S. economy, labor strikes, and race riots. Much dissatisfaction with the state of the country existed at that time.

Overcoming gender prejudice to gain the right to vote took even longer in other regions. Women did not gain suffrage in France until 1945, following World War II (1939–45), in recognition of their contributions to society during the war. The last Western nation to grant suffrage was Switzerland, in 1971. Among the countries not allowing women to vote in the early twenty-first century were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Vatican City. Kuwait extended equal voting rights to women in May 2005. This change was in reaction to the push for women's rights in the region brought on by the wars in neighboring Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Loss of support in the fight against gender prejudice

Following success regarding suffrage in the early twentieth century, the feminist movements grew quiet again in the United States and Europe. The League of Women Voters, which had formed in 1920 to help women who had just gained the right to vote by educating them about the candidates and issues in the elections, led national voter registration drives in the United States. Also the Women's Trade Union League sought protective labor laws for women.

The National Woman's Party, established in 1913 by Alice Paul to gain suffrage, now sought full equality for women through passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that Paul drafted in 1923. The ERA would ban gender discrimination found in any government actions. Not all women sought full equality with men. As a result two basic factions grew. One, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), sought laws that protected women in the workplace. They preferred special protections for women, not full equality with men, which would mean no special accommodations for women, such as shorter work hours than men and safer work conditions. The other faction sought full equality with no special protections. The ERA, little changed in its simplicity from earlier years, was introduced in Congress each year beginning in 1923 until passage by Congress in 1972.

The Great Depression (1929–41; a major worldwide economic crisis causing record-high unemployment rates) and then World War II ended any feminist efforts through the 1930s and first half of the 1940s. However, the war created hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for women in such places as factories. In 1944 alone, 2.3 million were involved in the war industries; 1,900,000 of them were in factory jobs, more were overseas nursing the wounded, and others held clerical jobs. Rosie the Riveter, the famous illustration of a female factory worker, became a common image across America during the war. The employment gains, however, were short lived. Once the war ended, men returned from military duty looking for work. Women lost their jobs and returned to the home. This sudden change back to traditional gender roles greatly affected families. Many women resented the loss of employment opportunities. American society could never fully go back to the traditional prewar gender roles. As a result, the experience of working outside the home and then abruptly losing that opportunity became a major turning point in American society. The later resurgence of feminism in the 1960s would point back to the work capabilities shown by women and the unjust loss of the opportunity to use those abilities.

A new fictional model of family life including gender roles was portrayed in the new entertainment medium of television following the war. Once again, what were considered ideal gender roles were based on the white middle-class experience with the husband being the breadwinner (member of the family who provides primary financial support) and the wife left to manage the household and raise the children. Single parenting was not socially acceptable. An increasingly large segment of society did not match the ideal of the new American suburban life as life in the inner cities with rising unemployment, particularly among minority males due to racial prejudices at the time, forced wives and mothers into family breadwinning roles. Others were people not conforming to heterosexual social norms who were forced to live secret personal lives in the face of sexual orientation prejudices. Gender prejudices remained a key element of U.S. society.

A second wave of feminism

A new wave of feminism known as the Women's Rights Movement was born in the 1960s in America. As with the earlier suffrage movement, the women's rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s occurred primarily in Western societies and benefited mostly white, middle-class women. In 1961, newly elected U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) formed the President's Commission on the Status of Women to advise him of issues of importance to women in America. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was its chairman. Though careful not to create too many waves because of the strong gender prejudices in society, the resulting commission's 1963 report identified national gender prejudice issues affecting women. These prejudices included discrimination in the workplace, unequal pay, few support services such as childcare and special healthcare needs for women, and inadequate legal protections. Some gains were immediately made based on the study. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 addressed the problems of pay though unequal pay between men and women would remain a problem into the twenty-first century. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was expanded before passage to include restrictions against employers discriminating based on gender in addition to race. Complaints of discrimination could be taken to the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or newly established company human resources departments for resolution.

Despite these important gains, gender prejudice remained a force in American society. Through the later 1960s, the feminist movement became closely associated with the civil rights movement (aimed at ending racial discrimination) and the gay rights movement (focused on sexual orientation prejudices). Remaining issues included reproductive freedom including access to contraception (deliberately preventing pregnancy) and freedom of choice for abortion, more effective protection from rape and domestic violence by new laws against stalking and keeping abusive husbands and boyfriends away, and advancement in the workplace.

The pill

Development of an oral contraception pill in the early 1960s did more to liberate women from traditional gender roles than any other advance in history. The pill contains chemicals that, when taken on a regular basis by mouth, inhibit normal fertility. Use of the contraception pill spread rapidly. Not only was taking the pill easy, it also was a more effective form of birth control than anything previously on the market.

Women suddenly had greater control over their lives and freedom within relationships. They enjoyed the same sexual freedom as men for the first time in history. As a result, women became much more equal to men in social relations. No longer were sexual relations confined to marriage, nor was marriage seen as the only option to living a full life. The pill helped initiate the sexual revolution of the later 1960s. For many women sex was now a way of fulfilling a relationship, not primarily a means of reproduction. However, many other women still held tightly to their traditional values. It also contributed to a greater overall feeling of personal independence that led to other changes, such as greater promise for promotion opportunities in the workplace and a broader range of professions available since disruptions from work for childbirth and childrearing were no longer a near certainty.

NOW takes charge

As a key expression of the increased boldness of feminist activities, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in June 1966 at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women. The conference was a follow-up to the earlier President's Commission. Organizer and first president Betty Friedan (1921–2006) attracted a strong following due to her highly influential 1963 book on feminism, The Feminine Mystique. Unlike the first wave of feminists seeking suffrage, the second wave now questioned more basic social issues, such as prejudice in accepted gender roles and the general nature of the family unit. They strove to find acceptance in society of a working wife, single parenting, and divorce. NOW, a leader of the feminist movement, was dedicated to lobbying, or urging, Congress and the state legislatures for legislation establishing equal rights for women. The key issue for NOW was the promotion of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), still not passed by Congress after almost fifty years since its introduction by Paul. Sit-ins (the act of entering an establishment such as an government agency's headquarters and peacefully refusing to leave until the prejudicial policies are changed) and marches were frequently used to increase public awareness of gender prejudice. The movement's goal was to ensure women's full participation in society, with all the same opportunities and responsibilities as men, free from gender prejudice and discrimination. Seeing sexism related to classism and racism, the organization tackled all forms of prejudice.

In the early years of NOW, lesbians felt their issues of prejudice against sexual orientation were being ignored by the organization and the women's rights movement in general. Friedan even publicly expressed discomfort in addressing lesbian issues both personally and for fear of losing support of feminists who did not support gay rights. However, in May 1970 at NOW's Second Congress to Unite Women, feminists leading the fight against homophobia (irrational fear of homosexuals) were able to get NOW to include their issues on their agenda. It was a major change in the course of the women's movement. In September 1970, NOW officially recognized lesbian rights as a major concern of feminism.

Through the years, NOW continued its efforts to fight gender prejudice. By the early twenty-first century, NOW had five hundred thousand members—both women and men—in the United States and 550 chapters, in all fifty states.

By the 1980s, the idea grew that gender was separate from sex as promoted by feminists and gay rights activists. This notion confused gender prejudice issues. A person may appear to be one sex physically, but feel more like the other gender. Studies into hormone effects on behavior and brain structure continued into the twenty-first century. These studies also suggested other biological gender differences. For example, some researchers claimed the female brain was naturally wired for empathy (experiencing the feelings of others) while the male brain was wired for building such things as mechanical systems or electronic networks.

Reproductive rights

Another key issue for the second wave of feminism was the right of a woman to have an abortion. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision on abortion rights in Roe v. Wade. The Court ruled that most laws against abortion, including many existing state laws, violated women's constitutional right to privacy. Beginning with Connecticut in 1821, most states had established laws restricting abortion.

At first the primary opposition to the ruling came from Catholic Church, which had always opposed birth control. Polls beginning in the 1970s showed most Americans supported abortion rights. However, as time passed many Protestant groups began rallying against abortion rights, through the later twentieth century. The Court ruling ultimately triggered a heated national debate between those supporting the decision, labeled Pro-Choice advocates, and those opposed to abortion rights, labeled Pro-Life advocates. Supporters of Pro-Choice claimed freedom of choice was necessary for women's equality. They claimed the individual privacy of women was more important than the collective right of the population to ban the right to have abortions. Opponents claimed that those promoting abortion rights were placing the convenience of the woman above the potential life of the fetus. They strongly believed that abortion was an act of murder and asserted that an individual's life begins at conception (the moment a woman's egg is successfully fertilized). Opponents also argued the legality of abortion, claiming that there was no such right to privacy written into the U.S. Constitution. They contended the Court made up a new individual right not provided in the Constitution.

Pro-Life protesters picketed abortion clinics in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, handed out literature to women preparing to enter abortion clinics, and even physically blocked entrances to abortion clinics. The more radical opponents bombed clinics where abortions occurred and shot to death doctors who performed them. Demonstrators also gathered each year on January 22, the anniversary of the Roe decision, on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Building to protest the ruling.

The abortion controversy greatly influenced U.S. Supreme Court nominations into the twenty-first century. Beginning with Republican president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), a potential candidate's position on abortion rights was a major factor in the outcome of the selection process.

Through the 1970s in reaction to the Roe decision, states began strengthening their anti-abortion laws. Some passed laws requiring parental or spousal notification and consent, banned state funding for abortions, and prohibited late-term abortions (abortions in the last few months of pregnancy) when the fetus was more fully formed and capable of surviving out of the womb. In November 2003 Congress passed a law banning use of federal funds for abortions. U.S.-funded clinics in Third World countries were even shut down if they shared information with women about the option of abortion. The Court struck down many of the laws, but those restricting use of public funds survived legal challenges. In an odd twist, the woman seeking an abortion who triggered the Roe case, Norma McCovey (1947–), became a spokeswoman for Pro-Life advocates seeking repeal of the Roe decision. She had never actually had the abortion she had been seeking at the time of her case, and by 1995 she adopted an anti-abortion position upon converting to Christianity.

In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court had an opportunity to reverse the Roe decision. However, much to the dismay of Pro-Lifers, it upheld the 1972 decision in a five-to-four vote among the nine justices.

In February 2006, the South Dakota legislature passed a bill that made the performing of all abortions a felony crime. Doctors who perform abortions could face up to five years in prison. The only exception to this law was the situation where a woman's life was endangered because of her pregnancy. Pro-Life advocates hoped the new law would inspire a legal case that would lead the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Roe decision. Opponents placed the South Dakota bill on the November 2006 election's ballot and the public voted to rescind the law by a 56 percent majority.

Equal Rights Amendment

Congress finally adopted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that would guarantee equal rights under the law in March 1972. The state legislatures were then asked to ratify (approve) the amendment as required for the bill to become part of the U.S. Constitution. At least thirty-eight of the fifty states needed to ratify the ERA for it to become part of the Constitution. States were given seven years to consider ratification.

Debate was hot as opponents claimed the ERA would forever change gender roles in traditional American society. Fear of same-sex marriages was another concern. Others argued that as time passed, many of the goals of the ERA had already been achieved through court decisions applying the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws to individual cases that involved gender discrimination.

By March 1979, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment. Adoption fell short. Though the deadline had passed, supporters of the proposed amendment argued that ratification of the amendment would still be valid in later years. As late as 2005, ratification proposals had been submitted again in the Florida and Illinois legislatures with little success. Since 1879 twenty states had adopted various forms of equal rights amendments prohibiting sexual discrimination into their state constitutions.

Affirmative action

In 1965, on the heels of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) signed a presidential order establishing an affirmative action program. The goal of affirmative action was to correct for past governmental and social injustices driven by prejudice. At first applied to federal government and public universities, the program was later expanded to include companies that received federal contracts and their labor unions.

The program was designed to improve the status of minorities and women who had been historically discriminated against by increasing opportunities in education and jobs and, ultimately, their participation in society in general. Agencies, businesses, and colleges were required to develop affirmative action plans, including timetables to achieve full participation by women and racial minorities in their organizations. The program worked on a quota basis, meaning that businesses and schools would set goals to achieve certain percentages of different minorities and ethnic groups. Although originally driven by the need to provide assistance to African Americans, the order also addressed gender prejudice. Because social barriers had been in place so long for these groups, simply ending discrimination based on race and gender was not enough. Much progress needed to be made before social equality was truly achieved. Similarly, affirmative action programs adopted in other countries have focused more on ethnic and race organizations rather than gender.

Much of the affirmative action activity in the United States focused on entrance into universities. Gender began to be considered by universities when assessing an applicant's test scores and grades. For example, if two applicants, one male and one female, with identical credentials applied to a school and only one could be accepted, the female would get preferential consideration over the male. This process was particularly important in cases where women were applying for entrance into engineering and physical science programs, areas of study historically limited to males.

By the late 1970s, affirmative action became increasingly controversial. Critics claimed it was discriminatory against those job or college applicants who were not minorities yet had better qualifications. They argued the goals of affirmative action in terms of increasing social equality were sufficiently being met by changes in society in general through the years, such as increased percentages of women employed in businesses and more job promotions awarded to women. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 and again in 2003 upheld the legal validity of affirmative action at universities but left the door open to alternate programs that could achieve the same goals. The Court ruled the increased diversity of students was beneficial to all students. Some states, such as California, banned affirmative action programs in state agencies in 1996. California, Florida, and Texas adopted alternative programs to affirmative action in their public universities.

Another major effect of the second wave of feminism in regard to educational opportunities was that many male-only universities became coeducational (accepting both male and female students). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, all Ivy League schools became coed including Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Some women-only colleges also opened their doors to men, including Radcliff, Vassar, and Sarah Lawrence.

Glass ceilings, sports fields, and changes in religion

A major issue of the second wave of feminism that extended into the twenty-first century was not only job opportunities, but discrimination against job advancement based on sex. The term "glass ceiling" came into use in the mid-1980s in reference to the seemingly invisible and unspoken prejudicial barriers to promotion of women became popular in reference to invisible barriers hindering the promotion of women into upper management positions in corporations and other organizations. These barriers existed despite anti-discrimination policies of the organizations. White heterosexual men maintained dominance in these organizational circles. When promotions of women did occur, concerns existed that these advancements were more for public relations than for recognition of actual merit of the individuals. The U.S. Department of Labor created the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991. It released a series of reports investigating gender prejudice in the workplace. A 2003 report stated that less than 9 percent of the senior managers were women in America's top corporations. Gender prejudices were still well entrenched into the twenty-first century.

Additional changes in education came with passage of a national education bill in 1972 that contained a section that has been commonly referred to as Title IX. The law essentially banned sex discrimination in public schools. Academic advancements due to Title IX were significant. In 1994, women earned 43 percent of all law degrees, up from 7 percent in 1972. Title IX also affected the sports world in America. The act called for equality in sports opportunities at schools that received federal funding, such as research grants. The act affected most universities in America. There was to be equal opportunity for women and men to receive athletic scholarships to colleges. The act was later expanded to prohibit gender discrimination in all U.S. educational institutions. The impact of Title IX led to controversy into the twenty-first century. Some men's sports programs were cut back or eliminated, such as wrestling and baseball programs at some schools, in order to divert limited sports budgets to support the new women's programs. Nonetheless, Title IX provided a major boost to women's opportunities to participate in sports across the nation. Not only could young women now pursue their interests and apply their skills in athletic competition at the college level as never before, it even led to the popularity and expansion of women's professional sports leagues, such as professional basketball and soccer.

Effects of increased gender equality were evident in religious organizations as well. Women became ordained (given priestly authority) as clergy and rabbis in Protestantism and Judaism. New statements of belief bringing women into a more active church role were developed for religions, and women contributed to that development. One of the more resistant religions to gender equality was Catholicism. Though centuries of women had been nuns and held other positions of influence as lay members (religious persons who are not clergy), they were still not accepted as priests or in other clergy positions based on interpretations of the bible.

Gender prejudice and language

A society's language often reflects its prejudices and social perspectives, such as chairman instead of chairwoman or reference to the dawn of man instead of beginnings of the human species. With the growth of the second wave of the feminist movement in Western society, changes to the English language occurred. Feminists and others argued that introducing a gender-neutral language would lead to a decrease in gender prejudice and an increase in equal treatment of the sexes. Feminists further argued that traditional language did not even recognize the presence of females in society. The language itself perpetuated a male-dominated society and gender prejudices against females.

Non-sexist terms such as Ms. replaced Mrs. or Miss, previously used to reflect the marital status of the women. Ms. would be more equal to Mr., which had been traditionally used for men but does not indicate marital status. Feminists argued that a woman should be known for who she was, not by her marital status. The emphasis on such changes in language was reflected by a new magazine, focused on second-wave feminism issues and founded in 1972 by Gloria Steinem (1934–). Ms. Magazine became the voice of a population traditionally silenced.

Often in the English language, if the gender of a person is not known, the person is referred to as "he." The word "man" was originally considered to be a gender-neutral word (not indicative of being male or female). This was the case not only in English but other languages deriving from Latin, such as French, Italian, and Spanish. There existed no other term for when gender is not known. Feminists pressed for changes from "he" to "he or she" or "he/she" but like other suggested changes in language to avoid gender bias, this at times proved awkward when used while speaking.

Efforts to make language fully free of gender bias realized some success. Schools, businesses, and publishers made many changes in their writing guides to avoid gender-oriented terms. New laws reinforced using gender-neutral terms for job advertisements. For example, a chairman became a chairperson or simply "chair."

Some languages, such as Chinese, are not as gender oriented as English, and the bias is not as evident. However, with the increasing use of the English language in the growing global economies, gender issues related to the English language persisted into the twenty-first century. Other languages, such as French, German, and Spanish, are much more gender-oriented than English and less easily changed into a gender-neutral form. However, the issue of language was less important in those countries than it was in America.

End of the second wave

By the late twentieth century, women's rights if not actual gender equality in the West had become generally accepted as a part of society. At the same time, some feminist leaders became more radical in seeking social change, often taking an anti-male stand on issues. They claimed that attaining greater equality was not possible without major changes in society. According to the more radical feminists, the institution of marriage itself was a hindrance to equality due to the traditional male dominance roles found in traditional marriages. The basic power structures in society naturally tilted the level of influence to males' advantage.

Though more gains were needed to attain more fully a status of equality between men and women, the successes gained and the more radical positions held by some activists led to public dismay with the second wave of feminism. Feminism declined as a distinct movement. Gender prejudice issues were too complex for a broad agreement among women. For example, though most who consider themselves feminist identified with the pro-choice side of the reproductive rights debate, others such as Feminists for Life opposed abortion.

Despite the relatively broad acceptance of gender equality in society, strong opposition to gender equality persisted in some areas of Western societies into the early twenty-first century. Opponents, primarily those with strong religious leanings, charged that feminists were destroying traditional social roles that defined early society based on natural differences. They argued that children needed traditional masculine fathers and feminine mothers to become better adjusted to society. They believed nontraditional gender roles displayed by parents and others harmed children by taking away their self-identity as male or female and confusing their social responsibilities. The opponents also saw feminism as a threat to sustaining Western society birth rates. They feared the ultimate end to Western society as they knew it by a significant decline in population. Immigrants from societies that did not accept feminism were gaining in political power as their numbers grew in comparison to the white middle-class segment of society. This trend was viewed as a threat to the dominance of white society in America.

Nonetheless, major gains in the Western world by the second wave of feminism were many. They included establishment of low-cost health centers for women, rape crisis centers, and women's studies programs in universities. Other advances included the rewriting of children's books to eliminate gender stereotypes. Job opportunities as construction workers, airline pilots, business executives, and military enlistees and officers opened up for women. Women astronauts in space programs became widely accepted and admired as role models for female youth.

In the early twenty-first century, feminism focused on the plight of racial minority women in Western societies and women in non-Western societies, such as the Islamic countries of the Middle East. Muslim leaders largely disapproved of Western feminism, which was contrary to accepted Islamic beliefs and threatened male dominance in society. In these situations, the factors of race, ethnicity, religion, and social class became major barriers to fighting gender prejudice. Nonetheless, such discriminatory practices as female genital mutilation, child infanticide (a tradition in some cultures of selectively killing newborn infants, such as killing female infants while keeping males), and mass rape used as a weapon during wars came into focus.

Gender roles

In most societies, gender is the most basic way to divide labor and assign social responsibilities. The responsibilities are known as gender roles. Often gender prejudice largely determines the expectations people place on gender roles in a society. The long-term consistency was the changes through the twentieth century in gender prejudice in Western society including gains in access to education and job opportunities by woman. The gender roles that emerged in Western society in the 1820s with industrialization still represented the cornerstone of Western society home life in the early twenty-first century. Women were still expected to raise children, maintain the family home, and prepare food. Males were largely responsible for the family's income and protection. These social expectations largely directed the behavior of males and females from an early age. Children learned of their gender role from the gender prejudices held by their family and friends. The gender behavior rules were later in life reinforced by schools and churches.

As described by many social researchers including Marlene LeGates in her 2001 book In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, gender roles are socially defined, therefore they are based less on biological factors than the cultural norms of a society that include gender prejudices. Nonetheless, it is the common belief in most societies that these roles are largely dictated by biological differences. Therefore, any straying from the roles is considered deviant behavior. In the nineteenth century if a family deviated too far from their expected gender roles, they might be visited by their minister to correct their ways. In more modern times, advice books, magazines, doctors, and newspaper advice columns provided reinforcement of the social norms. Those promoting gender roles in American society have normally been males belonging to the socially dominant white classes. Any differences in the gender roles within minority groups were considered inferior because of the ethnic or racial prejudices targeted toward those groups.

Gender role changes

Traditional gender roles in Western society were strongly reinforced during the post-World War II economic boom, despite the nontraditional gender roles that were proven valuable throughout World War II when women went to work on the homefront and kept the nation going. Many men could bring home a sufficient income to support a family. However, by the 1970s economic inflation (prices of goods rising faster than personal incomes) was putting pressure on most working class and middle-class families to have two wage-earners in the family. The wife who worked outside the home insured maintenance of a comfortable middle-class standard of living. According to Hurst, in 1955, only 16 percent of mothers with children under six years of age worked. That percent jumped dramatically to 57 percent in 1987.

Gender prejudices toward the working woman changed also. According to Hurst, in 1937, 82 percent of the public opposed the idea of married women working outside the home. In 1972, 68 percent were in favor of the idea. Yet traditional gender roles persisted. Even with both the wife and husband working, the husband was expected to be more involved with his work and the wife more involved with the home and children. The wife still managed the home life. If children were sick, it was the wife who was expected to stay home from her job. Studies indicated the husband's involvement in housework rose from 20 percent in 1965 to just 30 percent in 1981, despite the fact that almost 60 percent of American women were working outside the home. A backlash led some women to denounce the working woman's lifestyle and take care of home life once again on a full-time basis.

Change in gender prejudice and gender roles was reflected in study topics of sociologists in the late twentieth century. Sociologists shifted their focus toward the diversity of gender role situations within a society, particularly among ethnic groups and working-class families, rather than studying the model gender role norms of the white middle and upper social classes. This broadened focus showed the diverse adaptiveness of humans, both women and men, and that various roles can be fully effective in leading productive and nurturing lives.

For some, greater gender equality in Western society also brought confusion in gender role and identity when trying to conform to the new and old traditional norms at the same time, such as where new norms were being practiced in areas when the old norms still prevailed. Despite increased expectations that women should balance a professional career with raising children and taking care of home, few social services were available, such as state-sponsored childcare facilities. The expense of private childcare often ate into a large portion of that second income.

Some freedoms did increase, such as a greater acceptance of women giving birth to children outside of marriage arrangements. Women were no longer bound to enter economically doomed marriages with unemployed males.

The third wave of feminism

A third wave of feminism developed in the early 1990s. The earlier second wave in the 1960s and 1970s primarily involved educated, middle-class white women. For many women, especially women of color, other social issues besides those focused on by feminists were more crucial to their survival and well-being. African American women faced racism issues in addition to gender prejudice. They believed white women were as much responsible for racial and other forms of prejudice against them as white men. In addition to women of color, the third wave of feminism also included lesbians and other women who did not conform to the values of white, middle-class, heterosexual women of the earlier first and second waves of feminism.

A brief period of expressing commonalities occurred in the 1970s. Earlier in 1973, black feminists formed the National Black Feminist Organization and held its first conference in New York City in 1973. Though clearly recognizing the different experiences of black women and white women in America, participants in that conference decided there were sufficient common goals with white feminists, such as violence, abortion, daycare, and job maternity leave, to justify support for the main feminist movement. The two groups worked well together through much of the 1970s, but not without infighting.

In 1980, women from around the world met in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the World Conference on Women. It was the second of a series of world conferences held by the United Nations since 1975 addressing greater equality and opportunities for women. The 1980 conference was marked by disagreements over what the priorities should be for women in the more oppressive societies of the world. Women from underdeveloped countries accused Western white women of trying to decide what their priorities for feminist action should be to fight gender prejudice.

A continuing lack of agreement between women activists around the world surfaced again at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt. Third World women protested at the conference that white Western feminists were focused on contraception and abortion, whereas their own concerns were aimed at poverty, hunger, and war. Though there was an understanding of those concerns, white feminists believed those were larger issues extending beyond feminists.

As feminism spread to other continents, Western feminists were shocked to learn of the conditions that women endured while living within various societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Women had to wear veils in public, live in forced marriages (marriages arranged by families with no choice allowed by the bride and groom), and suffer genital mutilation practices. In some societies, such as that of China, female babies were deliberately killed, a concept called infanticide. Females were less valued in that society where males traditionally added to the family income. Similar beliefs in the lesser value of women permeated Muslim societies. For example, the pronounced gender prejudice was highlighted by the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 1991. Taliban leaders placed many restrictions on women in Afghan society, such as banning education for girls.

Western white feminists began to address these issues of devaluing females often associated with Third World (nations lagging in economic development) nations. However, women in the underdeveloped countries saw white societies from a negative perspective. Often the lives of native women had been much better before the arrival of white colonialists decades or centuries earlier. They considered the source of their problems of poverty and prejudice to be the spread of Western white societies, including the women within them.

The Clarence Thomas Senate Hearings

In July 1991, U.S. president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) nominated black justice Clarence Thomas (1948–) to the U.S. Supreme Court. He had been serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia for a short time. Thomas became only the second African American to sit on the nation's highest court, replacing the first African American Supreme Court justice, the retiring Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993). Thomas was no stranger to controversy. After serving as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from 1982 to 1990, Thomas had faced a contentious nomination as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In reaction to his Supreme Court nomination, the American Bar Association, a national organization of lawyers, rated him lower than most recent nominees to the Court. Many pro-choice feminists supporting reproductive rights feared Thomas held a bias against the Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized the right of a woman to abort (end) her pregnancy, especially given his opposition to affirmative action programs. However, a surprise allegation was made during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when Anita Hill (1956–), an African American law professor from Oklahoma and former employee of Thomas at the EEOC, testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her a decade earlier. The widely followed hearings greatly increased public awareness about the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. The hearings also in part gave birth to the third wave of feminism. The new feminists were repelled as much by Hill's passive vulnerability by not legally fighting back at the time of the alleged sexist behaviors by Thomas's alleged actions. In regard to Thomas's nomination, the Committee found insufficient evidence of Hill's allegations and confirmed his nomination in October 1991. Charges of gender prejudice had their effect. The Senate vote for confirmation of Thomas's appointment, fifty-two to forty-eight, was the closest margin of victory for a Court nominee in the twentieth century.

Gradually throughout the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, some gains were made, such as elimination of female genital mutilation in many African countries and education for women in the urban areas of Afghanistan. Conditions still remained far different than in the West, where change in gender prejudice was seen in most parts of society.

The third wave of feminism that more prominently included women of color adopted the term womanism. To them, feminism was a term that had come to represent primarily white women's concerns. Womanism brought recognition to the working women of various racial and social class backgrounds. These women worked not by choice but out of pressing economic need. Black women in the United States contended that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had primarily brought social equality to black men, not black women. Social scientists and historians found support for this perspective.

Through the progress made against gender prejudice, young girls in parts of the world could more realistically dream of becoming politicians, professional athletes, scientists, and engineers in the early twenty-first century. Still, Western societies remained divided into male and female categories, with different acceptable behaviors associated with each. Consequences still occurred for deviating from the expected norm.

For More Information


Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. Reprint, 2001.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Hull, N. E. H., and Peter C. Hoffer. Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.


National Organization for Women (NOW). (accessed on November 21, 2006).

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