The term sexism denotes any system of beliefs, attitudes, practices, social norms, or institutional forms that functions to create or perpetuate invidious social distinctions among persons on the basis of their actual or presumed sex.
This characterization of sexism reflects a widespread consensus among feminist theorists and queer theorists that the phenomenon cannot be understood simply in terms of the prejudices or ill-intentioned behavior of individuals, but rather must be seen as involving wideranging social structures, structures that can affect both the meanings and consequences of the actions of individuals, even if such actions are otherwise benign.
Marilyn Frye (1983) has explained, in just these terms, the inadequacy of a definition of sexism as any act or policy involving an “irrelevant or impertinent marking of the distinction between sexes.” She then bids us to consider an employer who refuses to hire a woman for a managerial position on the stated grounds that his employees would not accept the authority of a woman.
We may suppose that the supervisor is right about his employees’ attitudes; thus the woman’s sex is, as things stand, relevant to her ability to do the managerial job. By this definition, then, the employer’s act of discrimination would not count as sexist, yet sexism is surely at work, somehow, in this situation.
The problem, Marilyn Frye argues, is that the definition fails to take account of the ways in which preexisting social conditions can make sex relevant in situations where it need not be, and should not be.
In this case, myriad factors had already conspired to create conditions in which the male employees would not be inclined to trust a woman’s judgment, or would not accept her possessing even limited authority over them.
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Such factors might include:
- a history of explicit, de jure discrimination against women, limiting their participation in public life and their opportunities to assume authoritative social roles;
- widespread belief (perhaps as a result of number one above) that women are incapable of carrying out the duties of a manager;
- gender norms that would make it humiliating for men to submit to the authority of a woman.
Another important point illustrated by this example is that sexism does not require bad intentions. In Frye’s case, we need not assume that the employer shares his workers’ prejudices. He may believe the woman to be otherwise qualified, and regret that circumstances make it unwise for him to hire her.
Whether he should be criticized for accommodating the sexist views of his employees is certainly a reasonable question, but it is not the same as the question whether the hiring decision was sexist. The point of recognizing sexism is not to indict and punish individuals, but rather to identify and alter all the factors that contribute to the subordination of women, where it is acknowledged that many of these will involve well-entrenched and perfectly mundane social practices.
Richard Wassserstrom (1977) has made the same point, distinguishing what he calls institutional racism and sexism from overt and covert racism and sexism. In the latter two cases, laws or policies are designed with the explicit intent of allocating unjustified burdens or unwarranted benefits to individuals on the basis of race or sex.
In the overt cases, the categories of race and sex are explicitly mentioned, whereas in the covert cases, the categories are represented by surrogates. Jim Crow laws in the United States and the denial of the franchise to women in the United States prior to 1920 exemplify overt racism and sexism, respectively.
The use of grandfather clauses after the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) to disenfranchise formerly enslaved black men, and workplace safety rules that bar from certain jobs anyone capable of becoming pregnant exemplify covert racism and sexism.
Institutional racism and sexism, however, differ from both covert and overt forms in that there need be no intention on anyone’s part to produce a racist or sexist consequence. Wasserstrom recognizes two sub-forms. The first involves regulations or practices that, while apparently neutral, operate against a social reality already configured by racism or sexism, so that their effects are to maintain or reinforce an unjust social hierarchy.
This may be the case with the practice of assigning children to schools on the basis of their neighborhoods—if there is de facto segregation in housing, then the assignment policy will lead to or sustain racial segregation of schools, even if no one intended that outcome.
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The second subform of institutional racism or sexism involves practices that embody—at a level not readily accessible to consciousness—racist or sexist concepts and presuppositions. Let us consider in this context the question, raised frequently by critics of feminism, whether it is sexist for a man to offer a seat to a woman on a bus.
It is certainly true that many men sincerely regard gestures of this sort as courteous and respectful, and are offended by the suggestion that the gestures denigrate women. Still, if one probes the larger meaning of these customs, it becomes clear that they are part of a system of conventions that symbolically express and prescribe women’s dependency upon and subordination to men. In the first place, there is no plausible moral or empirical rationale for making sex per se the criterion for the appropriateness of such a gesture.
General moral considerations dictate that any able-bodied person—regardless of their sex—ought to offer a seat to anyone who is visibly incapacitated or subject to physical stress; a person on crutches, someone struggling with packages, or someone obviously exhausted, as might be the case for a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. But these conditions are not connected to sex. The suggestion that women must be accorded respect in virtue simply of their being female is simply peculiar.
There are obvious rationales for social conventions encoding such a stance toward the elderly: Age correlates with experience and wisdom and younger people are generally indebted in various ways to older people. But there is no estimable quality that correlates with femaleness per se.
By contrast, the gestures and conventions we are considering make perfect sense in light of the prerequisites of a gender system that makes physical weakness normative for women (the “weaker sex”) and physical strength and control normative for men. Such gestures express the relationship that ought to hold between men and women.
In a system of social organization in which men hold, or are assumed to hold, real power over women, conventional acts of faux deference by men to women (such as a man’s rising when a woman enters the room) function not as symbols of genuine respect, but rather as expressions of noblesse oblige.
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Feminist theorists agree that the kinds of gender roles that exist in patriarchal societies are the raw material of sexism, but disagree about whether the elimination of sexism requires the complete dismantling of gender roles, or only their reform. Some feminist theorists argue that any way of attaching systematic social significance to biological sex will inevitably prove sexist.
Theorists of this sort include so-called humanistic feminists, who hold that biological sex is a property accidental to, and thus morally irrelevant to one’s humanity (De Beauvoir 1973, Nussbaum 1999, Antony 1998), and dominance theorists, who hold that gender differences are constructed ex post facto to mask or rationalize preestablished power disparities).
All such theorists point out that gender roles function to enforce both sexual dimorphism (the demand that one be clearly identifiable and self-identified as either male or female), and compulsory heterosexism (the requirement that one’s erotic interest be focused exclusively on individuals of the opposite gender).
These restrictive social norms are not only deeply oppressive to transgendered and nonheterosexual people, but distorting and limiting for all members of a human society. Theorists who hold this position generally believe that a great deal of the content of gender roles is socially constructed—that there is no natural necessity linking the components of biological sex (morphology, endocrinology, and genetics) to the features of particular gender roles.
But the issue of the naturalness of gender roles is in fact orthogonal to the question whether such roles should be socially enforced. Myopic people are biologically (and probably genetically) different from nonmyopic individuals; nonetheless, we assign no social significance to this difference, and in fact acknowledge a social obligation to mitigate the natural consequences of poor eyesight.
Other feminist theorists hold that there is nothing inherently wrong with the existence of gender roles, and that such roles could, in a different social context, be liberatory and beneficial for all. On this view, sexism is constituted by two things: a) the gratuitous attachment of undesirable qualities, such as physical weakness, to the feminine gender role; and b) the widespread devaluation of central elements of that role, such as emotional sensitivity.
According to these theorists, sometimes called gynocentric or difference feminists, facts about the female role in biological reproduction have inherent social significance, and so there is no serious prospect for eliminating social roles erected on the basis of reproductive difference (Young 1985). Central, then, to a feminine gender role will be the social role of mothering.
Because the individuals who have been the predominant occupiers of this role are women, and because women have historically lacked social power, the virtues necessary for the proper performance of this role (e.g., empathy, cooperativeness, imaginativeness, nurturance, and altruism) have been devalued.
To dismantle sexism, these feminine virtues must be recognized as being as important to morality as masculine virtues such as impartiality (Gilligan 1982) and greater social support must be provided those who fulfill such typically feminine roles as tending children, caring for the sick, and managing social relationships.
Closely allied with gynocentric feminists are ecofeminists, who think that women’s greater involvement with the bodily realities of birth, growth, and even death (in their roles as nurses and caregivers) create for women a more intimate relationship with the natural world than men have).
This, in turn,makes women more apt than men to strive for ways of life that are harmonious with nature, with nonhuman animals, and with other human beings. All these theorists agree that war and other forms of violence reflect the sexist devaluation of the feminine, and that a proper appreciation of feminine virtues is essential to producing peace.
This dispute within feminist theory about the nature of sexism has implications for social and legal policy. Gynocentric feminists charge that humanistic feminists are guilty of androcentrism—taking the male as the paradigm of the human.
If laws and social institutions take no account of differences between men and women, then women will be forever socially and economically disadvantaged by policies and practices centered on male needs, abilities, and interests. Humanistic feminists counter that they find the content of masculine gender roles just as objectionable as the content of feminine roles, and equally in need of elimination.
The revalued gender roles envisioned by gynocentric feminists reflect a romanticized view of female experience, and threaten to legitimate a host of sexist stereotypes and prescriptions. Laws and policies should be based on parameters rationally related to the issue involved, parameters that will sometimes coincide with sex differences, but will more often not.
Feminist theorists have been increasingly concerned with understanding interactions among sexism and a host of other systems of oppressive social division, including racism, heterosexism, class oppression, ageism (invidious division on the basis of age), and ableism (invidious division on the basis of physical capacities), ethnocentrism, and jingoism. Critical legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw has introduced the notion of intersectionality to capture the sui generis character of multidimensional oppression.
Postmodern feminist theorists have appealed to this ever-increasing list of interacting parameters of identity to deconstruct categories such as sex and race, aruging that no one is simply or straightforwardly a woman or a black person, but that the self is essentially fragmented and fluid. However, they acknowledge the difficulty of making sense of oppression without appeal to such categories.