It has been called the world’s oldest oppression: sexism. Sexism is the name given to the systematic oppression of women. In its most obvious forms, sexism includes conscious, deliberate, and overt discrimination against women, such as denying women the right to vote or own property, as was the practice in the United States in the early 19th century and is still seen in other parts of the world. At the other end of the continuum, it also includes subtle behaviors and attitudes that might go unnoticed in everyday life; sexism is operating anytime a woman is expected (or expects herself) to diet to extreme thinness, maintain a youthful appearance in perpetuity, downplay her own competence, accept verbal or physical mistreatment, or otherwise “know her place.” Although the conceptual isolation of sexism is useful for the purposes of discussion, it is important to note that sexism is just one part of an interlocking system of oppression that also includes racism, heterosexism, and classism, among others. So although some overarching themes can be explored with regard to sexism, these themes play out differently in the lives of women of color, lesbians, bisexual women, transgendered people, and poor and working-class women.
Sexism, Patriarchy, and Feminism
Understanding sexism begins with understanding patriarchy, the context in which sexism occurs. In The Gender Knot, Allan Johnson explained that a patriarchal society is one whose power structures, values, norms, and institutions are specifically male-identified. In other words, positions of power and authority tend to be occupied by men, important resources are generally controlled by men, values tend to reflect stereo-typically masculine strengths and characteristics, norms are shaped around the ways that men live their lives, and institutions and their procedures tend to advance and promote the needs and success of men. In a patriarchy, the privileged status of men is rooted deep in society’s subconscious, so that well-intentioned men and women who would oppose outright gender discrimination often unintentionally hold and perpetuate sexist stereotypes. American society’s continuing patriarchal nature can be seen in such realities as the nearly all-male makeup of the nation’s chief executive officers (CEOs) and legislators, as well as the vast gap between the amounts of income and wealth accruing to men and women. Patriarchy places men at the center of American cultural expression, whether in music, literature, or the movies; important contributions by women film directors or composers are often singled out as being noteworthy on that basis alone. Patriarchy explains the fact that, whereas assaults against individuals on the basis of most group memberships merit special designation and prosecution as “hate crimes,” violence against women does not capture people’s attention in the same way.
The movement to end sexism is called feminism. Feminism is frequently characterized as having evolved in three “waves.” The first wave took shape in the late 1800s and focused on securing fundamental legal rights for women, culminating in the right to vote for women in 1920. Second-wave feminists moved beyond these basics in the 1960s and 1970s to work for broader personal, political, social, economic, and sexual equity among men and women. The objectives that second-wave feminists took on were, therefore, not only conceptually more complex but also more controversial: Whereas the double standard involved in disenfranchising half the American adult population was relatively clear-cut, the deconstruction of deeply held beliefs about conventional gender roles and relationships presented a much more complex challenge to mainstream understanding. Second-wave feminists elucidated and confronted sexism as manifested in such important issues as sexual harassment, images of women in the media, violence against women, pay inequities between men and women, limits on women’s reproductive freedom, and the oppressive underpinnings of conventional heterosexuality.
Even this second wave of the women’s movement, however, had thus far failed to address issues of race, class, and sexual orientation as they intersect with sexism, resulting in a feminism that spoke primarily to the experiences of White heterosexual middle-class women. Influential African American feminist authors such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Angela Davis were among the scholars whose work helped to illuminate the intersections of multiple oppressions within patriarchy. In 1983, Alice Walker introduced the term womanism to refer to Black feminism and the feminism of women of color. Placing the experiences of women of color at its center, Walker defined womanism as emphasizing wholeness, spirit, strength, and community, a valuing of African American heritage, and a cherishing of other women of color.
The second wave of feminism, then, inspired important legal, medical, and social protections for women. It also spurred an emotionally charged, contentious response from some corners that resulted in what has been called the “backlash” against feminism in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of this regressive trend, the word feminism itself was cast in a negative light; even many women who affirmed their disapproval of sexist discrimination now wished to disassociate themselves from the feminist movement. Beginning in the 1990s, however, a generation of women young enough to have benefited from feminist accomplishments all their lives advanced a third wave of feminism, which emphasized the intersectionality of sexism with other aspects of identity, broadening feminist discourse to incorporate queer theory, women-of-color feminism, and postcolonialism.
Sexism in the United States
The Wage Gap
The wage gap is one of the most obvious and enduring examples of the continuing presence of sexism in American culture. Despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, which outlawed sex discrimination regarding pay, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2005 that for every dollar that a man earns, a woman earns 77 cents. The same report demonstrated that women are 40% more likely to live in poverty than are men. The National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of legal, educational, professional, and civil rights organizations, explained in 2005 that women workers are concentrated in low-wage paying occupations such as clerical, service, and sales positions; furthermore, as women workers become more prevalent in an occupational segment, income levels there decrease. A 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that even when differences in work-related factors such as occupation, job tenure, and experience are accounted for, an unexplained 20% wage gap remains; this gap is attributable to discrimination. Intersections with racism mean that the wage gap for women of color is even more severe. In 2000, African American women’s average weekly wages were 64% of the wages of White men, while Latinas earned just 52% of that amount.
The Glass Ceiling
One of the reasons that women workers tend to be found at the lower end of the pay scale is that corporate hierarchies do not advance women at the same rates as men, often promoting them only as far as the so-called glass ceiling. First labeled as such by the Wall Street Journal in 1986, the U.S. Department of Labor convened the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991 to study this phenomenon, defining it as an artificial, bias-related barrier that prevented qualified employees from advancing into management-level positions. In 1995, the Commission’s final report documented the unquestionable presence of the glass ceiling with regard to women and people of color, finding that although women held more than 45% of the nation’s jobs, 95% of senior managers were men. Furthermore, those women who were managers earned only 68% of what men made in similar positions. Ten years later, Catalyst, a research firm that tracks women’s experiences in a wide range of workplaces reported that 50.3% of all professional and management positions and 1.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women. Six of these seven women were White; Andrea Jung, CEO of cosmetics maker Avon Products, is Asian American. In their 2005 study of corporate leaders titled “Men ‘Take Charge’ and Women ‘Take Care,'” Catalyst researchers found that both men and women considered women to be more supportive but less leaderful than men and that men (but not women) believed that women are not good problem solvers.
Business is, of course, not the only workplace setting in which a glass ceiling is operational. In 2006, the New York Times reported that although law schools have been graduating equal numbers of men and women for roughly 2 decades, and although firms have been hiring graduates in comparable numbers, the percentage of women dwindles drastically in terms of who is promoted to the higher tiers of the firm: Approximately 17% of the partners at major law firms nationwide were women in 2005. Inadequate mentoring of women by predominantly male partners was cited as a factor, as was the fact that much of the networking and development opportunities that can advance a law career tend to take place in stereotypically male environments, such as football games or the golf course. Similarly, the American Association of Medical Colleges reported in 2001 that although 45% of medical students were women, there was an average of 21 women full professors per academic medical center, compared with 161 men at that rank. As for senior administrative positions, just 7.5% of medical department chairs nationwide were women. Women comprise one third of American journalists, according to Indiana University’s 2003 American Journalist Survey, yet a 2001 study by Annenberg Public Policy Center found that, among top media executives, women occupy only 13% of those positions.
Another expression of sexism that can occur in a woman’s place of work is sexual harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects employment, interferes with work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. In 1979, feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon pioneered the analysis of this issue in her book The Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Before MacKinnon’s analysis was published, sexual harassment was often considered to be a normal, biologically based instance of “boys being boys”; MacKinnon was instrumental in explicating it as a discriminatory misuse of power within workplace culture. Today, many businesses actively educate employees about this form of discrimination, and the EEOC reports that 12,679 reports of sexual harassment were filed in 2005, as compared to a high of 15,889 in 1997.
Women’s Physical Health
A nonsexist framework for understanding the prevalence of certain disorders among women locates them within a patriarchal context, bringing a focus to such issues as body image, eating disorders, sexual health, reproductive freedom, and the pathologizing of women’s experiences through conventional mental health diagnostic practices. Throughout history, women’s behaviors and feelings have been given various explanations and diagnostic labels by male-dominated society. Hippocrates warned that women who remained virgins for longer than was appropriate would find that their menstrual periods brought on visions, murderous rage, and a longing for death; women whose behavior did not conform to conventional expectations were hunted as witches for centuries. In the 19th century, medical textbooks portrayed women as the puppets of their ovaries and uterus, organs which were considered to be responsible for myriad mental and physical complaints as well as for the generally flighty nature and immature judgment seen as hallmarks of the feminine character.
In fact, the favorite diagnostic label for women of the late 19th century (which can still be heard today), hysteria, is derived from the Greek word for uterus.
Other forms of oppression also impact women’s health, as evidenced by statistical data regarding the well-being of women of color. In 2002, the National Institute of Health released a report documenting the shorter life expectancies of women of color as compared with White women. Elevated risk factors were heart disease, cancer (especially African American women), diabetes (all women of color), cerebrovascular diseases (especially Native Americans), unintentional injuries, and HIV/AIDS (especially African American women). Eighty percent of all new cases of HIV/AIDS in women occurred among African American women and Latinas. Women of color were also at greater risk to give birth to low-birth-weight babies, to report unmet mental health needs, to be obese, and to be without health insurance. The cumulative impact of sexism and racism, compounded by the overrepresentation of both women and people of color among the nation’s poor, leaves women of color the most vulnerable of all Americans in terms of basic health care.
Contraceptives are an important form of health care for women, enabling them to make basic decisions regarding their own fertility and sexual health. In December 2000, the EEOC moved to protect women from sexist deterrents to sexual health when it ruled that an employer’s exclusion of contraceptives from its health insurance plan constituted impermissible sex discrimination. Protection of these rights has not always been consistent, however; in 2005, the Center for Reproductive Rights sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for violating its own procedures and statutes as it failed to approve the emergency contraceptive product Plan B for over-the-counter status. Emergency contraception, also known as “the morning after pill,” reduces the risk of pregnancy when it is taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. As of 2006, the federal government completed 3 years of its delay in providing a ruling on the distribution of Plan B. In a 2006 statement titled “The War on Women,” Planned Parenthood explained its view that restricted access to contraceptives, the funding of medically unsound abstinence-only sex education programs, and the resulting reduction in access to family planning represented critical human rights violations regarding the health and empowerment of women.
In 1973, the Supreme Court established constitutional protection of a woman’s right to choose abortion in the well-known case Roe v. Wade. This ruling was in accord with advocates of women’s rights and nonsexist reforms of women’s health care, who pointed out that preventing a woman from exercising fundamental freedoms regarding her own body, including the rights to regulate fertility and terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy, constituted a particularly overt demonstration of gender discrimination. Simultaneously, this ruling inspired the growth of the anti-reproductive rights movement, and the National Organization for Women estimates that the backlash to Roe v. Wade began in earnest when the Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut ban on public funding for abortion in 1977. Since 2000, the federal government has moved to limit women’s reproductive freedom through such acts as the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban, which does not include an exception to preserve a woman’s health. Most recently, the governor of the State of South Dakota signed a bill banning all abortions outright except in cases where the woman would otherwise die; survivors of rape or incest or women whose health or fertility were at risk were not protected. The citizens of South Dakota subsequently rejected the bill by a margin of 55% to 45%.
Women’s Emotional Health
Feminist analysis has examined the ways that conventional psychological theory and psychopathological nomenclature are themselves derived from patriarchal constructions of femininity. Hope Landrine’s work demonstrated that stereotypical assumptions about women’s behavior form the basis for such personality disorders (PDs) as histrionic PD and dependent PD. In Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler elaborated on this issue, explaining the double bind that women are placed in as a result: While both men and women who show these personality characteristics are considered ill, women will also be labeled as deviant if they fail to enact them to some degree. Along these lines, feminist psychologist and scholar Laura Brown has suggested that conceptions of mental illness derived from dominant culture norms have limited utility for understanding the difficulties experienced by members of subordinated groups, many of which might be more properly understood as “oppression artifact disorders.”
Working as they do from gender-biased representations of mental health and disorder, it is not surprising that counselors’ attitudes toward women clients can be compromised by sexist stereotyping. Beginning with the work of I. K. Broverman in the 1970s, findings have demonstrated that clinicians have different standards and conceptions regarding the mental health of men and women, with typical adult women conceptualized as having characteristics incompatible with mentally healthy functioning more frequently than are typical adult men. Based on these analyses, feminist psychologists began in the 1960s to describe the ways that traditional approaches to psychotherapeutic practice were misapplied, and even oppressive, with regard to women clients. Women’s experiences of living in connection to others were often pathologized by therapists schooled in the patriarchal belief that autonomy should represent the pinnacle of emotional development, and the power-over configuration of the conventional psychodynamic therapist-client dyad was shown to reproduce the subordinate position that women occupied in the larger society. Feminist counseling approaches were conceptualized to affirm the lived experiences of women, to encompass the oppression-related components of women’s stories and struggles, and to facilitate empowerment within a collaborative working relationship. An example of one such approach is relational-cultural therapy, which originated with the work of Jean Baker Miller and continues to be elaborated by psychologists at Wellesley College’s Stone Center. Taking women’s experiences at the crossroads of multiple oppressions as a point of departure, relational-cultural theory posits that psychological connection, rather than separation, is most crucial to understanding optimal human growth and development. The counseling relationship, then, is reframed with an emphasis on mutuality, empathic connection, and power sharing.
Cultural Representations of Women
Representations of women in the media, particularly in advertising, have been analyzed over the years for their sexist depictions of women. Contemporary popular culture features women in a much wider variety of roles than were seen decades ago, yet whether they are doctors, lawyers, housewives, detectives, or psychics, women are still portrayed as overwhelmingly young, thin, beautiful, White, and dressed in the latest fashions. Patriarchal emphasis on women as objects of men’s attentions, combined with the bottom-line motivations of the billion-dollar fashion and cosmetics industries, compels women to conform to this culturally prescribed feminine ideal; as Susan Brownmiller explained in her 1984 book Femininity, to fall short in one’s achievement of “the feminine difference” is to appear not to care about men, to risk the loss of their attention and approval, and to thereby relinquish one’s core identity as defined within a patriarchal context.
Culturally constructed ideals of female beauty are frequently used to sell products featured in advertisements, and the toxic environment that this creates for women has been explored by media analysts such as Jean Kilbourne, author of Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. Commercial images are increasingly more unrealistic, thanks to the development of digital photo-enhancement technology, and frequently depict thin, young, partially nude White women posed in sensual or sexual contexts. Older women, when depicted at all, are also presented in ways that reinforce the predominant commercial image: Most often they appear uncommonly youthful and are selling cosmetics, drugs, or surgeries promising to offer the same. Women of color and larger-sized women are, for the most part, invisible or relegated to specific niche markets. Such images create anxiety for women, regarding the appearance of their own normal, healthy bodies, and are a factor in the development of eating disorders, body dysmorphic syndromes, and the abuse of diet regimes and medications. With regard to women of color in particular, these images simultaneously enforce a White beauty ideal, paving the way for sales of hair straighteners, skin bleaches, and colored contact lenses.
Problems with body image and eating illustrate the relationship between cultural messages to women regarding their appearance and the ways that women care for their own bodies. Susie Orbach, author of the 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, explored the idea that, in a patriarchal context, weight gain can be seen as a form of rebellion against these often-impossible standards. In 1991, Naomi Wolf elaborated on this theme in The Beauty Myth, relating the cultural obsession with smaller-sized women to a patriarchal enforcement of their diminished status in society. Pointing to a cultural backlash against feminism, Wolf demonstrated that the more equity women have achieved, the more harshly cultural prescriptions for beauty have constrained them, as seen in the upsurge in anorexia, bulimia, cosmetic surgery, and diet pills and products.
Violence against Women
Patriarchal oppression has life-threatening consequences when it is expressed through violence against women. Many women have experienced everyday forms of violence, such as sexual comments on the street, acquaintance rape, obscene phone calls, or sexual harassment at work, aggressions that society often sanctions by blaming the woman herself: She “asked for it,” her attire was too provocative, she has no sense of humor, and so forth. Unfortunately, significant numbers of women also face more serious threats to their safety and health. The National Organization for Women reported in 2005 that one in six women will experience rape. Half of women who report rape are under the age of 18, and 22% are under the age of 12. Estimates are that domestic violence affects from 2 to 4 million women each year, with at least 170,000 of those attacks being serious enough to require emergency room care. According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, pornography also represents a form of violence against women, in that it legitimizes the degradation and maltreatment of women and asserts their subordinate function with regard to men.
Sexism, like other forms of oppression, is learned by both dominant and subordinate members of society, with the result that women themselves, intentionally or not, participate in the enforcement of oppressive restrictions in their own lives and on other women. When women take oppressive, patriarchal definitions of femininity into the deepest levels of their own identity, it is called internalized oppression. In other words, when women believe in their own inadequacy, when they feel that they cannot be seen without makeup on their faces, when their speech is characterized by expressions of tentativeness and uncertainty, when they attempt to conceal their intelligence, when they disparage other women who speak up, when they wear comfortable clothing, or when they otherwise defy conventional stereotypes, they are revealing the extent to which they have internalized their own oppression. In her 2003 book Women’s Inhumanity to Women, Phyllis Chesler explored the ways that women wound themselves and each other by gossiping and scapegoating other women, allowing their relationships with women to be competitive and transient as they prioritize obtaining the attentions of men. Women’s reluctance to associate themselves with movements of women can be seen as part of this trend, reminiscent of the old Groucho Marx line, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.” bell hooks has described the paradoxical phenomenon that is created by this reluctance: modern women who have benefited throughout their lives from feminist-generated social reforms yet go to great lengths to insist that they are not feminists.
Women of color and queer women internalize double and triple doses of oppression. In her book Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr elucidated the linkages between homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism. Attacks and discrimination against lesbians and gay men serve to enforce the traditional heterosexual power structure, in that adults who break ranks by defying conventional sex role behaviors— women who are not dependent on men, men who do not structure their identities around difference from and dominance of women—are ostracized. To identify as a lesbian, then, is to be stigmatized as the ultimate outsider within a patriarchal context. In her book Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde explored the anger, suffering, and self-rejection that racism, heterosexism, and patriarchy create, dividing women of color from themselves and each other.
Feminists are sometimes speciously dismissed as advocating something like a reversal of dominant-subordinate sex roles as the alternative to sexism. In fact, a world beyond sexism is envisioned as one in which both men and women are free to live, learn, work, and love without the confinement, the posturing, and the damage imposed by patriarchal sex role requirements. As bell hooks explained in her book of the same title, feminism is for everybody.
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