Defining Sexism

Candace, 02 August 2005, No comments
Categories: Academia, Feminism, Feminist Theory, Sexism, Women's Studies

Defining sexism is difficult because whether feminists view sexism in terms of women’s oppression or male privilege they face serious difficulties, such that neither definition is preferable to the other. Each of these methods neglects important issues and combining the two definitions leaves further issues unaddressed. This paper will outline the difficulties associated with defining sexism in terms of women’s oppression, the difficulties with defining sexism in terms of male privilege, and explores issues that must be considered when creating a constructive definition of sexism.

Defining sexism in terms of female oppression victimizes women. Regardless of the reality of the barriers women face, Marilyn Frye’s analogy of the birdcage labels women victims of systemic pressures (Frye 4). Rather than seeking solutions and trying to improve women’s position, society, primarily men, is blamed for the way women are treated. Women view themselves and are viewed by society as helpless. Their potential to create change is not recognized nor is their agency encouraged. Sexism becomes women’s problem and there is no motivation for members of society at large to make changes in their attitudes or behaviour.

Defining sexism in terms of male privilege is also inadequate. Men are targeted as ‘the enemy’. As hooks says, previously “labeling men ‘the enemy’ or ‘male chauvinist pigs’ was perhaps an effective way for women to begin making the critical separation that would enable rebellion to begin” but now hooks acknowledges the importance of including men if any sort of lasting transformation of society is to occur (hooks 127). hooks considers the importance of open communication between men and women (hooks 130). Labeling impedes communication development. In order to progress to a post-sexist society it is important to move beyond an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

If sexism is defined in terms of male privilege, any improvements are credited to patriarchal ideals. Any improvements are linked to changes in men’s behaviour, and not as resulting from women’s agency. Men’s own status is raised by anti-sexist gestures and activities, whereas women’s agency to end women’s oppression raises women’s status. Implicit in these definitions of sexism is that only a finite amount of power is available and any increase in women’s power results in a decrease in men’s power. Competition develops regarding who is or was responsible for change rather than a communal sense that change benefits everyone. Any acts of change rooted solely in patriarchal culture would likely be superficial, for example in employment or mentoring opportunities rather than alleviating the systemic oppression that Frye describes (Frye 3). Fully eliminating sexism from society requires more than hiring more women in non-traditional jobs or teaching women how to act like male managers. Sexism is experienced from birth and its elimination rests on removing gender labels, not emphasizing them. Frye discusses the relationship between socialization and sexism, suggesting that social pressures mold us, but that we are malleable and changeable (Frye 37). Oppression or privilege based on sex is therefore something that is changeable.

Defining sexism in terms of women’s oppression or men’s privilege implies blame for the situation and ownership of the problem. If sexism is based on women’s oppression then women’s oppression is something that women have allowed to occur. Men cause women’s oppression so therefore men must change. If sexism is defined based on men’s privilege then men are the root of the inequality because men experience male privilege. Therefore, again men must change. Root responsibility and blame are imbalanced when calculating which group is responsible for change. Neither focus requires women to be responsible for their situation. Defining sexism in either of these terms requires either that men cease their oppression, forfeit their privilege, or both. It is important to consider the connection between theory and practice and reflect on whether it is preferable to assign blame or to take action towards ending sexism. Accusations of blame raise defenses, which can lead to aggression, which can result in events like those of the Montréal Massacre where14 women were killed because of their sex. In order to create lasting change cooperation, not alienation, is required. Cooperation does not result from labeling, or continual complaining.

Listing, analyzing and categorizing women’s problems or disadvantages becomes paramount when there is a focus on women’s oppression or men’s privilege. Instead of creating bonds between like-minded dynamos who want to educate and transform society, pity-gathering becomes the focus. Change is scary. Women who identity themselves as victims are fearful of change because change requires constructing a new identity and this is difficult. It is safer and easier to maintain victim status than to change. Frye calls this a double bind situation, where a woman has no real choices (Frye 3). In this case, women can stay victims and continue being oppressed which is familiar or they can choose to act in uncharacteristic ways, asserting themselves for change, which can be scary especially when they are not guaranteed success (Frye 3).

Defining sexism in terms of women’s oppression or men’s advantage is unhelpful because both perspectives force the identification of gender. This perpetuates the dichotomizing of sex and gender when not all people fit into one of these two categories. The dual culture approach maintains a focus on inequality. Status develops from categorization. The energy used to maintaining gender division detracts from focusing on crediting any positive action taken, any successes, and maintains a cynical view of the world. If gender is a continuum, these two definitions neglect to include any person who does not identify as male or female. A transgendered female or transmale is either not represented in either definition or is identified in both definitions simultaneously as victim, oppressor and privileged.

Inherent in these definitions is the assumption that sexism advantages all men, and oppresses all women; there is no regard for individual experience within each group. Some men are disadvantaged, for example, gay men, black men, and poor men often do not experience the benefits of patriarchy felt by upper class white males. Some women suffer more oppression than others do. Race matters, as does sexual identity. This is different from Frye’s suggestion that suffering occurs without oppression and that the two words are not mutually exclusive (Frye, 1). While a black lesbian woman will suffer because of her race, her sexuality, and her gender it is important to identify that a person cannot compartmentalize his or her experiences of oppression and proceed to rank which category causes him or her the most oppression. Nor can an individual always pinpoint which feature of his or her identity (gender, race, sexuality, size, ability, socio-economic status) is the cause of a particular experience of oppression. Another problem is identified when it is recognized that not all women suffer. Defining sexism in terms of women’s oppression or men’s privilege compartmentalizes a person rather than looking at them holistically as an individual.

The challenge of defining sexism begins from the first utterance of the word. The word is stigmatized, and requires individuals to perpetuate sex-marking. As long as sex-marking occurs the focus on the differences between men and women will be more important that the similarities, and people who do not fall into one category or the other will be excluded.

Works Cited

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. California: The Crossing Press. 1983.

hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 1989.


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