Sexism: An Introduction

Apparently a large number of white American middle-aged males have recently unearthed an undercurrent of sexism in American society.  Welcome to the twentieth century, guys.  You have a little catching up to do.

First, some definitions are in order, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.  Teasing apart the distinctions among sexism, chauvinism, feminism, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and misogyny is complicated (there are in fact whole graduate programs in Women’s Studies at most major universities dedicated to the analysis of the topic).  But let’s start with the basic ism.

Most isms are understood to be the a stereotyping of individual behavior based on group membership.  Sexism is the prejudice that an individual woman’s behavior can be inferred from the norms of all women over any individual characteristic, and the expectation that her behavior as a woman is more important than her behavior as an individual.  In its original and base form, it holds that because women in general are inferior to men in general in some respects, an individual woman’s rights and abilities are presumed to be less than an individual man’s.

For thousands of years, women were considered the possession of men.  Until the nineteenth century, a married woman in America could not hold title to property in her own name.  When John McCain’s mother (alive today), was born, women were not legally allowed to vote in the United States.  Until the 1940s, much employment outside the home was closed to women; until the 1960s, no woman had ever sat on the New York Stock Exchange or headed a Fortune 500 corporation, and even today, women are not allowed to serve in combat roles in the US Armed Forces or to serve as priests in the Catholic Church.  The presumption of inability or inferiority is the most visible example of sexism.

That doesn’t mean that, to be non-sexist, women have to be considered “equal” to men, or that any given occupation should be represented by women and men in proportion to their population.  If the presumption of inability based on sex is sexism, then the presumption of ability based on sex is sexist, too.  The remedy for sexism is individual consideration.  Firefighters, for example, are a historically male-exclusive group.  All firefighters go through the same training and pass the same tests.  Weak men and weak women both wash out; strong men and strong women both pass.  Equal employment is not the goal, but equal opportunity is.

The second major effect of sexism is to make the shared attribute of the group more appropriate than the individual’s own.  This is objectification.  Even when those women firefighters prove they’re tough enough for the job, they still have to face their male peers who see them as women first and firefighters second (if at all).  Often, men are accustomed to mixing male socializing with work so much as to make them indistinguishable, and the line between, say, working competition between peers and male competition for female attention is very hard to discern.  Men who can’t see past clothing choices, body parts, and sexual potential in a working peer are sexist. 

Again, this doesn’t mean that to be non-sexist, men and women can’t dress attractively, compliment each other’s appearance, or even flirt and date.  It means that those social interactions have to be secondary to the professional relationship, and that preferences can’t be granted to one individual on the basis of sex, for example, picking a woman over a man as a companion for a business trip due to a sexual fantasy, or promoting a woman with larger breasts to a position more visible to male clients.  That’s objectification.

So when people look at the commentary on the Republican vice-presidential nominee, those who have an unformed notion of sexism may see things as sexist that actually aren’t, and also miss (or practice) blatant sexism themselves.

  • Was the selection of Palin itself sexist? I think not.  The primary motivation was her cred in the pro-life movement, which has rejuvenated McCain’s candidacy.  That cred is stronger due to her having borne five children, but she was selected for an ideology first. That said, the fact that Palin was picked over dozens of other better candidates might have something to do with her physical appearance.  Age-balancing the ticket isn’t sexist, but a “trophy veep” would be.
  • Would voting against McCain/Palin because a woman is not capable of being Vice President (or President) be sexist?  Of course.
  • Would voting for McCain/Palin because she’s a woman be sexist? Possibly.  The fullest form of this would be the notion that “any woman would be better than most men,” which is not something I’ve heard.  And McCain might get credit for picking a woman over less- or equally-qualified men, except it’s clear that Palin is woefully unprepared for the job.  
  • Is calling Palin woefully unprepared for the job sexist? No, it’s a fact.  McCain himself, Karl Rove, and Joe Scarborough all dismissed the experience of mayors and short-timer governors Giuliani, Romney, and Kaine.  Holding Palin to similar standards is not sexist, but excusing her from those standards because she’s a woman would be.
  • VPILF is sexist.  It’s objectification, plain and simple.  Sexual appeal is a qualification for a relationship, and actress, or a professional sex worker, but not the Vice President of the United States.  
  • “McCain/Babe ’08”, “Coldest State with the Hottest Governor,” “POW/WOW,” “The Hero and the Hottie” are sexist.  The Sexy Librarian meme is sexist.  
  • Descriptive and derisive terms that apply exclusively to women are not necessarily sexist: “Princess,” “bitch” if and only if parallel criticisms are made of men in similar situations.  
  • Disparagements that are not specifically sex-directed, but play into sexual stereotypes may be sexist if undefended.  Calling Palin dimwitted with no supporting evidence would sound sexist, implying the missing “…like all women.”  Calling her dimwitted because of a specific action or statement is not necessarily sexist, if a man who made the same statement would also be so labeled.
  • Quips that obliquely allude to her sex are not sexist.  “Lipstick on a pig” wasn’t a sexist gibe thirty years ago, and it isn’t now.
  • Assertions that she’s not really a feminist are not sexist.  They’re based on her individual positions, not on her sex.  
  • Any discussion of her status as a motherhood would be considered sexist had she not made it a central part of her campaign and personal narrative.  The topic is fair game because she made it so.  That said, general disparagement of the roles of mothers is not only sexist, but unwise.
  • On the other hand, equating personal forcefulness in the context of the PTA or high-school hockey games to that needed by a national leader is not sexist, simply irrational. There’s a reason we 200 million parents, 50 senators, and one Vice President: the more important jobs are supposed to be harder, and require more training and expertise.

After this is all over, conservatives are going to have to integrate the notion of not-being-sexist into their political ethic, and they’ll have to do it from a novel direction.  The conservative attitude about sexism has been that of “political correctness:” a silly denial of the realities of the common-sense difference between men and women by thin-skinned people who seek to control others’ thoughts.  When they realize that sexism should be shunned because it is a) fundamentally disrespectful to people and b) leads to mistakes in the evaluation of individual character, they might trumpet the Conservative Discovery of Sexism as their newest triumph, and make its elimination a new moral imperative.  And wonder why liberals are still so sexist after all these years. 


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