if you work to end sexism, you’re probably a feminist.
After Hj Hornbeck posted a riff on Siggy’s original question (that riff is found here), I felt compelled to create my own post, with failed sarcasm calling this discussion a Fiiiiiiiiiggghht. In that, I repeated my proto-definition of feminism where Hj Hornbeck and others found it, furthering the conversation by discussing the perils of gate-keeping as well as other topics.
But let’s allow those topics to continue being discussed in their original venues. I’m interested in this astute reply to my definition delivered by Hj Hornbeck:
That’s great, but what is “sexism?” How we define that term has a dramatic effect on the definition of “feminism,” so you’ve effectively substituted one ill-defined term for another.
I had been mindful of that as I wrote, but as both my readers are well aware I can go off at length sometimes following one rabbit hole until it connects to another, and before long you’re reading a description of an entire warren. Where I originally placed that comment I hadn’t wanted to extend the comments too far. Now? Now it seems appropriate.
This is especially true because differences in how sexism are defined are at the heart of what makes radical feminism the radical feminism that it is. Now, you should already be familiar with the maxim:
Oppression = Prejudice + Power
Specific forms then would appear like so:
Racism = Racial Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one race relative to another
Sexism would then be
Sexism = Sex Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one sex relative to another
Now, people can’t actually identify the sex of the people with whom they’re interacting on a daily bases, so at a functional level a sexist society is going to have to identify proxies for sex that are easily identifiable. These proxies, taken together, form an important component of gender. So at that functional level, we’re going to get definition that looks more like
Sexism = Gender Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one gender relative to another
The significance of the proxy status of gender will become important another time, but for now let’s set that aside. Instead, remember other discussions we’ve had were we note that racial prejudice on its own is not racism. Likewise, according to this definition, sex prejudice on its own is not sexism. So using these definitions we can say that (in the contemporary US at least) the blanket ill-will that some people of color may direct against other people for their white race may be condemnable, and is certainly racial prejudice, but it isn’t racism. Likewise, the sex prejudice that a female person in the contemporary US might feel for other persons solely for their male sex might be condemnable, and is certainly sex prejudice, but is not sexism.
So if, as I’ve asserted,
if you work to end sexism, you’re probably a feminist
then you need not, as a goal, have the end of sex prejudice in mind, only the ends of systems of oppression. The really surprising thing, since this post’s definition of oppression (and thus of sexism) post-dates radical feminism, is that this observation in another form was what spawned 2nd wave feminism more broadly, and radical feminism specifically.
Previous feminisms had formulated their strategies to end sexism through, for example,
- class analysis (Marxist feminism, where if women’s labor is valued on par with men’s labor, women will be valued on par with men)
- Rousseau-inspired, contractarian-influenced analysis (if women are as highly educated as men, and if women’s status is not disparaged by the power of the state, then women will be valued on par with men)
- through an abolitionist-influenced, contractarianism-first analysis (if women’s rights are respected by the state, including the right to vote and to own property, then women will be valued on par with men)
- through a virtue-ethics analysis prioritizing temperance (if humanity is made more moral, for instance by removing the effects of alchohol, a natural tendency to value women on par with men will no longer be corrupted and will organically assert itself)
and by means of other analyses as well. Yet sexism, stubbornly, persisted.
Radical feminism concluded from this that valuing women less than men isn’t produced by sexism, but rather sexism is produced by the social practice of valuing women less than men. Attacking sexism at its root meant and means eliminating any messages that women are somehow worth less than men, reforming the thinking of current generations and raising future generations with an egalitarian mindset from birth.
For the radical feminist, defining sexism as Prejudice + Power is in fact dangerous: it tempts one to use the historically ineffective methods of addressing merely the power and thinking that sexism will go away. Despite the dangerous naïveté of Christina Hoff Summers’ analyzing the power of a gender by comparing the power of some imagined-average woman to some imagined-average man rather than analyzing the power of a gender by comparing the sum of the power of all persons belonging to one gender to the sum of the power of all persons belonging to another, radical feminism would perceive in Hoff Summers another fault. Radical feminism would take more particular note of Hoff Summers’ conviction that we can ignore sex prejudice so long as disproportionate power is removed. Radical feminism would note that this approach has been tried in the past, in all the variants I’ve listed and others besides, and it has never succeeded.
So when you see some feminists critiquing Hoff Summers by pointing out that there has never been a woman president or the ration of women to men among Fortune 500 CEOs while other feminists critique her by pointing out that this leaves damaging prejudice unaddressed and free to find expression in all manner of terrible forms, part of what you’re seeing is the consequence of disagreements about whether defining sexism as sex prejudice + power is sufficient to provide a proper basis for any resulting feminism.
So how should we define feminism? Or should we qualify our definition of feminism more precisely?
Or should we instead be questioning our definition of sexism and asking ourselves if prejudice + power, while useful for certain purposes, is insufficient to the task of identifying the problem that must be solved? Perhaps Oppression = Prejudice + Power is a spherical cow?
In short, how do we define sexism so that we’re not twisting its meaning beyond what would be recognizable to a sympathetic but general audience, but so that we are making clear what we, as feminists, oppose?