Achievement Unlocked! We don’t know what sexism is!

So in this great conversation we’re having that began with discussing whether TERFs are feminists ultimately required addressing the question, What is feminism? I gave an answer here:

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?


  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I don’t think I’ve heard of the “prejudice plus power” approach before; I’m not well read on feminist analysis. I don’t think that I like it. I think “oppression = prejudice plus power” works ok, but I don’t like equating “racism / sexism” with “oppression”. I think I like the older, broader definitions of racism and sexism. Of course, I think that racism and sexism are especially bad when there’s
    widespread social oppression of sex/gender groups and race groups.

    I did some googling, and I found this article to be interesting and relevant.

    I think another interesting aspect to the question is this: Do you have to be an activist in order to be a feminist? I think I always took as given that a feminist was just someone who endorsed feminism, which is the belief that men and women should be treated as if they are on average equal in mental competencies (i.e. equally competent at being a nurse or a doctor), on average equal in mental proclivities (i.e. wanting to be a nurse or a doctor), and so forth – alt: the belief that men and women are in fact on average equal in mental competencies, mental proclivities, and so forth.

    Regarding TERFs, I don’t know much about them, because I try to avoid them. If I was to take a less generous understanding of their position, the TERF position is something like there are inherent mental differences between men and women, which seems to violate the definition of “feminism” that I just gave. If I were to take a more generous understanding, the TERF position is something like a person raised as a man is trained to be dangerous (like experience), and so even if they later start identifying as a woman, the damage has been done, and they are as dangerous as any other person raised as a man; this second understanding seems to me to be consistent with my definition of “feminism” that I just gave. In other words, I think that the belief of gender essentialism (e.g. a biological e.g. genetic difference in the mental competencies, mental proclivities, and so forth, of the biological sexes) is incompatible with my understanding of feminism, and so to the extent TERF requires gender essentialism, it is not feminism.

    Then again, maybe one can have gender essentialism, while still also holding to the belief that men and women should be treated by society as if gender essentialism was false? That starts to get tricky. I have made the argument “even if black vs white IQ was on-average 5 points different: who cares? There’s so much overlap, that the only fair and practical thing to do is to treat every person as an individual and evaluate them on their own competencies”. I wonder how far I can stretch that? Maybe that’s always the right thing to do. Forcing myself to think about it, why would you not take every person as an individual and evaluate each person’s competencies individually? The only answers that I can think of are “efficiency” and “bigotry” – “efficiency” in the sense that it might save costs to use that as a preliminary elimination criteria because it’s a cheap test, and “bigotry” in the sense that “I just don’t like black people, no matter how smart they are”, including extensions of false claims like “black people have a higher mental proclivity to violence and crime”.

    Sorry, I feel like I’m just meandering with this post. I hope it’s useful in some way.

  2. says

    So how should we define feminism? Or should we qualify our definition of feminism more precisely?

    I get trapped in nihilism when I try to define vague terms like “feminism.” It’s always seemed more effective to me to treat it as an umbrella-term: something that the person I am talking to packs a bunch of attributes into. Then, (and I know it makes me less fun to talk to) I tick off my opinions about those attributes. That way I don’t have to argue if I am a ${whatever}-ist, I can say “I believe X, Y, Z, …” and I can go on in as much detail as I have to. One of the problem with using labels is that it almost inevitably traps you in a misunderstanding with your interlocutor, because they think the label means “A, B, and C” and you think it means “A, B, and D.” You are both mostly ${whatever}-ists except for on points C/D – now, how important are they?

    Then there is this:
    I have made the argument “even if black vs white IQ was on-average 5 points different: who cares? There’s so much overlap, that the only fair and practical thing to do is to treat every person as an individual and evaluate them on their own competencies”

    If IQ had any meaning at all, and we observed a 5 point difference between two populations, we would also want to look at the point-spread within the populations. We might discover that ${race1}’s scores varied more widely than ${race2} which might mean that the whole exercise is a crap-shoot – some individuals in ${race1} will score better than some in ${race2} even if ${race2} is the “superior” one. That is probability, but it doesn’t make the argument that racists are trying to make with their IQ tests, so they don’t confront that problem head-on as they ought to. Not that IQ has any meaning at all; it’s one of those embarrassing things psychologists came up with and haven’t hammered a stake through, yet; its only real value is that it lends comfort and credibility to racists.* Good work, psychologists! That’s another problem racists don’t do a very good job with: defending the validity of IQ tests. That’d be a hard row to hoe, however, since there is ample explanation why IQ tests don’t measure ‘intelligence’ or anything remotely like it. Racists have a terrible problem salvaging IQ tests for the same reason psychologists do: IQ tests are bullshit.

  3. says

    In other words, “you probably would consider me a ‘feminist’ – I believe that women should be socially, politically, and economically on par with men and that diversity has important benefits as does not punishing people for their sexuality, separation of church and state – which implies that I believe religions are not true and are mere vehicles for perpetuating social control – and uh, why are your eyes glazing over? I haven’t even gotten started yet.”

    This is also my response to what PZ calls “dictionary atheists” – I say something like “atheism implies that there is no truth to religion, which means that religion’s social controls are not true and that demolishes religion’s justification for inequality – so it seems obvious to me that challenging the truth of religion unlocks a panoply of issues including political and gender equality, education policy, children’s rights, children’s bodily autonomy, – and – uh, why are your eyes glazing over? I gather you’re a ‘dictionary atheist’ so I’ve got to read you this whole dictionary I’ve got here…”

  4. says

    So, one of the feminist topics I most commonly talk about is sexual violence. And some of that is about sexual violence that victimizes men. That seems like a standard application of feminism to me, but is it fighting sexism? Seems like a stretch to me.

  5. says

    You know what? I just figured out what you were saying. I’m going to leave this up, but I think what you’re saying is that the definition of feminism as working to end sexism is not satisfied by certain anti-sexual assault work. I’m not fussed about that. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (though I do have my opinion). But the consequences for whether or not you’re a feminist are zero since we always assumed that feminists don’t spend 525,600 minutes per year doing feminism and listening to musicals’ soundtracks. Even if fighting for victims of sexual assault with genders other than woman is not feminism (and actually I think it is), it’s very much consistent with feminism values, and works just fine as a complement to feminism.


    Is undermining gender and/or sex assumptions an important part of feminism? Because there’s an assumption that to be a victim is womanly, and that men either aren’t victims or if they admit that they are victims then they are admitting to doing manhood badly (either by getting assaulted or admitting it or both, depending on the assumption-holder).

    Moreover, dispelling certain erroneous ideas about sexual assault – for instance, that it is only committed by men (or, I suppose, the trannies lurking in public bathrooms) – actually benefits women victims. The less embedded is the idea that we know who is or isn’t capable of sexual assaults merely by looking at them for a few moments, the more likely women will be able to identify warning signs even when someone “seems like a nice guy” and the more likely we will find investigations able to pursue the appropriate leads based on actual evidence and not based off the guilty/innocent vibe cops get from someone. Moreover, famous/powerful dudes profit **immensely** from the idea that we can tell who is and isn’t a predator at a glance. Moremoreover, juries should be better able to consider things that actually accurately predict guilt or innocence (like DNA tests, multiple corroborating statements, etc.) and ignore things that don’t accurately predict guilt or innocence (like being a tall, white-skinned homeowner with a strong jaw and nice hair). When we as activists shatter stereotypes about what perps look like and what victims look like, every real victim is better off and every real perp is more likely to receive an appropriate verdict or consequence.

    No, working on behalf of men victims doesn’t seem like we’re directly doing feminism, but working on behalf of men victims is living out the ideals of feminism and has beneficial side-effects on issues that are important to feminism, and that’s more than good enough for me.

  6. siggysrobotboyfriend says

    I think this discussion might benefit from clarifying what sort of definition we are even looking for. There are many ways we might go about trying to define a term:

    1) Describe how a term is commonly used (or commonly used among some subpopulation, if it is used in different ways by different groups). This is what dictionaries, Wikipedia, and professional linguists usually try to do.

    2) Come up with something that resembles (1) but also has some set of properties that are seen as desirable, such as making the term inherently laudatory or making the definition precise. This is a sort of intellectual or philosophical definition.

    3) Define who is and is not in a particular in-group or club. This is often the function of religious definitions that seem bizarre to outsiders, such as Jesus-worshippers insisting that some Jesus-worshippers are “Christians” and others are not “Christians” based on some bit of incoherent nonsense like the Trinity. The point is to have a reason to identify some Jesus-worshippers as fellow club members, while condemning other Jesus-worshippers to the status of out-group.

    If you were trying for a definition of type 1, you’d end up with the conclusion that “feminism” refers to a general project of promoting women’s interests and fighting sexism, but that there’s widespread disagreement on the particulars of what is and is not required in order to count as a feminist, and that the term is not remotely consistently applied across different subcultural groups.

    If you want a definition of type 2, I don’t know what you would come up with. I guess it would depend on what sorts of properties you want “feminism” to have. For example, you might want to ensure that various historical figures count as “feminist”, or you might want to ensure that “feminism” includes various commitments that you regard as morally nonnegotiable, and if you want multiple criteria they might be in tension (e.g., if you want “feminism” to require trans-inclusivity but you also want to include historical “feminists” who were just as transphobic as virtually everyone else at the time).

    It seems to me that people who are strongly interested in defining TERFs out of feminism are invested in the definition playing the social role in #3: feminism is a club whose members they approve of, and they (quite understandably) don’t want to admit TERFs as fellow club members. So “feminism” gets defined in such a way that TERFs don’t count. To do this, they come up with definitions of type 2, but those tend not to be very coherent or consistent because that’s not really the point.

  7. says

    My take on it is that fighting sexual violence is an important part of fighting sexism, and so feminism developed a toolkit to fight sexual violence. But fighting sexual violence is also useful as an end to itself, not just as a means to fight sexism. So even when it comes to specific acts of sexual violence that don’t have any clear relation to sexism, feminists are still fighting it, and still using the feminist toolkit to do so.

    And you’re right, it doesn’t really matter if we decide that this isn’t feminism–after all, feminists are allowed to spend time doing things other than feminism. And yet, I would claim that most people would recognize it as feminism, and that poses a bit of a problem for the definition.

    You could argue that fighting sexism requires also fighting sexual violence that isn’t directly related to sexism. I’m reminded of a comment in the NYT article about Avital Ronell, where some professor said that Title IX was a “feminist tool”, and that using it to take down a feminist is justice “twisted and turned against itself”. Most people see this argument as implausible and counterproductive to feminism. So maybe fighting sexism requires fighting sexual violence in all its forms, just to be consistent.

    But I wasn’t personally attached to the definition in the first place, and I was arguing more for a “family resemblance” model (following Wittgenstein). I also like Marcus Ranum’s idea: feminism is about believing women are equal to men, AND about all the consequences that appear to follow.

  8. mathymathymathy says

    Different feminists will have different definitions of sexism. In that case, using one particular feminist definition of sexism doesn’t seem to work if your aim is to find a definition of feminism that encompasses all feminists. Many feminists would say that sexism is prejudice plus power, but many feminists would disagree with that and say that any form of gender prejudice would count as sexism. Dictionary definitions of sexism generally include all prejudice or discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, without requiring it to be targeted in a specific direction. A dictionary is obviously not an absolute authority on definitions but here it is useful because it describes how the term is commonly used, although, obviously, other people can use the term in a different way than what is most common, and different definitions can best suit different purposes.

    In that case, it would probably make more sense to say that a feminist is someone who opposes sexism, for whatever their definition of sexism is. If a particular feminist did indeed class all gender prejudice as sexism, for them fighting sexual violence against men would be an explicitly feminist act by their definition.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    A lot of this depends on whether one restricts “_ism” to ideologies (& related intangibles, e.g., “gradualism”).

    I think I would prefer that, for the sake of clarity, but suspect it leaves me in the “too late, damn pedant!” boat.

  10. anon1152 says

    EnlightenmentLiberal @2 said: ”

    “Then again, maybe one can have gender essentialism, while still also holding to the belief that men and women should be treated by society as if gender essentialism was false? ”

    I was trying to recall something I read years ago that distinguished “racism” from “race thinking”. Perhaps that’s something like what you’re wondering about gender. Can we say that there are people who can be categorized as different races, or genders, but still say that those people are, as persons, equal, even if they share important characteristics that define them as members of their group (their race, or gender or whatever).

    Logically, I see no reason why you can’t think that people belong to different races/genders and think that people are fundamentally equal. That is, I see no logical reason why you can’t think that there “really are” races and genders without being racist or sexist.

    But, if I may quote you… “that starts to get tricky”.

  11. anon1152 says

    You ask an important question (I think) when you say: “Do you have to be an activist in order to be a feminist? ”

    Are you saying that you think the answer is no? Sorry for asking a silly question but I’ve been misreading things a lot today and I want to be sure.

    I lean towards a “yes” answer.

    Last week, one of my students said that it was good that, or that she liked the fact that, I was a “feminist”. I was shocked. I was sure I never said that.* I’m uncomfortable saying that for fear of being attacked as a shitty ally. And the little I know about feminist theory is enough for me to know that I know nothing about feminist theory. And I get the impression that there are more disagreements between feminists than between feminists and non-feminists.

    Maybe “theory” is my problem. What I know of feminism would be academic feminism, not activism.

    Years ago, talking to a coworker about an issue at work, I realized and found myself speaking quite passionately about how, in that case at least, Marx was right: the harder the worker worked and the more the worker accomplished, the more they were contributing to their own misery. Said coworker asked: “So. Uh. Are you an ‘activist’?”… After a few moments of thought I realized that I wasn’t. I’m more of an in-activist.

    But I digress.

    Were you thinking that one did not have to be an activist to be a feminist? I was thinking the opposite… but I’m on the fence. Reading a book or two.

    *I don’t deny the label. I think it’s a good thing that I appeared to be a feminist without declaring myself as such.

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