Editors' Note: Guest blogger Warren J. Blumenfeld is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University. Among his books are Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States and Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.
"Sexism" I define as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against women, transgender, and intersexed people, and is founded on a patriarchal structure of male dominance promoted through individual, institutional, social, and cultural systems.
Throughout history, examples abound of male domination over the rights and lives of women. Men denied women the vote until women fought hard and demanded the rights of political enfranchisement; strictly enforced gender-based social roles mandated without choice that women's only option was to remain in the home to undertake cleaning and childcare duties; women were by far the primary target of harassment, abuse, physical assault, and rape by men; women were locked out of most professions; rules required that women teachers relinquish their jobs after marriage; in fact, the institution of marriage itself was structured on a foundation of male domination with men serving as the so-called "head of the household" and taking on sole ownership of all property thereby taking away these rights from women. In other words, women have been constructed as second-class and even third-class citizens, but certainly not as victims, because through it all, women as a group have challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal constraints.
That was then, but what about now?
I often hear some men and women claim that sexism is a thing of the past, that women have achieved the equality that was once denied them, that we live in a system of meritocracy where one's success in life is based solely on merit, work ethic, motivation, and abilities, rather than on our social identities or the stations of life to which we are born.
This was brought to light by a respondent to my editorial in last week's Iowa State Daily, titled "Awareness Rewards," in which I attempted to make visible the often invisible condition of dominant group privilege, for example, male, white, heterosexual, and Christian.
Responding to my claim specifically of male privilege, the respondent flatly rejected the notion by providing examples allegedly showing otherwise:
"The idea that women are considered inferior is absurd in a nation where doors are opened for them from coast to coast, their meals and entertainment are paid by men eager to please them, they are the physical majority, they own the majority of wealth and control most of the rest, and they live longer because they have easier lives."
I would like to address these claims point by point.
Yes, men continue literally to open doors for women, and they often pay for their meals and entertainment. While this can in certain settings be regarded as a sign of politeness and admiration, does it actually indicate a true respect for women and signify an equality among the sexes? Does it not represent, rather, a reification of socially constructed gendered norms keeping a sexual hierarchy firmly in place, with men literally and figuratively on top, where men remain in control and where women are expected to perform a dependent role?
The respondent also claims that women are the physical majority. Yes, this is statistically true. I'm afraid, however, that the respondent confuses "majority" in terms of numbers with dominance in terms of social power. For example, though black Africans numbered as the vast majority under the corrupt apartheid system in South Africa, white South Africans held the social power to invoke and to maintain, for many years, their oppressive control.
In addition, do women in fact, as the respondent claims, "own the majority of wealth and control most of the rest." While women's annual salaries have grown over the past decades, and while many studies indicate that women have fared somewhat better during the current economic recession, reports indicate that women continue to make substantially less than their male counterparts when performing similar jobs. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor has found that women overall make approximately 77 cents compared to $1.00 by white men. Looking at women of color, the findings are even lower: Asian American women, 74 cents; African American women, 67 cents; and Latinas, 56 cents.
In the respondent's claim that women live longer than men, while most comparative studies do indicate that women on average outlive men, I cannot see how this proves the absence of sexism and male domination. I would also like the respondent to validate the claim that women have "easier lives."
The respondent continues: "Women are worshipped in this country, with beauty pageants to showcase them, like Miss America and Miss Universe. Where are the Mister America and Mister Universe pageants and who would watch them? Men knock themselves out in this country to find a good woman they can make the center of their world."
So, the question here arises, do these women's beauty pageants indicate a worshipping and veneration of women, or something else entirely? While pageants can offer a number of financial and career enhancing benefits to the women involved, let us be clear who and what is really being honored.
Rather than considering women's beauty pageants as honoring women, I believe they further reinscribe gender roles by promoting socially constructed norms of beauty, which are exclusionary hegemonic ideologies in terms of body size and shape, standards for skin and hair type, and an idealized and circumscribed age range that acts to the detriment of all women. As such, beauty pageants remain a consumeristic colonization of women's bodies for the edification and commodification of the objectifying male gaze.
Though many women and men are fully aware of the continuing existence of sexism and male privilege, and they are working tirelessly for its eradication, many others, however, fail to perceive its harmful effects on themselves and others. This apparent invisibility of sexism and male privilege, in fact, not only fortifies but, indeed, strengthens this form of oppression and privilege by perpetuating patriarchal hegemony in such a way as to avoid detection.
In other words, male dominance is maintained by its relative invisibility, and with this invisibility, privilege is neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted by many. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or "normal," and when anyone poses a challenge or attempts to reveal its true impact and significance, those in the dominant group brand them as "subversive" or even "accuse" them of being "overly analytical." Possibly those who make these accusations are not themselves sufficiently analytical.
I have heard some people refer to our current times as a "post-Feminist" era, where sexism and male privilege no longer impose major social barriers. They are referring to "Feminism," which can be defined as the cultural, political, economic, and civil rights movement for the advancement of equality and equity for women.
For me this brings to mind a cleaver and I believe insightful bumper sticker produced by the National Association for Women: "I'll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Patriarchy." Unfortunately, the patriarchy is still alive and fully functioning.