What Is Sexism?

Definition, Feminist Origins, Quotes

Sign says "sexism is a social disease"
Sign from Slutwalk, Melbourne, May 2011. Scott Barbour / Getty Images

edited and updated by Jone Johnson Lewis

Sexism means discrimination based on sex or gender. Sexism can be compared to racism; in both the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior. Sexism can refer to either the belief of the person doing the discriminating or their words and behavior.  Sexism can be conscious or unconscious.

Sexism usually refers to discrimination against girls and women in order to maintain male domination.

The oppression or discrimination can be economic, political, social, or cultural.

Sexism includes

  • sexist attitudes or ideology - beliefs, theories, and ideas that hold one group (usually male) as deservedly superior to the other (usually female) and that justify oppressing members of the other group on the basis of their sex or gender
  • sexist practices and institutions - the ways in which oppression is carried out; these need not be done with a conscious sexist attitude, but may just be unconscious cooperation in a system which has been in place already in which one sex (usually female) has less power and goods in the society

Feminist Origins of the Word

The word "sexism" became widely known during the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s. At that time, feminist theorists explained that oppression of women was widespread in nearly all human society, and they began to speak of sexism instead of male chauvinism.

Whereas male chauvinists were usually individual men who expressed the belief that they were superior to women, sexism referred to collective behavior that reflected society as a whole.

Related concepts:

  • Patriarchal Society - A society controlled by men.
  • Intersectionality looks at how sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and other oppressions each shape the experience of individuals.
  • Compulsory Heterosexuality - The prevailing belief that heterosexuality is the only "nomal" relation between the sexes, based in part on the fact that men benefit from a heterosexual society.
  • Sexual Politics - Kate Millett's examination of how thoroughly society is dominated by men.

Some Quotes on Sexism

bell hooks: "Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism."

Andrea Dworkin: Sexism is the foundation on which all tyranny is built.  Every social form of hierarchy and abuse is modeled on male-over-female domination.

Gloria Steinem: "There is bias and sexism everywhere, just like there are problems of racism and homophobia stemming from the whole notion that we're arranged in a hierarchy, that we're ranked rather than linked."

Dale Spender: "I am old enough to have lived in a world without sexism and sexual harassment. Not because they weren’t everyday occurrences in my life but because THESE WORDS DIDN’T EXIST. It was not until the feminist writers of the 1970s made them up, and used them publicly and defined their meanings – an opportunity that men had enjoyed for centuries – that women could name these experiences of their daily life."

Octavia Butler: "Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other 'isms' that cause so much suffering in the world."

Caitlin Moran: “I have a rule for working out if the root problem of something is, in fact, sexism. And it is this: asking 'Are the boys doing it? Are the boys having to worry about this stuff? Are the boys the centre of a gigantic global debate on this subject?”

Robin Morgan: "And let's put one lie to rest for all time: the lie that men are oppressed, too, by sexism -- the lie that there can be such a thing as 'men's liberation groups.' Oppression is something that one group of people commits against another group specifically because of a 'threatening' characteristic shared by the latter group -- skin color or sex or age, etc."

Erica Jong: "Sexism kind of predisposes us to see men's work as more important than women's, and it is a problem, I guess, as writers, we have to change."

bell hooks: "Individual heterosexual women came to the movement from relationships where men were cruel, unkind, violent, unfaithful. Many of these men were radical thinkers who participated in movements for social justice, speaking out on behalf of the workers, the poor, speaking out on behalf of racial justice. However when it came to the issue of gender they were as sexist as their conservative cohorts."

Gary Ross: "I mean, what is racism? Racism is a projection of our own fears onto another person. What is sexism? It's our own vulnerability about our potency and masculinity projected as our need to subjugate another person, you know? Fascism, the same thing: People are trying to untidy our state, so I legislate as a way of controlling my environment."

Claude Pepper: "Ageism is as odious as racism and sexism."