What Is Sexism? Defining a Key Feminist Term

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, or the belief that men are superior to women and thus discrimination is justified.  Such a belief can be conscious or unconscious. In sexism as in racism the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior.

Sexist discrimination against girls and women is a means of maintaining male domination and power.

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

Thus, included in sexism are:

  • Sexist attitudes or ideology, including 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 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.

Sexism is a form of oppression and domination.  As author Octavia Butler put it, "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."

Some feminists have argued that sexism is the primal, or first, form of oppression in humanity, and that other oppressions are built on the foundation of oppression of women. Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist, argued that position: "Sexism is the foundation on which all tyranny is built.  Every social form of hierarchy and abuse is modeled on male-over-female domination."

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.

Australian writer Dale Spender noted that she was "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."

Many women in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s (the so-called Second Wave of feminism) came to their consciousness of sexism via their work in social justice movements.  Social philosopher bell hooks argues that "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."

How Sexism Works

Systemic sexism, like systemic racism, is the perpetuation of the oppression and discrimination without necessarily any conscious intention. The disparities between men and women are simply taken as givens, and are reinforced by practices, rules, policies, and laws that often seem neutral on the surface but in fact disadvantage women.

Sexism interacts with racism, classism, heterosexism, and other oppressions to shape the experience of individuals.  This is called intersectionality.  Compulsory heterosexuality is the prevailing belief that heterosexuality is the only "normal" relation between the sexes, which, in a sexist society, benefits men.

Can Women Be Sexist?

Women can be conscious or unconscious collaborators in their own oppression, if they accept the basic premises of sexism: that men have more power than women because they deserve more power than women.

Sexism by women against men would only be possible in a system in which the balance of social, political, cultural, and economic power was measurably in the hands of women, a situation which does not exist today.

Are Men Oppressed by Sexism Against Women?

Some feminists have argued that men should be allies in the fight against sexism because men, too, are not whole in a system of enforced male hierarchies.  In patriarchal society, men are themselves in hierarchical relationship to each other, with more benefits to the males at the top of the power pyramid.

Others have argued that male benefit from sexism, even if that benefit is not consciously experienced or sought, is more weighty than whatever negative effects those with more power may experience.  Feminist Robin Morgan put it this way: "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."

Some Quotes on Sexism

bell hooks: "Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression...

 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."

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?”

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."

Kate Millett: "It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning."