Thursday, July 20, 2006

Whatever happened to the word "sexism?"

Remember? It's a perfectly fine and useful word, is sexism.

Sexism is commonly considered to be discrimination and/or hatred against people based on their sex rather than their individual merits, but can also refer to any and all systemic differentiations based on the sex of the individuals.

Also see: "sexist," both noun and adjective.

Whereas patriarchy means, as I have understood it:

pa·tri·ar·chy (pā'trē-är'kē) pronunciation
n., pl. -chies. In both senses also called patriarchate.

1. A social system in which the father is the head of the family and men have authority over women and children.
2. A family, community, or society based on this system or governed by men.

Which, if you're gonna talk about oh say for example the "patriarchal" influences inherent in any society as derived from the Bible, esp. Old Testament, well and good: that makes sense, to me.

If you're gonna call oh i don't know the cultural pressure to wear lipstick "patriarchal," well, honestly, I'm not seeing it, so much. Sexist, arguably. Patriarchal? Only if you can point to a clear place where the "rule of the fathers" dictates the wearing of lipstick.

As I have understood it, traditional patriarchy, at least in this culture, tends rather to be against the whole face-painting business.

Whereas the face-painting itself has a number of origins, not least of which having to do with theatre and religious ritual and other things that really (in my opinion) have very little to do with the "rule of the fathers."

For that matter, personally I don't even see it as necessarily having to do with "discrimination based on sex."

Sure, it can be used that way; or at any rate the pressure for one sex to wear it and the other, not, certainly can be contrued that way.

But that doesn't mean it has to be that way, see.


Bryan said...

The other problem with the generic "patriarchy" is, as B | L often points out, the use of the term as a monolithic signifier. It completely ignores race and class differences within what radfems term "the patriarchy" and removes all possibility of meaningful interrogation of the role of men in sexist oppression across cultural lines. There are inequalities within the patriarchy - white men have more privilege than black men, rich men have more privilege than poor men, etc.

Why do we have to start assigning blame to one monolithic "enemy" - this hypothetical patriarchy - when it's much more productive to look at individual power structures? What is there that can be gained from this reduction?

belledame222 said...

A sense that it all *does* make sense, even of a hideous oppressive sort, after all?

Bitch | Lab said...


Gayle Rubin wrote about this one in, uh, Trafficking in women was it? I've quoted it at the Lab.

She took a similar tack.

Postcolonial feminists have argued against it as something that is so monolithically described that it left no room for their experiences and erased them from feminist thought. Radfem patriarchy also, they argued, belittled and failed to take seriously their own experiences of Western hegemony. (See, Gayatri Spivak and a bunch of others whose names I'm blanking out on.)

Fromother camps, the argument as been that it just fails because no one can describe and theorize how it actually works.

Marx could at least lay out the basic principles and make predictions about how it woould pan out with certain of "laws of motion".

He always showed how capitalism would produce a working class that would dig its own grave and, thus, dig capital's. (hasn't panned out, but he didn't put a time frame on it, either. :) Nice hedge!) heh.

Radfems don't have any explanation for how patriarchy will dig its own grave. iN fact they don't think it does. Only women who see the light and make everyone else see it will dig the grave of women and thus men (patriarchy)

and that's why I say that the theory as it stands now has conservative or reactionary impulses: they share with other social theories of a conservatie or reactionary bent the need for special, charismatic leaders to bring about change. (I would contend that some version of anarchist theory are the same -- which is why anarchist spaces have been a refuge for radfem)


Bryan: a serious radfem will not ignore class and race. She will just say that, by attacking patriarchy, then this IS addressing class and race.

When you look at twisty explanation of this

she puts rich white honkies at the top and poor women of color at the bottom. If pressed, she would probably have to examine, say, poor working class men.

But she doesn't do that in her writing. Instead, she likes to use redneck, hayseed, and slew of other slurs.

This doesn't bespeak someone who gets it. Or cares.

I have amply documented the same phenom in Radically speaking.

So, while I'm trying to be fair here to say that they do deal with race and class ... well.... No more Ms Nice Bitch. I turned to Radically Speaking with the high hopes that they actually had addressed these crits that they are racist and classist in their theoretical assumptions and rhetoric.

I was sorely disappointed with what I found. It was pretty depressing at the time.

emily said...

Really good question about sexism, I think 'patriarchy' has become a feminist short-hand for macro-power structures, and lost a lot of its pre-modern connotations. In some ways, phallocentric capitalism would be a more accurate term.

"Sure, it can be used that way; or at any rate the pressure for one sex to wear it and the other, not, certainly can be contrued that way."

Good point. I think that trans and genderqueer people explicitly challenge the biologically "determined" link between gendered symbols and body (and butch-femme has the same defamiliarising effect), and it's a shame that some feminists at least don't support that. What's more radical, not watching pr0n or walking the streets every day and saying 'fuck you' to the binary gender system?

Though I suppose I am a bad transgirl and my arguments don't count as feminist, partiarchal oppression etcera.

Bitch | Lab said...

Bryan: the gain, as they see it, is to preserve solidarity. Plus, you have to remember that early radfems came out of a marxist tradition. They have since tried to supplant the Marxist focus on capitalism (where race and gender are secondary, epiphenomal products of capitalism and class exploitation and oppression).

In Marxist theory, you have to get all workers to see that they are exploited and overthrow capitalism. Marx predicted that capitalism would go into such severe crises and everyone would be so impoverished that even the marketing cdirector at Microsoft might be swayed to move over to the side of the working class. (I did a research project on this, which is why I intereview elite workers like HR heads at major hostpials and got inside a subsidiary of ATT after Chainsaw Al slashed and burned middle management laying of something like 60000 middle strate employees. This was my question: how's that working out? *grin* Was the experience of learning you were nothing more than a cog in the wheel radicalizing? If not, why?)

Marx said that working class revolution had to involve a majority to be democratic in its outcome. (Which is why most people say that actually existinc socialism wasnt' what marx had in mind)

Radfems reason that, since (liek capitalists) you aren't going to get men to change, you have to get all women to get on the Klew Train.

Emphasizing differences and not focusing on commonalities, they reason, will split everyone apart and it won't work.

We're watching how well THAT works right now. eh?

belledame222 said...

It boggles me that for women supposedly dedicated to ending the oppressive system of gender, the response to not just TG folks but anyone who trangresses gender in any way other than the approved (I guess) whatever-it-is--from butch/femme lesbians to drag queens to hetboy trannies to hell *any* gay or bi or submissive men--ranges from -crickets- to outright disapproval.

or in the words of Heart:

"There is one way, and one way only..."

'k thanks for sharing bye.

belledame222 said...

> Bryan: the gain, as they see it, is to preserve solidarity.

And it's working so well! 'cause, check it!

"And then there's the Popular Peoples' Front of Judea--he's over there. SPLITTER!"


"Insanity is doing the same goddam thing over and over and expecting different results."

belledame222 said...

...the nasty little secret is, the *real* gain is in fact no such thing, at least not in any practical political sense; the real gain is achieving a sort of oceanic oneness with one's fellow-travellers.

That's why it's fought for so desperately. if it were truly only about realpolitik, most people wouldn't give that much of a shit. It's something else, at bottom.

alphabitch said...

Oh, I dunno, I find 'the patriarchy' a useful enough shorthand but then I was raised by wolves and hippies to strike back at 'the man' whenever possible. It's the same fight, slightly different perspective.

But no pointy-headed analysis -- not the feminist, not the marxist, nor any other that I've yet seen -- really gets to the point quite as well as your average monty python movie/sketch. Thanks for the Life of Brian ref, belledame. Cheers me right the fuck up :)

alphabitch said...

But yeah, 'sexism' is really more to the point. I get much crankier about that than I do about the goddamn fucking fucked up stupid-ass patriarchy. Or The Man. Or, for that matter, the Popular People's Front of Judea. Though they all make me cranky. Face it, it's just chronic. Like my daddy used to tell me: 'child, you would bitch if they hung you with a new rope.'

To which I'd inevitably reply: 'of course I'd bitch -- the fuckers are trying to hang me. What the hell else should I do?

FoolishOwl said...

Belledame and everyone else, well said.

I've been pulling my hair out for months with the folks using "patriarchy" as if it was a synonym for "sexism," and totally ignoring all the baggage.

Tuffy said...

Another mothballed feminist term: "male chauvinist pig." Such a shame!

gandhi rules said...

Huh? I just don't think about this stuff. I'll wear lip stick if I want, fuck 'em. 'Em being the sexist patriarchy and/or militant dykes and other whatzits.

prosphoros said...

(I'm a longtime lurker by way of BL, and thought I'd join the conversation)

@ scenius:

*Some* trans and gq people the biologically based symbolic system, but they (we/I?) often take shit from the more conservative/"traditional" transpeople (usually, ime, mostly transsexuals) for it.

But it is a damned shame more feminists don't support that activity. I would suspect that a lot of it is based on a perceived requisite need for fundamental categories of men and women (which again, is a shallow analysis not at all shared by all, or even most, feminists, just too many).

Bryan said...

Ah, obviously I should check reponses to my comments more often - I just spent a few minutes catching up on everything that's been said. Belledame and B|L, right on, thanks for clarifying.

I've always found it interesting - being a man and all - how the patriarchy can be treated as some all-powerful monolithic force. I mean, there's often no comparing women's oppression to what goes on between guys, but don't ever let anyone tell you there isn't a hierarchy amongst men. A lot of what it amounts too though (at least amongst the white middle-class) is trying to get guys to toe the party line - you know, how to properly objectify women, and all that. That's partly why I never understood the radical lesbian critique of homosexuality as the ultimate patriatchy when gay men (or even slightly effeminate straight men - hell, I've always gotten a lot of flack for not playing sports) are completely marginalized within most male social circles. It's almost like there is such a desire to totalize everything that radfems, etc. intentionally misread or ignore reality to make it fit their theoretical schema. Theory is supposed to fit the facts - not the other way around.

belledame222 said...

hey, prosphorous! thanks for de-lurking, glad you could join us. same to scenius, bryan, brian.

belledame222 said...

and same goes for all who've been posting here before, obviously...(nice to see you around again, tuffy)

>That's partly why I never understood the radical lesbian critique of homosexuality as the ultimate patriatchy

hoo boy, haven't seen *that* one resurrected lately.

i am sure it's just a matter of time tho'.

>Theory is supposed to fit the facts - not the other way around.

wouldn't you think?

EL said...

>That's partly why I never understood the radical lesbian critique of homosexuality as the ultimate patriatchy

hoo boy, haven't seen *that* one resurrected lately.

Looks at watch. Goes to The Margins for a looksee.

Bryan said...

Do you have a link, EL?

belledame222 said...

oh keerist, don't make me go over to the Margins, please.

i'm still digesting Heart's last poetical-type "gift to the universe." i dunno as i can stomach any more, really.

Dan L-K said...

...the nasty little secret is, the *real* gain is in fact no such thing, at least not in any practical political sense; the real gain is achieving a sort of oceanic oneness with one's fellow-travellers.

Boy, did this make the bells go off for me something fierce.

Yeah. It's conversion for its own sake. Same as any other obnoxious proselytization - the more of Us there are, the more it affirms what We All Believe. Or something.

The use of the phrase "come to Jesus" in re. all this, ironical though it be, speaks a volume of truth.

Bitch | Lab said...

'k thanks for sharing bye.

i hae some pretty nasty thought at the moment after just leaving her blog. i see a lot of empty mouthing around all the keywords and it is pissing me off.

Bitch | Lab said...


i think it can be resusicitated. e.g. bell hooks uses it, but it's in th e context of an incessant intersectional analysis and, so, utterly no mistake that she's bringing baggage. but you're right that, to fail to engage in a thorough critique of all the other oppression or to include in your analysis only very rarely... not impressive.

language changes, though.

Greengabro once argued against me to say that you culd use it rhetorically. I read the essay but didn't understand what rhetorical effect it was supposed to have.

in radically speaking, i realized that one reason might be that the blogger might want to signify that they don't want to let men off the hook.

So, you know how someone can say that a woman is being sexist -- in a wrongheaded way (not in a legit way as people suggested i'd been with the one who shall not be named?)

By using patriarchy and not sexist (and they were peeved abt gender, too -- probably be/c gayle rubin helped bringed that whole think to the fore), then there is no way it can be so easily co-opted in a claim about "reverse-sexism".

maybe some folks use it that way?

i'm with you, though. the word has such bad vibes with the gender trumps race argument, that I don't understand why _anyone_ wants to associate themselves with the word.

Bitch | Lab said...

"...the nasty little secret is, the *real* gain is in fact no such thing, at least not in any practical political sense; the real gain is achieving a sort of oceanic oneness with one's fellow-travellers.""

oh. that is excellent.

because, yeah, i love how you distinguished here. it's not solidarity, it's something else and, in a weird way, i think signals the "us against them" nature of their union. i think you've hit on that one before, irritated with the damnd for it always to be about positioning themselves as an embattled minority.

Bitch | Lab said...

i can't remember where read it, and it's still totalizing, but radfems analyze the hierachies among men.

but the thing is, it's still totalizing! e.g., they'll talk about how hierarchies are intrinsic to patriarchy. that's what it always does. but, it's just hiearchy. it doesn't speak to injustice and inequities. if that makes sense. So, class becomes status and caste. class is a layer cake, each layer on top of another. but, as you knwo bryan, that really isn't what class is about. well, they don't ca5re, because they don't buy it. but i'm getting pointy headed ;-p

Bitch | Lab said...

Looks at watch. Goes to The Margins for a looksee.

tg for laugh.


i'm still digesting Heart's last poetical-type "gift to the universe."

belly laffin'. i feel so wrong being so mean when she's so nice. but i think that's the intent.

belledame222 said...

I think you're right wrt patriarchy being less likely to be co-opted for any other use than male-over-female sexism. At any rate I have seen several people arguing rather strenuously that there is not, cannot be any such thing as "misandry."

Which, Mary please.

Hatred of men? Of bloody course it can and does exist.

I do hate the term "reverse" anything; racism is racism. sexism is sexism.

I think it's perfectly easy to understand that the fact that one acknowledges that yes (name your "ism") can be pointed in any direction (on a micro level at least) does *not* mean that therefore *institutionalized* (name your *ism*) now works any way you say it does.

that is, if you want to.

per Heart: yes well. nice is as nice does. I lost whatever sympathy I had after seeing the way she responded, or rather didn't, to antiprincess' response to that particular gift to the universe.

Bitch | Lab said...

that's one of the reasons i don't use misogyny. i think that one still points people toward an individual level analysis. or makes peole think, rather, that it's about hating women and if you could just get people to stop hating them, then things like occupational segregation and wage disparity goes away. whihc isn't what anyone means, but when you're dealing with conservatives that's invariably where it goes.


i was thinking about the jill conner browne rant about blow jobs that i posted the other night. that's the kind of thing that men read and they point to it and say: see, women have power. look at how they really hate us.

Natalia said...

I actually encountered something really weird the other day... This person called me a "slave to the patriarchy" because I do not wear burkha. She wasn't even Muslim. It was... surreal.

Are such arguments common these days? Am I out of the loop?

Bitch | Lab said...

woah natalia. that's strange.

i guess the oddest thing i encountered today was to learn that there is a new definition of oppression out there where a blow can be oppressed.

well, actually that a bj CAN'T be oppressed. which means that the whole conversation was one where i'm operating on the definition you'll find at wikipedia, in feminist textbooks, in rape crises centers, women's collectives, etc. while there is an apparently new one where things and activites are oppressed.

so, i'm thnking if that's where feminism is headed, then i'm over and out.

belledame222 said...

They told you you were a slave to the patriarchy because you *don't* wear burqha?

how bizarre.

i don't know. I keep going back to Molly Ivins, for whom feminism never meant a goddam thing about what you do or don't wear except for the proposition that June Cleaver might've been happier had she not done the vacuuming in high heels.

Natalia said...

The "logic" went like this:

Men are sexist pigs who like to stare, so if they see an inch of your skin and get turned on, you're helping prop up the patriarchy.

Aside from the more obvious faults in such thinking, there is also the plain old fact that Saudi, where women are required to cover by law, sexual frustration and sexism have no magically disappeared.

There goes that argument.

Overall, it was just insulting to me that anyone would try to tell me how to dress and act. Most Western feminists agree that going up to a VEILED woman with such an attitude is an insult. Why should I, or any of us un-veiled chicks, be treated any differently???

belledame222 said...

Jesus fucking Christ. I have no words. If that isn't the most Orwellian...

I mean. The dictate that women cover themselves comes from, *where*, again???

Which is more "patriarchal" (as opposed to plain ol' sexist):

1) Playboy
2) Sports Illustrated
3) Fundamentalist interpretrations of the Big Three monotheistic religions

hint #1: it's not God/Yahweh/Allah the GREAT-AUNT, there, bucko.

belledame222 said...

and yes obviously it would be just as insulting to go up to a veiled woman and pull that. I'm just gobsmacked that anyone could really be that clueless of what the word "patriarchy" frigging *means*.

antiprincess said...

Re - burqah comment

That's one of the weirder things I've heard in a while - however, maybe it stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of hijab.

But that's the crazy thing about dividing up the whole wide world into good guys/bad guys on the basis of "the Patriarchy". ANYTHING can be construed as evidence of the Evil Empire. One day removing the veil is "liberating" and women who still veil are poor sad falsely-conscious pawns of the patriarchy, the next day putting on the veil is "liberating" and women who don't veil are poor sad falsely-conscious pawns of the patriarchy.

Either way, the discussion totally ignores how a individual woman might have come to the decision to veil or not to veil, which (as I am led to believe) should rightly be a result of the discussion between her and her Creator.

EL said...

The whole layer cake thing is fundamental to what I've read of radfem. The idea that what separates poor black men and rich white women is some kind of "layer of power and privilege" (and men are always on top, even if there are differences amongst them) was one of the first things I encountered, and enough to make me question the whole enterprise. The idea that the terms of oppression aren't constantly shifting according to the situation and the players therein just seemed ... well ... unrealistic to me.

As for my comment on The Margins, I wasn't saying it was actually there. It was pure, E-vil snark.

Though the use of the burkha in the scenario is new, I've DEFINITELY heard the argument that women who show skin are participating in "rape culture" by "inviting the visual invasion of their bodily integrity". I can't offer links- that was IRL. I was wearing a tube top on a 90+ degree day in NYC. Speaker was a woman who designated herself my "mentor".

Natalia said...

Exactly, El. It's so unfair, and condescending, and SAD!

belledame222 said...

for some reason, I'm flashing on the fabulously brittle actor playing John Cleese's wife in "Fish Called Wanda;" Kevin "Don't Call Me Stupid" Kline is trying lamely to bluff his way out of being caught in her house with some story about being the CIA, and how she should thank him (and all Americans) for saving their bacon; she goes,

"Well, -thank- you for popping in and protecting us!"

Tuffy said...

I've been reading through all the comments in one go (yes, as a matter of fact I *do* have a big project I'm procrastinating on!) and I think "patriarchy" is an essential term if it's used in a specific and limited way. I don't think it's academics who are misusing the term; I think it's ordinary people grasping for words to describe the injustices they see. Like Bryan said, somehow feminists find it very easy to use the word as shorthand for a kind of one-size-fits-all oppression.

I think it's the sound of it. It's got a nice jargony "oomph" (unlike "sexism" or, say, "being an asshole") without being too convoluted. And that "archy" suffix just radiates authority. Hierarchy, anarchy, oligarchy, patriarchy -- it works.

"Misogyny" can't even compare, but I'm not sure why. Somehow it sounds less objective, more shrill. And weirdly medicalized, I think. "Sorry, ma'am, we can't do much for your husband -- it's a textbook case of misogyny."

(belledame: thanks! Nice to be around again. I overdosed on blogs for a while there, but I finally trimmed my feed list and I feel better.)

antiprincess said...

speaking of words that have fallen out of favor -

about a month ago my husband and I were driving home with my husband's fiftyish Aunt C. Aunt C. was telling some long rambling story about some incident back in the mists of childhood where my husband was fighting with his younger sister W. Younger Sister W. was getting the upper hand and took a mighty swing at my husband, which according to the story connected with a resounding ke-rack! to the jaw. And then everyone got in trouble and a whuppin' and sent to bed without supper.

Aunt C., however, did not consider this justice. Even some thirty years later she had an opinion on it, to wit:

"I'm a libber," she said, "and I think that whoever takes a swing at you, you're entitled to a free one back, male or female."

woah...did she just say "libber?"

"libber?" who uses that anymore?

belledame222 said...

ha! Well Done, Sister Suffragette!

antiprincess said...

Aunt C. is a Force of Nature.

what was intriguing was the way Aunt C.'s assertion collided with my husband's prime directive of "never never never never never hit a female."

So it was fascinating to sit in the back seat and listen to them bounce that back and forth.

hedonistic said...

Just throwing in a random comment before I tootle off to lunch.

Class = Big HUGE Scary Taboo

It's so taboo that folks not only talk around it, some won't even THINK about it. Because lawd knows what would come of it if we did. I'm wondering if lumping all the sexist social ills into One Bad Thing we'll call Teh Patriarchy is a way to avoid thinking about Where We Stand.

Then again I might be repeating what y'all just said.

Feeding time, I'm outta here.

Tuffy said...



I love it! We have got to bring it back. From now on, I'm not a feminist, I'm a libber.

belledame222 said...

WOMEN'S libber, just so we're clear.

even better: "LADY libbers."

Tuffy said...

has it ever been associated with anything but women's lib? I don't think so.

labyrs said...

belledame222 asked:
"Which is more "patriarchal" (as opposed to plain ol' sexist):

1) Playboy
2) Sports Illustrated
3) Fundamentalist interpretrations of the Big Three monotheistic religions" belledame asked.

Maybe that was rhetorical, but anyway, I vote for #3. Oh, and I never did buy that stuff about not wearing make-up. I decided they'd have to accept me make-up and all-- or not. And I think you're right about the connection of make-up to religious performances, etc. Great to find such a provocative post and intelligent conversation. Want to let you know that we put a note about this post on a post called "Buzz Coils" on the new blog "Medusa Coils" at

belledame222 said...


Bitch | Lab said...

Layer cake,

Yeah EL and Hedonistic, even when we talk about it -- and I do it too because to talk about it any other way, people think I'm batshit -- it's adirty word.

And that's the reason why people will only talk about it as a layer class of stratified statuses or positions.

Radfems are theoretically opposed to seeing class because it would such an operative dynamic that cannot be addressed by feminism alone. The goal, then, was to upend any marxian analysis. Thus, class becomes caste and status.

To see it the other way is to say that there is a capitalist class that, like men as a class, exploit, dominate, control and oppression another group, in this case workers (who are like women as a class).

To acknowledge that is to let men of the hook. Radfem won't work if weomen see men as allies.

It's why theorists reject women of color analyses: because they can't view men as the enemy and enemy alone and feel they need to work with men in their struggles against racism. Thus, when lesbians work with gay men, they too are seen as traitors.

belledame222 said...

I can't help but think that in cases like that it tends to be more due to convenience than anything else.

iow: if yer white, well-to-do, sexually conventional (either w/in a het model or a lesbian-feminist model) and have no other large oppressions intersecting with that of being a woman plain n simple...mebbe the theory kind of molds itself to that, you know.

but i do notice that it's the women who have something else going on (bi, not first world, genderqueer ever somewhat, disability, not to mention of course WOC and kinky folk) who tend to fall out from the party line more quickly, even if they're still by and large attracted to radfem theory.