Sexism and Patriarchy: Definitions and Forms

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  1. 0:05 Patriarchy vs. Matriarchy
  2. 2:45 Defining Sexism
  3. 4:21 Types of Sexism
  4. 9:32 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Wind Goodfriend

This lesson provides a foundation for understanding sexism in various forms. First, patriarchy versus matriarchy is defined. Then, several different forms of sexism are outlined, including old-fashioned, modern, hostile, benevolent and ambivalent.

Patriarchy vs. Matriarchy

Think about a stereotypical family in a traditional setting, such as a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. Who can you picture carving the turkey at the head of the table? For many people, this task is given to either the father or the grandfather in a family. Now, assume for a minute that you're heterosexual and plan to get married. Do you plan to change your last name after the wedding? If you have children, will they get the last name of the father or the mother? Most families across the world assume that the wife will take the husband's name and that the children will do the same. Both of these examples - the Thanksgiving turkey and families taking the husband's name - are examples of two concepts: patriarchy and sexism. This lesson will first define patriarchies versus matriarchies, and then we'll discuss five different forms of sexism.

First, what is patriarchy? The word literally translates as 'rule of fathers,' and it means a society in which male members have more social and political power than female members. Most societies all over the world have been set up in a patriarchal system since humans began forming groups. Many religions teach that in a family, the father should be the one who makes important decisions. Most societies expect the father of the household to be the one who provides economic resources, and everyone in the family usually takes on the father's last name. Most countries throughout history have had men ruling their countries or running their governments.

Many religions teach that the father should be the one to make important decisions in a family

The contrast to patriarchy would be a society based on the system of matriarchy, which translates as 'rule of mothers.' A matriarchy would be the opposite of a patriarchy; a matriarchy is a society in which female members have more social and political power than male members. Can you think of any modern countries that are examples of matriarchies? Sure, some countries have female leaders, such as the Queen in England. However, even in these countries, the general population is still a patriarchal system; at home, men are still considered to have more power than women, and the government still has more male politicians than female politicians. In fact, social scientists have only identified a few cultures in the entire history of the world that ran with a matriarchal system. One example is the Musuo, a very small community of people in rural China, where women control property, choose their husbands and make most of the decisions in the community.

Defining Sexism

So, why is it the case that 99% of cultures in the history of the planet Earth have run on a patriarchal system instead of either a matriarchal system or a system based on total equality between men and women? Social scientists say that the answer is sexism. Sexism is the general belief that one sex is superior to the other. Most of the time, sexism benefits men, as we've seen within patriarchal cultures. It's true that there are some examples of times when sexism benefits women, such as laws about who gets custody of children after a divorce. However, these examples are not very common.

Many social scientists argue that patriarchies are so popular because most cultures throughout history have given men more power than women. This power differential is the essential element of sexism. However, even though you've probably heard of sexism before and know what it basically is, social scientists have studied sexism in depth. If we can understand sexism, it will be easier to see how and why it influences cultures. In fact, scientists have decided that sexism is complicated, and therefore they have identified different forms of sexism and how these forms affect people's thoughts and behaviors. The rest of this lesson will discuss five different forms of sexism that have been identified by social scientists. The five types we'll cover are old-fashioned, modern, hostile, benevolent and ambivalent.

Types of Sexism

In old-fashioned sexism, people may make sexist comments in public
Old Fashioned Sexism
The first type of sexism is called old-fashioned sexism, and this refers to explicit and overt beliefs that men are superior to women in a variety of skills and tasks. Someone who believes in old-fashioned sexism might publicly make statements like, 'Men are just smarter than women,' or 'Women shouldn't be politicians because they can't handle the pressure.' It's called old-fashioned sexism because someone from 50 or 100 years ago might have heard these statements all the time in public, but today, people are less likely to say these things out loud. That doesn't necessarily mean that people don't believe them - but many cultures today find it rude or disrespectful to be so explicit with beliefs against people in a certain group. Just like racism or homophobia isn't as socially acceptable today as it was 50 years ago, old-fashioned sexism is considered rude by today's standards.

However, the second type of sexism is called modern sexism, and this form of sexism is fairly common in today's society. Modern sexism refers to three basic beliefs:

  1. The belief that sexism is no longer a problem in today's world
  2. That programs designed to help women are not necessary
  3. That women who complain about sexism are just causing trouble

Essentially, modern sexism tries to make the argument that men and women have equal opportunities in today's world, so people trying to end sexism are actually hurting men. Modern sexism ignores national problems, such as the fact that women are paid less than men for the same job, and instead, it argues that modern policies are unfairly favoring women. Because these beliefs use equality as their surface value, modern sexism is a common argument with today's politicians and policy-makers.

The third type of sexism we'll cover in this lesson is called hostile sexism. Just like the name implies, hostile sexism has components of anger and bitterness in it. Basically, hostile sexism is the belief that women are whiny, sexual teases who enjoy controlling men. People who have high levels of hostile sexism do not like women, and they believe that all women are trying to take all power away from men. Hostile sexists are most likely to publicly disparage feminists, and they prefer women who are submissive to men.

Hostile sexists tend to dislike women and believe that women are trying to take power away from men
Hostile Sexism

So far, we've covered old-fashioned sexism, modern sexism and hostile sexism. These three forms all have something in common: they view men as better than women. This general view is in contrast to our fourth type of sexism, which is called benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is the belief that women have qualities of purity and morality that men lack and should be treated like princesses.

So, on the surface, people high in benevolent sexism actually favor women, thinking that they are precious, beautiful and delicate. Do you think benevolent sexism benefits women in general? While benevolent sexism seems like it would help women because it's sort of complimenting women, many social scientists believe that these beliefs really hurt women. Believing that women are delicate princesses is actually condescending in some ways because it creates expectations that women need to be protected and can't accomplish difficult tasks on their own. It implies that women are dependent on men. Finally, it means that women who don't fit into this pretty, delicate expectation are considered less-desirable wives and mothers.

The last type of sexism we'll discuss today is called ambivalent sexism. The word 'ambivalent,' in general, means 'pulled in two directions,' and that's just what ambivalent sexism is. Basically, ambivalent sexism is the belief that some women are good and pure, while other women are bad and deserve bad treatment. When people are high in ambivalent sexism, they sort women they meet into one of these two categories. Some women, such as maybe their own mother and grandmother, are revered and considered worthy of protection and love. However, other women who don't fit traditional expectations are considered to be 'evil feminists' who deserve no respect or love.

Essentially, ambivalent sexism is a combination of believing in both hostile and benevolent sexism, but applying these opposite beliefs simultaneously by simply believing there are only two types of women: good and bad. This set of beliefs harms both women and men by reducing human beings into simple categories, which ignores the complexity of human life and society.

Lesson Summary

This lesson covered several ideas relevant to interactions between men and women. First, we defined a patriarchy, which is a society in which men dominate, and compared that to a matriarchy, which is a society in which women dominate.

Next, the lesson defined sexism in general and covered five specific types of sexism. The types we summarized were old-fashioned, modern, hostile, benevolent and ambivalent.

Have you ever thought about different types of sexism, and how each type has a slightly different impact on society? What do you think will happen with sexism in the next 50 years?

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