An assumption of fundamental male superiority.

The observable differences between men and women are neither accidental nor socially constructed but are the expression of fundamental and immutable differences which justify the different treatment of men and women and the privileges of the former.

Sexism is normally an implication underlying many different theories rather than an articulated argument in itself.

Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton, 1979)

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Sexism can affect anyone, but it primarily affects women and girls.[1] It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles,[2][3] and may include the belief that one sex or gender is intrinsically superior to another.[4] Extreme sexism may foster sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.[5] Gender discrimination may encompass sexism, and is discrimination toward people based on their gender identity[6] or their gender or sex differences.[7] Gender discrimination is especially defined in terms of workplace inequality.[7] It may arise from social or cultural customs and norms.[

Etymology and definitions

According to Fred R. Shapiro, the term “sexism” was most likely coined on November 18, 1965, by Pauline M. Leet during a “Student-Faculty Forum” at Franklin and Marshall College.[9][10][self-published source?] Specifically, the word sexism appears in Leet’s forum contribution “Women and the Undergraduate”, and she defines it by comparing it to racism, stating in part (on page 3): “When you argue … that since fewer women write good poetry this justifies their total exclusion, you are taking a position analogous to that of the racist—I might call you in this case a ‘sexist’ … Both the racist and the sexist are acting as if all that has happened had never happened, and both of them are making decisions and coming to conclusions about someone’s value by referring to factors which are in both cases irrelevant.”[9]

Also, according to Shapiro, the first time the term “sexism” appeared in print was in Caroline Bird’s speech “On Being Born Female”, which was published on November 15, 1968, in Vital Speeches of the Day (p. 6).[9] In this speech she said in part: “There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism.”[9]

Sexism may be defined as an ideology based on the belief that one sex is superior to another.[11][12][13] It is discrimination, prejudice, or stereotyping based on gender, and is most often expressed toward women and girls.[1]

Sociology has examined sexism as manifesting at both the individual and the institutional level.[11] According to Richard Schaefer, sexism is perpetuated by all major social institutions.[11] Sociologists describe parallels among other ideological systems of oppression such as racism, which also operates at both the individual and institutional level.[14] Early female sociologists Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ida B. Wells, and Harriet Martineau described systems of gender inequality, but did not use the term sexism, which was coined later. Sociologists who adopted the functionalist paradigm, e.g. Talcott Parsons, understood gender inequality as the natural outcome of a dimorphic model of gender.[15]

Psychologists Mary Crawford and Rhoda Unger define sexism as prejudice held by individuals that encompasses “negative attitudes and values about women as a group.”[16] Peter Glick and Susan Fiske coined the term ambivalent sexism to describe how stereotypes about women can be both positive and negative, and that individuals compartmentalize the stereotypes they hold into hostile sexism or benevolent sexism.[17]

Feminist author bell hooks defines sexism as a system of oppression that results in disadvantages for women.[18] Feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye defines sexism as an “attitudinal-conceptual-cognitive-orientational complex” of male supremacy, male chauvinism, and misogyny.[19]

Philosopher Kate Manne defines sexism as one branch of a patriarchal order. In her definition, sexism rationalizes and justifies patriarchal norms, in contrast with misogyny, the branch which polices and enforces patriarchal norms. Manne says that sexism often attempts to make patriarchal social arrangements seem natural, good, or inevitable so that there appears to be no reason to resist them.[20]


Ancient world

Engraving of a woman preparing to self-immolate with her husband's corpse

Sati, or self-immolation by widows, was prevalent in Hindu society until the early 19th century.

The status of women in ancient Egypt depended on their fathers or husbands, but they had property rights and could attend court, including as plaintiffs.[21] Women of the Anglo-Saxon era were commonly afforded equal status.[22] Evidence, however, is lacking to support the idea that many pre-agricultural societies afforded women a higher status than women today.[23][24] After the adoption of agriculture and sedentary cultures, the concept that one gender was inferior to the other was established; most often this was imposed upon women and girls.[25] Examples of sexism in the ancient world include written laws preventing women from participating in the political process; women in ancient Rome could not vote or hold political office.[26] Another example is scholarly texts that indoctrinate children in female inferiority; women in ancient China were taught the Confucian principles that a woman should obey her father in childhood, husband in marriage, and son in widowhood.[27]

Witch hunts and trials

Titlepage from the book Malleus Maleficarum

“The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword”. Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520, from the University of Sydney Library.[28]

Sexism may have been the impetus that fueled the witch trials between the 15th and 18th centuries.[29] In early modern Europe, and in the European colonies in North America, claims were made that witches were a threat to Christendom. The misogyny of that period played a role in the persecution of these women.[30][31]

In Malleus Malificarum, the book which played a major role in the witch hunts and trials, the authors argue that women are more likely to practice witchcraft than men, and write that:

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman … What else is a woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors![32]

Witchcraft remains illegal in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, where it is punishable by death. In 2011, a woman was beheaded in that country for “witchcraft and sorcery”.[33] Murders of women after being accused of witchcraft remain common in some parts of the world; for example, in Tanzania, about 500 elderly women are murdered each year following such accusations.[34]

When women are targeted with accusations of witchcraft and subsequent violence, it is often the case that several forms of discrimination interact—for example, discrimination based on gender with discrimination based on caste, as is the case in India and Nepal, where such crimes are relatively common.[35][36]

Coverture and other marriage regulations

An Indian Anti-dowry poster headed Say No To Dowry

Anti-dowry poster in Bangalore, India. According to Amnesty International, “[T]he ongoing reality of dowry-related violence is an example of what can happen when women are treated as property.”[37]

Until the 20th century, U.S. and English law observed the system of coverture, where “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage”.[38] U.S. women were not legally defined as “persons” until 1875 (Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162).[39] A similar legal doctrine, called marital power, existed under Roman Dutch law (and is still partially in force in present-day Eswatini).

Restrictions on married women’s rights were common in Western countries until a few decades ago: for instance, French married women obtained the right to work without their husband’s permission in 1965,[40][41][42] and in West Germany women obtained this right in 1977.[43][44] During the Franco era, in Spain, a married woman required her husband’s consent (called permiso marital) for employment, ownership of property and traveling away from home; the permiso marital was abolished in 1975.[45] In Australia, until 1983, a married woman’s passport application had to be authorized by her husband.[46]

Women in parts of the world continue to lose their legal rights in marriage. For example, Yemeni marriage regulations state that a wife must obey her husband and must not leave home without his permission.[47] In Iraq, the law allows husbands to legally “punish” their wives.[48] In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Family Code states that the husband is the head of the household; the wife owes her obedience to her husband; a wife has to live with her husband wherever he chooses to live; and wives must have their husbands’ authorization to bring a case in court or initiate other legal proceedings.[49]

Abuses and discriminatory practices against women in marriage are often rooted in financial payments such as dowry, bride price, and dower.[50] These transactions often serve as legitimizing coercive control of the wife by her husband and in giving him authority over her; for instance Article 13 of the Code of Personal Status (Tunisia) states that, “The husband shall not, in default of payment of the dower, force the woman to consummate the marriage”,[51][52] implying that, if the dower is paid, marital rape is permitted. In this regard, critics have questioned the alleged gains of women in Tunisia, and its image as a progressive country in the region, arguing that discrimination against women remains very strong there.[53][54][55]

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) has recognized the “independence and ability to leave an abusive husband” as crucial in stopping mistreatment of women.[56] However, in some parts of the world, once married, women have very little chance of leaving a violent husband: obtaining a divorce is very difficult in many jurisdictions because of the need to prove fault in court. While attempting a de facto separation (moving away from the marital home) is also impossible because of laws preventing this. For instance, in Afghanistan, a wife who leaves her marital home risks being imprisoned for “running away”.[57][58] In addition, many former British colonies, including India, maintain the concept of restitution of conjugal rights,[59] under which a wife may be ordered by court to return to her husband; if she fails to do so, she may be held in contempt of court.[60][61] Other problems have to do with the payment of the bride price: if the wife wants to leave, her husband may demand the return of the bride price that he had paid to the woman’s family; and the woman’s family often cannot or does not want to pay it back.[62][63][64]

Laws, regulations, and traditions related to marriage continue to discriminate against women in many parts of the world, and to contribute to the mistreatment of women, in particular in areas related to sexual violence and to self-determination regarding sexuality, the violation of the latter now being acknowledged as a violation of women’s rights. In 2012, Navi Pillay, then High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that:

Women are frequently treated as property, they are sold into marriage, into trafficking, into sexual slavery. Violence against women frequently takes the form of sexual violence. Victims of such violence are often accused of promiscuity and held responsible for their fate, while infertile women are rejected by husbands, families and communities. In many countries, married women may not refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands, and often have no say in whether they use contraception … Ensuring that women have full autonomy over their bodies is the first crucial step towards achieving substantive equality between women and men. Personal issues—such as when, how and with whom they choose to have sex, and when, how and with whom they choose to have children—are at the heart of living a life in dignity.[65]

Suffrage and politics

Two woman carry a sign reading "Votes for Women".

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Gender has been used as a tool for discrimination against women in the political sphere. Women’s suffrage was not achieved until 1893, when New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote. Saudi Arabia is the most recent country, as of August 2015, to extend the right to vote to women in 2011.[66] Some Western countries allowed women the right to vote only relatively recently. Swiss women gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1971,[67] and Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last canton to grant women the right to vote on local issues in 1991, when it was forced to do so by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.[68] French women were granted the right to vote in 1944.[69][70] In Greece, women obtained the right to vote in 1952.[71] In Liechtenstein, women obtained the right to vote in 1984, through the women’s suffrage referendum of 1984.[72][73]

While almost every woman today has the right to vote, there is still progress to be made for women in politics. Studies have shown that in several democracies including Australia, Canada, and the United States, women are still represented using gender stereotypes in the press.[74] Multiple authors have shown that gender differences in the media are less evident today than they used to be in the 1980s, but are still present. Certain issues (e.g., education) are likely to be linked with female candidates, while other issues (e.g., taxes) are likely to be linked with male candidates.[74] In addition, there is more emphasis on female candidates’ personal qualities, such as their appearance and their personality, as females are portrayed as emotional and dependent.[74]

Sexism in politics can also be shown in the imbalance of lawmaking power between men and women. Lanyan Chen stated that men hold more political power than women, serving as the gatekeepers of policy making. It is possible that this leads to women’s needs not being properly represented. In this sense, the inequality of lawmaking power also causes gender discrimination in politics.[75] The ratio of women to men in legislatures is used as a measure of gender equality in the United Nations (UN) created Gender Empowerment Measure and its newer incarnation the Gender Inequality Index.


Until the early 1980s, some high-end restaurants had two menus: a regular menu with the prices listed for men and a second menu for women, which did not have the prices listed (it was called the “ladies’ menu”), so that the female diner would not know the prices of the items.[76] In 1980, Kathleen Bick took a male business partner out to dinner at L’Orangerie in West Hollywood. After she was given a women’s menu without prices and her guest got one with prices, Bick hired lawyer Gloria Allred to file a discrimination lawsuit, on the grounds that the women’s menu went against the California Civil Rights Act.[76] Bick stated that getting a women’s menu without prices left her feeling “humiliated and incensed”. The owners of the restaurant defended the practice, saying it was done as a courtesy, like the way men would stand up when a woman enters the room. Even though the lawsuit was dropped, the restaurant ended its gender-based menu policy.

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