Tracing the Roots of Sexual Discrimination

By Layng, Anthony | USA TODAY, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Tracing the Roots of Sexual Discrimination


Layng, Anthony, USA TODAY


Negative stereotypes, combined with a relative lack of economic and political power, have made women acceptable victims of prejudice and bigotry.

Some years ago, while lecturing to a preparatory school social studies class on the subject of discrimination, I pointed out that the Ku Klux Klan was opposed to blacks, Jews, and Catholics. When I said "Catholics," there was an audible response from the audience indicating shock. Somehow, the Klan's advocating discrimination against blacks and Jews, although not commendable, was less surprising to these northeastern high school students, most of whom were personally acquainted with Catholics. There was much discussion following this point, and one result was that they began to understand how many Americans are vulnerable to discrimination. Had I expanded upon this theme to include women, it surely would have met with even more incredulity.

Today's young adults still fail to recognize the extent of discrimination in this country, particularly its impact on women. Even sociology students at the liberal arts college where I teach require much convincing that American females continue to suffer from discrimination. Sheltered and inexperienced, perhaps because they have yet to encounter the overt forms of sexual discrimination that are more likely to occur after college (when they marry and begin their careers), they seem to think that problem mostly is a thing of the past. Until then, most may persist in believing that discrimination primarily is a product of racism and bigotry.

Discriminating against others is not limited to the behavior of racists and bigots. It is far too common to be explained as the exclusive acts of people with deviant personality traits. The sociological characteristics of those who are discriminated against must be understood to explain why they receive such treatment. America has a well-established tradition of prejudice and discrimination against minorities.

Even though women are not a numerical minority, many sociologists view them as a minority because they have so much in common with racial and ethnic minorities like African-Americans and Native Americans. Consider, for example, the following generalizations regarding the political status of Indians, blacks, and women in American history.

After whites became politically dominant in colonial North America and no longer needed Indians as military allies, discrimination against them became the norm. In the 1830s, Pres. Andrew Jackson forced those remaining in the Southeast to leave their farms and settle in lands west of the Mississippi to make room for the many European immigrants flooding into the U.S. During the 1870s, Indians in the plains states were rounded up and contained on reservations under the control of white agents. In the 1880s, reservation children were removed from their homes and sent to distant boarding schools designed to eradicate their Indian culture. Only Native Americans were subject to these Federal policies.

In the South, after African-Americans were emancipated from slavery, they were subject to Jim Crow legislation that highly structured their interactions with whites, ranging from anti-miscegenation laws to restricted seating in public places. Even though such statutes were challenged effectively by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, racial segregation in various forms and degrees persist for a majority of blacks, especially affecting housing, employment, and membership in private clubs and other organizations.

Females continue to encounter discrimination in hiring and promotion. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally designed to check racial and ethnic discrimination, had "sexual discrimination" added to it by a legislator who sought to ensure its defeat. It nevertheless passed, but women continue to be denied opportunities in the workplace simply because they are not men. At one time, females who served in the military were not allowed to be truck drivers; today, they are still restricted from being combat pilots. …

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