Why Sexism Should Top the Civil Rights Agenda

By Simmons, Judy Dothard | The New Crisis, March/April 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Sexism Should Top the Civil Rights Agenda


Simmons, Judy Dothard, The New Crisis


One score and nine years ago, my supervisor at AT&T told me I was getting a raise. An Irish-American from Boston, a high school graduate who had worked his way into management through the ranks, he saw no need to hide his gender and ethnic biases.

"We're paying you man's money now," he said of the $12,000 per annum I was soon to be paid, "so we expect some loyalty" I didn't know what he meant by that, but I did understand what he said next and thought it was stupid. "I'd rather be giving the money to a black man," confided this immigrant spawn of the colony that kicked off the American Revolution. "At least he has a family to support."

"Who do you think pays my rent?" I retorted, still thinking he was a dim bulb. Surely nobody with a functioning brain really believed in denying people (a) opportunity and (b) equal pay for comparable work, because they're not men.

I was 26, a college graduate, upwardly mobile, achievement-oriented. Sexism wasn't even a blip on my radar screen. Early 1970s, the women's movement was vaguely happening somewhere on television, and I was having a fight on the job to wear the expensively tailored, three-piece, ACT ONE pants suits I thought were the perfect corporate costume, but professional women weren't supposed to wear pants in the office (or was it the pants in the office?).

I didn't connect my personal struggle with the larger one. I was too used to sexism to see it as a huge social injustice, like racism. Sexism was just my father being old-fashioned and thinking I should be a virgin when I married. You got around that by moving out of his house (I did as a 17year-old college sophomore) and paying your own bills, which let you do whatever you could afford.

Problem is, you can't move off the planet and set up housekeeping on a moon of Neptune in your own little ecosystem, which is what you would have to do to escape sexism on Earth. Defined as the process of stereotyping, persecuting, or discriminating against people on the basis of their gender, sexism generally connotes the limiting of women's choices and rewards to accommodate men's desire for dominance, deference, reduced competition, and an unrealistic sense of "manhood."

As we surveyed the state of women globally during Women's History Month in March, sexism appears to be widespread and robust.

In Afghanistan, for instance, since the Taliban became a military and political force in late 1994, women and girls have become virtually invisible in the two-thirds of the country under Taliban control, according to the U.S. State Department. The persecution of women has been widely reported. Forced to wear a head-to-toe covering called the burga, which has a threeinch square opening covered with mesh for them to see through, they are no longer allowed to attend universities and schools and work outside the home; they are made to darken their homes by painting over the windows; beaten if they go out without an explanation acceptable to the Taliban, or if they make noise when they walk. Taliban militia mete out punishment on the spot.

We're all familiar with the loss of choices women have experienced in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini and a fundamentalist Islamic regime replaced Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Although several Islamic scholars say that Prophet Muhammad and the Quran teach the equality of women and men in God's eyes, male ambition, nationalistic politics, and cultural habit combine to repress and oppress women in many places where Islam is practiced. (After Libya's September 1969 revolution, Muammar al-- Gadhafi reconciled traditional practices with the evolving idea of equality between the sexes by declaring that the differing roles of women and men, a la Islam, are of equal value in the modern state.)

Islamic dogmatists aren't alone in allowing sexism to distort their prophet's teaching. Religious fundamentalism in general puts women into a crouch so men can appear to be taller. …

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