Internalized Sexism

I bought (most of) my books last week, and I'm trying to make a dent in them this week (as I'm a little concerned that this first semester is going to be crazy). Yesterday, I read bell hooks' Feminism is for EVERYBODY. The following stuck out to me:
We all knew firsthand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as always and only in competition with one another for patriarchal approval, to look upon each other with jealousy, fear, and hatred. Sexist thinking made us judge each other without compassion and punish one another harshly. (p. 14)
I've been thinking about the ways women compare ourselves to one another, and the lethal effect that competition has on relationships for a long time now. I've never thought of it being linked to sexism, but in retrospect, it hugely is.

Here are a few examples I can think of:
  • We diminish attractive women by making them out to be stupid.
  • We snarl at women with whom "our" men might enjoy some sort of connection.
  • In order to have friendships with other women, we sacrifice ourselves by pretending we're less than we really are.
  • In order to have friendships with other women, we sacrifice them by pretending they're less than they really are.
  • We reject women based on their choices of dress, particularly when clothing displays a womanly form.
  • We establish connection with one woman by disparaging others.
  • We reject friendships with women in favor of friendships with men, claiming that women are in some way separate from or beneath us.
  • We have to feel better than someone else in order to feel adequate ourselves.
  • We belittle women's sexuality, either its absence or its obviousness.
This is just a start, and just off the top of my head, but I can think of examples in my own life of everything listed. Sometimes I'm the perpetrator, and sometimes I'm the recipient. I've always thought it was about insecurity, and there's that too, but it really is hugely about sexism. I don't compare myself to men. I can have friendships with men without competing. (For that matter, I count myself as extremely lucky to have some noncompetitive, supportive female friendships.)

How are we as women perpetuating sexism? We can react against it in men and still lash out with it against other women. This matters. It shreds the bonds of love, affection and support that human beings were created for. Can you see it in your life? Can you envision the generosity and freedom of a world without it?


  1. Marianne10:42 AM

    Ha--here's my most recent and shameful example: looking down on myself if the only thing I ever truly 'achieve' in this life is mothering a child and keeping a household. I hate (and I mean despise) the idea of my identity being primarily drawn from my potential future role as mother, because I fear the terrible limitations and expectations placed on me because of it. I cannot be sexy. I cannot desire time away from my child, regardless of how much I love them. I will be expected to desire nothing BUT my child, even over my partner in certain contexts.

    And man, I hate the feminists who disparage motherhood as a lesser calling, but I've nevertheless internalized my own sexism against this aspect of femaleness. Ugh.

  2. SarahB10:55 AM

    I'm a little out of it to comment on the feminism right now, but you are very, very right to start in on the reading early.

  3. I was going to offer a similar example as Marianne - we belittle one another in our choices in vocation/occupation and often times belittle ourselves, as well.

    I've been calling this "dichotomization" and this summer I have seen it everywhere in our culture. Naming it as I have does not call attention to "why" we use it; sexism is certainly one reason, I see class as another. The two together are probably the basis for much our separation from God.

    As Christians, we are called to see (and act towards) the world healed and whole. We celebrate/anticipate this each time we share in Holy Communion, recognizing that in Jesus is a vision of wholeness. We will not be whole, God's Kingdom shall not come, until we are all, each of us, also whole. How can we be complete if our neighbors, communities, countries are not also healed and whole?

    Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste of health; his actions on earth are examples of how to get there. Not only in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, but also in speaking out against what is not right in our world as well as having the grace to change our minds when we ourselves are not right.

    Love me some incarnational theology!

  4. My biggest example of this is women clergy and laity who perpetuate only, or 99%, masculine or at most neutral images of God/dess....A place where many mainline women give in to a fundamentalist style suspicion of or outright attacks on those who do honor the feminine side of God/dess. It's such a misuse of the authority they are trusted with, and so disempowering to other women as well as, unwittingly, to themselves--not to mention cutting off men also from a fruitful aspect of relationship with divinity. On my own part I only recently realized that my intense frustration with them was in part justified but also out of balance in failing to see how much this is due to their internalized sexism as well as fear for their careers in a church that still privileges male clergy in so many ways.

  5. Marianne: As one of my favorite authors put it, "In the bad old days, men kept women from choosing to work. In the bad new days, women keep women from choosing to stay home."

    Laura: I admit that I far prefer the neutral. I find the feminine language for the divine as off-putting as the masculine. I do appreciate that neutrality has its own problems.

    Charlotte: How do you encounter/wrestle with that incarnational theology personally? How do you see it pop up in your everyday life? Where do you notice your own need within it, and where do you encounter its invitations?

    Sarah: Thanks, lady! I hope you're still napping when TM does!

  6. Di, I have to think about it all the time. Not really, but I find myself reminded of the dance of individual/community/Trinity throughout my day. I told Joe that it's like that incarnational/communion theology is like a Calder sculpture: pieces that make up a whole that is free to move about. Up close there are individual pieces and you can see the wires, back up and you see the whole image but not what holds it together.
    In my day-to-day life, I've found I have a lot less tolerance for people being either/or for/against (ironic, no?) and I tend to hear/see those dichotomies and imagine why they exist and what could change them. I haven't gotten much beyond that :)

  7. More and more I see sexism, and all the other "isms" that plague us, as stemming from the same root: a sort of self-centeredness which says that in order for to be right, or good, or valuable, someone else must suffer in comparison-- must therefore be wrong, or bad, or somehow of lesser value. Sadly, it seems to be an element of the human condition that crosses all boundaries of class, gender, ethnic origin or culture. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't in fact the true original sin!

  8. Marianne4:42 PM

    Sarah B., I have no idea what it is like to care for an infant but your descriptions of napping on FB etc. sometimes remind me of my early shifts. If I start at 04:00 I have to wake up at 02:30. My body does not like this ever, and I never manage more than 5 hours of sleep a night on these shifts, even if I'm exhausted. So purely on the physical sleep side, I can sympathise MUCHO. I also hope that you don't think that I'm belittling you as a mother when I posted the above. I do not think, 'What a shoddy choice to have a kid' but rather, 'Am I going to end up like my own mother, a depressed, financially strapped formerly-professional-turned-homemaker working a job she hates with nothing to show for it save a rather pig-headed daughter, who will never understand the despair I took on to make her life better?' Wow that's a mouthful. Go have yourself a good long nap after that one!

    Di, it's ridiculous how competitive we women are with each other, and yet how we feel that we have to be so covert and thus passive-aggressive about it. Honestly, I'd much rather have a nasty knock-down, drag out fight with someone, get all the bitterness out on the table and confront it. It's pretty painful for both parties, but much better to see the ugliness for what it is, and then make a decision as to whether or not you are going to let the ugliness rule your supposed 'principle' or 'grievance'. Because of my own stress at a job I'm not fond of, I find these issues coming to a head in my private life. I'm throwing down the gauntlet even when I don't need to, and all because I see my own chance at having my self-worth recognised by others slipping away. It's tremendously frustrating and even rather foolish at times.

  9. Jane Ellen, well said! You've put into far better words my idea of "dichotomization." It does permeate all aspects of society and it does seem to be getting worse.


"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
-Saint Molly Ivins