Systemic Sexism – Part 2 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

This article builds on Part 1 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism.


Magazine feature from 'Beauty Parade' in March 1952 stereotyping women drivers. The model is Bettie Page.

Sexism is a belief that one sex is naturally superior to the other. However sexism can be more nuanced than simply believing women’s brains overheat if they think too much.

For example, the extreme focus on women’s appearance is sexist because it suggests a woman’s worth and value is predominantly based on how she looks, rather than on her skills, intellect and talents.

Furthermore, stereotyping women into ‘carer’ roles defines them by the people around them (mother, wife, daughter) rather than as an agent in their own right, or as Baroness Scotland said at our recent report launch ‘as arbitors of our own fate’.

Systemic Sexism

If you can accept that there is sexism that is a systemic problem due to historic discrimination (c.f. Part 1), then you can begin to see why it can be so difficult to identify and challenge. Apparently innocuous things build up to create a society that perpetrates oppressive ideologies and practices. People are reluctant to challenge the status quo, because it is often part of their own identity, for example gender roles we were brought up with. This systemic sexism is what the term ‘patriarchy’ refers to. Patriarchy basically refers to a system that places power in the control of men.

The Debutante (1807) by Henry Fuseli; The woman, a victim of social convention, is tied to the wall, made to sew and guarded by governesses.

The gendering of the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ can make it challenging to understand that in the context of gender discrimination in the current socio-political system both men and women are sexist. ‘The patriarchy’ does not refer to a male conspiracy to seize power, but a society that privileges men.

Similarly, feminism is equally vital to both men and women. From personal relationships to professional relationships, international peace-building to environmental and financial planning, the absolute equality of women is vital. A transformed culture where men and women make decisions without gender stereotyping, would create a society that can benefit from the skill and talent of the whole population.

Note: in focusing on defining patriarchy I have limited my discussion to more indirect, institutional sexism. That does not mean that individual women or groups (and feminists can become particular targets) are not victims of direct sexist abuse or discrimination.

Next Steps

Read the Equality Illusion by UK Feminista founder Kat Banyard

Learn about the Fawcett Society’s Sexism and the City campaign

Voyage into Bad Reputation’s feminist pop culture blog with beautiful articles on everything from transphobia to reviews of musicians so cool I’ve never heard of them (but you all probably have)

Read Part 3 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

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