On the first day of my sexism course, I present students with what I call the “Tree of Discrimination”. A gigantic tree that I display on an easel at the front of the classroom. I divide up the students into groups and hand out laminated paper apples. On the apples, I ask students to write specific forms of sexism and violence against women that they can come up with. Then the students put their “apples” onto the tree and describe the examples they came up with. The examples generally include pay inequity, the “glass ceiling”, sexual assault, rape, woman battering, female genital mutilation, femicide (sex-selective abortions), prostitution, human trafficking, etc…
Then I ask students to identify the attitudes and beliefs (in the trunk of the tree) that must be present in order for the specific acts of sexism and violence against women to persist. These attitudes and beliefs generally include things like women are stupid, crazy and emotional and need to be controlled; women belong in the home caring for children and husbands; women need to get married- if they don’t, something is wrong with them; women are responsible for pleasing men (in many ways- especially sexually); women are more moral than men; women are pure; women are unclean (ironic eh?), women are responsible for the “Fall” of humankind- I could go on here but I don’t really think that I need to.
After completing the trunk, we move to the roots of the tree where I ask students to identify the “roots” or origins of the attitudes and beliefs they just listed. One of the most challenging lessons to teach about sexism is that sexism originated primarily from religion. Patriarchy and capitalism are also fundamental components of sexism. In almost every major religious text, women are oppressed. “God” is always male, women are devalued and given little to no power. This form of institutionalized sexism in the church is responsible for the Witch Burnings in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of women were burned at the stake for being “convicted” (actually usually just accused) of being witches. Women were burned for being midwives, unmarried, for talking back to their husbands, for drinking too much, for going out into public without their husbands or fathers, for mental retardation, for the infertility, etc…. Unfortunately, the church supported it. If you don’t think religion is oppressive to women, flip through the pages of your bible. Women can be stoned to death for talking back to their husbands. Women are not allowed to ask questions in church. Daughters are rape-worthy but sons are not. Eve ate the apple; it’s her fault that Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden.
As an institution, religion is one of the primary roots of oppression for ALL groups who are oppressed and it is dangerous because religion dominates nearly every other institution; education, government, corporations, culture, society, and families.
Deny women the right to vote and you prevent women from having any input into the oppressive, sexist government and laws that women are being forced to live by. Women only achieved the right to vote in 1920.
Deny women equal pay and you deny them the ability to earn a living wage; a wage on which they can live, without a man. Deny women equal pay and you deny them the ability to leave an abusive partner. Deny a woman equal pay and it becomes almost imperative that she stay home to care for her children because working and paying for daycare takes almost her entire salary. Deny a woman pay equity and you remove her power within the structure of her family and marriage because the money then, belongs to “him”. Keep a woman home and out of the workforce, and you guarantee that she won’t collect enough social security in old age to meet her basic survival needs.
Our founding fathers didn’t give women anything. The constitution of the United States gave white men all of the power. If that’s not sexism (ahem- and racism by the way), I don’t know what is.
Karl Marx believed that capitalism would result in a system that was sexist and racist. Capitalism combined with religion and patriarchy has created exactly that.