I was engaged in an interesting debate online regarding the concepts of racism and sexism. It all started with this comment posted by a Facebook friend:
Annnnnnnd queue the keyboard warriors. This debate is interesting for many reasons. First, it clearly shows that people have vastly different ideas of what the terms racism and sexism mean. A few (including myself) even provided definitions from external sources. I’m not going to post all of the different definitions here. You can easily look them up for yourself. Suffice it to say, just as with any word, there are multiple meanings, so everyone in this debate arguing over the definition wasn’t entirely wrong.
I’m writing today to focus on the concept of sexism and power. We’ll save racism for another day. Because I believe there is a myth being perpetuated that is a danger to all women everywhere. Sexism is not the myth I’m talking about. Yes, sexism absolutely exists. That’s not even up for debate. I’m talking about the myth that sexism is based on power and that women do not have power; therefore, they cannot be sexist. Let’s drill down further, to this concept of power, where I believe, underscores our differing perceptions. Look at the following responses to the above comment:
I want to focus on the idea that women are not in power. Can women have power? If you go by the response here, “Because she is not in power,” the answer must be no. The default presumption is a man has power and a woman doesn’t. Before continuing, it’s important to note the person who posted this comment is female. It’s an important factor because it made me realize just how completely different two women’s mindsets can be regarding the idea of power and how it pertains to us as women.
In her mind, women automatically do not have power. I take this to mean, regardless the situation, regardless the people involved, regardless of the professional / social role, a woman is powerless. No ma'am. Not me. Not ever. Not in 2018.
My jaw drops at this bleak outlook of our sex. I think it’s completely wrong. Women, listen up, please.
WE. ARE. NOT. POWERLESS.
Even systemically. Hear me out.
The most blatant form of sexism I have ever personally encountered was when I made the decision at the age of 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps. I’ll give you two examples. Example 1 involves sexism demonstrated by a black male. Example 2 involves sexism demonstrated by a white female.
Example 1: I walked into the recruiting station and declared I wanted to be a Marine. The recruiter told me to sit down at his desk and wait so that he could walk down the hall to an office located in the back of the recruiting station to talk to his superior. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. Here’s what I remember the conversation sounding like:
Gunny, this girl is here and says she wants to be a Marine. What do I gotta do to get rid of her?
Give her the tests, and when she fails them, get rid of her.
Blatant sexism, right? Easy one to spot. And on the surface, you might even think they were able to be sexist because they were in power. You’d be wrong though. I was not powerless.
If I were powerless, I would not have had the option to become a Marine in the first place. The option was still there. If I were powerless, I would not have played their game and maxed out on all the tests. If I were powerless, I would not have made it to Parris Island. If I were powerless, I would not have been a graduating member of the Honor Platoon at Parris Island. If I were powerless, I would never have worn that uniform.
Going back to that critical moment in time, facing the blatant sexism, I realize it had NOTHING to do with power, systemic or otherwise. It had everything to do with PERCEIVED power. Truly, in that moment in time, I was the one with all the power because I was the one with the choice. I was the only one who could make the decision to stay or run.
I’m going to move on to the next part of this myth, that women cannot be sexist, and go ahead and call bullshit on that idea.
Example 2: My mother brought one of her biker buddies home from the bar as a scare tactic to convince me to not join the service. He was an older Vietnam vet who served in the Army. He yelled at me for quite some time, telling me I’d never make it as a Marine, and if I did, they would just send me to Guam where I would be raped repeatedly every day. Yes. That happened. Thanks, mom. No really. Thanks. Because that experience only strengthened my resolve.
Let’s focus on my mother and how this is an example of how a woman can be sexist. Merriam-Webster online defines sexism as:
As you can see, the definitions include nothing about power, but they do define sexism in relation to attitudes and behaviors that promulgate discrimination based on sex. It also points out sexism tends to happen especially against women. But that doesn’t mean women can’t be sexist. My mother didn’t think I could make it as a Marine because I’m a girl. Plain and simple. Whether her actions were based on fear and wanting to protect her daughter doesn’t matter. It’s a moot point. At the end of the day, her actions were based on her belief in a stereotype that women (especially her daughter) should not, and could not, make it in the Marine Corps. That, by all standards of the actual definition according to Merriam-Webster, is sexism. So, yes, a woman can be sexist (whether she is fostering stereotypes of men or women).
Let’s shift the focus again back to the concept of power and the belief that women don’t have any. Even in the second example, I was not powerless. Again, because I was the one with the power of choice.
I was the only one who had any real power in both of those situations where I experienced sexism. I had the power, because I had the power of choice. Regardless of what I overheard in the recruiter’s office, I had a choice to run and cry about it or to stay and prove them wrong. Regardless of my mother’s attempts, I had a choice to fall in line or to move forward and prove her wrong.
In the end, my main goal in writing this is to leave a clear and loud message to all the young women out there trying to figure out where you stand in this crazy world. Don’t you ever let anyone (your mother, father, friends, teachers, or politicians) tell you just because you’re a woman that you don’t have power.
THAT IS UTTER BULLSHIT. It’s condescending. It’s patronizing. And it’s a completely dangerous mindset that only serves to undermine and undo your belief in yourself and in your ability to achieve your goals. FUCK THAT.
You have all the power in the world! Yes, sexism exists, and it can be expressed by anyone and everyone, regardless of status and their perceived power. The ONLY time a sexist can have power over you is if you allow it. So, don’t.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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