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Feminism Friday: The origins of the word “sexism”

Although it has long since become a household phrase, the origins of the term “sexism” are not widely known. In researching this article, I found that the term is most commonly dated to the 1968 paper “Freedom for Movement Girls – Now”, however there are actually two other known appearances of this word prior to the publication of that article.

Pauline M. Leet’s “Women and the Undergraduate”

According to Shapiro (1985) the term was most likely coined on November 18, 1965 during the “Student-Faculty Forum” at Franklin and Marshall College (p. 5). The word appears in Pauline M. Leet’s forum contribution entitled, “Women and the Undergraduate”, where she defines it by comparing it to racism:

When you argue…that since fewer women write good poetry this justifies their total exclusion, you are taking a position analogous to that of the racist — I might call you in this case a “sexist”… Both the racist and the sexist are acting as if all that has happened had never happened, and both of them are making decisions and coming to conclusions about someone’s value by referring to factors which are in both cases irrelevant. [p. 3]

[Leet (1965) in Shapiro (p. 6)]

Caroline Bird’s “On Being Born Female”

Shapiro also documents the first time the word appeared in print: Caroline Bird’s “On Being Born Female”, published on November 15, 1968 in Vital Speeches of the Day (p. 6). In using the phrase Bird also expanded it; both explicitly connecting it to the act of judging a person based on their sex and highlighting hierarchical imbalance by talking about how sexism has helped to keep power in the hands of those who already have it:

There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.

Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have used to keep the powers that be in power. Women are sexists as often as men.

Women who get good jobs do it by outsexing the sexism. They persuade the boss that a woman’s intuition is needed. Or that women pay more attention to detail. They know isn’t so, but they use the sexist arguments to get around prejudice.

It is sexist to ask: Could we ever have a woman president? In India they don’t ask because they have a woman chief executive. The question is like “Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?” Now that your daughter might do it, you don’t ask.

It is sexist to ask “What can women do to end violence in America?” Women aren’t any better than men, thank God, and it is sexist to demand that they ennoble the entire population.

Sexism made sense when the only way a woman could make a living was to become a wife, and being a wife subjected her to the risk of pregnancy all her childbearing years. But it makes no sense when a woman has control of pregnancy.

[Bird (1968) (p. 90)]

Sheldon Vanauken’s “Freedom for Movement Girls – Now”

In December 1986, the pamphlet “Freedom for Movement Girls – Now” was written by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, he talks about “the sexist myth”:

A myth. A myth like the racist myths we’re all too familiar with, designed to explain and perpetuate the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another. But the sexist myth is the greatest and most pervasive myth the world has ever told itself- at once explaining, condoning, and perpetuating male superiority and female inferiority, meanwhile denying -craftiest touch of all! – that to be secondary in everything is at all inferior.

[Vanauken (1968)]

The terms “sexist” and “sexism” appear several times throughout the rest of the article without any citation to Bird or Leet, although the oversight does not appear to be intentional. Because of this, however, the erroneous belief that Vanauken was the originator of the term was picked up by several feminist groups at the time, thus leading to the common misconception that he was the one coined the terms (Shapiro, p. 7).

Conclusion

Leet, Bird, and Vanauken all made an important contribution to the popularization of the term “sexism”. Because of their efforts, and that of the women’s groups who picked up the term and ran with it, sexism has become a household term that everyone understands on some level. They should be remembered and honored for their roles in shaping modern feminism.

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5 comments on “Feminism Friday: The origins of the word “sexism”

  1. [...] Top Posts FAQ: What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?FAQ: What roles should men play in feminism?FAQ: What is “sexism”?PLEASE READ THIS FIRSTFAQ: what do you mean by "Not my Nigel"? (feminist abbreviations/jargon)FAQ: What is the “male gaze”?Feminism Friday: The origins of the word “sexism” [...]

  2. This was really interesting. Thank you.

  3. great to see the etymology of this pervasive word. It is sad to me that it is often used as a derogatory slur to insult someone with. This word alone, at it’s root inception only gives meaning to the idea that one sex is inferior to another. However, as commonly used today, the word often will be used without further discussion as to what roles/tasks are inferior that would predicate the use of this word as a slur. When slung almost as a faux pas, it effectually shuts down the conversation. This is a sad dilemma. At once we need a word that can properly be used to explain a mentality, however at the same time we need the mentality to be discussed, so as to bring about clarification and mutually beneficial change. Something must have happened after this word was created that has attached such a stigma to it, that roles themselves are considered inferior. But we must ask if in an equal partnership, where the end goals are mutually agreed upon, if there truly can be inferior roles?

    • But we must ask if in an equal partnership, where the end goals are mutually agreed upon, if there truly can be inferior roles?

      How exactly is the relationship equal? Is it equal in fact or just in rhetoric?

      For example, do both partners have equivalent financial security independent of the other partner?

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