The principles on which our society is founded offer no justification for sexism. Yet, despite efforts to eradicate it, sexism is still too pervasive. Some even believe that what others call sexism actually represents the nature of things. This perspective has gained more credence from the intractability of both women and men toward altering the social attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate it, an intractability that cannot be as easily legislated away as segregation, whose source in racism has been much more difficult to eradicate than its institutionalized expression. The lesson of racism is that institutional change without attitudinal change—however necessary in practice it is for the former to precede the latter—is not enough, a lesson that we should have learned already from sexism itself, since schools have been degenderized longer than they have been desegregated and since women as a group have achieved a prominence in the workplace far sooner and to a far greater extent than, say, blacks as a group, without an equally significant decrease in (gender-based) stereotyping. This is especially surprising if one considers that the phenomenon of sexism is of comparatively recent origin, reaching back in any strictly definable sense only to the Industrial Revolution, namely the beginning to middle of the 19th century. It is no accident that the first feminists who can justly claim the name arose in that same period.
Many strident feminists, women or men, whose role as “consciousness-raisers” should not, on this account, be ridiculed, have betrayed a historical naivete that leads to a confusion of behavior and substance out of a failure to realize that if a behavior is to be labeled correctly, its context cannot be ignored, that if a behavior be sexist now, it need not have been sexist in the past (a phenomenon to which my title alludes).
Take one cultural example. Ancient Greek society is frequently deemed sexist, yet unbiased reflection on Greek theology must conclude that a people that worshipped such a pantheon could not have believed that women were simply inferior to men. Nor could a people that produced Sophocles’s Antigone, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and Assembly of Women, Xenophon’s Oikonomike (skill of household legislation, from which “economics” derives), and Plato’s Symposium (where Socrates presents his teacher of philosophy as the woman Diotima). In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues for the psychic equality of women and men. He understands that in ancient society, the practical impact of the greater strength of men as a group and the debility of pregnant women could not be ignored. Therefore, he suggests, the full social implementation of gender equality can occur only within a society sufficiently technologically advanced to render irrelevant not only strength as a meaningful factor in work but also the impact of gestation and the rigors of childbirth on women and the work cycle. In the past, since women could wield enormous power (as rulers or advisers) and since household management was a complex and meaningful activity essential to the economic survival of the family and society at large, sexism in our sense did not occur. To deplore the lack of educational and social opportunities for most women in times during which most men also lacked educational and social opportunities is naive, if not downright silly.
In recent times, when household management has become a largely empty activity devoid of economic necessity and when social identity has become fluid, personal psychic identity becomes central in a new way. Bruno Bettelheim said, “With the breaking down of ancient customs and traditional sex-related traits . . . comes the difficult task of achieving personal identity, and the related task of gaining autonomy. This is what a technologically advanced society requires of one.” (“Growing Up Female,” in Surviving and Other Essays)
What must we do to facilitate, or not inhibit, achievement of personal identity independent of gender-based stereotyping? We must do three things: (1) make every effort to cleanse ourselves of incorrect and contradictory gender-based behavior and thinking; (2) employ, and promote, a meaningfully non-sexist use of the English language; and (3) see to it that our primers and textbooks do not demean or exclude any person solely on account of gender (and do not elevate or include any person solely on account of gender).
We must first look to ourselves and correct our prejudices. In interactions, we must exemplify nonsexist behavior. This means not denying genuine biological differences between the sexes, but refusing to allow those biological differences to intrude upon the horizon of a person’s life-choices in extrinsic and irrelevant ways. It means dealing with parents as parents, not as mothers (or as fathers), and with students as students, not as girls (or as boys). It means having a boy in role-playing activities be the nurse and a girl be the doctor, even if their spontaneous socialized inclinations are to do the reverse. It means becoming as comfortable with non-gender-based role-assignments as we have become in using the terms “blacks” or “African Americans” for those who were once called “Negroes” or “colored.”
Second, we must be rigorous (but not foolish) in ridding language of sexist bias. This is especially crucial in English where grammatical gender of nouns has been replaced by natural gender. Consequently, we must be careful not to import sexist attitudes unthinkingly into our speech. For example, we must eliminate “man” as a generic term. Although it was once (in Anglo-Saxon English) truly generic, it is now misleading at best. Therefore, for the generic use of “man,” we should substitute “human” or “human being” or “person” or whatever else is precisely appropriate.
Finally, our primers need to include images of women meaningfully active outside the home and men meaningfully active inside the home. Our literature courses and history texts must include women as writers and participants without, however, falling into the trap of including them simply because they are women, a practice which would be as demeaning and condescending to them as outright exclusion would be. A good writer is a good writer, regardless of gender, but so is a bad writer: Jackie Collins is no more Jane Austen or William Faulkner than Leon Uris is. To abandon standards in the name of righting a wrong is as contravening of genuine equity as a female teacher using a primer in which women are presented as neither professionals nor laborers.
Sexism is wrong, and our schools, in particular, must strive to eradicate it. Overcoming gender bias in schooling will go a long way toward overcoming gender bias in society at large. If Mrs. Schoolteacher is unwilling to contribute to that effort, then he should find another profession.