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The idea for this diary has been rumbling in my brain for a few days.  It was BoiseBlue's diary, "Childless by Choice. My Little Rant." that made me decide to put the idea into words.

There's been a lot of talk here lately about misogyny, but very little about sexism.  The two are different, if related, concepts.  Misogyny is the hatred and fear of women.  Sexism is the by-product of the patriarchal structure of our society, with deeply-rooted cultural beliefs about the proper roles and conduct of men and women, especially the latter.

Of course, misogyny is the foundation for patriarchy and, thus, sexism, but it's also far easier to identify than sexism is.  Misogyny is hostile, contemptuous, and distrustful; sexism can be seductively deceptive, pretending to elevate women while, in fact, subordinating them.

Sexism's deception in this country traces, literally, to our origins, as reflected in the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams in 1776.  She wrote:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.

Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up -- the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.

 Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?

In response, John wrote:

As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh …

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.

We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.

The duplicitous nature of sexism could not be better expressed.  Yes, all the legal power is in men's hands, says Mr. Adams, but we all know who really runs the show.  Note also the fear that affording legal rights to women would lead to subjugation of man to woman, which Adams sarcastically calls the "despotism of the petiicoat."

Elevation of woman and her status, in practice, viz. a viz. men as a means of continuing her subjugation would persist.

Some 61 years later came the Pastor Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts, which included the following sentiments regarding women who were active in the Abolition movement:

We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with wide spread and permanent injury.

The appropriate duties and influence of women, are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the sources of mighty power.

When the mild, dependent, softening influence of woman upon the sternness of man's opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effects of it in a thousand forms ...

There are social influences which females use in promoting piety and the great objects of christian benevolence, which we cannot too highly commend ...  

But when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary, we put ourselves in self defence against her, she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural.  

If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour into the dust.

The sentiments expressed in the Pastoral Letter would come to define much of the Victorian Era and its view on women, even if it didn't discourage the specific women to which it was directed.  That is, the social contribution of woman was fulfilled by their exercising their tempering effcts on men, particularly business men, who operated in a sphere largely devoid of religious values.  In other words, women ought to be excluded from the public sphere because their work in the private sphere is so important.

And so it was in 1872, that when a woman sought to be admitted as an attorney to the Illinois bar, arguing that such admission was a "privilege and immunity" of her citizenship, Justice Bradley of the Uniited States Supreme Court thought it proper to say this:

[T]he civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The Constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.
Of course, women's activism eventually overcame the Pastoral Letter, Justice Bradley, and numerous other obstacles.  Women fought for, and won, signifigant achievements, including the married women's property acts and the Constitutional amendment affirming our absolute right to vote.  Decades later, the Supreme Court established a fundamental right for women to forestall pregnancy by the use of birth control and the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

But sexism, and especially its pedestal effect, never went away.  Indeed it flourished in the 1950s, where the ultimate in female happlness was defined as deriving solely through the happiness of others. Woman was not something that could be self-actualized; her sense of identity was wholly dependent on the well being of others.

You have to know something's wrong when Betty Friedan writes a book and the Rolling Stones do a song on the same sad state of womanhood,

All of this, as it must, brings me to today.  Sexism sets out the norms for women.  A lot of those so-called conservative women described by some on this site and elsewhere as "longing for Gilead" or "stupid" or "sheeple" might just be of a mindset that 200+ years of history has told them is not only acceptable, but proper, for women.  Sexism allows well-intentioned people to tell BoiseBlue that she ought to be a mother.  Sexism creates a conventional wisdom that all women want to become mothers.  Sexism provides a great deal of material to inadequately funny male comedians who want to complain about their wives.  Sexism allows every man to create imaginary anger over all those feminists who scoff at his polite attempt to open a door.  Sexism is at the root of stupid things like "honey-do" jars.

But above all else, sexism is the thing that lets too many women think that they wield such awesome practical power, there is no real need for actual legal power.

Originally posted to VetGrl on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 07:26 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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