Sexism and Patriarchy

“He got close to my face and said in a low, gravelly voice, ‘I used to have pretty little things like you during the war all the time.’” (An elderly man to a young woman in a suburban fast-food restaurant) – “Our Voices, Our Stories

This is an example of sexism. The ELCA has committed itself to take sexism seriously, yet the words “sexism” and “patriarchy” can make people feel uncomfortable. No matter the discomfort, words are important to name what is wrong and to work toward change. Martin Luther encouraged all Christians to call things what they really are for theological reasons. Christians are shaped by the God incarnate who died on a cross and proclaim God’s grace through Christ. The proclamation of grace allows and compels Christians to speak clearly about what is evil and what is good. Sexism is evil because it actively keeps women from full and safe lives. Knowing that we are one body in Christ through baptism and sustained by the Holy Spirit to build up the body of Christ, the ELCA works to address sexism.

A social system is a constellation of relationships; everyone participates in a variety of ways in social systems. A patriarchal social system is male dominant, male identified and male centered. As sociologists have noted, it also is characterized by control and the oppression of women. Although this stark definition can be a bit jarring, think about what each phrase means. For instance, in the United States, which sex dominates politics, the media, money and church leadership? By which sex is “good” or “right” leadership identified? From whose perspective is the world seen and ordered — whose view of the world is most commonly promulgated — from whose eyes and in whose voice is reality seen and talked about? Sexism is an aspect of the social system of patriarchy and refers to ideals, beliefs, actions and assumptions that promote male privilege.

Male privilege, like white privilege and all forms of privilege, is built into “the way things are” in society. Male privilege is an advantage granted to males as males; the same privilege is systematically denied females. Naming and talking about male privilege does not mean that males are bad. Rather, talking about it begins the process of naming what is wrong. Male privilege results in an uneven receipt of social and religious “goods.” What examples of male privilege can you identify? For example, think about money, authority and safety. (For more on social privilege, see Allan G. Johnson, "Privilege, Power, and Difference," 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins, eds., "Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology," 5th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2004).