The short answer is yes, women can hold and express sexist ideas about both women and men. That’s because patriarchy is sexist, and patriarchy is the bedrock of our lives—so it gets in everyone’s head. And yet, conversations from the banal to the highly intellectual often assume that if a woman participates in an activity or makes a statement, her femaleness justifies her judgments and actions as empowering to women. The logic goes: if a woman does or says it, it must not be sexist. This logic assumes that no woman is capable of holding ideas or taking actions that would harm her self-image or our national concept of free and empowered womanhood. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, women are often the most cruel and exacting enforcers of patriarchy on a very personal level. Bell hooks makes this point in Feminism is for Everybody: “In a zealous effort to call attention to male violence against women reformist feminist thinkers still chose to portray females as always and only victims. The fact that many violent acts on children are perpetrated by women is not equally highlighted and seen as another expression of patriarchal violence.” Hooks points out that women who are violent to their children enforce the idea that violence is an acceptable method of control—that a dominant party (a parent) can hold her or his position over a party with less power (a child) via violence.
This is an important point because it shifts our thinking from “men do violence” (and yes, many do, in greater numbers than women) to “patriarchy requires violence for its survival.” A vital shift indeed, for once you begin to see the ways in which the violence of patriarchy infiltrates everything from our national budget to our media, the problem cannot be articulated as one of “women vs. men.” No, the problem is one of institutionalized sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination, enforced via violence or the threat of violence: patriarchy. And it is in everyone’s heads.
In one of the many twists of doublethink at which patriarchy excels, women who have not divested themselves of internalized patriarchy are presented as the embodiment of feminine thinking, or at least as a valid and empowered alternative to feminists. Thus, we have Sarah Palin (who just loves her some patriarchy) claiming that she is a feminist. We have Phyllis Schlafly telling us that women shouldn’t earn more than men if they want to get married. And we have George Will telling us that the “war on women” is a Democrats’ mirage that will soon evaporate in the clear light cast by female Republican candidates. And that’s just in the national conversation. Try pointing out objectification on the internet and see how long it takes before someone claims a woman working at Hooters or shining shoes in a bikini is empowered via her choice.
So, if patriarchy is in everyone’s heads, and women can be enforcers of it against themselves and others, how do we divest of it? How do we begin to see and create a path forward, away from inequality and the pain it brings?
Slowly, carefully, and consistently. Purging patriarchy from your system is not a one-time event. It can have seminal moments—epiphanies in which you grasp some aspect of your own internalized sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, or other aspect of unconscious oppression. These epiphanies can be deeply personal, a vast relief as that which has harmed you from within is washed away. But it will return, the next time you see a commercial or make a split-second judgment about a woman walking by in the street. Purging patriarchy, like anything else, takes practice—but it does have results. Not long ago, my Yahoo! email was flashing a before-and-after commercial of a woman in a bikini at me, and while I did for a moment wish I looked closer to the after picture than I do, I immediately thought, “Why should I? And why should the woman in the before picture be less beautiful than she is? They are both beautiful, and I just want to be myself and let them be themselves.” That is not a thought I would have had in response to such an ad a couple of years ago—I would’ve just swallowed the body shame and kept reading my email.
If we can do this for ourselves about body image, we can do it about all patriarchal thinking—but first, we must recognize it when we see it. And we must acknowledge that the voice touting patriarchy, and the hand enforcing it, is often a woman’s.