The Deterministic Origins of Sexism

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Both the political and philosophical foundations of the modern movement of women's emancipation are found in several early political treaties including Mary Wollstonecraft's (1798) A Vindication of the Rights of Women, John Smart Mill's (1869/1966) The Subjection of Women, and Engels' (various, reprinted 1884/1948) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Wollstonecraft and Mill base their position on abstract considerations of morality and justice. The Marxist view, as expressed in Engels' work, proposed that as long as a powerful advantaged social (capitalist) class (almost entirely male) benefited from the fruits of the labor of others (men and women of the proletariat) philosophical concepts of equality and justice were also abstract and thus not achievable. Concern's about women's exploitation appears in many places in the writings of Marx and Engels. Although oversimplified, an early socialist view purports that matriarchy was the earliest form of the social organization and that the development of patriarchy with its injustice and female exploitation, is not invariant to the human condition. Patriarchy, and later capitalism, developed as a product of economic conditions that included the invention of private property, the enslavement of women, and the exploitation of women's labor. Engels concluded that: Psychology has in its history recommendations for alteration of the clitoris in order to rectify women's so-called "sexual problems" (really men's problems with sexuality). Freud, perhaps the best known proponent of biological determinism in psychology, for advocating the elimination of clitoral sexuality as a necessary precondition for the development of genital sexuality essential to femininity (for an excellent counter discussion to Freud's sexual determinism, see Hite, 1994). Medical textbooks from the 1800's pronounced women's genital surgery as an appropriate treatment for "nymphomania", "hysteria," "masturbation", and other sexually deviant behavior among women. Significant work in stereotyping (Franks and Rothblum, 1983) was undertaken in the early 1980's demonstrating how the prevailing diagnostic system of mental disorders created definitions of psychopathology that were selectively assigned to the most vulnerable members of society - women, the poor, recent immigrants and ethnic natives. Typologies used to define positive mental health were based on American and European male ideals because they were the engineers of the classification system. While criteria development for the diagnoses of "masochism" and "Late Luteal Phase Disorder" was underway, feminist psychologists showed that the personality characteristics of the male power elite were being advanced as superior to ultimately keep women vulnerable, helpless and labeled as crazy (Chesler, 1977; [Caplan, PJ], 1988). Based on empirical studies of psychological well being, feminist theorists proposed abandoning the rigid sex typing system that confined people to narrow definitions of desirable masculine and feminine behavior and replacing it with androgenous conceptions that afforded a wide ranging balance of personality characteristics not determined by one's biological sex. Casting off deterministic mandates of optimal mental well-being resulted in the automatic "recovery" of the previously diagnosed dysfunctionals.

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Race, Gender & Class, v. 5, issue 3, p. 122