Women as a Minority

Women as a Minority

Women are considered a minority group, because they do not share the same power, privileges, rights, and opportunities as men.

Learning Objectives

Criticize the notion that sexism does not exist in the contemporary United States based on the text

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sexism is discrimination or prejudice based on sex. In a patriarchal society, sexism is discrimination against women specifically.
  • Women's rights encompasses the entitlements and freedoms for women and girls of all ages in many societies around the world.
  • Although women have made great strides in gaining access to education and employment, to this day they continue to face significant hurdles that men generally do not confront.

Key Terms

  • women's rights: Entitlements and freedoms claimed by women and girls of all ages in many societies in the pursuit of equality with men.
  • patriarchal: relating to a system run by males, rather than females

Women are not a statistical minority, as in most societies -- they are roughly equal in number to men -- but they do qualify as a minority group because they tend to have less power and fewer privileges than men. Underlying this unequal treatment of women is sexism, which is discrimination based on sex -- in the context of a patriarchal society, discrimination against women in particular. Discrimination against women is evident in a number of different spheres of society, whether political, legal, economic, or familial. It must, however, be noted that the issue is rarely as simple as that of men versus women. Societies today are home to a variety of different classes, ethnicities, races, and nationalities, and some groups of women may enjoy a higher status and more power relative to select groups of men, depending on factors, such as what racial and ethnic groups they are associated with.

It should be noted that gender discrimination also ties in with race and class discrimination -- a concept known as " intersectionality," first named by feminist sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw. For example, the intersectionality of race and gender has been shown to have a visible impact on the labor market. "Sociological research clearly shows that accounting for education, experience, and skill does not fully explain significant differences in labor market outcomes. " The three main domains on which we see the impact of intersectionality are wages, discrimination, and domestic labor. Most studies have shown that people who fall into the bottom of the social hierarchy in terms of race or gender are more likely to receive lower wages, to be subjected to stereotypes and discriminated against, or be hired for exploitive domestic positions. Through the study of the labor market and intersectionality we gain a better understanding of economic inequalities and the implications of the multidimensional impact of race and gender on social status within society.


Sexism can refer to three subtly different beliefs or attitudes:

  • The belief that one sex is superior to the other
  • The belief that men and women are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, the right to have sex, and the law
  • It can also refer to simple hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny)

There a number of examples, both historical and contemporary, of women not being granted the same rights and access as men, both historically and in the present day. For instance, U.S. and English law, until the twentieth century, subscribed to the system of coverture, where "by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage. " Not until 1875 were women in the United States legally defined as persons (Minor v Happersett, 88 U.S. 162).

In the United States, women were treated as second-class citizens and not given the right to vote until 1920, when the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. "

Although women have made great strides in gaining access to education and employment, to this day they continue to face significant hurdles that men generally do not confront. In economics, the term " glass ceiling " refers to institutional barriers that prevent minorities and women from advancing beyond a certain point in the corporate world, despite their qualifications and successes. The existence of a glass ceiling indicates that women, even today, do not enjoy the same opportunities as men.

Women's Rights

Women's rights are entitlements and freedoms claimed for women and girls of all ages in many societies. In some places, these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behavior, whereas in others, they may be ignored or suppressed. They differ from broader notions of human rights through claims of an inherent historical and traditional bias against the exercise of rights by women and girls in favor of men and boys.

Issues commonly associated with notions of women's rights include, though are not limited to, the rights to: bodily integrity and autonomy; vote (suffrage); hold public office; work; fair wages or equal pay; own property; be educated; serve in the military or be conscripted; enter into legal contracts; and to have marital, parental, and religious rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, advocates "the equal rights of men and women," and addresses issues of equality. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for legal implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Described as an international bill of rights for women, it went into effect on September 3, 1981. The UN member states that have not ratified the convention are Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. Niue and the Vatican City, which are non-member states, also have not ratified it.

The Convention defines discrimination against women as follows:

Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field.

The Origins of Patriarchy

Patriarchy is a social structure in which men are considered to have a monopoly on power and women are expected to submit.

Learning Objectives

Argue in favor of either a sociobiological or social constructionist explanation of patriarchy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • There are both sociobiological and social constructionist explanations of patriarchy.
  • Sociobiological explanations use human biology and genetics to explain male control, while social constructionist explanations say that individuals, male and female, actively construct gender roles.
  • According to social constructionist theories, gender roles are created by individuals within a society who choose to imbue a particular structure with meaning.

Key Terms

  • gender roles: Sets of social and behavioral norms that are generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman in a social or interpersonal relationship.
  • social constructionism: The idea that social institutions and knowledge are created by actors within the system, rather than having any inherent truth on their own.
  • patriarchy: The dominance of men in social or cultural systems.

The origins of patriarchy are closely related to the concept of gender roles, or the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex. Much work has been devoted to understanding why women are typically thought to inhabit a domestic role while men are expected to seek professional satisfaction outside of the home. This division of labor is frequently mapped onto a social hierarchy in which males' freedom to venture outside of the home and presumed control over women is perceived as superior and dominant. As such, rather than working to destablize the historical notion of patriarchy, much literature assess the origins of patriarchy, or a social system in which the male gender role acts as the primary authority figure central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege and entails female subordination.

Though less popular in modern academic circles, there has been a traditional search for biological explanations of gender roles. Before the nineteenth century, this conversation was primarily theological and deemed patriarchy to be the "natural order. " This took on a biological trope with Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution in The Origin of Species. In this work, Darwin explained evolution from the biological understanding that is now the accepted scientific theory. Biologists such as Alfred Russel Wallace quickly applied his theory to mankind. To be clear, though, the line of thought called Social Darwinism, or the application of evolutionary principles to the development of human beings and our social practices, was never promoted by Darwin himself. With the popularization of the idea of human evolution, what had previously been explained as a "natural order" for the world morphed into a "biological order. "

The modern term for using biological explanations to explain social phenomena is sociobiology. Sociobiologists use genetics to explain social life, including gender roles. According to the sociobiologists, patriarchy arises more as a result of inherent biology than social conditioning. One such contemporary sociobiologist is Steven Goldberg, who, until retirement, was a sociologist at the City College of New York. In 1973, Goldberg published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which advanced a biological interpretation of male dominance. Goldberg argued that male dominance is a human universal as a result of our biological makeup. One evolutionary sociobiological theory for the origin of patriarchy begins with the view that females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males and, as a result, females are a resource over which males compete. This theory is called Bateman's principle. One important female preference in selecting a mate is which males control more resources to assist her and her offspring. This, in turn, causes a selection pressure on men to be competitive and succeed in gaining resources in order to compete with other men.

These sociobiological theories of patriarchy are counterbalanced by social constructionist theories that emphasize how certain cultures manufacture and perpetuate gender roles. According to social constructionist theories, gender roles are created by individuals within a society who choose to imbue a particular structure with meaning. Gender roles are constantly toyed with and negotiated by actors subscribing to and questioning them. Since the feminist movement in the 1970s and the flood of women into the workforce, social constructionism has gained even greater traction.


A Family Portrait from the early 1900s: In a patriarchal family, the male acts as the primary authority figure.

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