As Barbara Berg asserts in Sexism in America, “Sexism, it’s fair to say, is America’s default setting.”[i] The United States was established as a patriarchy: a society that is structured, via laws and customs, to give males more power and privileges than females. In addition to sexism, a patriarchy relies on other forms of discrimination, such as racism and homophobia, to maintain the legal and institutional power of an elite group of people. When Ms. Berg refers to sexism as a “default setting,” she is pointing out that whenever some people accomplish change, the country tends to adjust to ensure that sexism, along with racism and other forms of discrimination, remains the foundation of our social structure.
Seeing our history in this way can be difficult. American patriotism is based on the idea that we are all created equal, with an equal shot at happiness and an equal voice in our society. I love those ideals, and I also love the way we have strived to live up to them: much of our history is the story of the ways in which those who have not been considered “equal” have worked to change their circumstances. Their stories—their lives and experiences, their sufferings and triumphs—make no sense unless we acknowledge that our country was founded, not on the basis of shared power regardless of sex, race, or class, but as a patriarchy in which upper- and middle-class white men held all the power.
The idea of “race” is exactly that—an idea. Genetically, human beings are more alike than different; racial categories are a social invention. Race is a political force that has shaped the experiences of women, both individually and collectively. That said, no group of women is “all the same”—all Native American women are not the same, all black women are not the same, all white women are not the same. We are individuals, and bring our individuality to our experience, even when much of that experience is shared. The following discussion of the experiences of different groups of women in early U.S. history must be understood within the context of individual, as well as shared, experience.
[i]Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D., Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009), 96.