Over at Feministing, I found this fascinating comment made by Jessica, but I am having a hard time working it through, so I hope she’ll read it and comment herself. Here’s the gist, coming from Jessica’s comment:
There's a difference between individual power and institutional power. We all have personal power to a certain extent, but many lack institutional power--which is part of the definition of racism (or sexism or classism). So just because Condi has her position in the gov (and btw, people who argue against the existence of racism and sexism often bring her up) it doesn't mean that women of color have institutional power--they don't,I can prejudge a man--hold certain stereotypes or judge him unfairly--but just makes me prejudiced, not sexist. I don't have the institutional power to be sexist. Like I said, we have power, we have agency. But that doesn't equal institutional power. I don't mean to keep harping on it, but it's pretty damn important. This breakdown is a good one to read, and it gives this definition: “prejudice or discrimination based on race, plus the power to enforce it."
Okay, so we want a definition of sexism that involves both having prejudiced attitudes towards gender and having institutional power to back it up, The tricky part in all this is that we want a discussion of institutional power where men, tout court, have it and women, tout court, don’t. So even though an individual woman might have great personal power within institutions, they are not in a position to be sexist even if they hold prejudiced attitudes concerning gender (ditto for racism and homophobia etc).
The dialectical reason we would want this kind of definition is that a) we want to avoid letting societies off the hook because they have token women in positions of power and b) we want to avoid the claim that women can be sexist or blacks racist. Sure, they can be prejudiced, but sexist because sexism requires institutional power.
I want to start by defining power as the ability to impose one’s will on the world. And I will define an institution (gah), as a practice that has substantial effect on the distribution and exercise of political, economic, or social power. This is pretty rough and ready, but I think it will do.
Now, it seems to me that we have a ready answer for the tokenism (O’Connor got on the Supreme Court, so no sexism) by pointing out that there are structural and institutional mechanisms (manned by people of course) that control the access to power that artificially, arbitrarily, and unfairly, make it more difficult for women to achieve power when compared to men. The fact that some few women succeed in achieving power is no reason to think that the structural inequalities that ensure that only a few women succeed are gone. Now, if we had rough equality in those kinds of positions, then that might be reason to rethink it, but we don’t.
As for the second point, it seems to be a fairly easy bullet to bite to say that women in a position to enforce their beliefs can also be sexist and minorities in positions of power can also be racist. In fact, this seems to get an important thing right. Which is that women who achieve power often achieve it, in part, because they are unwilling to challenge traditional attitudes and themselves have sexist attitudes towards their own sex (Margaret Thatcher or Alexandra Kosteniuk the chess player, for example). The dialectical worry I think is that someone might say “Well women are sexist too, so I can be sexist as well.” The response to this is several. First, the prevalence or non-prevalence of women in power who are sexist is irrelevant to the fairness of the institutions that govern society. Second, as a matter of fact, sexist attitudes (towards men or women) will be reduced as the institutions become fairer (this strikes me as pretty plausible). Third, it strikes me as plausible that women will generally be fairer and less sexist than men in positions of power, though I don’t think this is even close to universally true, and it speaks more to the gobs of men who are sexist more than it the inherent superiority of women in this issues (which is a claim that I am not particularly sympathetic with).
The advantage of getting rid of (b) is that we don’t have to engage in any kind of conceptual gymnastics that would say that a penniless male grad student has the institutional power to be a sexist while Margaret Thatcher does not, but still grant that Thatcher had greater power than the penniless male grad student more generally.