Internalized Oppression

Suffrage1915by Craig Martin

“Internalized oppression” is an outdated concept; those who once used it tended to (wrongly) assume the pre-existence of a free self that is essentially constrained—rather than constituted—by social forces. Nevertheless, the concept, problematic though it may be, has a certain pedagogical usefulness.

My students have a hard time imagining subjects as acting in ways that work against their own interests. They seem to hold a folk anthropology according to which when subjects act on their desires they are also working in their own bests interests. However, when I show them the image above—depicting an advertisement sponsored by women against women’s suffrage—it’s quickly apparent that sometimes people internalize social norms such that they desire something that arguably (in retrospect) works against their own interests. The women write:

ONE MILLION WOMEN of Voting Age in Massachusetts


Les than ONE TENTH of that number are DEMANDING THE BALLOT


I point out to the students that it seems obvious to us that these women who opposed women’s right to vote were working against their own long term interests. In A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, I wrote that these women have “so successfully internalized their subordinate social role that they accepted it as natural, right, and necessary” (55). Thus it is worth asking this question over and over again: “whose interests are being served by the existing social order and whose are not” (55)? In the future, 100 or 200 years from now, people will look back at us and will shake their heads in wonder at some of our behaviors. What do we do that people in the future will see as working against our own interests? What do we desire that others would see as internalized oppression?

Of course, one could go much further than this with students; we could also ask: how does it come about that standards of judgment about such things change over time? Is there an “objective” perspective from which to make such judgments, or—more likely—are they always made on the basis of the norms or standards of one’s own time? And if there are only the standards of one’s own time, are there any reasons why the women who supported the ad above should accept our judgment over their own?

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012). Craig’s research interests concern social theories of religion and ideology, particularly how “religion” is imagined in modern thought and popular discourses.

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