The New Misogyny

Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 15 comments

Look anywhere and we see cultures that view women as second to men. I don’t doubt that these attitudes are deeply ingrained in societies, and I see no other explanation than it being a throwback from old and ancient gender role stereotypes, dating back from before the first human captured fire, and poorly interpreted into the 21st century. There is no doubt in my mind that women have been mistreated long before the first religion appeared on earth, and due to many natural factors in human life; Women are the child-bearers, which means men have had to take on roles which involve gathering food; Men are generally stronger than women, and in men, strength can be an indicator of power over others. These factors are not 100% accurate for every civilisation or for every person that ever walked the face of the earth, but universal enough to be seen as truths. As to how this lead to a formalisation of male domination over women in life through religion and culture we need to look at the society we live in and just who is enacting the inequality.

It’s no coincidence that the most conservative of people are also those who bolster the notion of “traditional gender roles”; In the USA the conservatives have waged a “war on women”, not only telling them what they can and can’t do with their bodies and lives, but encouraging them to be “stay-at-home mothers”, to help “nurture family life”; In Australia we see the conservatives being called out for their sexist practices, for suggestions to government to disallow things such as the HPV vaccine because they fear it promotes promiscuity among young girls; In Pakistan and Afghanistan the conservative male wears a very different face, one where oppression of women is among the top concerns for men (disallowing education for girls and silencing those who oppose their edicts, making sure the women don’t “shame” the families, etc. etc.). The conservative male (not to be confused with fiscal conservatism) sees his role in society as one who upholds traditional morals, one who stands behind the values and ethics that have been practiced historically. For them, any progress that may challenge these traditions is seen as the enemy. They use words like “honour” and “decent”, they stand beside their holy-books saying “it is God’s/Allah’s will”, and they harden this rhetoric with actions and suggestions that further ingrain these practices. Socially conservative people, mostly men, wish to see things continue “as they are, and as they have been”, and see no room for progress.

I am under no illusion that women aren’t mistreated in most cultures around the world. The fact that we see Prime Minister Gillard held to different standards in her role as Prime Minister of Australia is just a hint at just how much of politics is a male dominated “boy’s club”. And even though we have seen Australia emerge as the country where women enjoy the most economic freedom in the world, we still see pay inequity across the board for women.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who pays attention to the world. We see the backlash to sexist practices often, and rightly so; We have matured enough as a species to see that traditional gender roles are not the way of the future, and should never be forced upon anyone. We know that gender is not black and white. We know that many women seek pay equality, and many men wish to be good and present role-models for their children, and of course all the points and shades in-between. Traditional gender roles as pushed by conservatives is an antiquated notion that denies our knowledge and progress as a species, and anyone who seeks to uphold these roles is an enemy of progress.

Last week, the world bore witness to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s tirade against the leader of the opposition Tony Abbott. It came from a place of deep frustration and hurt, of personal and social anger, and has been a long time coming. Tony Abbott, while claiming that he’s a feminist, is a stalwart of traditional gender roles, and his family is testament to this. In her speech Prime Minister Gillard repeatedly called out Mr Abbott as a sexist and misogynist.

“If (Mr Abbott) wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he does not need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror,” Ms Gillard said.

This upset many people, not the least vocal of them being the linguistic pedants, claiming that the term “misogynist” was either too strong a word to use to describe Mr Abbott, or was a deliberate misuse of the word for sensationalist purposes. Many defenders of Mr Abbott have claimed there’s no way he could actually be a misogynist, with rhetoric like “Misogynist is a term which describes the hatred of women, and clearly Mr Abbott doesn’t hate women, he has a wife and daughters!”

“Misogynist” is a term which is thrown about these days as a synonym for “sexist” or “social conservative”* in many cases, and I must say, often I have found it to be used almost too freely when describing people, policy or situations. However it seems the tides on the word “misogyny” have turned. Seemingly as a direct result of, though unrelated to, the speech Prime Minister Gillard gave to parliament, the Macquarie Dictionary has decided to change the very definition of the word “misogyny” to broaden the meaning to include the “softer” meaning as described above. (You can read about the changes here in a letter from the Macquarie Dictionary Editor (pdf download)). The Dictionary has been accused of pandering to the Prime Minster, whereby changing the definition of the word “misogyny” after the fact gives her speech more credence than it previously had. The Dictionary denies this, stating that the term was already in common usage, and that they are also looking at the word “misandry” under the same umbrella.

The new “misogyny” is any act or attitude that doesn’t take into account women in their lives, in society and in cultures. The usage of the word has become so common in its new guise that it has taken on this meaning, while the linguistic pedants are waving their hands about claiming the destruction of the English language. If the new meaning has done anything, it has taken a once powerful and very succinct word and expanded the meaning to include any act against the well-being of women. It has lessened the power of the word, for what word do we now use for the real “hatred of women”, and not the ingrained sexist attitudes that pervade modern society?

(*EDIT: In re-reading, and from discussions with others, this should have read “Misogynist” is a term which is thrown about these days as a synonym for “sexist” or “social conservative” where traditional gender roles prevail.)

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15 Comments

  1. Good post, Marty. I’m tired of the right jumping on anything to slam the government. Now they jump on the Macquarie Dictionary for expanding the meaning of “Misogeny”. I was listening to some talkback on the radio the other night on the way home and they were going on about how political correctness has now extended to distorting the language, Don’t these fools know that most words have degrees of meaning … variable words lets call them. All dictionaries regularly update the meaning of words as they change in the social context. I’m 100% certain Julia Gillard wasn’t saying that Tony Abbot hates women, she was saying he’s a chauvenist – that old word that “Misogynist” has usurped.

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    • @SainterSan Actually this is a case of watering down a definition. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, because it also weakens the meaning by including a range of lesser circumstances. Take that approach far enough and anyone complaining about ‘women drivers’ can be classified as a misogynist (a definition so loose it would even include my wife). I am reminded of groups who expanded the definition of sexual assault so broadly as to enable shocking press release statistics about the presence of sexual assault.
       
      BTW chauvinism refers to unbridled nationalism. “Male chauvinism’ is a coined word which seems to have replaced the original word in common usage.

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      • @SainterSan That is perhaps a problem with a ‘living’ language like English. Anyone can invent a word or change the meaning of a word and if it catches on then it becomes part of the language. Once a word definition is established, any attempt to change must itself be accepted by the users of the language. English dictionaries don’t define the language; English dictionaries follow the language.

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      • @SainterSan
         Well,  complaining about ‘women drivers’ certainly can be misogynist. It’s certainly sexist (even from your wife), and if it’s hostile enough then yes, it’s misogynist.

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  2. PS: My spelling sucks this morning: make that “chauvinist” and “Misogynist”. :)

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  3. Good points here. The general usage of so many words eventually leads to academic and ‘urban’ meanings so I’m not sure there is a need to have separate words for the hatred of women (academic) and the denigration of women in society (urban). In a serious piece of writing a comment that the usage of the word is following academic or urban definitions should suffice to distinguish between definitions. In more casual writing or speech, the urban use could be considered the norm.

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  4. Good Post until  you got to the watering down of the word misogyny.  How do you know Abbott doesn’t hate women?  What does having daughters have to do with it?  There are countless instances of men having daughters and wives that they abuse.  The abuse can range from psychological to economic to physical abuse that ends with hospitalization or death.  What is this kind of behavior if it is not hatred?  Also the line between love and hate is very fine, especially among family members. 
     
    I think the Macquarie Dictionary was wrong in changing the definition of misogyny.  It unnecessarily waters down the word.  Gillard’s use of the word was entirely correct.  The behavior Abbott indulges in is misogyny.  No watering down of the word is necessary.  I don’t know what you perceive as hatred of women, but Abbott’s behavior towards women who challenge him fits the bill.  A man doesn’t have to go around murdering women to be a misogynist.  I’ve faced misogyny.  I know what it is.  I don’t need a man telling me what words to use to describe my experiences. 
     
    Instead of playing this like a technical problem, which the actual experience of, by the way, is totally outside of your experience, why not listen to the women who experience misogyny first hand.  I’m tired of men being the arbiters of whether women are using the proper words to describe our experiences.  Prime Minister Gillard is an intelligent woman.  Give her credit for being able to use her native tongue properly.  I am an intelligent woman, give me the same credit.
     
    I think the watering down of the definition of misogyny was more likely done to diminish the impact of the word precisely because of it’s accurate use by women.  Now it’s possible for men to say, well misogyny doesn’t really mean hatred of women when it clearly does.
     
    I’m very disappointed by your view on this you are usually an ally of women.

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    • Hi @Celia Jane , thanks for your comment. I think you are misreading this post. The comment about Tony Abbott in parentheses was meant to be an example of a comment coming from the defenders of Abbott, not my opinion at all. I see Tony Abbott as pretty much the definition of patriarchal disregard and contempt for women. Sorry if it didn’t read like that.

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    • @Celia Jane I have changed the wording of that section to read:
       
      Many defenders of Mr Abbott have claimed there’s no way he could actually be a misogynist, with rhetoric like “Misogynist is a term which describes the hatred of women, and clearly Mr Abbott doesn’t hate women, he has a wife and daughters!”
       
      I hope this makes my intention clearer.

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  5. This is a nuanced topic, Marty, and I think you did a pretty good job tackling it. I would have liked you to go deeper into the examinations of what makes a person misogynist, and what does not, and then apply it to Mr. Abbott. While I agree that expanding the definition of misogyny may not be helpful in the long term, I definitely agree with Celia that, at least on the surface, Mr. Abbott fits the bill of a misogynist… which I think you agree too, Marty, from your response to her comment. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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  6. I’ve never heard “misogyny” used to mean “any act or attitude that doesn’t take into account women.” It means hostility to women. That’s what we mean when we say it. Maybe people think it’s being watered down because they don’t realize how much hostility to women there is splashing around?

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  7. Just a few quick observations as I read the comments ( thx to all who’ve replied to my comment :). I think we need to keep things in perspective.  Real misogyny in the sense of “hatred of women” is pathological; I don’t believe that can be attributed to Tony Abbott. Obviously he’s old school and has some set opinions re women’s roles in society as informed by his Catholic background, but hatred is a strong word, and frankly I have not seen evidence of him displaying hatred to Julia Gillard or any of the women in parliament. He’s a sexist, yes, a male chauvinist to use the old venacular, and certainly his dismissive comments to Gillard are not acceptable…
     
    Regarding the Macquarie Dictionary’s decision to expand the meaning of Misogyny, I simply repeat that words are not static, in the semantic sense their meanings change as we change. There are numerous words that have changed or been expanded upon over the years. Here’s a list I found thanks to a quick Google search.
     
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/05/31/735843/-The-Mad-Logophile-Words-That-Have-Changed-Their-Meaning-Part-1

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    • @SainterSan
       No. Real hatred of women is not pathological. It’s utterly commonplace, and there’s a lot of it.

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  8. First, I’d broaden “hatred” to include a few more terms, such as “disdain” and “disrespect” and such to include all the relevant behaviors. Then, I’d insist on calibrating a term like “misogyny” per context and culture. If you don’t we’ll fall into the Richard Dawkins fallacy of turning away from any “first world” issue, when convenient, by pointing out some allegedly worse situation somewhere else.  A word that means the worst of the worst may be something we want to preserve, i.e., saving holocaust for The Holocaust, but misogyny does not really qualify for that standing.  Having said that, I see the word generally being used correctly, when adjusting for that context.

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  9. Then there’s the problem of attribution; Gillard is guessing at what Abbot is feeling (hate) and has in mind (gender) when he makes those sexist remarks she’s listed and berated during her speech.
     
    No surprise listening to his alternative narrative; what he REALLY feels he thinks is x, and what he REALLY thinks he feels is y. It really doesn’t matter.
     
    The complaint he ought to be hearing is those specific examples that Gillard has listed. It’s that talk which he must defend or apologise for. Not the collective noun we’ve decided fits (or doesn’t) that kind of behaviour.

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