The New Misogyny
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.
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.)