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Feminism Friday: Sexism, Misogyny and Dictionaries

Since Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of debate about what ‘misogyny’ means, usually instigated by those who accuse Gillard of using the term incorrectly (which is a bit rich considering that nobody appears to be holding Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his shadow cabinet to the same standard regarding their haranguing criticisms of Peter Slipper’s text messages as indefensibly misogynistic, which is the background which prompted the opening sentiment of “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man”).

The intellectual shallowness of those who rely on unabridged dictionaries which offer a simple etymological translation as a definition has been pointed out many times (and it’s the reasoning behind Macquarie Dictionary announcing that the definition will be expanded to better reflect the nuances of current usage in their next edition). The New York Times language maven William Safire did a particularly good job of explaining some of the subtleties in 2008 when Hillary Clinton was also accused of misusing the term (as noted by Mike Seccombe in the Global Mail).

Here’s what Safire wrote:

“Senator Hillary Clinton used a word recently that has been changing its meaning. In charging that she has been treated more harshly in the media because of her gender than Senator Barack Obama has been treated because of his race, she said, ‘It does seem as though the press at least is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by comments and reactions of people who are nothing but misogynists.’

Safire continued: “The word misogyny has since its earliest recording in 1656 meant “hate or contempt for women.” The etymology of misogyny is straightforward: In Greek, miso means “hatred,” and gune means “woman.” A misogynist is a woman-hater. I thought Clinton’s choice of the word was in error, and that the word she meant was sexist, meaning “one who discriminates based on sex” — that she had been treated unfairly because she was a woman. When I looked up the word she chose in the Oxford English Dictionary online, however, I noted that the meaning of misogynist had changed, slightly but significantly. In 1989, the definition was “hatred of women”; in the 2002 revision, the definition was broadened to “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”

Thus, sexist and misogynist are now in some respects synonymous. Because sexist has been so widely used, apparently misogynist — in the same sense of “prejudice” rather than “hatred” — now carries more force with those who are familiar with the word,” wrote Safire.

Even Safire over-simplifies the OED for his readers there – I can tell you now that there is no way that the definition of any term in the OED in the past century was ever only 3 words long – that would have just been the first meaning offered, even back in 1989. Let us also hope that nobody huffing about other people’s purported lack of language precision/purity has happened to teach their children or grandchildren to call road-rolling machines steamrollers at any time within the last many decades since they’ve all been diesel-fuelled, because that would display a blatant double standard, wouldn’t it?

Now I’m going to offer a few more nuances to the distinctions between sexism and misogyny, adapted (to enhance clarity) from a comment I left on the Butterflies and Wheels blog this week.

* * * * *

Sexism is an impersonal bias against the competence and influence of women, and impersonal is easily and far too often confused with being rational/logical/scientific/common-sense. Thus impersonal sexism has been reflexively institutionalised in society so that it has a huge impact on large numbers of women and girls as a class e.g. ideas such as girls don’t need an education because they’re only going to get married, or girls aren’t good at maths/science, or women are happier running a home than competing in the workforce etc etc

Misogyny is a far more personal and emotional prejudice, resulting in contempt, scorn and dismissiveness towards women who step outside the bounds sexism lays down as appropriate. Misogynistic anger openly displayed against women who challenge their sexist preconceptions is part of an intimidatory silencing tactics arsenal, and of course the perpetrators don’t display those tactics against women who stay within the notional boundaries – approval is the reward for behaving appropriately. Watching misogynistic outrage, contempt and public shaming from fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, teachers, preachers etc against other women – the unacceptable women – shows daughters, sisters, nieces and wives what awaits those who step out of line. The threat of male anger and potential violence is the whip misogynists use to ensure women’s compliance with sexist stereotypes.

Misogyny also often wears a mask until there aren’t any witnesses – because that makes women look like liars, which makes dismissing and shaming them even easier. Once seen in action these misogynists are easier for individual women to avoid, but establishing plausible deniability is part of the gaslighting side of the silencing tactics, so it is difficult to convince others that the angry contemptuous threat was really there.

Because misogynists are also sexist (although one can be sexist without being misogynist) they ride the coat-tails of the broader societal sexism and punctuate it with extremes, particularly whenever they have institutional power.

Another commentor at B&W noted that for them the distinction between sexism and misogyny is that misogyny is dehumanising, whereas sexism is not necessarily so.  This post is already long enough, so I won’t explore that further, but it’s another layer of nuance which appears to have merit.

* * * * *

To close, I offer this opinion from another language maven: David Crystal writing in 2006 about the general principles of words like ‘massive’ or ‘incredible’ being used in ways beyond their original meanings (and the frequent misconceptions about how recent those usage changes may or may not be):

The [journalist correspondent] is against people loading words ‘with powers beyond their meaning in the dictionary’. If that was a valid principle – you must only use words with the meaning recorded in the dictionary – English vocabulary would hardly have developed at all, and we would have cut ourselves off from the kind of expressive richness we see in, say, Shakespeare, who was one of the best meaning-extenders the world has ever seen. It is also a misconception of how dictionaries come to be written: lexicographers record meanings as they change, and if there is a widely used meaning currently missing from a dictionary’s pages then it is a weakness of the dictionary rather than of the language.

Words change their meaning.  That’s what they do.  New words, too, arise to describe changes in how we live our daily lives. Without such flexibility in language changing over time to meaningfully describe social/political/technological change then communities, cultures, philosophies, nations and peoples stagnate, and I don’t think even the most virulent misoneists want that.

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writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

4 comments on “Feminism Friday: Sexism, Misogyny and Dictionaries

  1. All very good and unexceptionable, but one might add too that in the case of words that are used especially often within a language community, regard has to be paid to how they use the word or phrase. They do after all, anticipate that when they use the word/term, others within their community will read it much as they intended.

    The word ‘misogyny’ has been in persistent use in feminist writing for most of 40 years, and when a term survives for a long time in a relatively erudite community, then sooner or later it will be appropriated or taken beyond that community into the wider world of language users. That this particualr community has been unaware of the more local usage doesn’t mean that their more narrow usage should be preferred, or that incomplete definitions in broad usage should be left as the only definitions in official dictionaries. Dictionaries are supposed to be records of usage after all.

    That all noted “contempt for women” is found in some versions of the OED from about 1660. If a desire that women be marginalised or diminished isn’t contempt for women, I can’t imagine what would be. The usage of the term in this way by Ms Gillard (and its 2 million plus viewings in youtube downloads) both bedded down this usage and reminded Macq. Dictionary of their oversight.

    I don’t share safire’s view that “sexism” and “misogyny” are synonymous. While there is significant overlap, in my view misogyny makes women its particualr focus. One hears occasionally, attempts to assert that men have been victims of sexism. Here and there, this may well be arguable, but it is clear that men as a class are neither marginalised nor disempowered and are not in prospect of becoming so. Accordingly, there is a need for a term that insistently focuses on the cultural and institutional manifesations of gender hegemony in a way that “sexism” cannot.

    I would add too that while longstanding cultural practice predisposes sexist attitudes and conduct, not all who behave in this way are misogynists. Those who are reflective, who set store by ethical consistency and inclusion can and will reflect on their dealing and find their way to inclusive behaviour. We humans are a work in progress. For misogynists, the preservation of male privilege is a foundational value, a best of all possible worlds thing, and their occasional outbursts merely reflect the terrible cognitive burden that trying to pretend otherwise entails.

  2. My Oxford Reference Dictionary states that a misogynist is ‘one who hates all women.’ Published in 1986.

  3. I contend that one cannot be sexist without first being misogynistic. One can remove oneself from the emotional content of misogyny and mere ape its behaviors. That is done every day.

  4. [...] has a new post at Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog, on the changing meaning of misogyny (helpful hint for Tony Abbott – you will need to recognise the fact that language changes [...]

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