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Intro: "An Australian dictionary has changed its definition of misogyny to reflect the fact that it is now used to mean 'entrenched prejudice against women', not just hatred of them. Six feminists tell us what the term means to them."

Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)
Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)

Sexism and Misogyny: What's the Difference?

By Naomi Wolf, Julie Bindel, Nina Power, Rahila Gupta, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Bidisha, Guardian UK

18 October 12


An Australian dictionary has changed its definition of misogyny to reflect the fact that it is now used to mean 'entrenched prejudice against women', not just hatred of them. Six feminists tell us what the term means to them.

aomi Wolf: Julia Gillard used the word accurately

I object to more heightened words being appropriated carelessly to make political points: sexism is not in fact misogyny; someone can like women quite a lot in person but be very happy to support systematic discrimination against them (sexism) or to use gender stereotypes against them (sexism). So I am sorry to see the dictionary conflating the terms. Sexism is to misogyny what antisemitism is to Jew-hating. Neither is ever acceptable, but we need precise language to understand and fight injustice effectively.

Having said that, Julia Gillard used "misogyny' perfectly accurately. She said that Tony Abbott described abortion as "the easy way out" and cited his political campaign against Gillard involving posters asking voters to "ditch the witch". The latter, especially, is a time-honoured tradition of true misogyny - stirring up atavistic hatred of the feminine - that goes back to witch-hunts against powerful women in the New World. Her critics, for their part, are asking us to water down our awareness of real woman-hating and accept it as normal in political discourse.

"Misogyny" often surfaces in political struggles over women's role, and you can tell because the control of women becomes personalised, intrusive and often sexualised. Misogyny has the amygdala involved - the part of the brain involved in processing emotional responses - there is contempt and violence in it. A public figure who tolerates the systemic under-prosecuting of rape is guilty of serious and unforgivable sexism; making rape jokes or explaining away the damage of rape in public as Congressman Todd Akin did recently in the US, or legislating, as over a dozen US states are now doing, transvaginal probes that are medically unnecessary, simply to sexually punish women for choosing abortion - well, that is misogyny.

Julie Bindel: Sexists are not always misogynists

When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny. Misogynists are always sexist, but sexists are not always misogynists. For example, if a man says of a woman, "Look at the state of that fat, ugly cow, I wouldn't touch her with yours," then he is a misogynist. It would follow that he does not respect women as equals and is therefore also a sexist.

Nina Power: Being misogynist, acting sexist

In a moment of idle curiosity a good few years ago, I wondered whether there was an antonym for misogyny. I presumed it would be something like "philogyny" and it was indeed - "fondness towards women". After the definition, a short note in parenthesis: "usage: rare" (and today, too, the spellchecker has red-underlined the word. Apparently liking women has not become any more popular in the computer age!) What a depressing dictionary note, I thought: we talk about misogyny all the time, and yet the opposite is nowhere to be found.

Misogyny, and philogyny for that matter, seems to imply an essential state of being, perhaps an inability to change an outlook, a claim about what that person is. Sexism, on the other hand, is perhaps more often linked to acts and words - "so this person wrote this tweet that was sexist, but it doesn't mean he hates women", that sort of thing. The interchangeable use of the terms may be in keeping with contemporary usage, but we might want to make a quiet plea to hold open the distinction, if only so the antonym for "hating women" might one day usurp its partner in popularity.

Rahila Gupta: A murky pond in which misogyny flourishes

We all know that sexism is the pond in which misogyny flourishes and because the water is so murky, you sometimes don't even notice how healthily it grows. And because it is growing in water, it sometimes reflects back at you as love instead of hate. To be specific, sexism is when men let you jump the queue and get on a crowded bus first in Delhi (to confuse matters further, that's called chivalry) and then the poor dears, willy nilly, get crushed up against you as their hands "accidentally" cup your breasts in a frenzy of misogyny.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: Something darker and angrier

Sexism is to misogyny what Benny Hill is to Rush Limbaugh. While sexism demonstrates a disregard and disrespect for women, I always have associated misogyny with something darker, angrier, and more cynical. Things like Page 3 often betray a failure to move with the times, a certain outdated attitude about women's roles that has the potential to be modernised. But educating someone out of the blinkered hatred of misogyny is a monumental challenge. To think, as the Republicans do, that the male half of society should be able to legislate and control the bodies of the female half, well, that can be nothing but misogyny.

Bidisha: Two sexist remarks and one misogynist one

At a major literary festival, before an event about military fiction, a posh famous English author smirked to me, "What's the difference between a woman and a piece of toast? You can make soldiers from toast." That's sexist.

When boarding a flight from Geneva to London a man followed his wife on to the plane and said at the top of his voice to her, "The plane went down when you got on it," which prompted gasps from everyone around including the cabin staff, while he smirked and the woman looked like she wanted to drop in to a hole in the ground and die. That's sexist.

On a train from York to London a woman was talking on the phone in the quiet carriage. A couple near me got cross. "I'll go and tell her it's the quiet carriage," said the man to us all nearby. "Ooh, don't," muttered the wife. "OK then, I'll go and punch her," he said. That's misogynist. your social media marketing partner


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+4 # DorothyK 2012-10-18 10:05
Not all men and boys are misogynist or sexist; only the insecure that believe they should be in control of everything. Father's teach sons both by showing and telling. This perpetuates the attitude. Years ago when I first married my husband, he said that laundry is women's work (this was sexist). My response was "then I'll only do women's clothes". He protested but he then saw the logic. From that point forward he never made another sexist remark and had no problem helping with the housework.
+9 # fredboy 2012-10-18 10:06
You all miss the point. I am a man, and most of the true heroes I have met in life were women. The remarkable wisdom and strength and clarity they shared was unmeasurable.

Time for you to know that there are many men out here who recognize this. Romney et al are but shells of humankind, greedy self-possessed shallowness lacking even the hint of a soul.
+3 # Majikman 2012-10-18 11:50
Sexism is believing women are lousy drivers. Misogyny is prohibiting women from driving (Saudi Arabia) and imprisoning them if they so much as dare get behind the wheel.
+1 # MHAS 2012-10-18 12:25
I disagree that all misogynists are sexist. A very close relative of mine supports equal pay for equal work, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, sends money to NOW and NARAL, found Arlen Specter's treatment of Anita Hill abhorrent, votes for progressive women candidates, fully supports equal opportunity for women in all fields, expresses admiration for many women (for instance, Rachel Maddow), etc; while at the same time being capable of calling a woman a "witch" (especially some who appear on tv,) verbally abusing his wife with put-downs, and mockingly imitating women for whom he has contempt (again in private), all in a way that has the visceral feeling of misogyny. He is deeply principled, smart, and has a strong sense of fairness and so filters out his misogynist feeling so it doesn't translate into sexism.
0 # Glen 2012-10-19 13:29
How does this man refer to men he doesn't like, as with your example of women on television? Are they bastards and close? That is telling when it comes to criticism. Hell, my own mother says rotten stuff about women.
0 # MHAS 2012-10-19 17:30
I understand your point, Glen. Yes, there can be some harshness even toward men but there is nothing analogous in his reactions toward women. He is elderly; his misogyny seems almost inherited. His brothers exhibit the same pattern...polit ical liberalism, or even radical left views, that include egalitarian political views regarding women, mixed with a history of personal violence (physical/verba l)and seeming resentment toward women...By the way, women can be misogynist as well...Women can certainly internalize those attitudes and pass them along to sons and daughters. I think these brothers inherited their mother's feelings and filtered them out of their politics.
0 # shraeve 2012-10-20 10:13
You said women can be misogynist. Do you believe women can be misandrist?
0 # MHAS 2012-10-20 20:43
@shraeve--Sure, there are women who resent or even hate men categorically but given the historically disempowered position of women, such feelings are not necessarily analogous to misogyny really. I don't think it's a deeply engrained cultural attitude in the way misogyny can be. A girl who is told she does something like a boy (throw a ball, etc) would perhaps until recently take it as a compliment. The reverse situation is nearly always an insult. I would say a woman's hate for men is likely born of her own personal experience whereas a man's misogyny is likely to have been fed culturally, or at least re-enforced culturally. Does that make sense?
+1 # Glen 2012-10-20 11:51
I've seen it, MHAS. It's neurotic and confusing to those around them. However, I have seen young men who harbor resentments toward women but appear to need them and marry them. This in spite of growing up with strong, confident women in the home. Nothing is simple, and yes, women can be raised with such neurosis themselves, resenting both men and women.

The attitudes of young women can be startling as well, and their resentment and rebelliousness against even decent men is pretty neurotic, also.

Kids are raised in complex situations which also includes the society at large. It's all very complicated.
+5 # davidr 2012-10-18 13:34
Sexism is to misogyny as prejudice is to hatred.

Sexism arises from an imperfect thought-process , a form of jumping to conclusions. It may be found along a spectrum from well-intended to corrosive. It is educable.

Misogyny is hate or hate/fear. It is not the product of thoughtfulness. It has no benign manifestations. It is educable, if at all, through a process more akin to re-programming than consciousness raising.
0 # Glen 2012-10-19 13:40
Personally, I am sick of this entire argument. Have heard nothing but, all my life. It is time for it to end. Women do have the means of dismissing it with indifference to those men who wish to continue with the put down, whether labeled sexist or misogynist. It will take all of us, including parents to pull it off.

That indifference is a woman's greatest weapon, but hard to come by at times. It enables an objective defense when asking for a raise, offering suggestions relating to all employees, asking politicians why there must be a separate category for women voters, and dealing with the men in their personal lives.

Good men must help, and there are a lot of good men out there.

I am reminded of one of the last scenes in Labyrinth, in which Sarah, the heroine who is learning fast and remembering the words of her book. She had her moment of enlightenment:


This is what women must learn, which will make them stronger and better able to wield the weapon of indifference.

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