What Is Misogyny? A New Word with an Old Meaning

I have been designing and facilitating women’s leadership-development programs for more than twenty-five years, and I always include a segment on misogyny. I begin by asking for participants to raise their hands if they have heard the term misogyny before — usually no one has, until this year. This fall, when I asked the question, almost every woman in the audience raised her hand and knew the definition: having or showing a hatred or distrust of women. The women in my most recent program were from the whole spectrum of political ideologies, but this year’s election campaign elevated both the term misogyny (which is not really a new word but had almost disappeared from use) and awareness of the behaviors associated with it to the level of national discourse. Misogyny has always been with us, but we often didn’t see it, had become numb to it, or did not have a name for it. This election campaign brought misogynistic attitudes and behaviors to the surface and out in the open.

It’s also possible that some misogynistic behaviors are increasing because of the campaign rhetoric. As an example, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times reports that in September of this year, six women, each walking separately in midtown Manhattan in the early evening hours, were approached by young men who tried to light them on fire. Only females were targeted in these attacks. Bellafante suggests that Donald Trump’s campaign inflicted damage on our culture by bringing to the surface male rage. It has always been there, somewhat hidden, but may have been unleashed. She reports that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, discovered during the past four years a “dark world of woman hatred” in online forums that denigrate and condemn women as liars, cheaters, whores and social cancers” and advocate their imprisonment and collective rape. Remember the phrases liar and lock her up during the campaign? These phrases were not created by Donald Trump just for Hillary Clinton. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that for “the radical right in recent years, misogyny has become an increasingly common means of articulating broader discontent.”

This is quite a serious matter. Here are some other examples of misogyny in the United States today:

  • One in five women and one in seventy-one men in the United States have been raped.
  • Every day in the United States, more than three women are murdered by husbands or boyfriends.
  • Many universities in the United States are under pressure for sheltering athletes and coaches accused of rape and of disbelieving their accusers. For example, in the Stanford rape case involving swimmer Brock Turner, the university sheltered him, and his father defended him by explaining that he should not be punished because he was “only having a little fun” when he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus. Turner was eventually convicted after a large public outcry forced his arrest.
  • A survey last year of twenty-seven college campuses by the Association of American Universities found that 23 percent of women responding reported experiencing sexual assault since enrolling in their university. Harvard found sexual assault to be widespread on campus with 31 percent of the class of 2015 reporting some form of it.
  • Because of misogyny, it is difficult for women to be elected to high offices, such as president of the United States or secretary general of the United Nations. There has never been a woman in either role. After seven strong and qualified women were recently rejected as the next leader of the United Nations in favor of one more man, one female diplomat explained, “Misogyny is baked into this system.”

Let’s be clear. It is not only men who can enact misogynistic attitudes and behaviors. Women often internalize misogyny and hold other women to harsher standards, undermine the success of other women, and generally withhold their support of women leaders.

What’s to be done? I think the women of the 2012 Harvard soccer team who were the focus of a “scouting report” by the 2012 men’s soccer team that exhibited misogynistic practices of objectifying the women said it best in their Harvard Crimson article:

‘Locker room talk’ is not an excuse because this is not limited to athletic teams. The whole world is a locker room. The actions and the words of the 2012 men’s soccer team have deeply hurt us. They were careless, disgusting, and appalling. As women of Harvard Soccer and of the world, we want to take this experience as an opportunity to encourage our fellow women to band together in combatting this [misogynistic] type of behavior because we are a team and we are stronger when we are united. To the men of Harvard soccer and to the men of the world, we invite you to join us, because ultimately we are all members of the same team. We are human beings and we should be treated with dignity. We want your help in combatting this. We need your help in preventing this.”

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at annelitwin.com on December 22, 2016.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer