The Malta Independent 8 March 2021, Monday

Misogyny … erm, what?

Sunday, 17 January 2021, 08:48 Last update: about 3 months ago

Audrey Friggieri

Lookups for misogyny spiked 10,042% over the hourly average on 2 May 2017, after Christiane Amanpour’s question to Hillary Clinton during an interview: Why do you think you lost the majority of the white female vote? Did misogyny play a role in the loss? To which Mrs Clinton answered: Yes, there are many, many representations of that, many kinds of examples of that, and yes, it was a role in this election.

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When answering a similar question on 7 April from Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, she said that “certainly misogyny played a role” in the 2016 presidential election.

It would be interesting to have local journalists ask the misogyny question more often (do they even ask it at all?) to Maltese female politicians, even for the sake of using the word so that the general public could become more acquainted with it. It would certainly be an ice breaker in terms of stimulating debate over the unmentionable little monster.

In July 2019, Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican congressmen Ted Yoho and Roger Williams made headline news when Ocasio-Cortez accused Yoho of using a vulgar and misogynist insult during a confrontation, while Williams stood by silent. Although Yoho denied some of Ocasio-Cortez’s claims that had been witnessed and confirmed by reporters, the incident is a sign of what many argue is a malignancy woven into society’s tapestry − sexism and misogyny.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article that high-achieving women are judged differently than men because “their very success − and specifically the behaviours that created that success − violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave”. When women act competitively or assertively rather than warm and nurturing, Cooper writes, they “elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine”. As a society, we find it difficult to like powerful women, she maintained. In fact, a study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Programme revealed that when participants saw women as power-seeking, they “experienced feelings of moral outrage (that is, contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” towards them and saw them as “less supportive or caring”. When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, though, that impression instead led them to view the men “as having greater agency (for example, being more assertive, stronger and tougher) and greater competence”. Women, in short, were penalized for seeking power, even as men were rewarded for it.

Misogyny means “a hatred of women” and comes from two Greek roots, misein (meaning “to hate”) and gynē (meaning “woman”). These roots are seen in other words, such as misanthrope (“a person who hates or distrusts humankind”) and gynecologist (“a doctor who treats the diseases and routine physical care of the reproductive system of women”).

Misogyny was first used in English in the mid-1600s and is one of the many manifestations of oppression that expresses itself through exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence (Young, 1990). 

Awareness of misogyny skyrocketed in the mid-1970s, entering the lexicon of second-wave feminism with Andrea Dworkin’s 1974 critique Woman Hating. In the book, Dworkin argues that a deep, ingrained prejudice against women informs aspects of society from legislation to cohabitation. As she summed it up two years later, “As women we live in the midst of a society that regards us as contemptible. We are despised. We are the victims of continuous, malevolent and sanctioned violence against us”. This reflected the experience of many women, such as Kathrine Switzer, who was famously harassed as she became one of the first women to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 and Serena Williams, 23 times grand slam champion who was treated more harshly than men by umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 US Open final.  Billie Jean King, who won 12 grand slam singles titles and helped found the women’s tennis tour and pave the way for equal prize money in the sport, also commented:  “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions…”

Feminists agree that society is organised in a misogynistic way, even if its individual members don’t see themselves as woman-haters. Writer and activist Audre Lorde wrote that there is a “piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us” (1980). Susan Faludi, author of the 1991 book Backlash: The undeclared war against American women, echoed this idea, arguing that efforts against equality “are encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic”.

Feminists hold that a patriarchal gender order is oppressive for women… that privileged men have projected their own experiences as representative of humanity as such, and that our Western culture is accordingly androcentric (Irigaray 1991). Women are oppressed whenever and wherever they come to be treated as inferior to men (subordinated), and it is unjustifiable that this should be inflicted on them or on any group on the basis of gender identity. As policy manager at Women's Aid in England, Lucy Hadley (2020) maintains, sexism and women's inequality are the root causes of violence against women − including domestic abuse, sexual violence, street harassment and online forms of crime, all of which  often intersect with other identities, including race and ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

"Making clear that crimes happen to women 'because they are women' could help to send a clear message that women will be believed, protected and supported if they experience sexist violence and abuse," she said.

Manne (2017) argues that misogyny is primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world (that is a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to men’s standards (that is tenets of a patriarchal ideology which have some purchase in this environment). Misogyny differentiates between good women − those who comply with the status quo − and bad ones – those who do not and get punished for it. Manne (2017) argues that no man in a typical patriarchal setting would have a problem with women universally. On the contrary, we would expect men to approve of women who amicably serve their interests. Even today there are men who look upon mothers of young children who pursue their career as “selfish”, “odd” or “unnatural”. There are still men who expect their partner or wife to raise the kids while they “bring the bread to the table”. There are women who are abused by their partner or husband simply because they are strong and talented. This is one of the many faces of domestic violence. Women with leadership qualities at the workplace still come to be perceived as “loud”, “bossy”, “asking for it”, “vulgar”, “hysterical” or “attention-seeking”, whereas men exhibiting the same qualities are perceived as behaving appropriately, as the leaders that they “are”.

Powerful women who use their talents and personal skills at the place of work may have stories to tell of how men in management positions have sought to vilify or silence them in offices and boardrooms. They may do this in various ways, depending on the setting and personality of the leader. A writer friend of mine working in a school, for example,  tells of  how an insecure headmaster, who could not control his temper, told her in front of her colleagues that since she wrote stories he would one day show her how to write a good one. He also was in the habit of telling her to “calm down” and “let him do the leading” when she spoke up about serious issues at the workplace or cases of injustice that seemed to go unnoticed. No apology was ever forthcoming.

Moreover, strong women in personal relationships are often made to suffer for being free thinkers and who act in ways that are unfamiliar or frowned-upon by their partner; such women may seek to improve themselves and their families by means of furthering their education, by adopting a particular lifestyle or make personal decisions about their spirituality or political beliefs, for example. They may suffer various kinds of abuse inflicted on them by an insecure partner who may sometimes be under pressure by an extended family that, because of notions of honour and respectability perhaps, expresses its disapproval for the “outlandish” or “inappropriate” behaviour of the woman. Stories vary, each context is different, but the base problem in society remains – fear and hate for what is different, for what does not fit with traditional views of what is orderly, “normal” and right. This does not justify tolerance for poor and harmful behaviour towards girls and women (towards anyone really, but this article is about misogyny), and we would all do well to remember that when we speak of women’s rights, we are essentially speaking of fundamental human rights.

Audrey Friggieri is commissioner on Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence, PhD candidate.

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