Hatred of women is all around us — or so you’d conclude from a lot of recent commentary. Just in the first days of this year, we’ve seen claims that misogyny is behind questions about whether Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is too “unlikable” to run for president and that a “culture of misogyny” infested the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Search for such phrases as “America hates women,” and you’ll get 7,000 hits — with thousands more for “our culture hates women” and similar phrases.
But does woman-hating really pervade our lives, or is the term “misogyny” getting bandied about too casually?
Genuine misogyny exists in today’s world, including in America. It thrives on bottom-of-the-barrel Internet boards populated by “pick-up artists,” “Red Pillers” who believe they understand women’s true biological nature, and militant “incels” — the self-described involuntary celibates embittered by their own inability to find sexual partners. The far right teems with critics of feminism whose screeds often devolve into general woman-bashing; one leading alt-right ideologue, the psychologist and podcaster Stefan Molyneux, rants against women’s right to vote and blames women’s choices for most of the world’s evils.
Sometimes, shockingly misogynistic rhetoric seeps into more mainstream conservative press as well. During last year’s controversy over sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a female blogger for PJ Media asserted that “most women lie and scheme.”
But, like any concept, the term “misogyny” is cheapened by overuse. When it’s expanded to cover everything from debates over whether a specific female politician would make a good presidential candidate to a wide range of complex cultural attitudes, it’s rendered nearly meaningless — and that makes it harder to point out the real thing.
It’s hardly misogynistic to raise concerns about Warren’s apparent likability deficit as indicated by iffy favorability ratings; nor is there any real evidence that those ratings are due to her gender. Voters in Massachusetts elected her to the Senate twice, but a majority told pollsters last fall that she shouldn’t run for president. Contrary to the claims of the offended, it’s not just women in politics who get branded unlikable. Just ask Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts and the new GOP senator from Utah, whose lack of likeability was frequently mentioned during the 2012 election.
The alleged culture of misogyny in the Sanders campaign has to do with several female ex-staffers claiming that sexual harassment was not properly addressed, partly because the operation was often chaotic. One woman claims a manager was dismissive when she complained about a male campaign official touching her hair. If true — the former manager denies it — this is certainly wrong.But surely not all insensitive behavior amounts to misogyny. An act can be unwanted, inappropriate, even ignorantly sexist, without being hateful.
Or take another recent example of frivolous use of the M-word: A New York Times op-ed titled “The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers.” Author Hillary Frank, who launched a podcast on parenting in 2010 as a new mom, finds it galling that it took a while to get big outlets interested because the topic was seen as too niche (though she admits “motherhood has become a boom market” since). She also recounts the time an inebriated producer at a hotel bar during a conference called her “the baby lady” and made a crude advance, only to be promptly restrained by people nearby — an incident that somehow translates into general disrespect for mothers.
Sometimes, claims about ubiquitous misogyny are even less specific. How exactly does America “hate women”? To be sure, negative stereotypes of women exist; but stereotyping affects both sexes, and a 1991 study by Purdue University psychologist Alice Eagly found that overall “women are evaluated . . . more favorably than men.”
Cornell University philosophy professor Kate Manne, whose 2017 book “Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” has been hailed as groundbreaking, claims men’s woes get disproportionate sympathy — “himpathy,” she calls it. But evidence for such bias is scarce. Generally, research shows the opposite: Women in distress are more likely to get sympathy and help than men, and violent crimes against women are punished more severely. Meanwhile, tasks involving a high risk of injury and death are still treated as men’s work. (If women accounted for 90 percent of workplace fatalities, this would be seen as a misogynist atrocity.)
Manne’s concept of misogyny includes blatant woman-hating such as the rage of Elliot Rodger, the 2013 California spree killer who left a chilling screed about his rejection by women. But it also encompasses “systemic” bias that punishes women who violate patriarchal norms — a definition vague enough that almost anything can fit. And some of Manne’s evidence is shaky. She pounces on the finding that female professors are more likely to be called “fake” in student evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com. Yet the word is vanishingly rare, occurring about 10 times per million words for women and four times for men. By comparison, “useless,” applied more often to male profs, averages about 400 per million.
In recent years, the term “misogyny” has been applied to everything from sexualization of women in entertainment (even though male objectification is catching up) to Internet trolling of women (even though men are targeted at least as much) to defending the presumption of innocence for men accused of sexual violence. And to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, widely seen as misogyny triumphant.
Yet gender dynamics are intensely complicated. One can loathe Trump and still think that most of his voters — including a majority of white women — were not in thrall to misogyny. Many dismissed his comments about grabbing women’s privates as mere swagger, or were impressed by his show of contrition and his record of promoting women in business. Notably, when a gender-flipped short version of the Trump-Clinton debates — preserving the body language and expressions — was staged a few months after the election, audiences loathed Male Clinton and loved Female Trump.
To confront misogyny, let us define the term precisely: as hostility or contempt toward women as a group, or as an attack on an individual woman in a way that unambiguously targets her gender. It’s not all criticism that might conceivably have a “gendered” subtext. It’s not sexual interest in women, even inappropriately expressed. It’s not disagreement with aspects of feminism. We must distinguish between someone who says that false accusations of rape are a real problem, and someone who says most women are scheming liars.
In today’s cultural free-for-all, it’s important to keep lost young men (and others) from being enticed by Internet woman-haters like Molyneux and the Red Pillers. But suggesting that the rest of the culture is not that different is the wrong way to counter the real misogynists in our midst.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and an associate editor at Arc Digital.