The Tangled Wing

Anthropology, Biology, and Human Nature

Misogyny, Chauvinism, Sexism, or What?

Exact definitions don't change the facts

When I wrote recently about a question that had been put to me—under the title “Is Misogyny Maladaptive?”—I was taken to task for misusing the word misogyny. I was trying to use it to mean “anti-woman.”

Strictly, it comes from Greek roots meaning “hate” and “woman,” and some dictionaries define it as simply hatred or dislike of women or girls, although occasionally the word contempt is included. This matters because you can easily have contempt for someone you also in some way like or love. The Oxford English Dictionary, always more subtle and interesting, defines misogyny as “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against, women.” Certainly in modern usage it has come commonly to mean the latter too, but what does that mean? 

Well, by analogy to prejudice against Jews or blacks, it would to include all strategies and tactics designed to set a group of people apart, to view them as inferior, and to deprive them of opportunities. The Wikipedia entry on the subject begins, “Misogyny is the hatred or dislike of women or girls. According to feminist theory, misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women.”

I think this usage is now common, but it’s really beside the point. Call it sexism, male chauvinism, or any other name, it adds up to the same thing: ideologies and methods for controlling, restricting, suppressing, denigrating, and when necessary physically harming women so that men can be in charge of their reproductive capacities, limit them mainly to reproductive and other subservient roles, and avoid competing with them in an open market of human effort, talent, and skill.

In other words, you don't have to hate women to behave hatefully toward them.

It seems to me unlikely that “hatred of women” has ever really applied to many men. Whatever men have done to and against women, they have almost always claimed to love or like them. In the bad old days in India, when widows of Hindu men were burned to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres, that was not because their dead husbands hated them, although it might as well have been.

When Ultra-Orthodox rabbis make women cross the street or move to the back of the bus (yes, really) so men can avoid contact with them, that is not because the men hate the women, nor is hatred the reason they say that a woman’s voice is “pubic.” Likewise the Saudi Arabian men who will not let women drive or the Taliban who will not let a woman go out without a male relative, even though she is covered from head to toe. The men in some state legislatures who have tried to require women to endure an unwanted, invasive, intrauterine ultrasound—in effect a form of rape—before being allowed to have a legal abortion also do not hate women.

Men do fear women, at the extreme called gynophobia. They are angry because of their early dependence on women for sustenance and their later dependence on them for sexual release. Many cultures have also seen women as polluting, especially because of menstrual blood, and the justification for restricting and covering women always also involves men's fear that they will become sexually aroused in inappropriate ways. Since men can’t control their libidos, women have to cover up, shut up, and hide.

All these different kinds of men, whether they know it or not, are heirs of traditions in which it was adaptive for men to try to control wombs in every way. In any species with internal gestation, the uterus is the rate-limiting factor in reproductive success and the only way men can reproduce. Their lifetime reproductive potential being much greater than women’s yet fully dependent on women, they have resorted to strategies and tactics like polygyny, assault, rape, trading sisters and daughters for other men’s female relatives or for alliances or wealth, sequestering and covering women, and beating or killing those inclined toward independence.

Another respondent took me to task for saying that this can be stopped. Well, a great many once-adaptive behaviors have been greatly curtailed, including homicide, slavery, polygyny, monarchy, torture, cruel and unusual punishment, and child-beating. Women have made great progress in much of the world, and I believe most of the remaining male chauvinist cultures will be dragged kicking and screaming into a more egalitarian modernity. I don’t say abusive control of women will end completely, any more than harems, torture, or slavery have. It will just be, like them, increasingly anachronistic and permanently on the defensive instead of being the norm.

The more women control their own destinies, educationally, economically, and politically, the more men throughout the world will have to be supplicants for uteruses rather than, as in the past, masters of them.

Melvin Konner's books include The Tangled Wing and The Evolution of Childhood. He has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, Nature, and Science. more...

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