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What we get wrong about misogyny

Sexism and misogyny are not the same — and the difference matters.

Man and Woman Being Weighed on Scales Getty Images/Meriel Jane Waissman

Author’s note: After Elizabeth Warren’s exit from the presidential race, many people are wrestling with the role sexism and misogyny might have played in her failed campaign. Indeed, searches for the word “misogyny” spiked 2,400 percent on the Merriam-Webster website the day she ended her campaign. The ongoing conversation brought to mind an interview I did in 2018 with philosopher Kate Manne about the differences between sexism and misogyny and why they matter. You can read our full exchange, which feels newly relevant, below.

What is misogyny? How is it different from sexism? And why does the male-dominated status quo seem to persist?

A new book by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne has answers. She argues that misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women — instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.

In this interview, we explore how sexism and misogyny are different, how misogyny is embedded in our customs and institutions, and what Trump’s election and our current moment reveal about our future.

Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Can you sum up your argument in this book?

Kate Manne

There’s a tendency to define misogyny as this deep hatred in the heart, harbored by men toward girls and women. I define misogyny as social systems or environments where women face hostility and hatred because they’re women in a man's world — a historical patriarchy.

Sean Illing

I always thought of misogyny as an ideology: a body of ideas that exists to justify social relations. But you argue that this is sexism, and that misogyny is better understood as a moral manifestation of sexist ideology.

Kate Manne

Yeah, that's really well put. One way of looking at it is we have these patriarchal social structures, bastions of male privilege where a dominant man might feel entitled to (and often receive) feminine care and attention from women.

I think of misogyny and sexism as working hand-in-hand to uphold those social relations. Sexism is an ideology that says, “These arrangements just make sense. Women are just more caring, or nurturing, or empathetic,” which is only true if you prime people by getting them to identify with their gender.

So sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away.

Sean Illing

Misogyny, the way you define it, is something we practice almost unconsciously. We’re embedded in a culture and we internalize the customs and social mores that define that culture — and thus perpetuate it. We’re all implicated, even if we’re not aware of it.

Kate Manne

There are relatively few misogynists as brazen or as unapologetic as Donald Trump, partly because misogynists often think they’re taking the moral high ground by preserving a status quo that feels right to them. They want to be socially and morally superior to the women they target.

I think most misogynistic behavior is about hostility toward women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, who aren’t serving male interests in the ways they’re expected to. So there’s this sense that women are doing something wrong: that they’re morally objectionable or have a bad attitude or they’re abrasive or shrill or too pushy. But women only appear that way because we expect them to be otherwise, to be passive.

Sean Illing

This book calls attention to the roles we all play in society, roles that we’re assigned at birth and rarely question, and how we punish people — especially women — when they defy those roles.

Kate Manne

I’m less interested in assignments of blame or holding people accountable in direct ways for their perpetuation of misogyny, and I’m more interested in having us understand the ways in which most, if not all of us, tend to be complicit in misogynistic social systems.

I wanted to know how we police women, how we keep them in their place, in their designated lane. We can combat this, and it’s not like we all have to purify ourselves or something. But we have to be aware of the unconscious biases and cultural norms that sustain all of this.

Sean Illing

So you want people to think of misogyny as a kind of enforcement strategy; it’s not the patriarchy itself but the thing that preserves the patriarchy.

Kate Manne

Yes. Misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. If you think about someone like Donald Trump claiming he's the law enforcement president, I think that's right. It's the law of patriarchy, among other things, that he’s enforcing. It’s the law that polices and punishes women who transgress or threaten dominant men.

Sean Illing

Did the election of Donald Trump, an open misogynist, change your thinking in any way?

Kate Manne

No, it actually crystallized it. Since August 2015, my prediction was that Trump would be elected over Clinton, and the reason would be low voter turnout for Clinton, because that's just the way these things work: the lack of enthusiasm for a woman who’s up against a male candidate who talks and acts like he’s the last hurrah for patriarchy. I just saw it coming the whole way through.

On election night, I wasn’t shocked, but it hurts to know that the most incompetent, morally bankrupt, and ignorant white man can be elected over a woman about whom reasonable people can disagree but who was obviously more qualified than Trump.

Sean Illing

Every day, it seems, there is another scandal, another revelation about some asshole who used his power to exploit, assault, or harass women. We’re having a cultural moment here. What’s your read on what’s happened since the Harvey Weinstein story broke?

Kate Manne

It seems to be mostly a good thing. It’s certainly better than the alternative, which is these men getting away with it. But the thing that bothers me is their age. These are all men in their 50s, mostly 60s, sometimes 70s, who are being taken down well past the age of commercial viability, so they’re not paying the price that they should.

The point is, we have this image of these old, predatory, powerful monsters. They totally exist, but they didn’t start out that way. They started in adolescence. We are seeing this reluctance to face up to the fact that young men, even boys, can do the damage of their much older counterparts.

I wrote this book partly because I went to an all-boys school. I was one of the first three girls who attended the school the year it integrated, and while my experiences weren’t harrowing, they were, to put it mildly, unpleasant. And the institution just saw these boys as innocent, and didn't intervene in any meaningful way. That happens all too often.

Sean Illing

What will it take to change things?

Kate Manne

I wish I knew. This time last year, I was in New York. I spent a week alone trying to write the conclusion of my book. My editor had asked me to write a prescriptive conclusion. What do we do about misogyny? I just couldn’t, because I don't know. I just don’t know.

I think one thing that will help is undoing the ties that bind people falsely, the false sense of moral obligation that keeps women with abusers and makes us reluctant to try to educate, to really morally educate young men not to participate in and enact rape culture.

The good news is it’s becoming really obvious that women are not inferior to men in masculine-coded pursuits like math and physics and philosophy. Women are funny. Women are writers. It takes an enormous amount of willful denialism not to see that women are free-minded and creative beings just as much as men are.

Sean Illing

Culture can change pretty quickly. We’ve seen it happen with same-sex marriage and drug laws. But what we’re talking about here is power relations — and that seems to be a different kind of challenge altogether.

Kate Manne

When people are attached to positions they believe are their birthright, you get huge amounts of backlash. When men think women are taking opportunities and privileges away from them, when they think women are challenging male dominance, you get backlash. But we have to deal with that. Women cannot — and should not — internalize patriarchal values and give and give and give until we’re nothing.

What would need to change is for men in positions of power to accept that women can surpass them without having wronged them.

Listen to The Ezra Klein Show

Misogyny has long been understood as something men feel, not something women experience. That, says philosopher Kate Manne, is a mistake.

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