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Misogyny v sexism: the words

You know that trope about the expansion of or meaning-shift in the word “misogyny”? The one that says it’s being used to mean the same thing as sexism? I don’t use it that way, but I’ve found an example that, I think, does.

It’s a petition to the White House asking the Obama administration to

Stop using the “wives, mothers, & daughters” rhetorical frame that defines women by their relationships to other people.

The petition is hopeless of course, but it’s a good point. But I think the word “misogyny” doesn’t belong.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.”

This “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrase is one he routinely employs, but it is counterproductive to the women’s equality the President is ostensibly supporting.

Defining women by their relationships to other people is reductive, misogynist, and alienating to women who do not define ourselves exclusively by our relationships to others. Further, by referring to “our” wives et al, the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women.

I too hate the “our” usage, but every time I flinch when I hear it, I also realize why he does it and that it’s not going to change. It’s framing. It’s prodding the audience to remember that we’re all in this together. It’s not possible to do that without also seeming to be assuming that “we” are not women, that “we” are only related to women as opposed to being women, so that women are again – probably accidentally – shoved off into some other realm, in the very act of reminding everyone that women are right here. That’s language for you; it mends one thing only to break something else.

But in any case, “misogynist” is the wrong word there. There’s not the faintest whiff of hostility in the phrasing of what Obama said. The word should be “sexist.” Sexism can include hostility but it doesn’t have to; misogyny is hostility [to women].

Comments

  1. BeachBoy says

    If you look at Benson’s Wikipedia talk page you’ll see she comments using a certain IP address. The only other page this IP address has altered on the site is Rhy Morgan’s Wikipedia entry where she added:

    In January 2012 Morgan was censored by his school for posting a Jesus and Mo cartoon as his Facebook profile for a week, in solidarity with University College London’s Atheist, Secular, and Humanist Society. The school told him to remove the cartoon from his Facebook archive, and when he said no, threatened him with expulsion. [http://freethinker.co.uk/2012/01/20/jesus-mo-stand-up-for-free-speech/] Morgan spoke at the Rally for Free Expression in London on February 11.[http://www.onelawforall.org.uk/11-february-2012-free-expression-day-of-action-your-chance-to-take-a-stand/]

    Odd that she mentions this. Surely Morgan was ‘threatening’ and ‘harassing’ all Muslims by his offensive use of freeze peach?

    #stupidbitch

  2. says

    Oh hai, ElevatorGATE. My god you’re obsessed with that Wikipedia contribution. So the fuck what? So I added something to Rhys’s Wikipedia entry; why do you pay so much attention to that? I’ve seen you rant about it on your “blog” and your absurd Storify a squillion times. What a bizarre career you have.

  3. says

    Hahahaha – see that, Elevatorgate? Your harassment earned me another donation. Thanks!

    And thanks R for playing “annoy the harasser” with us this morning. (Well it’s morning here.)

  4. A Hermit says

    I like that the first comment on a post about not mistaking one thing from another is from someone who can’t tell the difference between a single image satirizing a religious idea and multiple images, comments, e-mails and articles attacking an individual…

    One of these things is not like the other…

  5. rnilsson says

    Y’r welcome, my pleasure. Makes me feel powerful and rich, but for a good cause. Exchange rates help a bit too.

  6. tonyinbatavia says

    BeachBoy, I just made another donation to Ophelia, this one on your behalf. I won’t be able to make too many more of these donations, but you have the honor of being the second asswipe who has inspired me to make a donation. Your pea-brained hate has now officially been converted to U.S. dollars and deposited into Ophelia’s account. Congratulations, ya sniveling wad.

  7. Chaos Engineer says

    Odd that she mentions this. Surely Morgan was ‘threatening’ and ‘harassing’ all Muslims by his offensive use of freeze peach?

    You’re missing the larger context. Morgan part of the Draw Mohammed Day protest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everybody_Draw_Mohammed_Day), which was a reaction to credible death threats being made against the authors of satire. Without even considering the question of whether the original satire was fair or unfair, we can say that the death threats were a gross attempt to violate human rights and it was morally defensible to stand in solidarity with the targets.

    The “Freeze Peach” crowd, on the other hand, haven’t had their rights threatened. They’re basically a bunch of bratty children who keep getting banned from other people’s blogs because of their bad manners. They’re still free to post on their own blogs, and they don’t suffer anything beyond the normal and foreseeable consequences of childishness and bad manners.

  8. Pteryxx says

    re the OP, as I’m poor this week <_<

    I'd have phrased it as " “We know our economy is stronger when [those of us who are women:] wives, mothers, and daughters[,] can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.”

    The list of roles still has the baggage but at least the "our women" construction's out of it. Better if those were only roles without the context of ownership as a way to prod men to give a damn.

    http://feministing.com/2013/01/23/gender-and-empathy-men-shouldnt-need-to-imagine-if-it-were-your-wifedaughtermother/

  9. says

    This “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrase is one he routinely employs, but it is counterproductive to the women’s equality the President is ostensibly supporting.

    I kinda disagree here: he’s reminding us that the women who suffer from discrimination and abuse could be women close to us, not just strangers or abstract numbers. That’s an important thing to remember — not only WRT discrimination and abuse, but also WRT laws designed to harass and demean women who try to exercise their basic rights.

  10. johnthedrunkard says

    On the actual topic. How much better is the president’s line if we just drop ‘wives?’

    Everyone ‘has’ a mother and a hefty proportion ‘have’ siblings. Only ‘wife’ seems to have unavoidable connotations of ownership. Putting ‘wives’ first increases the tilt. Traditionally the sequence should be: mothers, wives, daughters.

    Would that be less grating? Sisters is conspicuously missing too.

  11. eric says

    It seems just so rhetorically unnecessary to me. A reasonable fix is easy, so why not do it?

    “We know our economy is stronger when women can live their…” packs pretty much the same punch, without the sexism. If one doesn’t think that connects to the audience viscerally enough, use “American women.” If the rhetorical triplet is really necessary, put it at the end by mentioning other activities women do, like “…can live their lives free from discrimination in schools, in the workplace, and at home, and free from the fear of domestic violence everywhere.”

    Another option: get rid of the word “our.” Its a bit clunky in terms of rhetoric, but is still perfectly understandable as a message and somewhat eliminates the posessive tone.

    If Obama or his speechwriter are really gung-ho about the current phrasing, then at the very least they could replace ‘wives” in the triplet with something else. All three of the triplet have that possessive aspect to it, but at least a citizen of either sex can have a mother or a daughter, so those two give off far less of a “hey men, I’m really only speaking to you” vibe.

  12. skmc says

    “We know our economy is stronger when women [...] can live their lives free from discrimination in schools, in the workplace, and at home, and free from the fear of domestic violence everywhere.”

    I like this rewrite, eric. Yet more proof that inclusive language is not difficult to employ if one actually cares to.

  13. says

    I guess what I think is that if they are using that formula to nudge men into remembering that women aren’t aliens, they should make it explicit.

    But that’s not what speech writers do. It’s all about manipulation.

  14. says

    Why not “My fellow Americans”? or “All Americans”?

    Obama’s got speech-writers who can come up with something that sounds good and addresses the problem. It’s not hard. It’s not rocket science.

  15. says

    I actually think the wives/daughters/mothers thing is counterproductive. The thing is, active misogynists always carve out exceptions for the women in their lives. Their mothers/daughters/wives are special. They are pure. They aren’t uppity cunts/worthless hos/ugly bitches like the rest of them. So trying to prod misogynist/sexist men to act as if women are human isn’t actually helped by the mothers/daughters/wives formulation, AND it reinforces the notion that men should care about the women who belong to them, I mean literally belong to them.

  16. Anthony K says

    Another modest donation of ElevatorGOLD for your coffers, Ophelia.

    I’d be thrilled if it went to partially paying for another parrot shirt, but it’s entirely your call.

  17. iknklast says

    Never donated before. Now…well, let’s just say, I’m sick of the abuse. You shouldn’t have to take this.

  18. Jean says

    I understand the idea of not identifying women by their relations to men but isn’t it done the same way when talking about men in a similar context: our husbands/fathers/sons/brothers? And don’t we care more about the people who are close to use so when talking about women they will be our wives/companions/daughters/mothers/sisters? What if we added friends and co-workers? Is it only problematic when a man says this?

    Is this really more about the possessive adjective or about the special relationship with specific individuals?

    Of course, I’m biased by my male privilege but that seems as much a language issue as it can be a sexist issue depending on who says it and what the context is.

    Also hopefully this doesn’t look like I’m just JAQing off.

  19. says

    I think, at least occasionally, we hear “husbands, fathers, and sons” or some equivalent, without it being considered that men are defined by their relationships; however, usually that refers specifically to family policies or similar circumstances. I don’t think that applies here. In this case, family language is introduced into what is basically not a family issue, which I agree is sexist. However, I wouldn’t want to phrase to disappear entirely from the political lexicon.

  20. Anthony K says

    I understand the idea of not identifying women by their relations to men but isn’t it done the same way when talking about men in a similar context: our husbands/fathers/sons/brothers?

    Except that it’s not done the same way, not nearly as often, and not in the speech discussed.

    And don’t we care more about the people who are close to use so when talking about women they will be our wives/companions/daughters/mothers/sisters?

    We do, but there’s an historical context of talking about wives/companions/daughters/mothers/sisters as owned things in a way that’s not done about men.

    What if we added friends and co-workers?

    Then we would be having a different conversation about a different speech in a different universe than the one in which we inhabit.

    Is it only problematic when a man says this?

    No.

    Is this really more about the possessive adjective or about the special relationship with specific individuals?

    It’s about the historic and still persistent tendency to value women in relation to other people, and specifically not-women. Remember when a married woman was referred to as “Mrs. [Husband's first-and-last-name]“?

    With regard to this speech, what about unmarried orphan women? They don’t even exist in the context of the words we’re discussing.

    Of course, I’m biased by my male privilege but that seems as much a language issue as it can be a sexist issue depending on who says it and what the context is.

    Of course who says it and in what context. But what are you trying to do when you ask everyone to answer all of your hypotheticals in which the context would be different in order to nullify this event?

    Also hopefully this doesn’t look like I’m just JAQing off.

    Quack, the duck says.

  21. skmc says

    but isn’t it done the same way when talking about men in a similar context: our husbands/fathers/sons/brothers?

    Not so much, and not at all in this address. I recall President Obama in the past referring to “our daughters” and “our sons” together (as in “our daughters should have the same opportunity as our sons” or similar, which is inclusive language), but not “our husbands and fathers” or anything similar. And even if this construction is employed upon occasion, in this case family-relationship language was used when it was irrelevant, as One Brow says.

    If one could find an instance or two of “our husbands and fathers” in the archives of Obama’s speeches, it would not compare to the regularity with which he uses the “our wives and mothers”-type constructions. There is also a larger social context of defining women by their marital status above even their own name (e.g. “Mrs. John Smith” and other less obvious examples). Furthermore, since all women have a fairly-recent history of being de jure property and white men do not, the constructions are not quite equivalent anyway. I agree with One Brow that such constructions have their place, in the proper context. This address was not such a case.

  22. Jean says

    Anthony K, thank you for answering my questions. And while intent is not magic, you can’t assign intention magically either: my intention was not to nullify any of this.

    I think there is a big part of cultural differences here (and quite possibly language since English is not my first language). I can’t deny the history and that this is still very present but just as an example, here in Quebec a married woman can’t take her husband’s name legally; it’s not even a possible choice. And this has been the case for a while now. I don’t think this is even close to be the case anywhere in the US.

    My main point, I guess, is that while all the points you mention are valid, I still don’t think that banning the use in all cases of “our” whatever makes sense from a language and human point of view. But it’s certainly important to make people aware of why it is problematic and it may be necessary to avoid using it in most situations.

  23. skmc says

    I still don’t think that banning the use in all cases of “our” whatever makes sense from a language and human point of view.

    Nobody said anything about “banning” anything, let alone “in all cases”. Actually, a couple of people said the constructions make sense when properly employed.

  24. Anthony K says

    And while intent is not magic, you can’t assign intention magically either: my intention was not to nullify any of this.

    I wasn’t assigning intent, but noting that the practical effects are the same. But I do thank you for the clarification.

    I can’t deny the history and that this is still very present but just as an example, here in Quebec a married woman can’t take her husband’s name legally; it’s not even a possible choice. And this has been the case for a while now.

    Huh, I did not know that. In Alberta it’s still common for women to take their husband’s surname in marriage (see, it makes sense in some cases to use the possessive).

  25. yazikus says

    De-lurking to chime in. I for one, signed this petition. It is ridiculous and unnecessary language. The president employs speech writers and other staff to think of these sort of things, and they aren’t doing a very good job. I think I might agree with the OP that sexist would have been more appropriate….

  26. godlessheathen says

    “I kinda disagree here: he’s reminding us that the women who suffer from discrimination and abuse could be women close to us.”

    Or they could BE us. Yes, women can have wives, mothers and daughters (and, yeah, what about us sisters?!), but this phrasing implies that the statement is directed at men and not at women. It’s not inclusive because he isn’t talking to me, even though he’s talking about me (not me specifically, but me as a woman).

    And I agree with what others have said about how women should not be defined as wives, mothers, daughters when the context isn’t related to family.

    (I haven’t been able to post much lately, but I wanted to come out of lurking for this!)

  27. says

    I understand the idea of not identifying women by their relations to men but isn’t it done the same way when talking about men in a similar context: our husbands/fathers/sons/brothers?

    In Obama’s speeches? No. (And “sisters” wasn’t included.)

  28. hypatiasdaughter says

    #32 Anthony K
    Yes, Quebec law is based on the Napoleonic code. Now, why the Napoleonic code was written such that a woman’s legal name is her birth name, not her married name, might be an interesting story…..
    Completely OT – but my first exposure to the uniqueness of Quebec law, was a story, from over 30 years ago, of an unmarried mother who tried to sue her landlord on behalf of her child, who had fallen out of an un-screened apartment window. The judge threw it out as soon as he read the child was illegitimate. Seems under Quebec law at that time (and I bloody well hope it has been changed by now) only the LEGAL father could sue on behalf of a child. An illegitimate child, of course, has no legal father.
    It enlightened me as I thought that “illegitimate” was merely a social slur. Nope. It really used to mean that people “born out of wedlock” were denied many legal rights that legitimate people had, besides the obvious ones of child support and inheritance. Which rights varied from country to country.

  29. Jean says

    #36 hyapatiasdaughter

    The Napoleonic code has been left behind for quite a while now: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Code_of_Quebec. I agree that the province had backwards laws and a very religious (mainly catholic) culture more than 50 years ago but a lot has changed since then. And the legal name for married women is definitely not from the old code.

    It is now mostly secular and quite progressive (especially compared to the US and also the rest of Canada).

  30. Have a Balloon says

    You sometimes hear the ‘husbands and sons’ rhetoric when talking about the military. Which…erases all the women in the military. :\

  31. Martha says

    The phrasing Obama used annoys me, as it reinforces the offensive notion that being male is normative. So I basically agree with the petition and the post. The exception Balloon notes, of talking about husbands and sons in the military (and they do sometimes mention wives and daughters), also reinforces that the military is other, that the privileged class should support those who serve but shouldn’t feel any obligation to join them. (I’m glad I don’t feel any obligation to join the military, but I do think we should make decisions about how to go to war as if we did).

    I do have a tiny, nagging reservation that we’re not giving enough credit to the effectiveness of this rhetorical device. I’m agree completely with Sally’s point about misogynists carving out exceptions for the (obedient, no doubt) women in their own lives. But men do not have to come to know the lives of women in our culture as women must come to know about the lives of men. That’s not to say that there aren’t men who do take the time and effort to study the lives of women in some way– almost all of the non-troll male commenters here do so. But it’s pretty easy to take a standard high school and college curriculum and spend the vast majority of one’s time reading and thinking about men.

    That pisses me off to no end, but I can’t help wondering if perhaps Obama is right that 101-level instruction is in order to make the average American male care about fairness toward women? I’d just like to think there’s a way to do so that doesn’t so obviously other slightly over half the population.

  32. mildlymagnificent says

    There are different conventions and codes in different countries and political groups within those countries. “Men and women of Australia” is most often associated with the powerful presence of Gough Whitlam – but he was, in fact, harking back to a famous speech of the much loved wartime Prime Minister Curtin’s. “Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan ….”

    For Obama, he now can’t escape his formulation about women, which just needs a little tweaking “American women and American girls, our mothers and daughters, wives and sisters, friends and neighbours …..” would be a bit long winded, but be a much better presentation. And a little more aurally resonant and, most importantly, using mothers and daughters first puts women front and centre in the group that has to think about whatever the proposal is. A semi-abstract, often fuzzy, visual image, immediately turned concrete and inclusive and recognisable.

    He can maintain the formula, just make it more about all women and much less about women’s relationships with men.

  33. Martha says

    PS– I subscribed earlier today. I figured some asshole would come along and make me glad I did. So I’d like to dedicate my subscription to that first “comment.” Bloody hell!

  34. says

    This is a great post and you totally nail the distinction. Sexism means “treating the sexes differently.” I’m the most feminist person imaginable (well, I think) and I still dress and present female, which is sexist. No getting around it. Thank you for helping me clarify my thoughts around this.

  35. Aratina Cage says

    The word should be “sexist.” Sexism can include hostility but it doesn’t have to; misogyny is hostility [to women].

    Excellent clarification of the main distinction between the two. I believe I have always used “misogyny” when there was hostility inherent in the action, so I think I treated it that way already without realizing it.

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