What is misogyny, and why should you care?

By Annie McGrew and Kate Bahn

The day after Donald Trump was elected, Merriam Webster reported that “misogyny” was one of the top words searched that day, along with “racist,” “bigot,” and “xenophobe”. This isn’t surprising, considering Trump has repeatedly denigrated women and referred to them as “pigs, dogs and slobs.

As evidenced by Merriam Webster’s trend report and a multitude of media coverage, sexism and misogyny have become hotly discussed topics across the nation. But what do these terms actually mean? It’s important we define them, so we can have the tough conversations about how we eliminate misogyny and sexism.

Let’s start with defining three key terms: patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny. These terms are different mechanisms used to suppress or constrain women and women’s opportunities to make them secondary or subservient to those of men, terms that reinforce each other but also differ in key ways.

Patriarchy: a social structure characterized by male dominance and female oppression.

For example, before women were allowed to vote or participate in office, the United States functioned as a formal patriarchy. Although women are no longer legally prevented from assuming leadership roles, this system’s legacy can be seen in current low rates of women in leadership. Today, only 20% of members of Congress and four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In this way, the United States still operates as a patriarchy.

Sexism: a belief system or discriminatory attitude about women, of all races and sexual orientations, that deems them inferior to men or less capable than men to perform certain tasks or jobs.

When a man assumes a woman would not be a good public official or CEO because men are better leaders, that’s sexist.

But misogyny is darker and angrier than sexism. Misogyny takes sexist attitudes and acts on them in a hostile or violent way, and is often revealed through demeaning or denigrating comments.

For example, if a woman gets a job over a man and the man responds by calling the woman a series of gendered vulgarities, that’s misogyny.

It’s not just that these terms exist independently. These terms — and these phenomena — operate in tandem, and in combination with other structural forces of oppression.

Class, race, gender identity and sexual orientation combine with sexism and misogyny to produce different, often more dangerous variations of oppression and prejudice. Misogynoir, coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey, describes the racialized misogyny that black women face, and transmisogyny — a confluence of transphobia and misogyny, coined by Julia Serano — describes the misogyny trans and gender nonconforming individuals on the feminine side of the gender spectrum face. The pervasive violence against trans women and “bathroom bills” that ban trans women from using women’s bathrooms (thus putting them at risk of more violence) are examples of trans misogyny in our society today. Trans women of color are disproportionately targeted by this violence. Transmisogynoir refers to the unique intersection of misogyny, racism and transphobia that black trans women face.

But explanations aside, why are we so insistent on defining these terms?

Defining these terms is critical for designing solutions to address them. For example, a law that prohibits discrimination based on gender when making a hiring decision may be an effective strategy to combat sexism in a particular field, but more may be needed to repair a work environment infected with misogyny and deeper hostility towards women. If misogyny is prevalent in our workplaces and labor markets, then discriminatory pay may be falsely thought of as fair by sexist attitudes towards women’s value and abilities, and misogyny may prevent women from exercising their rights to equal pay due to justified fear of retaliation for asking for a pay increase or promotion.

In this way, misogyny is an endemic part of our laws, institutions and social norms, most of which were formed hundreds of years ago by men who believed women were relegated to the home and acted to enforce that belief.

But it’s not just a relic of the past. Right now we are debating a health care system that separates women’s crucial health care needs from the basic health care provided by an insurance system, and laws across the country and at the federal level are explicitly designed to make abortion less accessible.

The bottom line is that individuals who identify as women face sexism and misogyny daily. And if we want to effectively fight it, it’s important for us to understand what these terms mean and how women of different races, social classes, and sexual orientations experience it. Looking forward, we must fight both explicit misogyny as well as work to tackle more subtle institutional misogyny if we hope to dismantle patriarchy and instill women’s empowerment in our society.

Naming the problem as what it is — misogyny — is a critical first step in dismantling institutions that uphold structural barriers that women face.

Annie McGrew is a special assistant for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Kate Bahn is an economist at the Center for American Progress.