Sexism, misogyny, and chauvinism are often used in relation to each other. Sometimes, they’re used as synonyms.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the words as such:
- sexism: “Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.”
- misogyny: “Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.”
- chauvinism: “Exaggerated or aggressive patriotism; Excessive or prejudiced support for one’s own cause, group, or sex.”
First, tell me more about “sexism” versus “misogyny.” Those Oxford definitions seem similar to me.
Those definitions are similar, and not everyone will agree on what the terms do or don’t mean. In 2012, The Guardian talked with six feminists about misogyny, sexism, and what the words mean to them. One of them was Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who said:
While sexism demonstrates a disregard and disrespect for women, I always have associated misogyny with something darker, angrier, and more cynical.
To understand what that “darker, angrier, and more cynical” something could be, we can look to the words of Julie Bindel, another person in that Guardian panel. She said:
When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny. Misogynists are always sexist, but sexists are not always misogynists. For example, if a man says of a woman, “Look at the state of that fat, ugly cow, I wouldn’t touch her with yours,” then he is a misogynist. It would follow that he does not respect women as equals and is therefore also a sexist.
In both quotes, it sounds like misogyny is meaner and worse than sexism?
“Meaner” and “worse” is subjective, and not everyone will agree. To follow up with Bindel’s examples, here are some more examples posted to the Berkeley Daily Planet website in 2015:
When people only listen to suggestions when a man makes them, that is sexism. When people only listen to suggestions when a man makes them and personally disparage the woman who made them originally, that’s misogyny.
When people have a different set of rules for men and women allowing men to speak without interruption while women are interrupted constantly or not allowed to participate, that is sexism. When people personally disparage the women who make note of this, that’s misogyny.
When men only allow the participation of women who agree to sit silently in admiration while men pound on the table and give repetitive, self-serving diatribes, that’s sexism. When they publicly disparage and question the sexual identity of those women when they leave the room, that’s misogyny.
When men in a workplace are allowed to wear comfortable, functional clothing but women are required to wear revealing, uncomfortable clothing, that is sexism. When the women who raise an issue about it are publicly disparaged as frigid bitches who aren’t getting enough, that is misogyny.
When the men in a group assume that all the women in the group are dying to sleep with them, that’s sexism. When they disparage, fire, or sexually assault the women for refusing to date them, that is misogyny.
It sounds like in those cases, “sexism” is the structure, and “misogyny” is the set of ideas behind that structure?
That’s one way to phrase it. Sean Illing interviewed Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne for Vox in 2018. Manne, who had recently written a book about misogyny, explained:
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.
So, to put Manne’s explanation in the context of one of the Berkeley Daily Planet quotes, men in a workplace being allowed to wear whatever they wanted in an office space while women could not enjoy the same freedom would be an example of “patriarchal social relations” in action. If the women in this hypothetical office space were to complain about this inequity and be publicly disparaged, that would be misogyny, “enforcing” the social relations “when there’s a threat of that system going away.”
OK, so tell me more about “chauvinism.” That Oxford definition seems odd to me.
It will likely seem odd to many people, as the term “chauvinism” has come to be synonymous with “male chauvinism,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex.” But that’s not what the term originally meant. Encyclopædia Britannica says the word begins with Nicolas Chauvin, who “came to typify the cult of the glorification of all things military that was popular after 1815 among the veterans of Napoleon’s armies.”
On his website, Washington State University professor Paul Brians explained chauvinism and the man after whom the concept was named:
Nicolas Chauvin of Rochefort became a laughingstock in Napoleon’s army for his exaggerated nationalism, and his name gave rise to the term “chauvinism,” which characterizes people who wildly overestimate the excellence and importance of their own countries while denigrating others. The word was then broadened to cover an exaggerated belief in the superiority of one’s own kind in other respects.
“Male chauvinist,” Brians explained, was a term coined to refer to people “who considered women inferior to men.” Since the 1970s, Brians said, people have come to view “chauvinism” as interchangeable with “male chauvinism,” thus stripping “chauvinism” of its original meaning.
OK, where does “male chauvinism” fit in with misogyny and sexism? If Julie Bindel says that “Misogynists are always sexist, but sexists are not always misogynists,” then what are “male chauvinists”?
Not everyone agrees, as demonstrated by this Quora thread. Some treated “male chauvinists” as sexist, but not necessarily misogynist, whereas one user wrote, “Male chauvinism is basically synonymous with misogyny.”
It sounds like “male chauvinism” is less defined than “sexism” and “misogyny,” eh?
And not everyone agrees that there needs to be such hairsplitting. Writing for Psychology Today, Mel Konner said:
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.
Learn more about The LGBTQ+ Experiment here.
Follow us on Twitter here.
Follow us on Facebook here.
Check out the LGBTQ+ Experiment Discussion group here.
Sign up for the LGBTQ+ Experiment newsletter here.