This is the first part of a two-part series. Read the second part “Why Calling People ‘Misogynist’ Is Not Helping Feminism” for more concrete material building from this story.
I’m a misogynist. I am quite sure of this fact because of how many times I’ve been told so.
I’ve been told so in comments on my website, responses to my comments on other folks’ websites, indirectly by speakers at conferences, and in a few occasions, directly to my face.
And as the old saying goes – If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably hates women.
I Remember the First Time I Learned I Was a Misogynist
I was a bright-eyed college freshman auditing a gender studies (read: women’s issues) class at Purdue University. In a class discussion about objectification of women, I asked, quite earnestly (read: naively), “Why is it bad for me to say ‘Jessica Alba is super hot’ — I mean, isn’t she?”
In the discussion (read: crucifiction) that followed, I was called a misogynist by a few of my classmates and, indirectly, by the professor.
Ignorant to what that word meant but understanding via context clues it wasn’t good, I shut up and did my best to make myself invisible for the remaining 50 minutes of class.
When I got back to my dorm, I immediately hopped on my computer and looked up the word.
And much to my surprise, I learned that I hated women.
I Never Knew I Hated Women
I learned that I did from my classmates and professor the first time I was called a misogynist. If you had asked me a few hours before learning that what my feelings were towards women, I would have told you that I opposite-of-hated women.
I grew up in a two mom household. One of my moms was my biological mother, who regularly reminds me that she “grew me” so I need to listen to her. My other mom was my oldest sister, who didn’t take much encouraging to fill the head-of-household role when my mom (the one who grew me) was working. Or not in the house. Or in the bathroom. Addie was bossy.
As a byproduct of this, I (apparently incorrectly assumed I) grew up with the utmost respect for women. Between my mom, my sister who pretended to be my mom, and my other older sister, I had plenty of positive female role models. My mom worked miracles in a solo effort to keep us housed and fed. My sisters played sports, got solid grades, went to college, and never once got arrested for shoplifting (unlike my scumbag friends).
And other than two men, all of the other positive figures in my life (teachers, a couple of neighbors) were women. If anything, based on my mostly rocky experience with would-be male role models, one could even argue that I was inclined to be a misandrist. I would have been one of the people to argue that.
I Thought I Wanted To Support Women
This opposite-of-hatred I thought I held for women is what led me to check out that gender studies class my freshman year of college in the first place.
I started getting an inkling of what the term “oppression” meant, and word on the street was that all these women I thought I loved were members of one of the biggest groups being targeted by that nasty idea. I didn’t like that, so I wanted to learn what I could do about it.
It was a shock and a relief when I learned that I didn’t respect women, but in fact hated them.
So I guess I didn’t need to worry about remedying that oppression thing any more.
That feminist thing was going to be a lot of work, and being a misogynist was so easy, I didn’t even know I was doing it.
Meet Me: A Misogynist-Labeled Feminist
Okay, enough of that writing from the perspective of a version of me from the perspective of those who’ve labeled me a misogynist. That was exhausting.
But it was necessary because I wanted to tell you a story that is unfortunately all too common – the story of the Well-Intentioned Misogynist – a semantic impossibility that plays out on a daily basis.
Like freshman me, a lot of people (regardless of gender identity) don’t know what the word “misogynist” means. It’s likely they’ve never even considered that a word like that is necessary, because they don’t think there is such a thing (a person who hates half the people in the world).
And like freshman me, a lot of people (regardless of gender identity) who aren’t up to speed on the ideas of gender-based privilege and systemic oppression, are packed full of misconceptions of how the world works.
They aren’t aware of how gender (and surely, all the identities one possesses) shapes one’s individual experience, often times in a limiting way. They don’t realize that we’ve created and support systems that are, in the simplest sense, unfair.
And like freshman me, a lot of these people are incredibly well-intentioned.
Many times when well-intentioned people express their incomplete (or inaccurate, ignorant, ill-conceived… pick your i-word) understanding of the world and the issues women face, instead of being educated, they are written off as misogynists and the discussion ends there.
Or worse, the conversation moves in a direction of vilifying that person.
This happens in articles on feminist websites, in comment sections and forums, at women’s issues conferences, and in rarer occasions, during in-person interactions.
Labeling someone a misogynist, sexist, racist, etc is incredibly loaded and should be used only after giving sufficient evidence and discussion (ie not after just one comment).
Otherwise it will quickly make someone who’s trying to learn (if stumbling at it) shut down and/or go on the defensive.
This is the story of the “Well-Intentioned Misogynist.” And like I said early, it’s told everyday and it’s hurting our feminist cause.
It’s Time We Start Telling a New Story
We need to start realizing that everyone is at different levels of understanding of social justice and feminist issues. We’re all raised in a society and bombarded by messages from mass media that normalizes oppressive and exploitative norms.
Some people are exposed to feminist/progressive thinking that challenges the dominant culture but many aren’t. Some folks who are exposed to it want to learn and some don’t.
And for those that do, we need to meet folks where they are in order to help them learn, develop, and grow from there.
We need to start realizing that while creating an enemy in a misogynist (because certainly, intentionally hurtful misogynists do exist) can be affirming and create unity and strength within the feminist community, it can also create apprehension in in prospective members who are ignorant but wanting to learn.
So before jumping to the conclusion that you’re talking to a misogynist because they made a sexist comment, try sharing with them in a non-judgemental way why that comment was hurtful even if it is normalized in our society.
Or point them to some resources like Everyday Feminism so they can educate themselves about the issue.
You just might be surprised at how open-minded they are.
An important note: Not all “misogynists” are well-intended. There are certainly people out there with malicious intent who truly believe women are somehow less than men — true misogynists. This article is not focused on these people but instead focused on well-intentioned but uninformed people who often get lumped together with true misogynists.
Sam Killermann is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism and the person behind It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a comedy show and blog focused on issues of identity, stereotypes, and oppression. A social justice advocate and ally, Sam performs the show at colleges around the country and writes for the site when he is at home in Austin, TX. Follow on Twitter @Killermann.