Liza Featherstone questions the pervasive but unreflective use of “misogyny” especially, but not exclusively, by feminists today. Hers is a courageous and important move.  I want to expand upon it by revisiting two questions she raises:  First, what is meant by misogyny? And second, what is its place in the history of feminism since the seventies? I will distinguish three steps in unfolding the meaning of misogyny, each of which has to be treated differently, and then take up the question of this phenomenon’s historical role.

Often “misogyny” is used to refer to gender-based disrespect or misrecognition; in other w0rds, bad attitudes toward women publicly deployed. Here the term is a species of folk psychology, reflecting the word’s Greek root, hatred of women. Misogyny, in this usage, also signifies that this hatred, translated into action, is a moral wrong.  In my view, the term’s use in this way has been a salutary advance in our culture. Changing people’s attitudes, partly by restricting what can be said aloud in public (not necessarily through the state), is fundamental to human progress. Anyone who reads Cervantes’ Don Quixote, written in 1600, will realize that there was a time in history when making fun of disabled people, dwarfs, and so forth was completely acceptable, but that time is long past. So it will be with demeaning references to women. A good example of the use of “misogyny” to describe unacceptable characterizations of women is the famous “misogyny speech” by Julia Gillard, then Prime Minister of Australia. Gillard’s examples include references to her as a “witch,” descriptions of abortions as “the easy way out,” and the characterization of women’s typical work as “ironing.”

 While positive, however, the folk-psychological/moral use of “misogyny” doesn’t get us very far. As Featherstone rightly notes, it overemphasizes freestanding micro-interactions and attitudes while neglecting the structural, institutional arrangements that underpin and enable inequality and violence. Describing Hillary Clinton’s ankles as  “thick” was misogynist. But it was less important to her 2016 defeat than her ties with Wall Street, support for the war in Iraq, and contempt for working class Americans whose living standards were gutted by the domestic policies she championed. In other words, voters may have had good reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton regardless of her gender.

The shortcomings of the folk-psychological and or moral use of the term misogyny point toward the need to foreground the social system that underlies “bad attitudes” toward women. A second step in understanding the meaning of “misogyny” thus reveals itself: as Featherstone puts it, “not a set of bad attitudes or moral failings but [an] enforcement mechanism” for “a system that gives men power over women.” Feminists who use the term posit that behind “attitudes” or “moral failings” sits a system that polices women, excludes them from power, relegates them to secondary roles and so forth. Institutions such as laws against abortion or against the “rape culture” of certain fraternities, athletic teams or workplaces are part of misogyny in this sense.

Although this looks like an improvement in understanding misogyny it remains problematic. As Featherstone points out, it is dubious that “women’s estate” can really be explained without reference to such things as religion, tradition, capitalism, racism, imperialism and authoritarianism. In general, the assumption that there is an autonomous social structure aimed at degrading and subordinating women begs the need for social theory and history. In serious works like Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, extreme, even freakish cases, such as the Isla Vista shootings, motivated, according to the shooter, by revenge for being rejected sexually, are taken as part of an organized societal effort (i.e., misogyny) to keep women in “their place.” In Manne’s book, the centuries-long efforts of the capitalist class, and the elites associated with it, to monopolize wealth, to control access to privileged institutions such as the universities, and to game the political system, including even restricting the parameters of permissible discussion, are ignored. The word “capitalism” does not even appear in her index. In other words, the problems that women face—the double shift, the downgrading of “care work,” inadequacies in our medical system and the like—are explained entirely through women’s unequal relations with men, whereas the problems women share with men, such as economic inequality or the corruption of the political system, are out of sight. To be sure, the idea that the derogation of women is systematic and pervasive has a powerful emotional appeal. But only when we have a better sense of the structures that underlie this derogation can we decide whether we are talking about attitudes or something deeper.

This is why some have proposed a third step in unfolding the meaning of “misogyny,” namely to specify the system responsible for the derogation of women as patriarchy. This step was taken in the early seventies as part of the rejection of Marxism, on the one hand, and Freudian psychoanalysis on the other. In Marxism, “patriarchy” referred to specific family forms, for example in ancient Rome, or to nomadic societies, such as the Hebrews. In psychoanalysis, patriarchy referred to the rule of the father over women, but also over younger men, as in monotheism, or in imperial or monarchical systems. Within feminist theory, however, patriarchy was redefined to mean the trans-historical rule not of fathers over society, but of men over women.  This cut feminist theory off from other bodies of critical thought that could have advanced it.

An example, in regard to Marxism, is Heidi Hartmann’s “The Unhappy Marriage of Feminism and Socialism.” (1981) The article was written to oppose the then-new expanded understanding of capitalism as a social system, i.e., not as an economy, an understanding that included an extended understanding of social reproduction aimed at illuminating the oppression of women.  Hartmann opposed this expansion. According to her, Marxism was and should remain a theory of the economy per se; feminists needed an autonomous theory of patriarchy to explain women’s oppression. Under the guise of presenting a so-called “dual theory” a free-standing moral condemnation of misogyny triumphed while a promising development in critical theory was cut off.

Underlying the feminist break with earlier critical theories, exemplified in the   concept of patriarchy, was a new conception of the relations between men and women as inherently antagonistic. While earlier theories described gender relations one-sidedly as relations of complementarity, cooperation and love,  feminists responded by describing them equally one-sidedly as relations of conflict, derogation and inequality. The expanded understanding of the economy, to include the role of the family and kinship, as well as child-rearing, could have captured the interplay of both love and hate but this path was not taken. Instead, the relations of men and women were understood in zero-sum terms. One example is the misunderstanding of the late Paleolithic and Neolithic goddesses as expressions of “matriarchy”—women’s rule, later overthrown– rather than as expression of fertility religions in which child-bearing was likened to agricultural productivity through the mechanisms of sympathetic magic. A second example is the failure to appreciate the cultural advance made by the recognition of the father’s role in reproduction, as in the Hebrew Bible, an advance widely seen simply as a setback for institutionalizing women’s power. True, it was a setback, but it was also an advance, including for women. In both cases what men and women shared—the Neolithic Revolution, the creation of pair-bond centered family—was ignored, while  one synechdochal aspect—women’s inequality—was singled out. This made it impossible to understand the contradictory nature of these advances, which brought oppression along with progress. 

Equally important to misogyny’s powerful reign as an explanatory theory, as Featherstone describes it, was the rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis.  The term “misogyny” was used in psychoanalysis not as synonymous with a moral wrong but as a psychical structure. For example, Karen Horney’s 1932 article “The Dread of Women,” traced men’s universal need to diminish and deride women to their envy of women’s role in reproduction, and to anxiety over the adequacy of the male genital.  To be sure, the idea of misogyny as a psychical structure, rather than as a moral wrong per se, was developed by feminist psychoanalytic thinkers like Juliet Mitchell, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow, but in works like Manne’s – which elevated misogyny to a unitary social force — this line of thought is completely absent. 

So far my reflection supports Featherstone’s intervention but there is one point on which I disagree. As I see it, she greatly overstates the critical force of seventies feminism. It is true that in the early seventies there was still a broad language of “liberation,” as well as an effort at synthesizing feminism and socialism, i.e., “socialist-feminism.” But these reflected the roots of feminism in the culture of the New Left. Within months of the appearance of the first feminist classics, such as those of Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett, feminists rejected the idea that we needed a permanent radical presence—a left—in America. Instead, they proposed a quintessential version of the misogyny thesis, namely the view that the New Left was misogynist, even a form of what we would call today a “rape culture.” A symptom of Featherstone’s misreading of the seventies is the attention she gives to Germaine Greer, a media sensation, but otherwise not representative of seventies feminism precisely because of her high valuation of heterosexuality. Most seventies feminists did praise sexual liberation, but not in the form of heterosexuality, which, one famous article termed a “battlefield,” in which admittedly there was “ecstasy,” but not love.

Overall, then, the term misogyny triumphed at the expense of more complex and ultimately richer ways of understanding the relations between the sexes. Although “misogyny” took the form of a social theory it largely became a free-standing moral command. Most importantly, it rested on unexamined attitudes and prejudices and failed to see what men and women have in common. To be sure, there were those who objected to this powerful meme of the nineteen seventies, such as Ann Snitow and Ellen Willis. Liza Featherstone is in their tradition.

Eli Zaretsky is Professor of History at The New School for Social Research.