I found this snippet from the NYT “On Language” column to be somewhat confounding. See what you think:
Senator Hillary Clinton used a word recently that has been changing its meaning. In charging that she has been treated more harshly in the media because of her gender than Senator Barack Obama has been treated because of his race, she said, “It does seem as though the press at least is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by comments and reactions of people who are nothing but misogynists.”
The word misogyny has since its earliest recording in 1656 meant “hate or contempt for women.” The etymology of misogyny is straightforward: In Greek, miso means “hatred,” and gune means “woman.” A misogynist is a woman-hater. I thought Clinton’s choice of the word was in error, and that the word she meant was sexist, meaning “one who discriminates based on sex” — that she had been treated unfairly because she was a woman. When I looked up the word she chose in the Oxford English Dictionary online, however, I noted that the meaning of misogynist had changed slightly but significantly. In 1989, the definition was “hatred of women”; in the 2002 revision, the definition was broadened to “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”
Thus, sexist and misogynist are now in some respects synonymous. Because sexist has been so widely used, apparently misogynist — in the same sense of “prejudice” rather than “hatred” — now carries more force with those who are familiar with the word. Presumably that was the feminist audience that Senator Clinton intended to reach.
The most interesting thing to me about assuming that someone has misspoken, whether with or without good reason, is that you must also assume to personally know what they intended to say.
I’ve actually briefly noted this statement of Clinton’s before, but it was it was for the purpose of highlighting the offensive comments surrounding it, positioning misogyny as a worse and more pervasive problem than racism. But I never took issue with the meaning of the particular sentence quoted above.
Official change to the definition or not — and honestly, I wasn’t aware of the change and also believed that misogyny officially meant hatred of women — I have no idea why one would automatically presume in this context that Clinton intended to say “sexist” (other than perhaps being a non-feminist male?).
Were her comments indeed intended to simply refer to “one who discriminates based on sex”? Because to me, the words “incredible vitriol” are sure as hell capable of indicating hatred. She didn’t say “rude remarks” or “spitefulness.” While we’re looking up words, the same dictionary defines “vitriol” as “extreme bitterness or malice,” and “malice” as “the desire to do harm to someone.” Does this not at least very arguably denote hate?
It’s not the end of the world in any case, but it definitely does take a certain level of confidence to correct someone’s word choice and then write about it for one of the nation’s most widely-known newspapers. Granted, the same newspaper published this musing on misogyny vs. sexism that was a million times more offensive (and would be, for those wondering, Round 1). What it does tell me is that there seems to be a social aversion to the word. This is perhaps the reason that feminists prefer it — and I agree with Safire here that Clinton was making a conscious decision to speak to a feminist audience.
“Sexism” carries no weight. I can’t tell you the number I’ve times I’ve called someone (a non-feminist) out on a remark as being “sexist,” only to watch them shrug their shoulders. But usually (and trust me, not always), if I similarly call out a remark as “racist,” they flip out. This seems to often be what those “sexism is worse than racism” feminists are referring to when they claim that racism is taken far more seriously by society. I still think that they’re entirely wrong, and what we’re really dealing with here is in many cases a language quirk. “Racism” denotes “hate” to most people. “Sexism” to many people denotes “believing in traditional gender roles” or “believing in innate differences between the sexes” (which is accurate, but far from the whole story). Sexism doesn’t seem to mean “hate.” Misogyny does. And it’s the only reason I can determine for why these big important dudes are spending their time quibbling over which is the accurate term, and arguing that hate isn’t really hate. In the same way that people will hold blackface parties or fly the confederate flag and then say “but I’m not racist” as though it provides absolution, people don’t care so much about whether or not what they do offends women and expresses a bias against them as they do about whether or not it’s going to be explicitly placed in the context of hate and bigotry. What can I say? People are silly.
But hey, what do I know? I didn’t think that this was the definition of “patriarchy,” either.