What's the Difference Between Misogyny and Sexism?

Boston Marathon Kathy Switzer
On April 16, 1967, Boston Marathon Director Bill Cloney (in street clothes) tried to forcibly remove Kathrine Switzer from running the all-male race (marathons were thought to be "too strenuous for women"). Switzer completed the marathon, but women weren't allowed to officially participate until 1972. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Language matters. And in a world of condensed tweets and abbreviated text speech, it's reasonable to argue that language matters now more than ever.

Of course, there are plenty of terms that are considered interchangeable (happy and glad, for instance). But others are increasingly being recognized for their nuances and specificity. Two such terms that experts no longer consider synonymous: misogyny and sexism.


What Is Misogyny?

Merriam-Webster keeps it incredibly simple: Misogyny is "a hatred of women." Dictionary.com takes it a step further and more elaborately defines the term as "hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women."

Cornell University philosophy professor Kate Manne, author of the book, "Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny," takes the concept one step further, stating that misogyny isn't a plain, random hatred of women, but rather it's an ideology founded on controlling and punishing women who challenge patriarchal norms. In her interview with Sean Illing for Vox, Manne says, "I define misogyny as social systems or environments where women face hostility and hatred because they're women in a man's world — a historical patriarchy."


What Is Sexism?

Back to the dictionaries: Sexism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "prejudice or discrimination based on sex" or "behavior, conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex." More specifically, it may be "discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women." (The Boston Marathon image above is a perfect example of how women are discriminated against for, well, being women. Even Olympic organizers considered marathons too strenuous for women, and it wasn't until the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea that women were finally allowed to compete in an Olympic marathon.)

Academics argue that at its core, "sexism" is a form of oppression and domination rooted in the belief that males are inherently superior to females. Author Octavia Butler puts it on the same plane as other forms of hatred: "Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism and all the other 'isms' that cause so much suffering in the world."


But sexism is also defined by Dictionary.com as "ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against or hatred of women; misogyny." So what gives — are the two synonymous or totally distinct?

woman holding sexism sign
Despite often being used interchangeably, the terms sexism and misogyny have two very different meanings.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images


The Historical Perspective

"I think there's some debate today on what the differences are and the fact that misogyny seems to be a new synonym for sexism," Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Ph.D., faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Health, and Society at the Georgia State University College of Law, says via email. "From a historical perspective, however, I think reformers active in the suffrage and women's movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries recognized a difference. They argued that misogyny was the basis of the structural organization of society. In other words, misogyny informed the establishment and maintenance of patriarchal structures specifically designed to keep women confined to a particular — and lesser — social status."

According to Thompson, this perspective was distinct from the historical view on the term "sexism," which itself has transformed through the decades. "Many women in this period publicly defined women's and men's differences — physical, mental, sexual, etc. — and argued that women's 'special' makeup and differences actually made them more fit to take on the vote and the broader duties of citizenship," she says. "So they were leaning into 'sexist' stereotypes, but using those stereotypes to argue for more rights as women."


Today, Thompson explains, sexism still implies we are assigning certain characteristics to women, like they are more suitable to being mothers and caretakers and not apt for other roles like holding office, becoming CEOs, etc. "But [sexism] is rarely used to make arguments for the expansion of rights the way it was in the past."

Thompson also says the widespread modern implications of "sexism" are likely what create confusion between the words. "I think that's why there's been a conflation of the terms sexism and misogyny now. The misogynistic structures that make up our society are still in place in a deeply rooted way, and sexism — casual or even more serious (harassment, unequal pay, etc.) — is about the everyday interactions and practices overlaying that fundamental structural set-up," she says. "So people who are using the terms in a synonymous way are referring to both the overlay and the deeply rooted structures in a different way than women's rights reformers in the past."


So What's the Difference?

Like most things in life, the answer is dependent on who you ask. "Misogyny and sexism are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing," says Marcia Klotz, Ph.D., an assistant professor in English and gender and women's studies at the University of Arizona. "Misogyny — etymologically the hatred of the feminine — is the systemic devaluation/denigration/disgust with those who identify as female. Sexism includes misogyny but is not limited to it."

Klotz says sexism is a form of prejudice, discrimination or stereotyping based on preconceptions of gender norms. So, for example, if a man that's "insufficiently masculine" is fired because he makes his coworkers uncomfortable, he's a victim of sexism but not of misogyny. "Whereas I would say that a trans woman who is taunted on the street is a victim of both misogyny and sexism," she explains.


In her interview with Vox, Manne says the two terms are related and complementary, but definitely not exact synonyms. "Sexism is an ideology that says, 'These arrangements just make sense,'" she says. "'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."

Rachel C. Lee, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and professor of English, gender studies, and the institute of society and genetics, says sexism is like a structure of inequality that argues that one sex is supreme or better than another.

"You can have sexism without misogyny," she says. "For example, you can think women are delicate flowers and love them a lot — you can still be sexist and not hate women. Misogyny means hating women. When I think of misogyny, I think of hating things that are viscerally female, like bodies that are menstrual and porous — it's viscerally hating every aspect of them."

Tony Abbott
Oppostion leader Tony Abbott looks at Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Parliament House on Feb. 7, 2013, not quite a year after she delivered her infamous misogyny speech.
Stefan Postles/Getty Images


Real World Example

In 2012, media outlets reported that then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had "redefined misogyny" when she gave a speech on Oct. 9, 2012 about "repulsive double standards" in regards to rival Tony Abbott. Gillard's opponents argued that she'd gone too far — the more appropriate term would have been "sexism," as the Australian dictionary at the time defined "misogyny" as something much more sinister: intense dislike and mistrust of women.

In response, the Australian dictionary made some changes. Sue Butler, editor of Australia's best-known dictionary, Macquarie Dictionary, said Gillard's speech prompted her staff to consider an update. Upon investigating the origin of the term "misogyny," the Macquarie team tracked the evolving meaning back to 1970s feminist discourse in the U.S. and found that the term was typically used as a synonym for sexism "with a bit more bite to it perhaps." As a result, Butler's team updated the Macquarie Dictionary definition of misogyny to reflect what they felt was the more accurate meaning, something more in line with a "common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power."


Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of people freaked out, specifically those who supported Abbott and felt Gillard had gone too far in her accusation. But some, like famed feminist author Naomi Wolf, felt she'd been perfectly justified in her usage. Wolf told The Guardian, "Julia Gillard used 'misogyny' perfectly accurately. She said that Tony Abbott described abortion as 'the easy way out' and cited his political campaign against Gillard involving posters asking voters to 'ditch the witch.' The latter, especially, is a time-honoured [sic] tradition of true misogyny — stirring up atavistic hatred of the feminine — that goes back to witch hunts against powerful women in the New World. Her critics, for their part, are asking us to water down our awareness of real woman-hating and accept it as normal in political discourse."

In fact, it was Gillard's speech that first inspired Manne to write her book on the term "misogyny." As she told Gerunica, "When Gillard's speech became news, I was interested to realize that 'misogyny' wasn't one of my words — to the extent that I couldn't remember ever having used it, or even having heard it discussed at length by analytic feminist philosophers. And this despite just having finished a Ph.D. in a philosophy department that is a research hub in that area."

In her own piece for The Boston Review, Manne breaks it down in simpler, more vivid, tangible terms: "Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative. Sexism is complacent; misogyny is anxious. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel."

She goes on to offer concrete examples: "Sexists subscribe to sexist ideology (albeit often unconsciously). Misogynists engage in misogynist behavior (again, often unwittingly). A sexist believes in men's superiority over women in masculine-coded domains — such as intellectual endeavors, sports, business, and politics — or that men are less suited to feminine-coded activities, such as domestic work, emotional labor, and caring for children and other dependents. Misogynists may hope that sexists are right, while fearing just the opposite."