This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want it in your inbox, consider subscribing. Misogyny is a loaded and limited word, at least in how it is traditionally understood: as the hatred of women. Within that definition, any person can deny it (much like they can deny the label of, say, racism) by pointing to the women they ostensibly like in their lives: wives, partners, daughters, coworkers. According to this understanding, a rapist isn’t a misogynist if he also loves his daughter. Nor is Donald Trump. Women — because they are women, and theoretically do not hate themselves — are also immune to the description. A term like “sexism” fails in similar ways: if a man votes for Trump but also promotes women within his company, can you convincingly argue he thinks men are superior to women?
I found out I was pregnant 6 weeks ago. As an adjunct professor, I knew I would need to work through labor, delivery, and post partum in order to keep paying our bills. I was extended 50% of my pay for 6 weeks as maternity leave. 50% pay would have been insufficient; I am our primary breadwinner. The sheer panic, terror, and incandescent rage I felt knowing I would not even get a week to care for my infant is hard to quantify. It made those early weeks of pregnancy the most stressful of my life. And I thought, almost daily, about a miscarriage or abortion for this very wanted pregnancy. Ultimately, nature (or the herculean amount of stress I was under) made the decision for me: I started miscarrying 12 days ago. And I was grateful.
The absolute lunacy that is the lack of paid family leave in America cannot be understated. Even being pregnant was wildly hard on my body. Moreover, it was something I could not grasp fully while we were simply "trying" to get pregnant, but something that became horrifying and desperation-making as soon as I *was* pregnant. Now, post miscarriage, I think we may choose to remain child free. The physical damage to the body, the lack of support for women, the lack of affordable child care, the collapsing climate all make motherhood one of the riskiest activities a woman can undertake today. And frankly, I'm not sure it's worth it. Unless, of course, you have the money. But really, people with money are the only people the American government wants having babies anyway.
All of the above -- and less coherently, i have been thinking a lot about cleaning (household cleaning mostly) and the tyranny of standards, especially as it's a way in which racial and gender hierarchies get reinforced. cleaning is never seen as care work. but it is. white women, especially progressives, are super cagey about talking about the support they can pay for, whereas it's taken-for-granted among men (mostly those who don't have women to do or negotiate this for them). likewise, i'm so impressed by my students (college grad and undergrad) who are pumped to talk about gender inequities and teach me phrases like "weaponized incompetence" and know so much and are less willing to put up with a lot, but then the women do a lot of care work, especially emotion labor, for men they know. the men "try" -- they're less likely to take up space in class than previous generations -- but they definitely are completely unaware of how much they expect their needs to be met in so many ways. when i don't call on them. when I spend less time on their paper. when I tell them their ideas need work. basically any time, I, an older woman, don't tell them they're amazing or fabulous for being "aware" of misogyny. and there's a way in which this all leads back to convenience -- I'm just not sure what it is, yet, but I hear a lot of men talking about being "inconvenienced," as if this is a benign or ordinary expectation.
I am not a mother, so while I've experienced a lot of damaging misogyny my whole life, at 64, some of this I can empathize with but have not experienced as a non-parent. However, there's a certain special kind of misogyny reserved for older women who are not married and not mothers, and it too comes from everyone and everywhere, men and women alike. We have failed on every level to meet our perceived obligation as a woman, and usually it is just happenstance, not choice (though certainly my family labels it that way, as in "being alone is what she wanted, she's antisocial.") The stigma is real. We too have to do everything on our own, including paying for everything while still being underpaid in the workplace. There's a lot to say on this as well, and I wish that mothers felt more like allies in my own circumstances. Donna Ward's book "She I Dare Not Name" is an important contribution to making these women visible.
Misogyny looks like me suffering a catastrophic leg injury and my spouse being unable to take even a single day off from upper management corporate job to care for me following my surgery & hospitalization for fear of how it would be received by his superiors. However, it was totally acceptable for him to take a few days off to take a long-planned weekend with his college buddies. Let me be clear: he had canceled the weekend with the buddies, and I chose to arrange friends and family caregivers for myself to offer him respite from the grind of caregiving while working full time and taking up the household and parenting responsibilities. It was just astonishing to me - the unspoken rules of acceptable PTO (boys weekend) and unacceptable PTO (caregiving) in the context of a high-earning corporate job with all-female superiors.
This is so good and (speaking as one of these dudes) provides really crucial texture for the variety of cis stright guy who would think "oh, I support leave policies and a revolution in child care and also I pitch in around the house... i'm already with you." While the policy lessons are really important (and we need more men to support them), you can't push for social change without excavating all the cultural/rhetorical tentacles that make the current system so pernicious.
As I read this, it reminded me of how, one of the key factors that enabled Sweden to build and sustain the world's most comprehensive childcare/leave/family support policies was that its system was originally designed, in large part, by a feminist sociologist (Alva Myrdal) who was OBSESSED with all the little ways that both the physical space of the Swedish home as well as the spiritual space of social interactions reinforced misogy and the idea that women were handcuffed to unpaid familial care work. She knew it was going to take more than a single law to transform "how" Swedes viewed women's role. She then put all her research both into proposals like leave policies and child-based UBI but also into the design of public housing, creating the idea of, as she put it "a 'kollektivhus' an ideal family hotel with cooperative organization to take care of your material needs and unload your [sole] responsibility for your offspring."
That's to say: shout out to feminist sociologists and also shout-out to the kind of pieces that shed the light on all the corners we have to rethink.
Anyone else in corporate America see this shit come up constantly in women’s affinity groups? I work at a professional services firm and occasionally join the women’s groups meetings.
First of all, *every* topic of discussion only focuses on motherhood. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of “women in the workplace” and “working moms” but it’s wild to me that women cannot have identities beyond motherhood, even in places where they’re supposed to be valued for their skills and professional contributions. I also know it’s easier for companies to pat themselves on the back for for being good to women by doing something like extending parental leave from X weeks to Y weeks than it is to acknowledge and combat sexism, harassment, and implicit bias.
Plus, even the motherhood-focused topics are things that shouldn’t be relegated to women’s only spaces. Recently my women’s group announced that they’re creating a part-time return to work option for those returning from partners leave. Why is no one giving the dads this option? Why isn’t this being announced in the company town hall meeting instead of the women’s affinity group Zoom call with 20 people on it? How will women actually feel comfortable taking it if their male counterparts are discouraged from it?
I feel like one big, overarching, *exhausting* thing that a few comments here touch on but that no one has stated explicitly is this: We women do so much emotional labor with one another that is specifically about navigating misogyny and its impact on our lives.
• The endless conversations we have about shitty men -- or even just blah, checked-out men who don't participate in their own lives as husbands, fathers, or just people -- reassuring one another that no, what he did/said/didn't do/didn't say wasn't okay, trying to haul a friend back from gaslighting herself over his behavior, etc.
• The discussions we have about our health, whether/how to deal with doctors who don't trust our own assessments of our bodies/pain, trying to decide whether/how to treat a medical issue when there might be a total lack of research into it because it's something that only impacts women.
• The professional organizations/committees we volunteer our time and efforts for in order to counteract the misogyny we face in our work.
Of course, we love our friends and we want to help where/when we can. But we could all be having so much more enriching *fun* with our friends if we didn't need to do this *work* with one another all the time.
The thing that I wrestle with (despite knowing full well it is utter misogynistic bullshit!) is how still being single in my late thirties feels like a failure. I KNOW that the toxic way society treats women who remain unpartnered is the mechanism by which the patriarchy tries to trap women in the unpaid caretaking labor of marriage/ motherhood. And yet…! Aside from specific spaces (shoutout Spinster CS), the tone is always that there’s something I’m doing wrong, and need to correct, that I’m essentially failing or undesirable as a woman/ not trying hard enough/ being too picky.
And as someone who genuinely seeks partnership and would love a great relationship, it’s really hard sometimes to separate out what I want and why vs what every cultural product / society has been telling me for my entire life.
My wife was told at a gynaecology appointment last week that she would not be considered for a hysterectomy because someday her sexual orientation might change, she might divorce me, marry a man, and want to have his baby. This was at an appointment where she cried and told this man that she spends one week in every four wishing she was dead because her pain is so unbearable, and where she still only asked for a hysterectomy to be considered as a final resort after trying everything else. The potential that an imaginary man might someday want to use her body as an incubator weighed so much heavier than her own life and wishes. And it was completely impossible, of course, to write off the idea that this woman (who's known she was a lesbian since she was seven years old and has been with me for five years) might end up back with a man.
(If this story sounds familiar to anyone it's because her tweet on this recently went viral and has led to stories in Buzzfeed and several other places)
My husband died almost two years ago (Jan. 30, 2020). I am still struggling with my grief over his death, which was painful and extended and could not be alleviated or stopped, and my anger, my fury over the absence of any concern for me. Extraordinary emotional pain. Physical pain--I wear a back brace and was wholly unable to care for him at home. Told I "did not love him," despite the fact that during 54 years of marriage, I was the family support while he went to schools and worked part-time in the ART WORLD, waiting for the big chance that never came, volunteering for boards of art institutions in order to "create a network" that did shit. Raising two kids, and wasn't he a grand house-husband, taking the two children to school, participating big-time in the parent-teacher association ("Why couldn't you come to your daughter's dance recital, Mrs. D? She was lovely." (BECAUSE I WAS WORKING MAYBE.) Because he got all the social and familial accolades, while I scrounged for ways to help a child deal with life-threatening behavior.
And my shame, my self-disgust for accepting this role, the woman who could do EVERYTHING and why? Why did I think that was a good thing? Why did I think, during the Women's Liberation movements, that I should, much less could, do all of this? It wasn't liberation. It wasn't feeling empowered. It was feeling burdened more so, and wasn't he so good to hire someone to clean and mop. I am educated, intelligent, and very sad. I enabled this.
I have written and deleted my comment three different times, but this is just to say YES. I love my husband and he's a good partner and parent, but all those fiddly little things that fall into my lap, I wish he would think to pick some of them up without me having to ask him and then he makes excuses. We're out of cheese so we can't have tacos tonight? Well, I don't get home until 9pm and you have a car... oh, no, nevermind, no tacos, you'll just find something else to eat. You won't drive two miles to the store to buy a gd block of cheddar but you'll expect me to grab it after I've been out of the house for 13 hours. If the kids' room is messy, ask them to pick up one kind of thing and put it away? No, okay, whatever, we'll just step over piles of stuffed animals and books instead of you taking the time to hang out in there and keep an eye on them. If you don't like what I planned for a kid's birthday, you're welcome to take over the entire task of planning a 7yo's birthday during a pandemic. It's not even weaponized incompetence, it's just "I don't want to expend effort that way", but he will spend two hours working out, which is far more effort than buying the fucking cheese.
Misogyny looks and feels like calendar invites, or lack of them. My husband is a lawyer, and his calendar is full of meetings, phone calls, "important" things. Who is sending me a calendar invite to laundry? Dishes? CVS runs for cold medicine? I make my own calendar invites for school drop-off and pick-up, but do I just schedule the rest of the my day too? Do I even want to see what that looks like? Whole blocks of necessary tedium?
Listen, I don't have anything against calendar invites on the face of them, but the way we value certain tasks over others makes me want to throw my phone off a ledge. My husband's meetings, and therefore time, is untouchable. Since my calendar remains mostly unscheduled, my time belongs to the universe. It can beckon me at any minute to grocery shop, schedule after-school activities, etc. If I was going to go for a run for some much needed quiet and reasons? No big deal, I can be flexible, I AM flexible. Just send me a calendar invite.
As a professional home organizer for the past eleven years, I've done all client intake for the company. Countless hundreds of people (overwhelmingly upper middle class women) have opened up to me on the phone about the expectations they are not quite meeting. I'm so used to talking these women through the guilt of hiring help with keeping their homes tidy and presentable that I only notice it when a man calls. Men have zero guilt, without exception. They are actually emotionally easier to work for because we don't have to dance around their own disappointment in themselves for not being able to "do it all".
Women, on the other hand, are relentless in our judgement of each other/ourselves and our homes.
Relieving others' stress by decluttering is rewarding to me and my team, sure. But we are constantly facing the challenges of showing these over worked, under appreciated people that asking for help IS taking care of the situation.
Your piece here today goes deeper still. And I don't know how to even *start* to bring up this next level of misogyny with clients...
When I first started dating my husband he would mention occasionally that his dad had been particularly active in taking on traditionally female-owned household tasks (laundry, etc). As I got to know my now in-laws, I was a bit shocked by how…not true that characterization was from my female perspective. Even now that my father-in-law is retired, my mother-in-law (who is still working) makes dinner for both of them every night, does most grocery shopping, handles all social engagements, does all of the “project management” for their lives, etc. It makes me wonder how many of the men in my millennial cohort profess to be open to equal division of labor without a true understanding of what that means. My husband is thankfully a willing participant in improving our balance but it’s a work in progress.
Wow, yes to absolutely all of this. I used to work at a museum where there was a group called "Women in Science" and I still remember the time one of the older scientists said that in many ways, she had an easier time when the sexism was much more overt 30 years ago because she could point to it and name it in a way that's difficult now. That's really stuck with me through the years.
I'm often infantilizated; I'm a short, "cute" woman who is assumed to be young and inexperienced though I'm 31 and have owned a business, held senior roles in the museum world, and work as a freelance writer. It's frustrating and demeaning and yet it's also given me opportunities I likely wouldn't have gotten otherwise. There is a certain type of older white man in many C-suite level positions of power who often sees his daughter or granddaughter in me and transmits affection accordingly (and/or there is a sexual element to his attention, which is disgusting and so much to unpack when considered with the aforementioned point.)
I've worked under Gen X and boomer bosses who were women that came up in boys' clubs and had long ago decided the way to cope was to work twice as hard and make almost no noise so as not to remind anyone that they are, in fact, women. This means not advocating for themselves and the women who work under them, yes, but I also saw again and again how it meant staying silent in moments of racial discrimination in policy or leveled at colleagues.
It's much harder to argue these points because on an individual level they can often be explained away. It's only taken as a whole that their full impact is truly on display. It's a much harder, more nuanced conversation to have, and I'm so grateful you're calling it out here.
Thank you so much for all of this. Another aspect of misogyny that I find in my life is the ways I see people in my professional community behave. Women are often supportive of one another, absolutely - unless they have a lot of power over other people in some way (this is especially true of white, cis, straight, able-bodied women, as you've mentioned here). Meanwhile, the boys' clubs of the literary and journalism-adjacent and academic spheres that I spend a lot of time in still absolutely exist, but they're more subtle. Women (cis and trans alike) and nonbinary people are often excluded from intellectual conversations occurring between men. Women allowed into those conversations rarely pull other women up with them. The intellectual spheres of masculinity are still alive and well with all that entails: the ideas that (so-called) logic, critique, disdain, and snootiness are more intellectually rigorous than compassion, sincerity, excitement, or praise. The idea that being truthful equals being ruthless. It's exhausting, the ways that masculine-coded ways of thinking and being within professions are still highly seen as professional and correct and objective, while feminized/feminine-coded ways of thinking and being within these same professions are seen as weak, un-rigorous, overenthusiastic, etc.