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Misogyny: it's still all Greek to male chauvinists

Date

Deborah Snow

"Tom-ayto or tom-ahto" ... Senator Barnaby Joyce.

"Tom-ayto or tom-ahto" ... Senator Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''TOM-AYTO or tom-ahto, misogynist, misagynist'' - these were the Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce's somewhat baffling musings on the word of the week when he appeared on Graham Richardson's Sky News TV show on Wednesday night.

But, if some Australians had been unsure till now of precisely what ''misogyny'' meant, they were left in no doubt after this week's bitter exchanges in Federal Parliament.

The term, meaning hatred of women according to dictionary definitions, derives from ancient Greek roots - though the mind-set it describes no doubt stretches back to the dawn of human history. (Its opposite, misandry, or hatred of men, is also Greek-derived.)

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Once reserved for the worst cases of pathological woman-hating, misogyny has morphed into a term now deployed against anyone, usually a man, who seems to harbour old-fashioned sexist attitudes towards women.

Carina Garland, 28, a lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, said ''the term has been defined and redefined through recent history and a modern definition is probably quite synonymous with sexism, or disrespect of women, or of an attitude that it's OK to discriminate on the basis of female gender''.

She believes it's ''used more freely than perhaps 20 or 30 years ago'' because of the views and experiences of her generation, ''born after second wave feminism''.

''We use the term more because of the changes that feminism offered women, and we hear it more because as a result of that, we get more and more women in power who are experiencing certain kinds of sexism in the public sphere,'' Ms Garland said.

Psychologists and psychiatrists say pathological misogyny sits down one end of a long spectrum that runs into more diffuse gender prejudice.

At the extreme end, says the Monash University Professor of Developmental Psychiatry, Louise Newman, you see ''the person who is violent to women, or who has had difficulty establishing a secure sense of identity as a man''.

But she cautions against the word being flung around too liberally because, ''depending on people's views, they can read it as the gender card just being played because the PM is a woman''.

Robert Brooks, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of New South Wales, also says the term should be used with some restraint.

''It is possible for people to abuse words like that and be McCarthyist about it - I don't think all sexism is misogyny, some is pure ignorance.''

Having said that, he feels Ms Gillard's fiery denunciation of Tony Abbott was ''justified'' - she had ''had enough and drew a line in the sand''.

The prominent feminist Anne Summers, who delivered a prophetic lecture several weeks ago titled ''Her rights at work: The political persecution of Australia's first female Prime Minister", also believes Ms Gillard was right to push back against sexist denigration.

''We used to have an old expression back in the day that was quite useful - male chauvinism. It mightn't be hatred but it's the point of view that blokes should run the show.'' The term might be ripe for revival, she says.

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