Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
CHICAGO — Citing Merriam-Webster lexicographers who noticed their online dictionary searches for the word “misogyny” skyrocketed in the wake of the mass killing in Isla Vista, Calif., The Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer recently wondered if it’s time to redefine the word “misogynist.”
After the rampage, Zimmer noted, opinionators rushed to dissect the usage and nature of misogyny. While some dictionaries consider the word to accurately mean “dislike of” or “prejudice against” women, Merriam-Webster defines “misogyny” as “a hatred of women” and editors there said “hatred” is “broad enough to encompass everything from feelings of dislike to entrenched prejudice and hostility.”
Don’t hold your breath for consensus on one all-inclusive definition. Those stung by wrongdoing are nothing if not loyal to their favorite version of a victimhood label. This is less a criticism and more an acknowledgment of a human coping mechanism.
As in the debate over guns, none of us can truly move the needle on how we treat those suspected of mental illness, or how we acknowledge an entire culture’s mistreatment or fear of a particular gender. So we are forced to litigate our nomenclatural preferences in order to process the chaos we feel when another bit of the social fabric is shredded.
Other ideas have surfaced, though. My favorite — put forth by several men of the pundit class — is that all men should commit to being feminists.
Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that, at least lately, not only have women been unable to agree upon one sole definition of feminism, there’s been a fair amount of bashing — perpetrated by women themselves — when certain women have openly declared themselves as non-feminists.
Most recently there was a dustup when Shailene Woodley, the heroine in the upcoming movie “The Fault in Our Stars,” told Time magazine she refuses to use the “f-word” because “I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”
It would have been helpful if the rest of her comments had been as widely discussed. Woodley continued: “I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy. And ‘This girl did this to me and that girl did that to me.’ And it’s just so silly and heartbreaking in a way.”
It is heartbreaking, and intolerable, and a whole host of other adjectives that, taken together, still couldn’t account for the daily reality of women treating themselves and other women with an unbearable amount of disrespect and contempt.
How do women hate each other? They’re too numerous to catalog here but we can include ubiquitous women’s magazines and websites that ingrain false notions of physical perfection, hypersexuality and material wealth while peddling alcohol, cigarettes and elixirs of youth.
Then there are the ever-present culture wars pitting women who believe in the “right to life” against those who believe in “a woman’s right to choose,” or those who want to pursue a career versus those who want to stay home with kids, or breast-feeding against bottle feeding, yada, yada, yada. Each portrays the other as incapable of making good choices.
If women became safe and respected by all men becoming feminists, then women accepting their own misogyny — whether defined as bias, hatred, cattiness or extreme snark — would seem to hasten a similar state.
Women may never be able to walk down a dark alley and feel completely comfortable, but it shouldn’t take so long to feel their self-esteem is likely to be safe within a diverse population of other women. For now, plenty of women wage war on other women.
In 2013, a Gallup poll found that women are likelier than men to express a preference to not be supervised on the job by a woman. Clearly, even as we struggle to gain the respect of men, there’s plenty of work to be done setting the sisterhood right.
Follow Esther on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.