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Sexism and Misogyny: Unpacking Patriarchy and Its Handmaids

Challenging the sexism and misogyny that hurts women's health and wellness.

Key points

  • Gender, sexism, and misogyny profoundly affect the quality of lives of women and people along a continuum of gender identities.
  • Sexism is stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, devaluation, and marginalization targeting women, more feminine gender identities.
  • Misogyny is the control, punishment, and policing of people and systems which threaten male dominance.
  • All genders must check their internalized sexism that makes them prone to judge, retaliate, or keep women and gender minorities silenced.
Source: koklin19/Shutterstock

Although gender equity continues to gain broad interest and attention, particularly with MeToo, Times Up, and other social movements, attacks on women's health, safety, and autonomy are evident with the Supreme Court's efforts to overturn Roe V. Wade.

The patriarchy remains paramount. Patriarchal oppression is the tendency for people to undervalue women (and associated traits and activities) while affording men the highest status, power, and privilege. As such, males (particularly white males) are depicted as superior to other groups.

Women with intersecting identities are more likely to become submerged in the disproportionately greater demands than their male counterparts related to caregiving and household responsibilities, structural inequalities, violence, trauma, devaluation, underpayment, and invisibility.

These experiences of sexism, violence, unequal employment, harassment, devaluation, and overburden drive health inequities and mental health problems. Because internalized sexism is so prevalent, the weight of the heavier load placed upon women is often normalized, unspoken, and implicit. It can be taboo to even speak about sexism and other 'isms,' as bringing up legitimate forms of structural oppression threatens the patriarchal structures and those that benefit from them.

Gender, sexism, and misogyny profoundly affect the quality of lives of women and people along a continuum of diverse sexes, sexual orientations, and gender identities. The effects of sexism tend to be even more acute for women of color and gender minorities. Violence against women globally affects at least 30 percent of women, and when psychological abuse is included, this extends to almost 90 percent.

The cumulative trauma of sexism drives mental distress, such as anxiety and depression, which are experienced between 1.5- and 1.3-times the rates of male counterparts. Sex differences in distress disappear when accounting for the impact of sexism, which accounts for almost 40 percent of the psychological distress among some women.

Despite sexism accounting for and driving much of the distress women and gender minorities experience, misogyny is normalized, internalized, and tends to be relegated invisible. If patriarchy is the tool, then sexism and misogyny are its handmaids. Sexism is stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, devaluation, and marginalization targeting women, more feminine gender identities, and sexual minorities based on sex.

Misogyny is the control, punishment, and policing of people and systems which threaten male dominance.

The pandemic exacerbated already existing gender disparities. Stressors have been particularly acute during thin times (times of lowered internal and external resources and supports) such as the pandemic, which has tested the functioning of all systems immediately and directly. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be acutely and chronically stressful, particularly for families, children, and women.

The rates of depression and anxiety increased twofold among women in comparison with men during the pandemic; the odds of experiencing depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress were 2–3 times higher for women who experienced health-related socioeconomic risks, such as food insecurity, inadequate housing, violence, transportation difficulties, etc. Indeed, the pandemic and other thin times tend to exacerbate already overburdened women, who are left to juggle multiple, often conflicting roles.

Struggles to challenge patriarchal power structures are not coincidental; they are a result of misogyny—misogynistic forms of social control cast women who speak up as villains. Women and gender minorities' understandable grievances are often dismissed as “complaints” in their own families and social circles when they acknowledge the systematic forces that keep them down.

When the endemic of implicit and normalized sexism is made explicit, it threatens patriarchal structures and associated privileges. Challenging gender inequities causes discomfort for 1.) those who benefit from privilege; 2.) for those who rely on their adherence to patriarchal social structures for their livelihood and relationships; and 3.) for vast the majority of people who have been socialized into internalizing sexism.

Women may be shunned for stating the truth about gender inequities, despite experiencing the consequences of the truth every day. Subtle or overt silencing of women who speak up is misogynistic. The message is that if women would only just stay silent and “get along,” all would be well. Sure, all would be well—for those already set up to be well by the structures.

When women step out of misogynistic gender norms, internalized sexism causes all sorts of alarms, warnings, and red alerts may go off—for both women and men. People may think they are responding to some personality trait–they just weren’t “likable,” or there is just something "about them."

However, these perceptions are often smokescreens for internalized sexism and misogyny that target women who step out of gendered stereotypes–those who are leaders, assertive, or advocate for human rights. When women state hard truths and discuss topics people find unsettling, they may be stigmatized, dismissed, or vilified as “angry women.”

Paulo Freire (2008) states that people can commonly fear change. When women are seen as breaking the rules or retaliated against, they may escape to the familiar gender congruent roles of agreeableness and acquiesce to powers to “be liked,” which may provide a false sense of security. These alert buttons have been socialized and installed for all genders and by the sexist systems that socialize people into the patriarchal societies—which the majority of people in the world find themselves in.

To make progress, all genders must take risks, speak up when experiencing or witnessing injustice, stop being complicit in misogynistic social controls and support, make space, and be allies and accomplices seeking gender equity.

All genders must check their internalized sexism that makes them particularly prone to judge, retaliate, or keep down women who try to advocate for human rights of safety, security, autonomy, and liberation. On social media, are you only “liking” when women and girls post things in line with traditional gender norms, or are you also supportive of when women are strong, assertive, confident, and advocate?

Do you appreciate girls for their intelligence and physicality, or dress them up as dolls in pretty dresses, placing them in boxes where they gain acceptance only when they conform to suffocating gender and overburdened gender roles? This subtle preference, social control, and misogyny continue to damage women and girls, limiting their horizons and what they can dream and contribute to the broader world.

Challenging patriarchal social systems is a difficult yet necessary skill for liberation and transcendence from sexism. Sexism hurts men, too, as very few men are aligned with the toxic masculinity they may be socialized into. Men can use their privilege to challenge sexism and misogyny with less risk of backlash.

Postponing liberation causes symptoms to come out sideways, in the greater mental, physical, and social health consequences that affect women and gender minorities. Making explicit the gendered challenges and realities of life while being honest about the consequences is necessary to have a quality life more closely aligned with one's authentic self.


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