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Deriving from the Greek misogynia (antiwoman), misogyny is an unreasonable fear or hatred of women. Misogyny differs from male chauvinism. The latter supports male political privileges and favors female subjugation in law; misogyny is an emotional prejudice based on phobia or dislike. Without specific political ends, misogyny has no formal ideological position other than to denigrate females.
Misogyny is by no means limited to modern Western civilizations. It occurs in many kinds of societies and at all levels of human social organization, including Stone Age cultures, and at all times in history. Studies by anthropologists and historians show that misogyny is, and always has been, widespread. Some examples of this prejudice among contemporary preindustrial peoples are described below.
In the highlands of New Guinea (Langness 1999), many tribesmen sleep apart from their wives, believing that women’s bodies are, especially when menstruating, contaminating and even poisonous to males. In the Amazon rain forest of South America, many Native American men regard women as the work of the devil—not only intellectually inferior to men, but also scheming, destructive, even demonic (Gregor 1985). In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, women’s monthly flow is viewed with horror, and menstruating women are not allowed to appear in public. Many East African peoples practice clitoridectomy (surgical removal of the clitoris), a painful operation specifically designed to diminish a woman’s sexual pleasure, which is considered immoral (unlike a man’s).
In ancient Europe, the Greeks displayed an ingrained misogyny, often describing woman as one of the plagues inflicted upon man by the gods. Some Attic poets proposed that women were the source of kakon (evil) in the world. The ancient world was indeed populated with nefarious she-demons and sorceresses, such as the sinister Circe, who turned men into pigs, not to mention the Furies and the Harpies, foul-smelling half-human hags who persecuted men and boys. Classical antiquity was full of female monsters: sirens, maenads, nymphs, lamias, and the sea viragoes Scylla and Charybdis who drowned sailors off the coast of Sicily. The snake-haired gargoyle Medusa turned men to stone with a look. One of the earliest Greek poems, “Woman” by Semonides (eighth century BCE), reviled females as being as stubborn as mules, as smelly as pigs, and as perilous to men as the untamed sea (see Coole 1988).
Many organized religions are highly misogynistic. The Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, the Hebrew Torah, and the sacred Buddhist and Hindu texts frequently criticize women for various moral defects and condemn woman’s body for the lust it inspires in men. Most religions blame woman for licentiousness and depravity and for committing original sin or its theological equivalent. In the Bible, for example, it is Eve, not Adam, who brings about the expulsion from paradise. Like the Greek Pandora, it is a woman who lets evil into the world. Many early Christian theologians—Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), Tertullian (fl. c. 200 CE), and Jerome (c. 347–419/20)— derided Eve and her descendants, calling woman “the devil’s gateway” (Bloch 1989). The great writers of European literature, even William Shakespeare (1564–1616), bemoan woman’s supposed tendency to gossip, to be shrewish, to dance with the devil, and to sway men from righteousness (Dijkstra 1996).
Many misogynists appear to be obsessed with female sexual anatomy, their fears centering on the vagina. In many cultures, women are even said to wear sharp teeth or knives in their sex organs, giving rise to the widespread motif of vagina dentata, the gnashing vulva. And wherever people believe in them, witches are primarily women (Brain 1996), and thousands of innocent women and girls have been burned at the stake as a result of this near-universal myth. Cultures throughout the world are full of pejorative mother-in-law and bad-wife jokes, but negative humor about fathers-in-law and husbands is rare. The evil-stepmother is a stock character in folktales around the world (e.g., Snow White), but evil stepfathers hardly appear.
As a sexual dogma or prejudice, misogyny appears to be virtually universal. Oddly, this gratuitous sex hostility was largely unreciprocated by institutionalized malehatred among women until recent fulminations of a few radical feminists. For example, there is no word in English to describe female revulsion about men—no lexical obverse of misogyny. Misanthropy, which would be the semantic equivalent, simply means a dislike of humanity, not of males specifically. The one-sidedness of this prejudice is no less salient in preliterate cultures, and this fact in itself poses many questions about why so many men think so negatively about women in so many places. It also raises questions about the underlying ambivalence of male sexual desire, which seems so wedded to shame and guilt and thus with the need to scapegoat women. There seems to be something about being a human male that produces a conundrum in relating to women (as in the complaint, “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em”). Misogyny then, is a frequent component of male psychology and of subsequent cultural representations, what might be called a male gender neurosis.
Can we identify the causes of misogyny? There are numerous theories, none totally convincing, as recent reviews (Gilmore 2001) show. Many theories rely upon the psychological concepts of ambivalence (contradictory love/hate feelings). One theory (Spiro 1997) holds that men are ambivalent about their own sexual impulses. They therefore experience mental stress, which is alleviated by denigrating the source of their desire—women. A second theory argues that men are conflicted about their powerful nonsexual needs for women (for food, caretaking, comforting, mothering). Thus, many men feel inferior to women and dependent upon them; many men cannot tolerate such imagined weakness in themselves, so they attack women as a way of restoring their damaged self esteem. Yet another theory (see Chodorow 1994) holds that all people are essentially bisexual and that many men are deeply disturbed by their own feminine side. Such conflicted men attack women as a way of denying or distancing their inner female. In various writings, Freud explained the universal male fear and disgust of menstrual blood as a product of castration anxiety: the flow of blood reminding men of the cut penis. Probably all of these factors play a role in misogyny, the causes of which are both cultural and psychological.
- Bloch, Howard. 1989. Medieval Misogyny. In Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy, eds. R. Howard Bloch and Frances Ferguson, 1–24. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Brain, James 1996. Witches and Wizards: A Male/Female Dichotomy? In Denying Biology: Essays on Gender and PseudoProcreation, eds. Warren Shapiro and Uli Linke, 75–88. Lanham, MD.: University Press of America.
- Chodorow, Nancy. Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
- Coole, D 1988. Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism. Sussex, U.K.: Wheatsheaf.
- Dijkstra, B 1996. Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. New York: Knopf.
- Gilmore, David 2001. Misogyny: The Male Malady. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Gregor, 1985. Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Langness, Lewis 1999. Men and “Woman” in New Guinea. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharpe.
- Spiro, Melfor 1997. Gender Ideology and Psychological Reality: An Essay on Cultural Reproduction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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