BOOK REVIEW: “A Brief History of Misogyny” by Jack Holland

A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, by Jack Holland
(London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2006, ISBN 1-84529-371- 1) 320 pp.

Book review by Joy Wood


Jack Holland gives a background to his perceived origins of the misogyny we see today. One of the main strands is ancient Greek thought, and the other is Christianity and related monotheistic religions. The Greek myth of Pandora (p13) echoes the Jewish Adam and Eve myth, in that the original human was man. In the Pandora myth, men were alone until the demi-god Prometheus, who had created men, stole fire from heaven so that they would not have to eat meat raw, like animals. According to Hesiod, Zeus punished the theft by creating Pandora as a ‘gift’ for men. When Pandora disobeyed the command not to open the box she let loose “pains and evils among men” (p14). She was to blame for men being subject to all the ills of life on earth. A central belief of both Greek and Judeo-Christian thought is that man was created separately from the animals, ie above them. This may be a key to misogyny; because men desire women, they ‘give in’ to their animal nature against their will (the Greek phrase for Pandora translates as ‘the beautiful evil’ (p13)) and then blame their lack of willpower on the ‘earthiness’ of women rather than accept their own human nature. Consequently men dehumanise women (by equating the latter with nature) and hold them in contempt. Compounding the effect of the Pandora myth, Greek philosophy and science affirmed this dualistic view of man -v- nature. Aristotle held that women’s role in pregnancy was as an incubator, to carry the male seed, which backs up the idea that men are independent of women, and that women are more animal-like. The so-called cradle of democracy, Ancient Greece, was a slave-owning state, as was Ancient Rome (p20).

Holland holds that “Plato’s Theory of Forms is the philosophical basis for the Christian doctrine of Original Sin” (p31). He maintains that the Theory of Forms (which elevated ‘thought’ as the true Reality, with a capital ‘R’) provided a powerful philosophical basis to the allegories of both Pandora and the Fall of Man and introduced the dualistic vision of reality, where man forever fights against the world of the senses and, because it was woman which caused the split from God, man despises her since she stands to remind him that he too is only human. Holland displays a dry sense of humour; on page 32 he quotes Bertrand Russell who said, in response to the claim by Aristotle (as proof of their inferiority) that women have fewer teeth than men, “Aristotle would never have made this mistake if he had allowed his wife to open her mouth once in a while.”

“Aristotle also introduced the concept of purpose as fundamental to science” (p32). He maintained that women were inferior to men and made to be ruled by men and to carry the man’s child. A ‘scientific’ belief that women are mere vessels led to the denial of their humanity. Moreover, Aristotle claimed that an excess of menstrual fluid in the mother’s womb means the child will not reach its full human potential but become female instead because, as Aristotle says, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (p33). Deformed and sickly male babies and ‘mutilated males’ (ie girl children) were abandoned because of this Aristotelian belief, and the practice carried on throughout antiquity until Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire (p33) (although of course selective abortion and abandonment of female babies goes on today in parts of India and China). Not all females died, however, since exposed infants were automatically reduced to slave status, so brothel keepers raised some of them as prostitutes (p34).

Holland moves from Ancient Greece, though the Roman Empire to the roots of Christianity. At page 72 he lightens the tone a little. After a quote from Isaiah, 3:16-24 where God lists the dreadful things he will do to women who dress up in finery and parade about, Holland responds with, “The God of the Old Testament was remarkable, if not unique, among divinities, in being both grandiose and extraordinarily petty, one minute creating the universe, the next making women’s hair fall out.” The Old Testament, in common with Platonic thought, disparages the pleasures of the flesh. As Holland puts it, “Homosexuality was forbidden, as was any wasteful spilling of man’s seed, including sodomy, masturbation and oral sex. Not a drop could be spared from the business of begetting” (p71). Holland finds similarities between St Paul and Plato, including that the equality they offered for women with men could only be granted if women became like men. For Plato, this was for the elite women who became Guardians along with the elite group of men and, for St Paul, sexual differences disappear in the Kingdom of Heaven (p79). According to Holland, when St Augustine read Platonic works he could equate The Idea, The Pure Form with God and although Origen was the first to begin to synthesise Platonic thought with Jewish scriptures, it was St Augustine “the greatest thinker since Plato” who established the philosophical edifice which propped up Christianity, “including its misogynistic vision” (p90). Augustine was concerned with breaking away from bodily desires. The only way Mary, the ‘mother of God’ could be venerated was if she was a virgin, and had not felt any sexual desire when conceiving Jesus (in other words, she was unlike any other woman) (p102). This echoes the doctrine of Plato – the dualistic split from, and denigration of, the body. As Holland puts it, “The ‘Word became Flesh’ signalled the end of dualism but the cult of the Virgin Mary meant that the old contempt for matter was perpetuated” (p103). Pope Innocent III permanently barred women from hearing confession and preaching and in everyday life he advocated that men make use of women as a necessary object “who is needed to preserve the species or to provide food and drink” (p112).

The witch craze which ran from the late 14th to the late 17th Centuries (p112) burnt “hundreds of thousands – some historians say millions – of women at the stake throughout Europe” (p4). According to Holland, Catholicism had become shaken by heresies, followed by fear and uncertainty after the Black Death, and this rekindled an interest in demons (banned initially as a superstition by the Church which said that the “Incarnation had effectively vanquished Satan”) (p113). Now, however, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were invoked to prove that demons could appear as succubi or incubi and it was in 1324 during Pope John XXII’s reign (this pope was a true believer in demons) that a woman was first accused of having sex with the Devil (p115). In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull (p117) empowering James Sprenger and Henry Kramer to search out witches. In 1487 they produced the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) (p117) which lists nothing new about women (everything in it had been said before in the Bible and by the Classical authors) but what was new was that it linked “the supposed weaknesses of women’s nature to their propensity to fall for the Devil, and thus become witches” (p117). Furthermore, spread of this doctrine was facilitated by the invention of the printing press. The book charged that suspects should be imprisoned whilst awaiting trial, and fed on bread and water, torture being used to extract confessions and no appeal of sentence granted. Holland compares the rounding up and destruction of women in the burning times to the Nazi Holocaust (p120). In the 17th Century the status of women changed, probably due to the liberal ideas of Locke (p137) such as the “importance of the individual, stressing equality and the pursuit of happiness” (p136). Holland remarks that Locke not only stressed individual autonomy, but put forward the ‘blank slate’ hypothesis, which could be used to argue against misogyny. The idea of humans being a ‘blank slate’ at birth and being shaped by upbringing, education, and social expectations and prohibitions, argues against the premise that it is woman’s nature to be inferior to man. Locke equating good with pleasure and evil with pain went against the Christian idea of suffering being God’s Will. In 1700, Mary Astell states in Some Reflections Upon Marriage, “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?” (p139). Holland posits another advance for women as being the novel (p155), both because it began to show realistic portrayals of individuals instead of archetypes and because, “By the end of the eighteenth century in England there were more women novelists than men” (p156).

This was not the end of misogynistic thought or practice, however. In 1879, John Stuart Mill’s provision in a bill in the House of Commons to grant the vote to women was rejected (p201) and the French Socialist Congress’s “attempt to win political rights for women” also failed (p202). Holland compares Freud’s theory of vaginal versus clitoral orgasm to the African practice of clitoridectomy (p210). Whilst the latter is physical mutilation, the former is psychic mutilation. Furthermore, Victorian female genital mutilation was not merely psychic, because medical experts in the West advocated and practised clitoridectomy to cure ‘female diseases’ (p211). Like Aristotle, Freud assumed that the male is the sexual norm (p211) and women are therefore to be measured against that standard. Freud put out a ‘scientific’ theory, that of male normality versus female abnormality, and by 1929 he equated men with civilisation itself and women with its opponent. Some have put Freud in the category of one of Nietzsche’s ‘supermen,’ according to Holland, but “Nietzsche saw woman as the enemy of truth, whereas Freud saw her as the enemy of civilisation” (p212). Hitler reverted to the idea that women are meant to be mothers and in 1938 “childlessness was restored in law as grounds for divorce. Abortion and contraceptives were also banned” (p222). “One Nazi slogan declared, ‘Women must be emancipated from women’s emancipation’” (p221). Holland discusses the Nazi regime and the Communist regime: Ideological enemies, but both similar in the way they restricted women’s rights. Originally, women were set free under Communism but their gains were reversed when it was felt ideologically necessary for the good of society (p228-229).

Misogyny is a huge topic and that was a short summary of some of the points which caught my eye as I read through the 286 pages of the book (not to mention the three pages of further reading and the 21 pages containing 435 end notes). Naturally, Holland has not covered everything, by any means, and following are just three such things which came to mind as I was reading the book.

Three thoughts on some issues raised

1. On p242, whilst arguing against the Catholic Church’s prohibition on birth control (by the way, Holland tells us a papal commission in the early 1960s found no reason for the Church’s prohibition (p241)), Holland said that denying contraception is tantamount to saying that a woman’s consent is not necessary for her to become pregnant and he says this is wrong because, “All civilized societies accept that a woman’s consent is necessary in order to have intercourse with her. Not to seek that consent and to coerce her into intercourse is to commit rape, which is a serious crime.” I don’t argue with his assertion that the Catholic Church harm women by prohibiting contraception and abortion but I disagree with his assumption that rape is a serious crime in civilised societies. To the extent that it is, it is because the law was originally put in place to protect men against having their property (ie their women) ‘stolen’ or ‘ruined’, and not to protect women against violence. Today, although attitudes have officially changed towards rape, the low conviction rate of rapists shows how ‘serious’ a crime it is considered in our ‘civilised’ society. I believe, with the lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, that rape should be treated as a human rights issue. As she says (on page 23 of Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, by Catharine A MacKinnon (Cambridge, Mass/London, England: Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 2006, ISBN 0-67402-187- 8) 432 pp.), “the state is not all there is to power. To act as if it is produces an exceptionally inadequate definition for human rights when so much of the second-class status of women, from sexual objectification to murder, is done by men to women without express or immediate or overt state involvement. If ‘the political’ is to be defined in terms of men’s experiences of being subjected to power, it makes some (but only some) sense to center its definition on the state.[A] But if one is including the unjust power involved in the subjection of half the human race by the other half – male dominance – it makes no sense to define power exclusively in terms of what the state does when it is defined as acting. The state is only one instrumentality of sex inequality. To fail to see this is pure gender bias. Often this bias flies under the flag of privacy, so that those areas that are defined as inappropriate for state involvement, where the discourse of human rights is made irrelevant, are those “areas in which the majority of the world’s women live out their days.”[B] Moreover, the fact that there is no single state or organized group expressly dedicated to this pursuit does not mean that all states are not more or less dedicated to it on an operative level or that it is not a deep structure of social, political, and legal organization. Why human rights, including the international law against torture, should be limited by it is the question.”

2. p277 Holland points out, “there is no social or political or ideological conflict in which men and women automatically find themselves on opposite sides, their opinions determined solely along gender lines.” He gives examples of women who are pro-war, women who incite violence against other women and women who are against women’s rights and against suffrage for women. On women who are opposed to the pro-choice movement he says, “Their identity as women carries no ideological imperative. It is subsumed by another category, more important to their sense of themselves.” If he is saying that anti-choice women are simply stating their individual views, I can only respond that if a worker or subject didn’t know he was being exploited, or a slave or servant identified with his master, we would say he needed his consciousness raised! In other words, in every other situation where a person adopts the values of the dominant power structure, to the detriment of the human rights of their own section of society, we would rightly use a term such as ‘Stockholm syndrome’ or ‘identification with the dominant culture/class’ . Why, when similar behaviour is being displayed by a woman, does it suddenly become her claiming her independence?

3. p280 Holland states that the Blank Slate theory is now outmoded firstly because, “According to Bertrand Russell: ‘The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with [Darwin’s] emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same species’” and secondly because, “acting as if [the Blank Slate theory] were true leads to the denial or denigration of actual differences between women and men at the expense of our shared human nature.” I say this is not a matter of difference but of preference. It is not being admitted that the lower status accorded the woman’s viewpoint, is a direct result of a preference for the male point of view. Moreover, the standard for judging a human adult, whether in law or in tradition or in convention, instead of reflecting the fact that the human race is made up of two sexes, is also a male one; yet all resulting bias and discrimination is explained away as being an outcome of the difference between men and women. This results in a two-tier system, a gender hierarchy. Holland and Russell are following what Catharine MacKinnon has called the Aristotelian view of equality, which seeks to treat like as like and unlike as unlike, and this is the one which prevails in law. This means that if a woman can show she is like a man she can be treated like him, but if she can’t then she is different and, accordingly, ‘in all fairness’ she can be treated differently. But, as MacKinnon points out, men are just as different from women as women are from men so why, although there are more women in the world, is both the official viewpoint and the mainstream viewpoint not a female one, or even a human one, but a male one? If we discuss human rights as if it were a question of ethics or morals then we can spend our time debating the merits of it, but if we take human rights as a fact, then we can spend our time implementing them.

[…] the most common response I hear[…] when discussing the book was, “but men are oppressed too.” Feminists have often pointed this out, that men and women are equally pressured to conform to rigid gender stereotypes instead of being allowed, yet alone encouraged, to develop their individual potential. From birth, males are pushed into the masculine role and girls into the feminine one. The fact remains that although both men and women suffer as individuals, the compensation, in terms of status in society, personal freedoms and monetary recompense, is higher for those born into the gender ‘male’.

[A] Even among men it is inadequate. Such a definition also excludes racist atrocities often committed against men of color, such as lynching, unless proven done under color of law, and racism generally, and class-based oppression, which harms both men and women.

[B] Noreen Burrows, “International Law and Human Rights: The Case of Women’s Rights,” in Human Rights: From Rhetoric to Reality 82 (Tom Campbell et al, eds, 1986). See Eschel M Rhoodie, Discrimination Against Women: A Global Survey 92 (1989) (“This [public/private] dichotomy is deeply engrained in the laws of some countries and thus the law plays a critical role in maintaining gender stratification.” ). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women covers both the conventionally public and private in its guarantees.

Pentru lectura suplimentara: o alta serie de notite pe marginea unei carti (The Chalice and the Blade de Riane Eisler) ce abordeaza un subiect similar: “Despre evolutie din perspectiva de gen”, de la Ina Curic, si o lucrare intitulata “Objectivity and Aggression in Modern Scientific Rhetoric”, de mine

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