Wednesday, May 28, 2014


The recent terrible stabbings and shootings near Santa Barbara seem to have renewed the interest in misogyny as if, somehow, misogyny has just now been discovered. This is weird, I think, as misogyny is as American as apple pie. Actually, I should say, misogyny is a long-standing and integral part of the fundamental Western-European paradigm of belief that has served us for the past several hundred years. This is a topic that could easily be a lifetime of work and thought and is rather complicated as well as in a way inexplicable. But, in brief:

Start with the claim that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. That is, the development of an individual reflects the evolution of the species. When translated to cultural evolution this means that present day “savages” represent an earlier stage of mankind. There was an evolution from savages to barbarism to civilization. Carried a bit farther this was interpreted to mean that children represented an earlier stage, they were thought of as “little savages.” The art of children was believed to be a form of “primitive” art, and children’s thought was believed to be “primitive” like the art of primitive savages. Given the belief in ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, and given the extension of this idea into the evolution of culture, this made sense at the time. It seemed clear that cultures had evolved from savagery to civilization and individual human development evolved in much the same way: the thought of children was similar to that of our “primitive” ancestors, their art was similarly “primitive” and as they matured they reached “higher” stages of thought and understanding. Australian aborigines, Bushmen-Hottentots, and other such Black people were lower on the evolutionary scale than, for example, American Indians, Asians, and so on up to the “highest” people of all, White people, especially White Western-Europeans. This was the “great chain of being” that culminated in White superiority.

Women did not escape their position in this fundamental belief system even though in a sense they were outside of it and could have been excluded from it. Although there was no obvious logical reason for it, women became part of it because it was claimed they were really like children, and, as such, also like “savages.” Consider what was written about them by noted authorities of the time:
 Cesare Lombroso was most probably the most  important criminologist of the nineteenth century and perhaps the first  to equate women with children and savages:

“We also saw that women have many traits in common with children; that their moral sense is deficient ; that they are revengeful, jealous, inclined to vengeances of a refined cruelty. In ordinary cases these defects are neutralized by piety, maternity, want of passion, sexual coldness, by weakness and an undeveloped intelligence. But  when a morbid activity of the psychical centres intensifies the bad qualities of women, and induces them to seek relief in evil deeds; when piety and maternal sentiments are wanting. And in their place are strong passions and intensely erotic tendencies, much muscular strength and a superior intelligence for the conception and execution of evil, it is clear that the innocuous semi-criminal present in the normal woman must be transformed into a born criminal more terrible than any man.”

Lombroso’s views on women were shared by others at the time. Paul Broca, an authority on brain size, argued that women’s brains were smaller than men’s, not only because they were smaller than men, but qualitatively. Gustave LeBon:

“In the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man.”

Even Darwin linked women to past stages of civilization:

“It is generally admitted that with women the power of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristics of the lower races and therefore of a past an lower state of civilization.”

Like Aristotle, who believed woman had fewer teeth than men, but never bothered to actually count their teeth, these early authorities simply imposed their beliefs about women into the widely accepted paradigm of the time. When you consider that women only achieved the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920, and even after that were often legally considered children with respect to property rights, were expected to be subservient to their husbands and so on, it is obvious that misogyny survived for a long time, and still does in some respects. As the word misogyny first appeared (I think) in the 1600’s it has been with us for a long time.
An examination of the position of women historically as well as ethnographically would no doubt shed some light on this perplexing problem, but that is for another time.

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