On the history of misogyny

The last two days have seen another blow against sexism with the Bank of England announcing that Jane Austen will appear on the ten-pound banknote; ensuring that women are not erased entirely from UK currency. The campaign to achieve this has been hailed as a feminist landmark in the media.

However, the organiser and face of the campaign, Caroline Criado-Perez, has been the target of utterly offensive attacks on Twitter. The volume is surprising and shocking and all of it is grotesquely misogynistic, ordering Caroline to get back to her ‘place’ in the kitchen, making sexual comments about her, or sexually threatening her in a variety of ways.  A regular statement in this Twitter sewer is that she needs sex to solve her ‘problems’. This struck me particularly, for it is very common that misogynistic statements declare that women need sex to restore them to their proper place. In early modern times, for instance, misogynists turned on its head the concept of ‘green-sickness,’ where women were seen to need to have sexual intercourse to keep their bodies functioning well. Instead, sex would cure them of any assertiveness.

misogynyIt might not be surprising to learn that misogyny in England has a long history.[1] Men have attacked women in most forms of media from early print culture to today’s social media. It was read and laughed at by men from the elite to labouring ranks. What is striking about it all is that its content is usually directed at women’s bodies. Misogyny breaks down women into fragmented body parts, usually sexual, always grotesque. Laura Gowing, for instance, shows that misogynistic imaginings of women’s bodies in the early modern period were as leaky bodies. This prompted awful accounts of women’s urination where the cause and cure was often sex, or that a woman’s ‘privities’ be sewn together.[2]

There are a number of explanations for a misogynistic culture offered by scholars. It has served different purposes across time, to some extent.[3] Some religions see women as a threat to male purity, for example, and in Christian societies where a celibate priesthood was prized, then denigrating the tempting female body as a pit of foulness was ‘useful’ to keep such men on the straight and narrow.

For early-modern men, operating in a patriarchal culture that rendered some of them lower down the hierarchical scale, brutal misogyny was a form of cathartic humour. It occurred and was shared in ale-houses, bawdy-houses and predominantly male arenas. Tim Reinke-Williams has studied this jocular print culture and argues that it displayed male solidarity, while relieving gender anxieties. [4] He points out that misogyny has often been a form of behaviour that young men participate in: a male youth sub-culture. Arguably for some youths, excluded from other dominant forms of masculine identity, which are based on independence, professional status and family life, attacking women is part of their alternative masculinity. It is a challenge to and undermines the acceptable face of masculinity – which after all has often placed the protection of women at its heart. The long popularity of St George and the Dragon, England’s patron saint, and symbol of national and masculine identity illustrates this more acceptable version of manhood very well.

As Reinke-Williams says:

The humour of cheap print sought to belittle and subordinate women, but was antagonistic to patriarchy as well, of particular appeal to the misogynists portrayed on the Renaissance stage, male adolescents fearful of sex, women and adulthood who were either jesters or the butt of jokes in literary debates about the nature of women.

As this hints, there is some truth in the view that misogyny rears its repulsive head when women make collective advances, and that, thus, it is more an action of weakness than strength. If there is any comfort in any of this sad, pathetic, and unpleasant male behaviour, it is that more men always abhor it.

In 1650, the male author of The Good Woman’s Champion declared:

… quell those foolish mens follies which utter and write such invectives, and fantastic revilings, taunts, and iests against women, for these are those wicked spirits the Devills Agents, which soweth discord, and breedeth contentions, kindling the coles of strife, hatred, and disdaine in divers families betwixt man and wife never perswading to peace, love or unity, which should hide and cover all domestick iarrs or trespasses; and they make as though a woman were but as a meere cipher, and stood for nothing.[5]

On a positive note, this tradition of denouncing misogyny continues, joined today by women’s thankfully forthright public voices, which together make it clear that misogyny is as much a form of hate-speech as that directed against race, sex,  religion, and bodily-impairment. As such, it must be treated seriously and prosecuted.

Finally, if the history of misogyny offers a lesson, it is that it will not and cannot be allowed to prevent gender equality.


[1] Thanks to fellow #twitterstorian, George Gosling for the suggestion thatI offer some information on the history of misogyny.

[2] Laura Gowing. Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003

[3] One of the most notable writers on this is Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

[4] Cited in Tim Reinke- Williams. ‘Misogyny, Jest-Books and Male Youth Culture in Seventeenth-Century England’ Gender & History, Vol.21 No.2 August 2009, pp. 324–339.

[5] Cited in Tim Reinke- Williams. ‘Misogyny, Jest-Books and Male Youth Culture’.

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