Birkbeck 3: analysing misogyny

One of the themes that kept on cropping up in discussions at the Birkbeck conference on masculinity is the extent to which historians of masculinity should be exploring all-male institutions/relationships as opposed to male-female interactions. To some extent this reflects different research traditions within particular periods: a lot of Victorian masculinity study, for example, has concentrated on public schools, while early modernists have focused on the patriarchal family. But it also reflects deeper tensions within the field. On the one hand you have medievalists (in particular) arguing that changes in masculinity as an ideology are being driven by conflicts between men far more than any change in women’s social position. On the other hand, you also have those coming from a women’s history perspective (or those with an activist bent) seeing the danger of eliminating women again from historical discussion.

I found some of Ruth Mazo Karras’ ideas very useful here. On the one hand, she was criticizing the tendency of some feminist historians to imply the existence of a ‘patriarchal cabal’ (a group of powerful men who in every age gather together to plot how they can keep women down this time). On the other hand, she was also making a point which made me rethink some of my ideas: you can’t just dismiss the misogyny that appears prominently, for example, at the time of the Gregorian reforms, as not ‘really’ directed at women. She made me realise that I do have to think harder about misogyny, and its motivation in particular, and this is my first attempt to do this.

There’s an obvious immediate problem with the terminology. Misogyny, in one sense, already announces its own motivation in its etymology: a hatred of women. But the use of ‘sexism’ instead doesn’t seem strong enough for many of the medieval examples: it’s a rather bloodless term. If I use misogyny here it’s as a shorthand, and I’m open to suggestions of any better terms to use for this kind of serious prejudice against women.

There seem to me four usefully distinct motivational categories of misogyny (with the obvious provisio that motives may be multiple/mixed). Again, the labels are very provisional, and I’d be interested in suggestions for more expressive labeling (or a different typology).

1) Psychological misogyny. An irrational hatred and fear of women. I don’t here want to go into discussions of whether it’s caused by personal trauma, socially or politically induced.

2) Privilege-holders’ misogyny. This is the kind that the ‘patriarchal cabal’ theorists tend to be focusing on: men trying to prevent female competition for their opportunities/privileges, whether it’s well-paid work or the control of society.

3) Instrumental misogyny. This is using misogyny to achieve other (often political) aims in competitions between men. For example, while there has been misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton as a presidential contender (and thus a competitor), she was also subjected to much misogynistic criticism as First Lady, and there has been much criticism of Michelle Obama. The aim of much of this criticism has been to attack the husbands of these women: implicitly (or explicitly) they have failed to keep their wives in ‘the proper place’, and instead have been unduly influenced by them/subservient to them. (Kate Cooper’s work, particularly ‘Insinuations of womanly influence: an aspect of the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy’. Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992):150-164, shows the long, long, history of this tactic). At a more general level, the competitive celibacy of both the late fourth century West and the Gregorian reforms relied heavily on such misogyny. The most superior men were precisely those who had least to do with the inferior and viler sex.

4) Institutional misogyny/sexism. In an organization or other structure, even if individuals do not consciously intend sexist outcomes, they can nevertheless repeatedly. In particular, any institution with very few (or no) women in it is likely to make many institutionally misogynistic decisions because it doesn’t know about/consider women’s points of view: it is run by men and its image of humanity is a man. For example, the limits on women’s hours of work in factories imposed by the nineteenth century Factory Acts have been seen negatively by some feminist historians. Such work, they point out, was relatively well-paid, while there was no attempt to set limits to the longer hours worked by women in domestic service. Yet it seems unlikely that Parlimentarians were genuinely concerned to keep women down. Their aim was surely to benefit women, but in an all-male government, it is not surprising that their plans were ill-thought out and unsuccessful.

This typology seems to me to allow us to talk about intentions and effects of policies more sensibly than a blanket use of ‘misogyny’. But it is important to remember two provisos. One is that the ‘badness’ of the motivation does not necessarily correlate with the harmfulness of the effect. Provisions that are planned from sheer hatred of women may be ineffectual; provisions that are actually intended to ‘benefit’ women may in practice have more significant negative effects. And secondly, that although instrumental and institutional misogyny are not motivated by the same urge to oppress women as the other forms, they are based on the fact that women have already been oppressed in the past. It is because women have already been judged as inferior that for men to be associated with them is negative. It is because women have already been excluded partially or totally from institutions that their interests are not considered.

So where does this leave the study of all male institutions and relationships? I think that we do need to study them and acknowledge their significance to the development of masculinity. Such ideologies aren’t developed just in relationship to women. But, as was pointed out at the conference, even in such all-male institutions, we mustn’t forget women. Many supposedly all-male institutions (such as the historic university) actually had many women at the margins (servants, prostitutes etc). And when no women at all were present (as on naval ships), masculinity could be contested between groups of men only because women had already been excluded from an institution. Women are still there in all of history, even when they’re not.


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