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Excerpts from The World's Oldest Prejudice

UK publication date - July 27, 2006
US publication date - September 7, 2006

From the Introduction

I grew up in Northern Ireland. [It] was a place where the word "c[...]"* expressed the worst form of contempt one person could feel for another. If you loathed or despised a person, "c[...]"* said it all.

It was scrawled on the walls of rubbish-strewn back alleyways or in public toilets reeking of urine and feces. Nothing was worse than being treated like a "c[...]"* or nothing so stupid as a
"stupid c[...]."*

* * *

When political violence broke out [in Belfast] in the late 1960s, misogynistic behavior expressed itself more publicly. Catholic girls who dated British soldiers were dragged into the street, bound and held down (often by other women), while the men hacked and shaved off their hair, before pouring hot tar over them and sprinkling them with feathers. They were then tied to a lamp post to be gaped at by the nervous onlookers, with a sign hung around their necks on which was scrawled another sexual insult such as "whore".

Perhaps we were imitating the French, to whom the English-speaking nations usually defer in matters sexual, having seen those news pictures as France was liberated of what befell women found guilty of going out with German soldiers. But we were also following the inner logic of our own powerful feelings, the same rage which we articulated with monosyllabic concision in the word "c[...]"...*

From Chapter 1: Pandora’s Daughters

As well as burdening Pandora with responsibility for the mortal lot of man, the Greeks created a vision of woman as "the Other," the antithesis to the male thesis, who needed boundaries to contain her. Most crucially, Greece laid the philosophical-scientific foundations for a dualistic view of reality in which women were forever doomed to embody this mutable, and essentially contemptible world. Any history of the attempt to dehumanize half the human race is confronted by this paradox, that some of the values we cherish most were forged in a society that devalued, denigrated and despised women. "Sex roles that will be familiar to the modern reader were firmly established in the Dark Ages in Athens," wrote the historian Sarah Pomeroy. [1] "That is, along with Plato and the Parthenon, Greece gave us some of the cheapest sexual dichotomies of all, including that of good girl versus bad girl."

From Chapter 2: Women at the Gates: Misogyny in Ancient Rome

A difference quickly emerges between the misogyny of the Greeks and that found in Rome. Greek misogyny is based on fears of what women might do if they were free to do it. However, as far as is known, if women challenged men, these actions were confined to their private world and only made public through the realm of the Greek imagination. But from the start, Roman women openly challenged the prevailing misogyny and made public their feelings and demands. Roman women protested their fate and took to the streets. In Rome, the veil of their anonymity was lifted. Women enter the public sphere, and make history. They intervened in wars and stopped them; they took to the streets in protest at government policy and changed it; they murdered their husbands; a few trained and fought as gladiators in the arena (evoking worrying images of Amazons); they subverted the authority of their fathers; they even sought personal satisfaction in their relationships, and rejected their role as breeders of rulers; and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, they came tantalizingly close to political power. They provoked a backlash which mustered some of the biggest guns that literature and history have ever aimed at them.

From Chapter 3: Divine Intervention:  Misogyny and the Rise of Christianity

The myth of creation as told in Genesis is now central to the belief of 2 billion Christians in 260 countries - that is, one-third of the world’s population have inherited a myth that blames woman for the ills and sufferings of mankind.

Unlike Greek misogyny, the Jewish version remained, as did Jewish religion, at the level of proverb, parable, and practice. Instead of philosophy, the Jews had extensive commentary and interpretation of the sacred texts. But the similarities in both the creation and fall of man myths are clear. As in the Greek myth, in the Jewish tradition God creates the first man, Adam, as an autonomous being who lives a happy, contented existence in the Garden of Eden. His only communion is with the divine. Eve, like Pandora, is an afterthought. She is created from Adam’s rib because God thought he required "an help. "  And, as with her Greek equivalent Pandora, Eve is disobedient, ignoring God’s instruction not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. "The serpent did beguile me and I did eat," Eve confesses rather nonchalantly (Genesis, 3:13).

* * *

Augustine is one of the watershed personalities of history. He stands at the great division between the world of classical antiquity (which had endured for about 1,000 years) and that of Christian civilization. He is the first person from antiquity who revealed to us the turmoil of his interior world as recorded in his remarkable work, Confessions. It is like tuning into a television talk show where the guest is revealing his deepest shame, his greatest love, his worst sin, and his highest goal, one broadcast 1700 years ago, but still with the immediacy of an Ophrah Winfrey interview.

From Chapter 4: From Queen of Heaven To Devil Woman

The 1,000 years or so separating the end of the classical world and the rise of the modern witnessed the development of two seemingly contradictory processes: the beatification of woman and her demonization. The Middle Ages would begin by elevating women towards heaven and end by consigning many thousands of them to hell. In the latter case, however, the process was more than mystical or metaphorical. The flames were all too real. It marked an extraordinary period when the human imagination soared with the great spires of the Gothic cathedrals of France that seem to scrape the very floors of heaven. It was a period too when the human spirit was convulsed by outbreaks of mass hysteria, pogroms, and witch hunts that plunged it into some of the most hellish regions it has ever visited.

From Chapter 5: O Brave New World: Literature, Misogyny And The Rise of Modernity

As of 1600, in England, socially and intellectually among the more progressive countries in Europe, legally a woman had no rights at all, other than those recognized by local custom. Her father had charge of her until she was married, when she passed under the authority of her husband who took absolute control of all her personal property. As the law of the time stated: "That which a man hath is his own. That which the wife hath is the husband’s. "[2]> Women could become queens in the 16th century, and like Elizabeth I command and inspire fear and respect, but by the beginning of the 17th century their status had if anything declined. Contemporary Platonists debated whether or not women had souls. [3]  At the level of dress, always an indication of women’s status, their suffering was taken for granted. The late 17th century fashion was to encase women’s bodies in tight corsets. At the autopsy of one young woman who died at age 20 it was found that "her ribs had grown into her liver, and that her other entrails were much hurt by being crushed together with her stays, which her mother had ordered to be twitched so straight that it often brought tears into her eyes whilst the maid was dressing her. "[4]

From Chapter 6: Victorians’ Secrets

Misogyny is far from unique to Western civilization. That became clear as from the early 16th century onwards, Europeans began expanding into regions of the world with whom before they had little or no contact. They encountered complex civilizations at least as old and sometimes far older than their own and equally (if not is some ways more) sophisticated; meanwhile, in other, previously unexplored or unknown areas, they discovered cultures that were, at a technological and social level, more simple than anything they had ever seen. But one thing they all shared in common. Neither the primitive nor the sophisticated societies lacked for prejudices against women.

* * *

Banished from respectable literature, the depiction of sexual relations and sexual desire went underground to supply a flourishing trade in risqué novels and explicitly illustrated men’s magazines. In 1857, a word was invented to describe this material - "pornography", literally, writing about prostitutes or prostitution. But sex also enlivened the stage of the working class music halls, where the never-ending struggle between men and women continued to be celebrated in sentimental, comic and bawdy songs, sketches and recitals.

Chapter 7: Misogyny in the Age of Supermen

Hitler advocated abstinence from sex (as from alcohol and meat). He was also against masturbation. . . All sorts of mostly lurid rumors have accumulated over the years about Hitler’s sexuality. He obsessed about women, Jews and syphilis in his autobiography, "Mein Kampf", and five of the six women with whom he had any kind of relationship committed suicide, including his 23-year-old niece Geli Raubal, about whom he was pathologically jealous. "My uncle is a monster," she once said. [5] In September 1931, she was found dead in his Munich apartment, shot in the head with his pistol. The truth is that he was almost certainly asexual and while he seems to have derived some pleasure from the company of pretty young women, his behavior indicates a tremendous fear of women in general. [6] He liked to refer to the malleability of the masses as "feminine", showing his contempt for both the mobs that he roused with his speeches and woman with whom he compared them. The tragedy is that he would leave the bloody stamp of his obsessions, misogynistic and well as racial, on the history of the 20th century.

From Chapter 8: Body Politics

In the 1960s, the politics of the body entered the body politic.

For the last several thousand years, control of the body - that is, woman’s body - has been a central concern of many of the religious, social and political doctrines and institutions created by man. There would have been no need to write a history of misogyny if this were not the case. However deep within the male psyche are the wellsprings of fear and fascination that contemplation of woman causes, her dehumanization, either through elevation or denigration, was always (broadly speaking) a political matter. That is, the politics of the body was not invented in the 1960s. But it was not until the middle of the 20th century that women themselves had the power to shape how the politics of the body would be defined. At that point, a technological breakthrough and the resurgence of feminism combined to force the issue into the public sphere as never before.

From Chapter 9: In Conclusion: Making Sense of Misogyny

Misogyny still flourishes in some corners of Western culture. Where males feel humiliated and angry, women still provide the universal scapegoat. A 1990 rap song by the group called "Geto Boys" declared:

"She’s naked, and I’m a peeping Tom/Her body’s beautiful so I’m thinking rape/Shouldn’t have had her curtains open, so that’s her fate". In the verbal currency of Rap, women are "bitches" and "hos" (whores). Rappers are not the only proponents of misogyny in popular culture, and far from the first. Even during the 1960s and 1970s, a period remembered by many for its celebration of love and sexual freedom, pop groups such as "The Rolling Stones" had hits with songs like  "Under My Thumb" and "Stupid Girl". In 1976 the Stones released an album called "Black and Blue" which was advertised with a picture of a beaten woman tied to a chair. However, hostility to women seems to be at the very core of Rap culture.

It is yet another reminder of the power of contempt for women to replicate itself in different cultures like an almost indestructible virus.


[1] "Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves," by Sarah Pomeroy, Schocken Books, 1975.

[2] The Weaker Vessal: Women in 17th Century England, by Antonia Fraser, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

[3] The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, by Lawrence Stone, Pelican Books, 1979.

[4] ibid.

[5] Kershaw, ibid.

[6] ibid.

* The offending word has been removed to permit the excerpts to pass through internet obscenity-filtering systems.

 

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