I’m writing this because I can’t sleep. Earlier this evening, a friend of mine posted a video from Australia on her website, reporting that the Australian Prime Minister’s speech calling Tony Abbot a misogynist has ‘forced” Macquarie, Australia’s premier dictionary, to change its definition of misogyny from a ”hatred of women” to “an entrenched prejudice against women.” Further research revealed that Macquarie had augmented rather than replaced the definition. I feel slightly more settled now, but my gut is still churning. So here I am, hunched over the keyboard in the middle of the night, attempting to articulate the reasons for my fury.
Misogyny is a big word, a frightening word, a dangerous word. It is also a comforting word. Comforting because it defines and describes a condition I know to exist, but whose existence is so incomprehensible that it’s easy to doubt my own perception. Doubting oneself can be crazy-making so it’s comforting to see the hatred woven into the crazy quilt of this culture defined in print by an acknowledged authority like the dictionary.
I don’t use this word very often, though I think about it frequently. My personal life has been blessed with loving men. I’ve never called an individual man a misogynist, but the other day, in lecture about the historic depictions of Mary Magdalene, I spoke about the entrenched misogyny of the Catholic Church. I thought very carefully about using that strong word, but there’s really no other way to describe these remarks quoted by historian Helen Ellerbe in The Dark Side of Christian History:
“The sixth century Christian philosopher, Boethius, wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy, ‘Woman is a temple built upon a sewer.’ Bishops at the sixth century Council of Macon voted as to whether women had souls. In the tenth century Odo of Cluny declared, ‘To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure…’ The thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that God had made a mistake in creating woman: ‘nothing [deficient] or defective should have been produced in the first establishment of things; so woman ought not to have been produced then.’ And Lutherans at Wittenberg debated whether women were really human beings at all.”
In commenting upon the re-definition my friend said, “A man can love individual women while still being prejudiced about what they can and cannot do as opposed to his ‘maleness’.” Personally, I think enslaving women and little girls and selling their bodies to other men is more than just entrenched prejudice. And why are most serial killers male? Then there are all those gang rapes by boys being boys. The list is endless – you probably know it by (broken) heart.
I’ve known many racists in my life, also homophobes, anti-Semites, sexists, etc. etc. Lots of them in encountering individuals from the groups they purport to despise make exceptions for ones who are exceptional – i.e. different from all those other blankety-blanks. In my experience people suffering from “entrenched prejudice” have based their definition of self and their self-esteem on a sense of superiority based on nothing more substantial than the circumstances of their birth. Faced with their attraction to someone they feel superior to, they must make an exception, giving the “other” temporary honorary membership to their “own kind” to avoid any kind of self-reflection whatsoever. That kind of acceptance is no acceptance at all. I learned early on to run like hell when a man said stuff like, “You’re so different; not like other women.”
Burning crosses on a lawn, bullying, spray painting ugly words on a door – those are all called “hate crimes.” Why isn’t calling a woman a bitch, or a cunt or a whore a hate crime? Entrenched prejudice” sounds like something curable. Like something incidental that people choose, like a preference for brie or an aversion to lima beans. But there are songs, videos, movies, speeches that ooze loathing; faces on the news and in the streets that express real hatred; bruises covered by make-up and long-sleeved blouses; advice by churches, parents, teachers, counselors to stay quiet and be accommodating.
Pathological hatred of women is alive and kicking. I don’t know why. I’ve been trying to figure it out for decades. But it is real and it needs to be named.