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A Very Short History of Sexism

From antiquity to the present time, misogyny has never left us.

Key points

  • Prejudice against women is powered by insecurity and inflicts psychological pain on its victims.
  • Misogyny has been a constant in history, but our attitudes are slowly changing.
  • Despite this, misogyny continues to hold sway, in part because because its adherents are able to connect online and reinforce their views.

Misogyny, mistrust of and prejudice toward women, has unfortunately been a constant throughout human history. It is an area of interest to psychology because it is powered by hateful emotions and insecurity, and because it potentially affects the self-esteem and psychological well-being of its victims.

 Thiago Matos, Pexels
Source: Thiago Matos, Pexels

Aristotle saw women as clearly inferior to men and this attitude was shared by most of his intellectual contemporaries. Some cultures and belief systems have regarded women as essentially expendable, or otherwise at the service of their male masters, and this attitude is still present today in certain parts of the globe.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance saw the awful witch hunts that killed thousands of women in Europe. In most cases, the crime these women had committed was to practice traditional medicine and rituals in their local communities, and to have been born female.

Going forward in history, Charles Dickens once visited a lunatic asylum and noticed that there was a clear excess of women in it. It is likely that many had been admitted there simply because they were outside the boundaries of respectable society. (It is ironic that Dickens, a very moralistic writer, allegedly tried to have his wife and mother of 10 children imprisoned in an asylum, so he could pursue his affair with an actress, according to letters discovered by the New York Times.)

Still in the Victorian era, Mr. GJ Romanes, a Fellow of the Royal Society, once remarked that "The inferiority of the female mind is displayed most conspicuously in a comparative absence of originality, especially in the higher levels of intellectual work.” He said this in a lecture he gave at the Royal Institution in 1887, which was reported in a piece I found in the archives of the London Times. Women were also inferior in their ability to acquire knowledge, as well as in many other crucial intellectual skills, according to Mr. Romanes.

Elaine Showalter comments in her “Female Malady” that Victorian psychiatrists considered menopause to be such a “shock” for the female brain that they had to use colorful and dramatic expressions to describe it, like “climacteric paroxysms,” or a “revolution in the female economy.” In the context of such a spectacularly disordered equilibrium, it was hardly surprising that many of these menopausal women should develop psychiatric problems, such as melancholy, senility, and other types of insanity.

George Miller Beard, a renowned American 19th-century neurologist, thought that neurasthenia (a type of depression) was the result of “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, scientific advancement, and the mental activity of women.” (I have to confess that I read this quote in E. Shorter’s excellent A History of Psychiatry, and not in its original source, so I’m not sure whether he thought that the “mental activity of women” made women neurasthenic, or the men who had to deal with them.)

More recently, thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche have made it very clear that they saw women as inferior to men. In the case of Nietzsche, this is perhaps not too surprising, given his tendency to stratify humans in relation to their perceived "strength."

The constant in these attitudes has been a view of women as either sentimental caregivers, unfit for a manly world of reason and competition, or otherwise as evil and dangerous beings, who use their sexuality as a weapon. This duality comes up in lots of myths and stories (including a very boring opera I just saw), but luckily we seem to be finally starting to overcome it, socially and politically.

There is however one area in which misogyny remains a very worrying concern: the internet. Like in the case of so many other modalities of online intolerance, certain forums and personalities have helped channel and bring together the haters, who otherwise would have remained blissfully isolated. Their views are in many ways similar to those of the Victorian gentlemen we mentioned above—but as well as prejudiced, they are also angry, and it is this anger that powers their anachronistic crusade. History is not on their side.

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