Philosophy & Ideas

The Myth of Misogyny

Women’s historically unequal social status is systematically misunderstood by feminist theory. Status, women’s status included, is best explained by reference to the pressing problems a society needs to solve to preserve itself and flourish. Simply put, those who are recognised to represent the solution to society’s problems enjoy high status, while those who are dependent on the problem-solvers suffer lower status. This explanation completely sidesteps the commonplace feminist explanations in terms of sexism, misogyny, and so on. Social worlds are never ideal—but we have been trapped, by our own lack of imagination, into regarding them as therefore malign.

It is a cornerstone of feminist social theory that sex and gender relations in human society have been defined by the harmful effects of patriarchy, a system of male power. This system is intrinsically hostile to women’s interests, and so oppression has been women’s lot. Feminist social theory has thus understood relations between the sexes to be fundamentally hostile, albeit one-way: it has understood women to be engaged in a long war against oppressive forces that are essentially male. This is why it has seen itself as involved in a shared struggle with blacks and gays (and even transgender individuals), on the grounds that all are social groups oppressed by patriarchy; why it has championed lesbianism and even lesbian separatism; why it has spawned books with names like The Female Eunuch, Lesbian Nation, The Longest War, Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition; why it has such an air of machismo, championing traditionally masculine values like strength and (typically) scorning traditionally feminine values; and so on.[1]

It is also why it has regarded those social issues where there is genuine conflict between members of the two sexes—such as rape and domestic violence—as quintessentially feminist issues, rather than, more simply, as crimes to be placed alongside other forms of criminal assault.

For the feminist social theorist, the problem for women is oppression by men or maleness; the solution is the liberation of women from this oppression. However, the problem confronting feminism is that its liberation project runs constantly into opposition from patriarchal attitudes—which is to say, from sexism and misogyny. The feminist social theorist thus sees the practical task to be exposing and defeating misogyny and its baleful social effects.

There are, of course, other conceptions of feminism in the public sphere: that it is all about women’s right to choose their mode of life, about rejecting the stereotyping of women, and so on. These conceptions are, however, all parasitic on feminist social theory, because all rely on the assumption that what is being affirmed has previously been denied to women because of oppressive male power. Take away that assumption and it is not clear what makes such ideas feminist, rather than the general advocacy of some form of social change. These popular conceptions are thus (often unrecognised) applications of feminist social theory, and its sense of an enduring domination of women’s true interests by oppressive male attitudes. They do not represent alternatives to the sense embedded in feminist social theory.

There is a different conception of feminism, but it is the exception that proves the rule. This is the “feminism of care”, which holds that women are fundamentally different from men because they are carers and nurturers, unlike the assertive and aggressive male. This is obviously a very self-flattering picture for women, and as a result it is not without a strong appeal for them. But, as many of their orthodox feminist opponents have recognised, it implicitly affirms women’s traditional role as the expression of her true nature, rather than as the consequence of patriarchal oppression. In short, the “feminism of care” implies that women’s oppression is a myth. On this view, it is only the assertive and aggressive male who seeks power, so women’s lack of power is no evidence of her oppression. Neither has her lack of power harmed her, since the fulfilling life for a woman is the maternal, nurturing life of her traditional role.

Whether such a view is properly to be called feminism need not detain us, since this article is concerned with the ideas of patriarchal oppression and misogyny, not with feminism per se. My concern is with the widespread assumption that social reality, in particular those aspects that modern women find unacceptable, can be explained by reference to ideas like patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. I shall argue that these kinds of explanations are wrong. The social status of women is not to be explained by reference to male misogyny. Appeal to such attitudes is wrong in fact (because status is better explained in other ways), and also wrong in principle (because appeal to attitudes mistakes effects for causes). Furthermore, appeal to patriarchy does not avoid the problems. In short, I shall argue that the whole explanatory cluster so typical of modern feminism is hopelessly misguided.[2]

Historic inequalities between the sexes are an observable fact. But it does not follow from this that women have been denied equality by men—that men have prevented them from enjoying equality. Similarly, the existence of specific instances of misogyny is indisputable. But equally it does not follow that there is systematic social misogyny. One obvious reason is that clear cases of misogyny might be relatively rare. But, even if it were not, it would still not show that social realities can be explained by reference to misogyny. This is because the attitude, where it exists, may itself be an effect of some more fundamental social cause. Misogyny, where it exists, is the effect, not the cause, of women’s lesser social position.

David Hume pointed out that the causes of the events we observe in our daily lives are not themselves observed: that we generate causal explanations on the basis of the patterns we discern in experience.[3] Mixing up causes and their effects is an easy thing to do: the causes of experienced facts, no matter how familiar, are attributed rather than observed, and so are not obvious in the sense of being beyond theoretical revision. Neither the familiarity nor the vividness of an experience guarantees any particular interpretation of that experience. Moreover, it also means that the best explanation of any experience or set of experiences depends on investigation into all the relevant patterns of human experience, not just into those that are most readily to hand. Explanations are not produced just by pointing at experienced facts. The meaning of the facts is what is at issue—so no amount of reiteration of those facts will advance us one step towards their best explanation. Social theories are not proven true by being convenient hold-alls for lists of grievances.

Hume also argued that we are creatures of habit, so much so that we convert the regularities of our experience into necessities. Because some fact or relation has always been a certain way, we readily conclude that it must be that way.[4] If someone should then come along and (for whatever reason) challenge that conviction, they will be met with scorn, for failing to see what everyone else “knows” to be obvious. So, if men and women have occupied certain roles for all of living memory, then those roles will typically be regarded as natural and inevitable. A challenge to those roles will then be regarded as absurd, and the challengers themselves as ridiculous. The challengers will then be tempted to regard the attitudes they encounter as hostility to themselves. In short, they will readily interpret their reception as evidence of misogyny, and they may then suppose that this misogyny is itself the explanation for women’s traditional role. But in doing so, they will be interpreting unobservable causes, not reporting observable facts. Hence their view cannot be “read off” experience, but requires a theoretical assessment.

The fact is that social attitudes are rarely determinants of social structures; in the main, they are established by those social structures. Human beings come into a world already formed, and—as the convictions of children sufficiently illustrate—they very quickly come to the view that the way things are is the way things must be. Resistance to change is the consequence. If there are interests at stake—such as the desire to preserve a superior social position—then the resistance will be reinforced by other factors. But the point is that such resistance will exist wherever there is a stable social order; and the temptation, for the reformer, is then to misread this fact as if it is evidence of some deeper, even bedrock, form of opposition to the reformers themselves. In short, much of what is taken for misogyny is no such thing: nothing more than unthinking habit. The fact is, conservative resistance to change has been misread by feminists as misogynist opposition to women themselves.

No better illustration of this is provided by the news that the Macquarie Dictionary will revise its entry for misogyny in order to extend the meaning well beyond hostility to women to include entrenched prejudice; in other words, to conflate the meanings of sexism and misogyny. Since sexism can be defined as the conservative idea that women’s traditional roles capture their essential nature, the Macquarie Dictionary’s willingness to conflate the two meanings illustrates precisely the feminists’ misreading of sexism as if it were misogyny. That misreading directly reflects their conviction that all resistance must be, at bottom, misogynist, since feminist social theory is trapped in the mindset that women’s social situation is due to male prejudices (sexism) grounded in an underlying hostility to women (misogyny). Give up that theory, however, and there is no longer any temptation to run sexism and misogyny together as if they are different aspects of the same thing. In fact they are not. So in this article, misogyny is used in its established meaning of hostility towards women.

These conclusions themselves oppose what have become social commonplaces, so, in the nature of the case, we should expect them to encounter resistance. So it may help to consider another, very instructive, case of social inferiority. This is the social standing of children. It is obvious—not least to themselves—that children’s standing is low. Their preferences are routinely overridden by parents and other adults. The explanation is not, however, adults’ hostility to children. The reverse is true: parents love their children, and devote enormous resources to their protection and development. So their low status is not due to hostile attitudes. What does explain their standing? Much the most plausible view is that it is explained by their dependence on adults. Adults, because they are able to manage their own affairs, gain respect and thus standing vis-à-vis others. This is one main source of social status, and children lack it.

The example is important because it has significant implications for explaining the status of women. Of course, women are not children, but in this respect they are—if to varying degrees in different physical and social circumstances, and in different times and places—in much the same situation as children.[5] Women’s lot is to be less independent than men, partly because of pregnancy and nursing, which greatly restrict their ability to fend for themselves, and also because they both feel and indeed are more vulnerable than men to the threat posed (typically) by male outsiders.[6] So women, like children, are likely to find themselves dependent on men for their well-being. As a result, their status—or, more accurately, their average status, since status is never simply based on gender identity—tends to be less than men’s. It is this dependence on men that is the main reason for women’s typically lower social status. The degree of this dependence varies according to social circumstances, so women’s status varies across different societies and different times and places. Thus the modern Western woman’s greater independence—because of such things as effective contraception, a service and information economy that has need of her abilities, the motor car (a mobile security chamber), the mobile phone, CCTV—goes hand-in-hand with the rise in her status.

Women’s economic dependence flowing from child-bearing and nursing is plain enough—as is its reduced relevance in our world. The second form of dependence—for physical security against the threat posed by (male) outsiders—is less well understood, but is of no lesser significance. That significance can be brought out clearly by considering ancient society.

Most of human history has been an experience of living in small communities in the vicinity of other communities, against which the principal form of protection has been the strength and courage of its warriors. Thus the warrior became valued as the highest human type, so much so that his qualities defined the nature of virtue itself. Thus, in The Iliad, Achilles is “the best of men”, even “god-like”, for the very simple reason that he is the best fighter; and the weaselly Thersites is the worst because he is weak and cowardly.[7] Within such a value system, it is inevitable that women be judged to be, in general, inferior to men. But they are so not because they are women, but because women are (typically) not much good as fighters: the same estimation will apply to men who, like Thersites, fail the fighting test. So, in every society where physical security is uncertain, and achieved only through the strength and courage of the warriors, the warriors will constitute a privileged group, and their qualities will, for that society, define human worth. In such societies, the status of women will in general be lower than that of men—but for reasons that have nothing to do with misogyny, and everything to do with the conditions for group survival.

One way of recognising that this value system is not just an excuse for keeping women in subjection is that, in the ancient world, regard for these values was not unequivocal. Instead, although the warrior qualities were seen as most admirable, because absolutely necessary for survival, they were also seen to be the cause of disasters. The problem here is anger: the spirited ambition of the warrior, when thwarted, produces anger, and the warrior’s anger could end up destroying precisely what it was supposed to protect. The problem is canvassed explicitly in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates points out that the ideal guardians cannot be indiscriminately aggressive, but have to be like guard dogs, which attack the enemy but welcome the friend.[8] It is also plain in The Iliad, where the rage of Achilles is the central theme. But this anger is not celebrated. It is treated more like a force of nature, and its disastrous effects shape the poem. That is why it ends with the funeral games for Patroclus and the funeral of Hector: the effect of Achilles’s anger is encapsulated in the deaths of the great men it has caused. (If Homer had chosen to moralise, it is plain that he could have said pretty much everything sensible that is uttered by our modern-day critics of “masculinity”.)

The small, physically vulnerable, settled communities of the ancient world thus gave rise to the cult of the hero; and, wherever those values were established, the average status of women was low (despite the high status of some).[9] However, where those conditions do not obtain, one should expect variations in the status of women. This is observable, first, in poor, nomadic or isolated communities. In such societies, female self-reliance is a necessity, and threats from strangers less pressing. So, in such situations, one should expect women to enjoy a higher relative status. In fact, this was an observable fact even in the ancient world. Thus the Greeks knew that the Scythian women of the steppe north of the Black Sea did not live the approved quiet life at home; and the Roman historian Tacitus noted that the German women also lived lives surprisingly like their men.[10]

The second observable variation comes with the development of larger cities and the more sophisticated money economies on which they depend. The implications for the status of women follow from the fact that, in this urban world, reliance on the warrior is less immediate, and mitigated by other factors. Wealthy urban societies with a more complex division of labour, with the need to plan their economy (and the capacity to buy their way out of trouble), will be both less directly dependent on the warrior, and more dependent on intellectual and moral capacities: political, economic and managerial skills, and the reliability of character on which the effective exercise of these depend. So we should expect that, in societies in the process of transition from a smaller warrior-based world to a larger, more complex urban-based world, there should be an accompanying transition in views of women and their value. This can be seen in the case of ancient Athens, and, indeed, in Plato’s Republic itself.

One of the Republic’s central concerns is to introduce and defend a new conception of the human being. This new conception is embodied in Plato’s conception of the tripartite soul. The parts of this soul are distinguished and defined according to each part’s characteristic object of desire: they are appetite, the desire for pleasure; “spirit”, the desire for honour and fame; and reason, the desire for knowledge.[11] The argument of the Republic is aimed at establishing that, in both individual psychology and the wider society, it is the rational part that is the proper “ruling element” in the soul, and so the part that should rule the person by ruling the other parts. This is the basis of Plato’s famous view that it is philosophers—meaning those who are ruled by reason—who should rule in the state.

The significance of Plato’s argument is that it is a relative devaluation of the warrior virtues in order to construct a new ethic for a successful urban social order. The subordination of “spirit” to reason is the subordination of the warrior psyche, and its attendant values, to the rational psyche and attendant values of the social planner and public servant. That this is so is indicated by the fact that the spirited part is also referred to as the angry part of the soul, thereby bringing out the link with the warrior psyche of Homer’s Achilles. In short, Plato’s argument adds up to a demand for a “revaluation of values”: a shift from (self-assertive) brawn to (knowledge-seeking) brains.[12] So we might expect to see here a relative improvement in the worth of women. That is just what we do see: Plato accepts that his intellectual ruling class will include women as well as men, and, indeed, that the women members of the ruling group will live the same life as the men.

Plato does not suppose the women to be fully equal to the men, but this seems to reflect his sense of the continuing importance of martial virtues and values. Something similar seems true of Aristotle. Unlike Plato, he takes it as given that men are masters of women, but, equally, he insists that women are not like slaves.[13] This is important, because his notorious category of a “natural” slave is actually the psychological category of someone who entirely lacks any “ruling element” within themselves.[14] So for a woman to be unlike a slave is for her to have her own “ruling element”. This means, in the first place, that the man cannot rule her in a “monarchical” way, as he can of slaves and children, but only in a “constitutional” way which respects her nature, and marks it with titles of respect.[15] The basis for this respect lies in the special nature of the woman’s psyche, or soul: that, although, in contrast to the natural slave, she possesses the “deliberative” (rational) capacity, she is nevertheless “without authority” and so is naturally less fit for command.

How is this possible? According to Plato, reason is the “ruling element”, and Aristotle here concedes that women possess it. So why are they “without authority”? The answer is different from the case of the “natural slave”, who lacks the “ruling element” because lacking in the deliberative faculty.[16] The woman’s problem, in contrast, stems from the spirited part of the soul. Plato holds that it must assist the rational part for rule to be effective, and Aristotle seems to concur. So the woman is “without authority” because she is deficient, not in rationality, but in this spirited capacity. Thus Aristotle connects women’s unfitness to rule to their deficiencies in courage and boldness—virtues of the spirited part of the soul. But this also means that, where rule does not require boldness—such as in the household (and, we might add, in successful urban societies where boldness is of lesser significance)—there women are capable of ruling.

In these famous works, then, we see the tensions inherent in the steady but incomplete abandonment of the values of the heroic world. A more complex social reality underpins the departure from the heroic norm, but the continuing relevance of the values of the past is shown in the attempt to combine spirited self-assertion and rational inquiry in a new and harmonious structure for the human soul. Moreover, the very sense of the present world as in transition is reflected in Plato’s dream of utopian possibilities: Plato the radical reformer pushes the boundaries, in contrast to Aristotle’s soberly descriptive social science. Nevertheless, the overall picture is clear: status in this world depends on a mix of the new rational virtues and the old spirited virtues of the warrior. In this more complex world, women enjoy a higher status; but, especially because of the influence of the older values, they still fall short of social equality. However, this lesser status is not because they are women, but because of the values necessary for the effective functioning of the kind of society it is. In all societies, security against external threats is a pressing concern; but women’s status improves as the means for that security shifts from the virtues of the warrior to that of the bureaucrat and social planner—roughly speaking, from brawn to brains. Appeals to misogyny are powerless to explain such shifts. Thus, with respect to the ancient world, misogyny has next to no explanatory value.

If we shift attention to our own world, a similar picture emerges. The explanation of status requires reference to the distinctive features of modern Western society, rather than to invariant prejudices. The most distinctive of these features is perhaps its sheer success, which means that the concern for security lacks the urgency it holds for small, struggling societies, and so is much less effective in determining status. In its place has grown up new sources of status which presuppose the society’s success—in part, the new forms of employment of the modern information economy, but also the wealth and fame to be found in the entertainment industry. These developments have been very good for women.

In the first place, martial values have been marginalised. The size and complexity of modern technological societies mean that there is a pronounced division of labour, with an elaborate social hierarchy based on the nature of the tasks performed. Thus the warrior’s tasks have been consigned to a specialist minority, the members of the professional standing army. Moreover, the military capacity of modern societies, underpinned by advanced weapons systems, make attacks on such societies unlikely to succeed without massive cost. As a result, aggressive wars against these societies are rare. These two factors combine to mean that the values associated with military tasks make relatively little impact on daily life, and so have little impact on the status of either men or women. Moreover, the high technology of modern weapons systems makes the warrior less central than previously to the successful conduct of warfare: smart weapons mean accurate remote delivery, so, in the end, research and development count as much as—in some theatres, far more than—the soldier’s martial virtues. Nor will strength or courage in the face of such threats improve one’s survival prospects: even in war, the warrior and his virtues are in decline.[17]

The consequence is that, in modern Western democracies, political leaders are not warriors. In the main, they are lawyers and economists, since these are the skills most vital to managing and preserving the society’s enormous productive capacity. The unsurprising consequence is that women with this kind of educational background have steadily become more prominent in government. In other words, as the needs of society have shifted from brawn to brains, the difference between men’s and women’s social standing, and even their access to political power, has narrowed dramatically.

There is a further complicating factor. The size and complexity of the social world have another consequence: money, the universal solvent, has become the main measure of status, dwarfing more traditional factors. The traditional sources of status have not disappeared, but their influence has shrunk enormously.[18] In fact, in the various “New World” societies, lacking traditional aristocracies and the like, the rule of money is uncontested and absolute. This shift to a money economy is not in itself an advantage to women, but the development of the modern economy since 1945 has been an immense benefit for a broad class of women. This is because, since 1945, the mechanisation and globalisation of production reached such levels that employment growth in the modern West shifted from production to the tasks of service and information. These tasks depend on social and intellectual abilities, and the higher rewards that attach to them mean that the educated woman enjoys a high social standing.

The most conspicuous loser in these developments, in contrast, is the working-class male. The physical skills on which he has always relied leave him in a vulnerable position: demand for those skills has shrunk, and so unemployment levels are high. The increasing technical sophistication of the military means that even that traditional form of employment is drying up. Neither traditional physical skills, nor martial virtues, offer much hope. For working-class women, prospects, in so far as they are dependent on men, are thus far bleaker than for educated women. In the modern economy, then, the average status of women has risen, but this convergence between men’s and women’s status is much more marked in the upper echelons of society. Individual women fare well or poorly depending on their education, because this is the main determinant of independence in an information economy. Gender identity is not the key.

One significant area of modern life works to quite different rules: the arena of modern entertainment. The modern economy has created an entertainment industry of enormous size that offers comparably enormous financial rewards to those who succeed in it. In the appearance-driven world of the cinema, this means youth and beauty. In the world of sport, it means youth and athleticism. So the impact of the entertainment world on women has been an exaggerated emphasis on youth, beauty and athleticism, and a corresponding disregard for those who do not fit the picture: the “traditionally built” mature woman; the mother;[19] and of course the aged and unhealthy. The entertainment industry thus delivers enormous rewards to women who satisfy its requirements—and nothing to those who don’t.

Of course, this is not news; the point is that these effects, where they impact on women, reflect the impact on modern lives of the entertainment industry, itself a consequence of modern society’s enormous productive capacity—and hence its combination of leisure time and spending power. Pressures comparable to those that afflict women also afflict men, and for the same reasons. For men, as for women, success and the status it brings can be pursued in the business or professional worlds, or in the world of entertainment. Each imposes its own pressures, and none gives out status for free. From the ancient to the modern worlds, the fundamental rule is the same: status and rewards are gained by doing, or by giving evidence of being able to do, actions on which the continued success of the social system depends. For small and vulnerable societies, the focus is on the means of security; for larger, more successful societies, the focus shifts to management and entertainment. Sex or gender identity, considered merely in itself, has never determined social standing. The feminist conception of a system of social valuing based in male misogyny is an illusion.

The moral is that the feminists’ appeal to misogyny, as an explanatory social category, is a red herring. Of course, there are many unattractive (and worse) social mores discoverable in the vast canvas of human societies. Many of these reflect women’s inferior social position; and, where they do, men’s attitudes to women will tend to reflect that hierarchy. But, as the analogy with the status of children shows, hierarchy is not shorthand for hostility. In fact, not even the Taliban can be said to be hostile to women in general. Their extreme fundamentalism means they are hostile to women who abandon what (in their view) is a divinely-commanded role, and exchange it for the (in their view) wicked ways of the godless West. This should be obvious; it is a mark of the muddles introduced by unthinking invocations of misogyny that it needs pointing out at all.

Moreover, attitudes towards women are the effect, not the cause, of women’s inferior situation, and changed circumstances will result in that situation, and those attitudes, steadily undergoing change. A moment’s reflection will show that this is true of our own society in our own times. Technological change saw the development of social policies that recognised the need for a more highly-educated workforce. This led to a significant expansion in higher education, and a profound shift in the gender balance amongst graduates. At the same time, other developments by and large removed women’s competitive disadvantage in the workplace, through dramatic improvements in the control over both fertility and its periodic indispositions. This made careers attractive to women as they themselves became valuable to employers. The result is that women’s average status has risen as so many of them have taken advantage of these changes and moved into the well-paid, information-oriented careers that opened up to them. Women’s shift into these jobs ran into entrenched social attitudes, but the weakness of appealing to such attitudes as an explanation for the earlier set of norms is sufficiently illustrated by the (historically speaking) rapid change of the attitudes themselves. Women’s place in such careers is now an unquestioned social fact.

These facts are meat and drink to the explanatory picture being proposed here. In contrast, the appeal to misogyny is powerless to explain them. Misogyny, if a significant social force, must be presumed to act constantly in human social life. As such, it cannot alone explain changes in social mores. At the very least, then, claims of misogyny must be combined with other factors to explain the social changes to which modern life bears witness. The explanations offered here imply that, once these other factors have been given their due, claims of misogyny will be surplus to requirements.

Social structures are not explained by reference to attitudes—the attitudes themselves are products of those structures and so do not explain them. The point is not that all attitudes are products of social structures—as if there was no such thing as independent thought. It is, rather, that attitudes entrenched in a society are much more likely the result of that society’s circumstances and history than of the independent thought of individuals. The same is true where societies undergo dramatic changes in their ruling assumptions (as our own society has over the past sixty years). The moral is that social explanations must begin with the analysis of social circumstances, not with attitudes. The deployment of misogyny as an explanatory notion ignores this moral.

This point is of course recognised by those feminist theorists who explain misogyny as a patriarchal attitude—an attitude generated precisely by a specific social structure. So those feminists can reply that they are not guilty of offering explanations in terms of attitudes rather than structures. On their view, it is just that the structures have an observable consequence in misogyny—or, to put it another way, that misogyny is the cash value of oppressive patriarchy. So explanation by reference to misogyny rather than patriarchy is just convenient shorthand, not a methodological error.

The problem with this response is that, if social status is not attributable to misogyny, then there is no reason to invoke an essentially oppressive patriarchy at all. If systematic misogyny does not exist, there is nothing to explain. The feminists’ appeal to oppressive patriarchy fails because the reality that oppressive patriarchy is meant to explain simply does not exist. This further means that oppressive patriarchy is itself a fiction.

To see why, it is first necessary to acknowledge that there is a neutral or descriptive sense in which patriarchy certainly does exist: a social order in which the dominant political positions are occupied by men. This has indeed been the norm in human history. On this there is no dispute. But in the feminist theorists’ sense, in which patriarchy is oppressive patriarchy—the social structure that causes and so explains systematic misogyny—there is absolutely no reason to believe that it exists, or ever has existed. If this seems hard to believe, it is only because the feminist theorist runs the two senses together: patriarchy in the descriptive sense obviously exists, so it must also exist in the harmful causal sense. But the two senses are entirely distinct, so there is no reason to think that patriarchy in the first sense implies the second sense of an oppressive social order that naturally spawns misogyny. There is no reason to think that such essentially oppressive patriarchy exists at all. The feminists’ conviction that they have uncovered a fundamental truth about the oppressively patriarchal nature of human society is entirely unfounded.

To see why this basic mistake should have been made, it is necessary to return to the thought that causes are attributed, not experienced. The feminists’ concept of oppressive patriarchy is not an empirically verifiable concept, but one defined by its (invisible) causal role of oppressing women and generating misogyny. This is why sexism and misogyny are, for the feminist theorist, two sides of the same coin: they are the “cash value” of patriarchy. The concept of patriarchy itself lacks any cashable content: instead, certain attitudes and behaviours are dubbed sexist and misogynist, and then these attitudes are “explained” by attributing them to an abstraction the entire purpose of which is to explain just those attitudes. The circularity should be evident. Why is society systematically misogynist? Because of patriarchy. What is patriarchy? The system of oppressive male power that causes misogyny. The circularity is obscured, but not removed, if the background abstract force is reified, or even worse, personified, such that patriarchy comes to be conceived as a hidden malign presence.

This is a crucial insight. For the feminist social theorist, patriarchy is an invisible, but essentially hostile, and, no less essentially, male power: a deep and insidious form of hostile maleness that guarantees the sexism and misogyny that keep women in thrall. Belief in oppressive patriarchy is thus belief in an invisible form of evil that is a permanent threat to women’s prospects. The feminist’s task, then, is constantly to be on the alert against outbreaks of this hidden hostile force. This is why criticisms of feminist theory tend to provoke furious hostility rather than a considered response. After all, what can be more evil than insidiously to challenge the undeniable reality of evil? The feminist idea of patriarchy thus turns out to be rather like belief in the Devil. No wonder, then, that feminism so often seems more like fundamentalist religion than a social theory!

The main argument does not, however, depend on this thought. Whatever the status of “oppressive patriarchy” as an explanatory notion, the social structures alleged to be misogynist are no such thing. Of course, social inequalities can arise because of oppressive political orders. But such orders are usually imposed by violence, and maintained by fear. They are visibly distinct from the peaceful social orders that are modern Western societies. It is thus implausible to suppose that social inequality in societies like our own can be explained by reference to such oppressive systems. Moreover, the inequalities are explicable by an entirely different route, as the inevitable consequence of specific kinds of physical and social circumstances. Thus, as already emphasised, small and vulnerable traditional societies elevate the male warrior, while relegating women to a distinctly subordinate position. For the same reason, modern societies, dependent more on brains than brawn, and free enough to accord entertainment a high value, offer, for women as for men, status that reflects (and so varies according to) the ability to perform in the relevant ways.

This is a very positive story for modern women. All the more reason, then, for us to free ourselves from belief in the insidious, malign influence of misogyny and its posited source, oppressive patriarchy. The attempt to explain social status by reference to misogyny is both lacking in evidence and misguided in method. The further ambition, to explain misogyny by reference to an essentially oppressive patriarchy, seems simply to fall prey to a distinctively modern form of superstition.

Where does this leave feminism? In one important respect, it leaves it exactly where it already is. That is, the argument offered here in no way implies the rejection of the feminist goal of women’s equal participation in the workforce, and therefore of an overall average equality of status. In fact, the argument helps to show why modern feminism arose when it did, and why its central aims were and are, broadly speaking, a rational response to our contemporary social circumstances. In short, it shows that modern feminism has a rational core. At the same time, however, it also shows that this core has been wrapped in a bundle of explanatory fictions, themselves supported by nothing more than rhetorical heat. The moral is plain: the feminists need to get over their predilection for shallow rhetoric, and their self-deluding sense of themselves as heroically overcoming malign male forces. Misogyny and oppressive patriarchy are explanatory fictions that derive from nothing more than a failure to understand the underlying causes of social structures. They also do real harm, by implicitly denying that men no less than women want to enjoy constructive mutual relations. It is time to consign them to the dustbin of history.

[1] See, for example, Hypatia 24.3 (2009), “Transgender Studies and Feminism: Theory, Politics, and Gendered Realities’; Jill Johnston, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973); Carol Tavris and Carole Wade (ed.), The Longest War (2nd ed., 1984); Beverley Clack (ed.), Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition (1999).

[2] I use “misogyny” in its established meaning, of a hostile attitude towards women. Some feminists have invested the term with such a capacious meaning as to make it synonymous with any feminist concern. Thus Beverley Clack takes seriously the thought that Descartes” dualism is “subconscious misogyny’. Moreover, Locke’s distinction between the public and private realms also belongs in the collection because these ideas “have contributed to the suppression of women” (Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 95, 113). Such extravagant broadening of the meaning of the term is actually a tacit abandonment of the natural interpretation of claims of misogyny. One can “save” any theory by making its key explanatory terms sufficiently capacious.

[3] David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5.3-5.

[4] See, for example, Hume’s definitions of our idea of causation; Enquiry, 7.29.

[5] Note that the analogy does not imply that women are no more than children. The analogy is not that women are like children; it is that, in given circumstances, women are like children in respect of their vulnerability. It makes no global comparison between women and children, and so also makes no global judgment of their worth.

[6] On the psychology of vulnerability, see Jan Morris’s observation that female hormone therapy made her feel “physically freer and more vulnerable. I had no armour.” Jan Morris, Conundrum (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), 103.

[7] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990), II. 250.

[8] Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 375a-376c.

[9] It should not be forgotten that the status of an aristocratic woman was, then as now, far superior to that of a low-ranked male. Andromache’s status is far above Thersites’; and, for that matter, “grey-eyed Athena” outranks all merely mortal men. Close connection to a person of high rank is itself a source of status—not only, as in this case, for women, but also for children and other relatives. There is more to status than average status—but that is to complicate, not to deny, the account offered here.

[10] On the Scythian women, the connections between nomadism and the role of women (and the myth of the Amazons), see Neil Ascherson, Black Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 112-24, esp. 117; for the early Roman response to German lifestyle and women’s role, see Tacitus, Germania, Ch. 16-18, 45, in The Agricola and the Germania, trans. Harold Mattingly, rev. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 114-7, 140. (This difference is worth bearing in mind when considering the origins of the franchise for women in modern times: very largely in remote or frontier communities in which female self-reliance was—had to be—a fact of life.)

[11] Republic, 434d-441c.

[12] Ancient scholar that he was, Nietzsche was acutely aware of this aspect of the Socratic-Platonic project, and attacked it accordingly. For Nietzsche, it is only a “decadent” society that can suppose virtue (that is, human excellence, aretē) to be knowledge; an uncorrupted society affirms the values of heroic self-assertion (that is, thumos, the spirited part that Plato subjugates). It is no surprise, then, to see Nietzsche’s Zarathustra told that all men are warriors, women their servants: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 91 (‘Of Old and Young Women’).

[13] It is only “barbarians” who fail to see the difference: Aristotle, Politics, ed. Stephen Everson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1252b.

[14] Politics, 1252a.

[15] Politics, 1259b.

[16] Politics, 1260a.

[17] This is now an old theme. The sense that the nature of modern warfare had rendered the heroic warrior obsolete was an important theme in the literature of the trenches of Great War. The literary career of the German war hero Ernst Jünger was built around this theme. See, for example, his Storm of Steel (1920), trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Allen Lane; 2003).

[18] Of course, amongst the modern aristocrats and their acolytes, these credentials are all; but outside such circles, they can even be a social impediment.

[19] It is not that mothers aren’t valued at all: they are within the domestic world; but this does not generate public recognition. Women are perhaps less anxious for this than men; but it is in this respect that mothering is undervalued. However, it is not that there is any actual act of low valuing; rather, odd moments of political grandstanding aside, there is a failure of public acknowledgement of the domestic role. But this should not surprise: the domestic life is not a path to wealth, fame, or sporting success. Given that these are the main determinants of status in modern life, its social eclipse is inevitable. In short, the “undervaluing” of the domestic is simply the age-old fact that private life is no path to public esteem.

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