Misogyny: Hatred, Entrenched Prejudice, or Both?

My dream about a misogynist. Or rather, it was more like a nightmare!

Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, made a riveting speech in parliament about sexism and misogyny and double standards. It was a riveting speech because it came from a fire in her belly that finally said, on behalf of all women, “We have had enough of this demeaning behavior.”

The use of the word misogyny in parliament has now highlighted it for closer scrutiny. While the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary are set to broaden its definition of misogyny after Gillard’s speech to add what they think is its “popular” use – “an entrenched prejudice against women” – I have to ask, “But what underlies this entrenched prejudice?” I believe it is actually hatred, but so disguised within acts of prejudice against women that we are blind to the barb of “hatred” hidden there.

Perhaps it is well past time we finally admitted that there is, in actuality, more hatred between the sexes than we have the honesty to admit. This is blatantly obvious to me where many young women – especially in New Zealand – are now using men as sexual conquests – as men have used women in the past, and continue to use them in the present. Using each other in this way has nothing to do with love. It has nothing to do with respect. It has everything to do with objectifying. And once we are mere sexual objects to each other, it dehumanises us all. I feel that this has nothing to do with “entrenched prejudice against,” but underlying hatred. And this is true for both misogynists and misandrists.

I first experienced this “prejudice against women” when I was born a girl and knew my father really wanted a son. Then during the 1960s, while working in a bank and training boys straight from school, I was angry when they were promoted above me six months later to earn more money. The final humiliation for me was that the bank’s policy at the time required that women resign when they married – presumably so they could get on with their real vocation: having babies. At that time, even my stepmother bought into the idea that after leaving school, a young woman only worked in a job to fill in the time before she found a suitable mate and started a family. I had to leave school at sixteen because it was “more important to educate my brothers since they would be the breadwinners.” Unhappy within her own vocation as a mother and housewife, my stepmother was perhaps determined that I should not ‘escape my destiny,’ completely unaware that the world was rapidly changing.

But I was aware of these changes and, after marrying at 20, decided to complete my final two years of high school by correspondence to become a teacher. It would give me something in common with my teacher husband, I reasoned, something we could share before having children. Rather than being happy for me, he stopped talking to me as soon as I entered teachers college. I didn’t realize until much later that he was actually threatened by this change and saw me as competing against him. Added to this, my parents-in-law expected me to start having babies – even though we had no financial foundation to do so.

What I also couldn’t come to grips with was how many men saw women as being “out of their place” as soon as they entered the workforce. And “their place” usually meant in the kitchen cooking their meals, or, as Tony Abbot said, “doing the ironing.” To put women back in “their place” – even if psychologically – many men demean them to undermine their confidence. In 1996 I encountered this attitude in New Zealand when I began teaching twelve-year-old Maori boys who, very vocally, insisted that I should not be teaching because I “belonged in the kitchen,” as all women do.

Since then it has become clear to me that what we are dealing with here is resistance to the changing roles of women who were initially pushed out of the home because they were needed in the war effort during two world wars. Afterwards they were needed to help rebuild the country because of the huge loss of manpower. Women also increasingly assumed the physical and financial burden of caring for families – not because they wanted to take over the roles of men, but because they had to. This fact is often overlooked.

Also overlooked is the fact that women took on the physical burden of caring for families during the pioneering days in many British colonies. In New Zealand, for instance, many men were absent from home for months at a time building roads and clearing forests. A ninety-six-year-old Dalmatian woman told me how she hated her early life in New Zealand because the men would be away for months gathering Kauri gum and then, during their brief time at home, often got their wives pregnant before disappearing for another few months.

What model did this then provide for the sons who would later become husbands and fathers? Felix Donnelly, a Catholic priest who wrote Big Boys Don’t Cry, noted that:

New Zealand woman has had a power and influence that has rarely been fully recognized. Like her Jewish counterpart, she has dominated the family scene and particularly its male members. The dominant mother role is one that I have frequently encountered in my work with youth. When I have questioned women about this role, they generally tell me that it is forced on them, because they are the ones who spend most of the time with the children, because their husbands are not deeply involved or almost uninvolved in the upbringing of the children, and because of the inadequacy of their relationship with their husbands.

In New Zealand especially, there are high numbers of absent fathers who were also absent husbands. This was also my experience in Australia. After giving up my teaching career to be a full-time mother to two children in my second marriage, I was stunned when my farmer husband informed me one morning that since the paddocks were too wet to plough, he was taking his father on a ten-day holiday to Queensland (a thousand miles away from the farm in Victoria). He gave me instructions to pick up two dead sheep in the horse paddock and to check the gates at the far paddock each day as some “bloody idiot” kept opening them and letting out the sheep. Ignoring my protests that the ewes were still lambing, he was packed and gone before lunch, leaving me to ‘mind’ the 1,000 acres of sheep-grazing property. His parting words were, “If you need to kill a sheep, aim between the eyes.”

I was city born and bred. My farming experience was therefore limited. I had never delivered a lamb. I had never shot an animal. Yet that first morning, after breastfeeding my three-month-old baby and handing her over to my mother-in-law, I saddled my horse and went off to check the lambing ewes. What I feared most greeted me over the crest of a hill. A ewe was down with her lamb half-delivered. The lamb was dead and crows had pecked out one of its eyes. After great effort I managed to pull the lamb out, along with the afterbirth, fully aware that the ewe might not make it. Over the following days as she grew weaker, crows circling overhead like vultures waiting to peck out her eyes, I finally got the 22 and shot her.

But that was not all I killed that day. I killed that part of me who needed to rely on the father of my children as support while we worked co-operatively together to raise a family, for this was not the first time I had been left like this, nor was it the last. Not only did I reclaim the independence I had achieved before I married him, but I developed a self-sufficiency and self-reliance that would never again allow me to rely on any man.

The power struggle and demeaning behavior that ensued, aimed at putting me ‘back in my place,’ finally ended in violence when my husband tried to forcefully regain the ground he had lost through his protracted absences over the years. The only thing I saw in his eyes the day he tried to strangle me was hatred. After I left the marriage, the demeaning behavior, the violence, and the bullying continued through the Family Court.

Jocelyn Scutt wrote in her book, Even in the Best of Homes: Violence in the Family, that when a wife batterer was asked why he “subconsciously wanted to dominate his wife, he replied, ‘I expect it would come down to whether you’re frustrated because you haven’t got any power in any other field, because in the work environment I have no authority… It comes back to the concept of power… A guy’s home is his kingdom or something like that. That’s why I want to dominate in that area, although I know it’s crap.’”

It was clear to me long before I left this marriage that part of my husband’s sense of powerlessness stemmed from his frustration working with his elderly father on the farm. His father refused to listen to his ideas on farm and crop management and ran the farm so inefficiently that when drought descended upon us, he could no longer pay his son a wage. I returned to full-time teaching while my husband worked unpaid, breaking all his promises to help in the house and garden. Since he had no desire to work as a team for the benefit of our home and family, I took charge of the situation and took our four-year-old daughter to school with me, hired a housekeeper, and became even more self-sufficient.

After these experiences, and also my later work as a counsellor, I have come to understand misogyny and sexism and double standards not only as issues of power, but also issues of unmet emotional and physical needs denied boys by their mothers and later, their fathers. I learned that wanting power over others stems from the frustration of feeling a lack of power within oneself. Essentially it represents a lack of love of oneself and trying to get this love from an external source. It is the dependence, insecurity, and eventually addiction or substance abuse this may lead to that can cause uncomfortable and even overwhelming feelings of powerlessness and loss of control. This is the deadly mix that leads to family violence.

If we want to change this, and we need to, it is time to change the way we parent our children. Boys need to learn that it is essential to feel their feelings and know that it’s okay to cry. They need to learn empathy through feeling that they are loved and cared about and valued. They need to develop a close and secure attachment with their primary caregiver. They need a positive role model in their father to know how best to develop their own masculinity. This is the way they can develop into “whole” human beings who have a healthy balance of masculine and feminine qualities, able to give and receive love unconditionally, extend and receive respect, and feel empathy to make just and humane decisions that will serve the highest good of all. In this way they can work cooperatively with both men and women and value their contribution rather than competing for power and control.

I therefore believe that instead of ‘softening’ the meaning of misogyny, we need to look more closely at the underlying causes that went into creating a hatred of women, for there are many more than what I have outlined here. There was the burning of nine million ‘witches’, for example, because they were ‘evil,’ the science of craniology and later, standardized intelligence tests that firmly established in the minds of many men that women were intellectually inferior. Unfortunately though now proven incorrect, these beliefs often still remain and, in the words of one New Zealand man I met, “Women are a necessary evil” and “only a receptacle for toxic sperm build-up.” But what astonished me even more was reading in a letter from a male friend I regarded as highly intelligent:

“Before I met you I was a misogynist, [and believed] that women weren’t much good except to bed. But you can think too! Amazing. It’s inspired me to completely reassess sex, and consequently, all other matters.”

This leads me to wonder just how much more prejudice exists within a society where it has now become ‘politically incorrect’ to even admit such thoughts, let alone express them. Has this era of ‘political correctness’ merely sent these thoughts and beliefs underground where they will suddenly reappear one day in a more intense way? And is this why we are now seeing more domestic violence within our homes, and sexual harassment, intimidation, and bullying of women in the workplace?

All this aside, however, while we are wondering about this and taking a penetrating look at the underlying causes of misogyny, women also need to identify their underlying hatred of men, encapsulated in the word misandrist, for unfortunately, I have found, like often attracts like.

Below is (now former) Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘fire in the belly’ speech.


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