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Why History Hates Women

Updated: Feb 2

What is a woman? A scam invented by the Chrysler company to get free labour! (Abigail Thorn as Philosophy Tube, 2023)

If you’ve been online in the last week or so, you will surely have seen the backlash towards Jo Koy following his turn as host of the Golden Globes. Koy himself has admitted having an “off night", as his jokes have been declared to be misogynistic, lazy, and just generally bad. The two highest profile lead balloons of the night were Koy’s quips about famously-publicly-hated Taylor Swift, and the female directed & produced Barbie movie, but there were plenty more on offer, from Barry Keoghan’s penis size to Harry & Meghan. 

On Swift, Koy followed the lead of annoyed NFL fans, lamely joking that at least the Golden Globes have fewer shots of her face than the American Football matches which she has lately attended in support of her boyfriend. Of the Barbie movie, he joked (or attempted to) that the Barbenheimer rivalry of the summer was hilarious, because one film was based on a weighty tome of a book, and the other on “a plastic doll with big boobies”. Swift, incidentally, is halfway through the highest grossing tour by a solo musician ever, and Barbie broke box office records, outearning Oppenheimer. But the joke on both is that their fans and their figureheads are female. 

Part of the backlash to Koy’s deeply awkward evening is that it simply wasn’t entertaining. But the underwhelming jokes aren’t the reason that social media is full of clips of women from film and TV tearfully and angrily wishing that they could just be taken as seriously as men, be respected like men, be listened to like men. Far from being original, Koy’s jokes were just another demonstration of a deeply entrenched social norm; society doesn’t like women.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. For quite literally thousands of years, men have been telling women what to do, how to do it, and why we’re doing it wrong. 

History is written/painted/composed by rich, white men

To be clear, there is a difference between the narrative that history is a linear story of progress from the Bad Uncivilised Past to today’s Modern Enlightened Age (untrue) and recognising that powerful people look to the past to legitimise their power (true). 

Whether it is the Founding Fathers of the United States of America building their new houses of government to look “Roman”, or mediaeval religious leaders parroting the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s bizarre belief that women had fewer teeth than men [1], history is littered with examples of powerful men using (often fake) historical precedents to justify the continued existence of the patriarchal hierarchy. Men needed to justify their subjugation of women, so they looked for evidence from previous societies and empires to “prove” women’s natural inferiority.

As bonkers as mediaeval beliefs like missing teeth may sound to us now, some historical ideas are, depressingly, more familiar. The dichotomous characterization of women as pure virgins or corrupted sex maniacs was as rampant in the eleventh century as it is in online discourse today. 

And men haven’t just weaponised history by picking the best bits that support their current patriarchal social order. Easier than finding examples of female inferiority in the past is to simply ignore the existence of women outside of the home. 

Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn), sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, famous for writing bangers like the Wedding March, is known to have composed at least 450 pieces. Three years older than her brother, she was a skilled pianist and composer in her own right, but when Felix left on his grand tour to perform and compose for the rich and famous, Fanny stayed at home to get married. 

Despite her new role of wife and home-maker, Fanny kept composing, and Felix kept publishing her music under his name. In a letter to his mother in 1837, Felix even wrote “she is too much all that a woman ought to be for (publishing her music). She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled.” [2] 

Such was the strength of the belief that Fanny was “too much all that a woman ought to be” that one of her most radical pieces, Easter Sonata, was misattributed to Felix for 189 years. Archivists and musicologists dismissed Fanny as “just a housewife”, declaring that the music was too “masculine” to possibly be written by a woman. 

Assuming that creative skill was a strictly male thing was not limited to music. Judith Leyster (1609 - 1660), a Dutch painter in the 17th century, was the youngest member of the esteemed Haarlem Painters Guild and ran her own studio with three male apprentices by 1630. Despite her success, her entire body of work was attributed to either Frans Hals or her husband, Jan Miense Moleaner, for centuries.

Similarly, the Italian Baroque artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1653) had her work misattributed to her father. This is particularly galling, as Gentileschi’s work was not only technically brilliant, but full of female rage and resistance to male domination. Her version of Susanna and the Elders (1610) stands out from depictions by Gentileschi’s male contemporaries because her Susanna doesn’t hide her anger at being blackmailed into sex by two powerful men. With male painters like Caracci and Tintoretto preferring to focus on the voyeurism of the men and the beauty of the naked Susanna, Gentileschi’s work was too controversial and powerful to be recognised as the work of a woman, let alone a seventeen year old [3].

In a patriarchal society, recognising that women could rival men’s genius or that women actually had the same number of teeth as men meant admitting that the social order was, perhaps, not a natural order. As the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote, “the question of women’s equality – in art as in any other realm – devolves … on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose” [4]

In other words, the men who wrote history manipulated the story, erasing women’s names and picking and choosing traditions and beliefs to make sure that their position at the top of the pile was untouchable. Fortunately, times change. 

Wait, actually, society as constructed/maintained by rich, white men 

Or, perhaps they don’t. As Eleanor Janega puts it in her book, it “turns out that the way we think about and treat women is socially malleable, and while some of our constructs have changed, we continue to treat women as inferior to men.” [1]

Far from being able to chuckle wryly at the inequalities of the past, the reality is that we still live in a patriarchal world, where powerful people (more often than not, white men) write the narrative for the rest of us that keeps them squarely at the top, and women way down the heap. 

There are countless anecdotal examples of men assuming that women in a boardroom are secretaries, women being charged higher prices for car services because they are presumed to know nothing about their vehicle, and, of course, women being harassed, followed, and even attacked on the street. (Laura Bates has been collating accounts like this for years in the Everyday Sexism Project if you want some particularly depressing reading.)

The media which we consume every day also drills the social hierarchy with men at the top into our heads on a practically daily basis. Female politicians demonstrably lead their countries in a more equal and caring way, with more economic growth. But media coverage of elections compares female candidates to “head girls, primary school teachers, nurses” [5], undermining their authority and, by extension, presenting them as inferior to male candidates by default of being women. Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, was subjected to so much sexist bile in the media and from male politicians, that she gave a speech so impactful it has its own Wikipedia page

The patriarchal hierarchy is even reinforced by the technology in our homes and pockets. AI voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google have female voices as the default, and the majority of people don’t bother changing them. A 2019 report by Unesco found that these female-as-default modern day domestic servants reinforces the social belief that “women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available … with a blunt voice command”. The message is clear, women’s place is in the home, ready and willing to assist with any task, as long as it makes men’s life easier [6]

But wait, it gets worse (the twist is racism)

It is impossible to really talk about misogyny without talking about racism. And yet people (read: white people) routinely go out of their way to do so. We get told that the answer to gender inequality at work is to “Lean In” and be more assertive, ignoring the fact that black women are more likely to be thought of as angry or dominant, and Asian women more likely to be seen as “subservient” than white women

As bell hooks wrote, “white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first, white women second, though sometimes equal to black men who are ranked third, and black women last” [7]. Sometimes this hierarchy was enforced violently, in the form of slavery or segregation, and sometimes it was enforced incipiently, through things like beauty standards and social norms. 

We have seen the intertwining of morality and pseudoscience when it comes to enforcing patriarchal social control, but the link between them is even more obvious when it comes to racism. In 1625, an Englishman called Samuel Purchas published stories of exotic peoples and lands, writing of the people of Guinea, “they have no knowledge of God… they are very greedie eaters, and no less drinkers, and very lecherous.” In contrast to European beauty standards of thinness and whiteness, and social standards against vice and success, black people were presented as being naturally and scientifically worse, and therefore not deserving of equality [8]

Racist depictions of non-white peoples served both as a way of reinforcing existing social order in European societies and as a way of justifying colonialism. The rich white men (and women) at the top of the social hierarchy saw a way to increase their own wealth and power in the Americas (known to colonisers as the New World), with the minor problem of indigenous peoples having been there for thousands of years. Even worse, some of these indigenous nations were matriarchal and matrilineal, with their women having equal rights and leadership roles, and plenty of these women led anti-colonial resistance efforts. This clearly could not stand in the way of white Europeans colonising, sorry, "settling" the land and parcelling off the resources for profit. 

Violence was, naturally, part of the answer, with literally centuries of wars fought by colonising powers against the native peoples of what is now North and South America. Alongside military violence, the enforcement of imported European social hierarchy was an important tool for asserting colonial power over pre-Columbian societies. Witch-hunting was the favoured option, not only being an effective way to break the power of women but also helping to justify the colonisation of the Americas not as an obvious cash grab, but as a mission from God. 

Witch-hunting was used to enforce racist social order, as well as to destroy indigenous cultures. In the 18th century, slave owners used witch-hunting to discipline enslaved people. In fact, the Salem witch trials began with the arrest of Tituba, who was West Indian, and the last person to be executed as a witch in an English-speaking territory was an enslaved woman named Sara Bassett in 1730. Silvia Federici explains that witch-hunting was “a deliberate strategy used … to instill terror, destroy collective resistance, silence entire communities, and turn their members against each other … Above all … [it] was a means of dehumanization and as such the paradigmatic form of repression, serving to justify enslavement and genocide” [9].

A Plastic Doll with Big Boobies

The shared creation story of the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes area in what is now the United States and Canada is that of Skywoman. In one telling of this story, Skywoman falls from Skyworld, her fall broken by Geese who catch her. Turtle carries her on his back, and the animals – Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon – dive deep to try and find land for Skywoman to make her home. Muskrat, the smallest animal, gives his life to bring a tiny handful of mud to the surface. Recognising his sacrifice and the gifts of all the animals, Skywoman spreads the mud on Turtle’s back and dances in thanks, creating the garden of Turtle Island.

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian creation story of Adam and Eve ends with humans being expelled from the Garden of Eden into the barren outside world. Depending on your interpretation, the culprit is either Eve for her selfishness and disobedience by choosing to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or it is Eve for her weakness and susceptibility to being manipulated by a cosmic snake. Either way, Eve, the blueprint for all women, is the reason that humans must struggle for survival. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Sister, you got the short end of the stick…” [10].

For the last few centuries of Western civilisation, it is the Eve figure of womanhood and femininity which real women have been held against and found to be wanting. Subservient, docile, attractive, and whitewashed, women who don’t fit the ideal of womanhood as constructed by powerful men have been belittled at best, and eradicated at worst. 

Taylor Swift and Barbie being the butt of unfunny, lazy jokes by a man at an award ceremony for the top 0.1% is not the worst example of society hating women. It isn’t even close. But it is another reminder that, no matter how well women play the game and how much success we achieve, we will always be “Not A Man.” And being “Not A Man” means being less important, less worthy of respect, and less worthy of being allowed to exist. And if multi-millionaire, award winning, beautiful women aren’t worthy of respect from men, what hope do the rest of us have? 

Reading List:

Anna Beer - Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Angela Y. Davis - Women, Race & Class

bell hooks - Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism [7]

Caroline Criado Perez - Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Deborah Cameron and Sylvie Shaw - Gender, Power and Political Speech: Women and Language in the 2015 UK General Election [5]

Eleanor Janega - The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society [1]

Elinor Cleghorn - Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World

Letters of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy from 1833 to 1847 (via Project Gutenberg) [2]

Lily O’Farrell aka @vulgadrawings - Falling Out of Love with my Alexa (cartoon) [6]

Judith Butler - Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity 

Katy Hessel - The Story of Art Without Men [3]

Linda Nochlin - Why have there been no great women artists? [4]

Mary Ann Sieghart - The Authority Gap

Philosophy Tube - A Man Plagiarised My Work: Women, Money, and the Nation (YouTube)

Robin Wall Kimmerer - Braiding Sweetgrass [10]

Sabrina Strings - Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia [8]

Silvia Federici - Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation [9]

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