Misogyny is a particular kind of unjustified hatred or contempt for women in a man’s world. By “a man’s world,” I mean a society where men have more power and privileges than women. The United States is a man’s world, or “patriarchal society,” as it’s also called.
A few pieces of evidence: In 2019, 127 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising only 23.7 percent of the 535 members. We, the American people, have never elected a female president. Although some women are legally entitled to equal treatment by their employer, statistics still show a wage gap between men and women. In 2018, a full-time employed woman earned about eighty cents for every dollar a full-time employed man earned, according to Census data.
The million-dollar question is: why in the world would men hate women in a man’s world?
Misogyny falls into two broad categories: hate-based and contempt-based. The bedrock of hateful misogynists is what I call the ideal of femininity. Today’s prevailing feminine ideal portrays the ideal woman as thin, trim, youthful, pretty, alluring, mild-tempered, nurturing, compassionate, non-promiscuous, not too ambitious, and ladylike in manners and presentation. In certain segments of the population, women should also be domestic and subservient to live up to the prevailing standards. Hateful misogynists target women whose behaviours or looks deviate too much from the ideal of femininity.
Contemptuous misogynists regard women’s choices as limited by their biology. They see us women as inherently inferior because of our female nature. That nature is, according to them, filthy. Yet regardless of how hard we try, we cannot scrub off the filth. It’s built into our cultural heritage that the female body lacks purity and grace because of its inherent link to bodily stuff like sexual intercourse, menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth.
Female filth is incarnate in our womanhood, in the eyes of the filth-fearing misogynist. It is in virtue of our inherent female filth that he sees us as low. We are by our very nature inferior creatures, because of the unbreakable tie between us and bodily stuff, manipulation, irrationality or other dirty traits.
This resounds the question: why in the world would men hate women in a man’s world? The short answer is that misogyny, when widespread, can serve as a tool in a patriarchal society for hindering progress for women or increasing the power and privileges of men. Despite being morally reprehensible and socially unjustified, male misogyny is thus rational in the prudential sense of rational.
But this raises a more intractable question: why in the world would women side with male misogynists in a man’s world? This clearly isn’t rational, even in the prudential sense of rational, is it?
While men tend to take the lead in far-reaching misogynistic movements, very many women are misogynists too. They are zealous converts to the same ideology as their male counterparts and deploy similar, and occasionally worse, hateful tactics. In fact, evidence suggests that on Twitter, women use misogynistic language more frequently than men do.
Like their male counterparts, female misogynists are driven by either hate for women who stray from the feminine ideal or contempt for women in general on account of their alleged inherent filthy nature, for instance, their association with bodily stuff or their manipulativeness.
The female misogynists who are most salient in America today fall into four categories, which I will call: The Puritan, The Self-Hater, The Self-Contemnor, and The She-Devil.
Like the hateful male misogynist, The Puritan regards the ideal woman as thin, trim, youthful, pretty, alluring, mild-tempered, nurturing, compassionate, non-promiscuous, not too ambitious, ladylike in manners and presentation, and sometimes also as domestic and subservient to men. She takes herself to be pretty darn close to ideal, possessing the feminine qualities she believes to be the most important ones.
What makes The Puritan a misogynist is not her support of the feminine ideal but her hatred of women who purposely distance themselves from conventional femininity and traditional gender norms, such as feminists, career women and working moms. She targets these kinds of women because they are, in her opinion, bad women who wilfully or recklessly offend against the natural order of things.
Despite regarding themselves as domestic goddesses, Puritans are often public provocateurs who have made it their life’s mission to discipline their lost sisters and eventually get them back on the right track. Some are celebs with their own glittery YouTube channels, flashy podcasts, on-fire Mommy blogs or star reality television shows; the rest tend to be actively involved in bull-headed antifeminist groups like Women Against Feminism or Women for Christian Domestic Discipline (a.k.a. wife spanking).
Michelle Duggar, a submissive and holier-than-thou housewife and reality television star, is a prime example of a Puritan female misogynist. She advocates for complete female submission. In a blog post for newlyweds, she shares advice on how women can keep their husbands happy: “And so be available, and not just available, but be joyfully available for him. Smile and be willing to say, “Yes, sweetie I am here for you,” no matter what, even though you may be exhausted and big pregnant and you may not feel like he feels” (“Michelle Duggar’s Marriage Advice for Newlyweds,” Michelle’s Blog Oct. 8, 2015).
Duggar’s good-subservient-girl misogyny is not as rare as one might have hoped. Prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, a number of women tweeted the hashtag #repealthe19th to demand the repeal of women’s voting rights after a Trump win was shown to be the certain outcome if only men were to vote in the upcoming election.
The Misogynistic Self-Hater, the second type of woman-on-woman hater, is also prone to hatred of women who purposely distance themselves from the feminine ideal and the traditional gender norms, for example, women who are competitive, controlling, prone to anger, or who behave in a manner that isn’t lady-like. She pays homage to traditional gender norms and uses any opportunity she sees to preach their social virtue. Men should be dominant alphas; women should be soft and compliant. But unlike The Puritan, The Self-Hater regards herself as one of the badly behaved women and despises herself for lacking the willpower to become more feminine. Self-haters tend to be in denial about their own self-hatred and sometimes also about their hatred of other women who purposely go against the feminine ideal.
Like their male counterparts, female misogynists are driven by either hate for women who stray from the feminine ideal or contempt for women in general on account of their alleged inherent filthy nature, for instance, their association with bodily stuff or their manipulativeness. The female misogynists who are most salient in America today fall into four categories: The Puritan, The Self-Hater, The Self-Contemnor, and The She-Devil.
When disclosing why she decided to embrace her femininity, Venker briefly mentions that she “had zero interest in [her] husband adopting a more feminine role.” This may at first seem like a logical reason to change. But if we dig a little deeper, Venker’s remark turns out to reflect a more depressing fact about her psychology.
Her claim that she “had zero interest in [her] husband adopting a more feminine role” implies that she wanted her husband to be the person in charge, the alpha. She clung to this desire, even while embracing her alpha ways in her marriage. But this means that her excuse for changing her ways wasn’t logical after all. Cognitive dissonance prompted her to adjust: she wanted herself and her husband to be the alpha leader. Something must give.
By her own account, Venker’s internal conflict, that is, her desire for both her and her husband to be the alpha leader was a great source of distress. The only feasible way for her to soothe her agony was to silence one of her dissonant desires. But there is little sympathy in our society for powerless men who cave to dominant women. So, it’s only natural that Venker’s wish to be the alpha in her marriage inspired self-hatred. She conquered her self-hatred by muzzling her craving for the alpha role, and to legitimise her choice she then embarked on her book-writing journey.
The Misogynistic Self-Contemnor, one of the two contemptuous female misogynists, has internalised the myth of female filth. As a result, she has adopted a general attitude of contempt toward every one of her own filthy kind, including herself. She regards women as inferior to men. In her view, women are inferior to men because of their inherent negative qualities, for instance, their promiscuity, manipulativeness, dishonesty, irrationality, incompetence or stupidity. She tends to be in denial about how her own self-contempt underlies her judgmental attitude toward other women.
I have heard people insist that the idea of self-contempt is incoherent. If you have contempt for me, you look down on me, because you see me as inferior to yourself. But just as you cannot be shorter than yourself, you cannot be inferior to yourself, or so the objection goes.
Although it is true that you cannot literally be shorter than, or inferior to, yourself, we can see that the objection to self-contempt must go wrong somewhere, because by the same token, we can infer that we cannot blame ourselves, because in blame we also take the judgmental highchair and look down at the target with disapproval. But viewing yourself as superior and also looking down on yourself with a judgmental attitude is scarcely less contradictory than having contempt for yourself.
The fact is that we can and do blame ourselves. All the time. In fact, self-directed judgmental attitudes are deeply ingrained in our culture. This is encapsulated in the form of sayings such as: “You have only yourself to blame,” “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and “Don’t make yourself a victim of yourself!”
We are able to cast judgment on ourselves by playing distinct roles that reflect different aspects of ourselves. We can and do often play the roles of both the judge and the accused. If you talk to yourself, you may be familiar with this sort of role playing. (Note to self: “My God, you’re a despicable piece of shit. A fucking pathetic looser. Get your shitty act together!”)
When we cast judgments on ourselves, our conscience plays the role of the cynical unfeeling judge, and the part of us that feels bad plays the role of the accused. The division of labour is one between reason and passion.
Self-contempt just is what we refer to as self-loathing. It materialises when your conscience is cast in the role of the contemnor, and your emotions play the role of the contemned, who is made to feel low and appalling. Adolf Hitler allegedly struggled with self-contempt on account of shame he felt about his Jewish roots.
The Misogynistic She-Devil, the second strand of contemptuous female misogynist, sees herself as superior to other women and on level with, if not above, the top alpha males in her world. Other women are, in her opinion, inferior to men because of their inherent filthy traits, for instance, their association with bodily stuff or their incompetence, but somehow, she was miraculously born without those vices. The She-Devil might possess some stereotypical feminine virtues like beauty and slenderness. But she perceives herself as instantiating stereotypical masculine qualities such as intelligence, strength of character and rationality, and her behaviour can at times be more manly than that of her male co-workers, classmates or friends. Don’t be surprised if you find out that she can outdrink all of them.
She is in constant competition with other women and would rather kick a woman off the career ladder or out of school than help her progress. But she masterfully escapes detection and punishment for her bad behavior. As you wait for the elevator with your box of personal effects and your withering office plant, your rival is looking down on you from her vocational highchair, her triumphant laughter hanging in the air.
In her piece “Why women are the worst misogynists,” published in Daily Mail on August 17, 2016, Vivienne Parry, a British science journalist and broadcaster, describes her mother as a misogynist of this type. When Parry revealed to her mother that she wanted to study science at the university, her mother responded: “Whatever for?” Parry was taken aback. But it made her wonder: “Why was my mother so against helping anyone of her own gender climb to the same heights as she did? Why was she so loath to laud female achievement – even when the female forging ahead was her own daughter?” When looking at the past through her contemporary lens, the answer to her question turned out to be terrifyingly simple: “I fear my mother was a misogynist,” she writes.
A cutthroat career businesswoman, Parry’s mother was more manly than the men and could easily outdrink any of them. Parry writes that her mother thought of herself as the sole woman who deserved a spot at the company’s top. She looked down on other women with contempt and would rather stab a female co-worker in the back than help her progress.
According to Parry, female misogyny is even more prevalent today than in her Mother’s Day. Male misogyny runs rampant in today’s society. But, as Parry points out, female misogyny can be even more toxic. Women may not punch you in the face, though that once happened to me, but if you get in their way or you rise to stardom faster than they do, watch out. Before you have time to blink, they may have gotten you fired, run off with your husband, and adopted your kids. According to Parry, “when there are so few women at higher levels, many of them think they must behave like a tigress, using every weapon at their disposal to protect their position against other ‘sisters.’”
By taking herself to be above female inferiority, The She-Devil is thinking like a man and hence avoids the negative effects of being a woman in a man’s world.
So, there you have it. In the hands of men and she-devils, misogyny is a tool for carving out a path for themselves. Using this tool is rational in the prudential sense of rational. Of course, thus understood, rationality is hardly something to be proud of. It reeks of narcissism. So, let’s not be too quick to condemn the female misogynists. They are just prisoners in a man’s world – the kind of world where you win only when you put yourself and your own selfish interests first.
This article is adapted from Dr. Brogaard’s new book:
Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2020).