In A Word: The True History of “Misogyny”

In A Word: The True History of “Misogyny”

by Christine E. Hutchins

There is very little new under the sun. Misogyny in art, literature and other records dates as far back in Western culture as documentation itself.

Misogyny comes from Greekmisogunia from misos (‘hatred’) and gyn (‘woman’), explains

But misogyny as a practice — the enforcement and celebration of the subordination of women — flourished unnamed in English until the seventeenth century.

Only when men and women began to write against rather than with culturally entrenched misogynist practices did misogyny get a name in England and Ireland. “Misogyny” as a concept requires people who are prepared to name it for what it is: hatred of women, an unnatural and unjust subordination of one part of the population by another.

In the early seventeenth-century men and women began writing poems, pamphlets, and plays against people who mistreat and malign women.

The tract that precipitated the introduction of “misogyny” to the language was Joseph Swetnam’s 1615 attack on women, colorfully titled The Arraignment of Lewde, idle, froward, and unconstant women: Or, the vanitie of them, choose you whether.

Swetnam minces no words in his tirade against women. Chapter 1, “Moses describeth a woman thus: ‘At the first beginning,’ saith he, ‘a woman was made to be a helper unto man.’ And so they are indeed, for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painfully getteth. He also saith that they were made of the rib of a man, and that their froward [difficult] nature showeth; for a rib is a crooked thing good for nothing else, and women are crooked by nature, for small occasion will cause them to be angry.”

Swetnam forges on with book-length alliterating abuse and jest, all at the expense of women. “[S]he was no sooner made but straightaway her mind was set upon mischief.”

The Oxford English dictionary cites 1656 as the first use of “misogyny” in English, an error then repeated by William Safire in his New York Times column. In fact, the first use in English was during the Swetnam controversy four decades earlier when opponents nicknamed Swetnam and his followers “Misogynos.”

Writers’ responses to Swetnam were swift, fierce and landmark. Previously in European letters, women had written the occasional defense. Christine de Pizan’s fifteenth-century French Book of the City of Ladies championed women in opposition to Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s reduction of women in The Romance of the Rose to voiceless roses and disembodied “notches” through which men aim their “spears.”

Following Swetnam’s attack, men and women writers undertook the first concerted and collective attack on misogyny in European letters, as Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus point out in their edited selection of seventeenth-century English defenses of women, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy over Women in England 1540-1640.

In 1617 Rachel Speght published Mouzell for Melastomus [A Muzzle for the Evil-mouthed] Cynicall Baiter of, and Foul-Mouthed Barker against Evah’s Sex.Speght’s defense gave rise in swift succession to other defenses of women and attacks on detractors. Esther Sowernam’s Esther hath Hanged Haman and Constantia Munda’s The Worming of a Mad Dog followed in 1617.

Then around 1618, Queen Anne’s players produced an anonymous play, Swetnam the Woman-Hater, at the Red Bull Theater, later printed for reading and home-acting by non-theater-going audiences.

The play comically highlights Swetnam’s swishy antics as a fencing-instructor who falls in love with and pens flowery sonnets to a man who has dressed in drag as a woman and in no way returns his affections. In the end, Swetnam’s would-be Amazonian lover roundly rejects him, leaving Swetnam in the unfriendly hands of a rampaging court of women who declare him, “Guiltie, guiltie, guiltie. Guiltie of Woman-slander, and defamation.”

Misogyny acquires a name only insofar as it receives more than the occasional push-back. Without the active awareness and engagement of men and women who both recognize and criticize the subordination of women, misogyny appears in English language literature and arts as proverbial truth, cultural inheritance and natural fact.

These seventeenth-century books, with their first usage of “misogyny” as a word in English, enabled English speakers to move from widespread unselfconsciously misogynist assumptions to Mary Wollstonecraft’s selfconsciously feminist declaration in her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She writes that “argument to justify the depriving of men (or women) of their natural rights, is one of the absurd sophisms [twisted and illogical unreason] which daily insult common sense.”

By returning to Greek for the word “misogyny,” the anti-Swetnam writers found a linguistic symbol that enabled them to name, and thus challenge, the subordination of women for what it is — a social arrangement that is not based on any natural fact and hence, changeable.

September 16, 2009

Christine E. Hutchins, is an Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY, where she teaches literature and writing. Her doctorate is in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her scholarly writings are included in the Ben Jonson Journal, Reformation and other publications and include works on Shakespeare, Chaucer, lyric poetry and combatants on all sides of the early modern Reformations of Religion. She is the Book Editor of On The Issues Magazine.