The History of Sexism and Misogyny Belongs to All of Us

sexism-mural

I was raised in a conservative Christian home and was a leader in the Christian homeschool speech and debate world.

Contrary to many people’s expectations, I “rebelled,” in the sense that my upbringing lead me to the sort of activism many conservative Christians fear most. But life is not linear and I am not a stereotype. My rebellion may have led me to fight for marginalized groups, but it didn’t lead me towards anti-Christianity, let alone militant atheism.

That’s not a comment on the value of Christianity or the value of atheism. It’s simply descriptive. I left the Religious Right, but I don’t exactly feel at home anywhere else either.

One reason for this is that, as I’ve tried to find a new home, I’ve found that the problems that caused me to forsake the culture of my youth are just as present in other cultures. The fight against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, for example, transcends sectarian lines. More importantly, the problems of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia themselves also transcend sectarian lines.

Part of dismantling the fundamentalism of my youth was realizing — just as one example — how horrifyingly cruel the Christian Church has treated women throughout the ages.

It chills me to the bone to read what the forefathers of my childhood faith had to say about women.

For example:

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Saul “Paul” of Tarsus (c. 5-67):

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.

Saint Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215):

Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.

Tertullian (c. 160-225):

Woman is a temple built over a sewer.

Augustine (c. 354 – 430)

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.

Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546):

The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.

John Wesley (c. 1703-1791):

Wife: Be content to be insignificant. What loss would it be to God or man had you never been born.

Mark Driscoll (c. 1970-present):

Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.

*****

I am ashamed and disgusted by this heritage.

I am angry that no one bothered to talk about this when I was raised to respect such people. I am dismayed that, through its continual silence about this history of sexism and misogyny, the Christian Church refuses to own its past.

This is exactly why I left my culture.

And yet.

Yet I cannot run with open arms into the embrace of other cultures. Take atheism, for example. The history of atheism is similarly riddled with sexism and misogyny.

For example:

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Denis Diderot (c. 1713-84) on the woman’s uterus, “Sur les Femmes”:

Woman carries inside herself an organ that is susceptible to terrible spasms, determining and arousing in her imagination phantoms of every kind. It is in this hysterical delirium that she revisits her past, rushes forward into the future, confuses all time into the present. It is from this organ, unique to her gender that all sorts of extraordinary ideas emanate. ~ Denis Diderot (c. 1713-84)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778), “On the Origin of Inequality”:

Woman are to be “the sex that ought to obey.”

Concerning patriarchy, Rousseau sets forth the following according to John T. Scott in The Social Contract: “[Patriarchy is] assumed to exist according to the dictates of nature. Emile is advised that ‘the patriarchical rural life’ is ‘the most natural’ for men, and the young Sophie is correspondingly told that when Emile becomes her husband, ‘It is the will of nature’ that she should obey him as her master.”

According to Scott, Rousseau justifies the patriarchical dominion of man over woman in his Discourse on Political Economy in the following way: “There must be a single, final authority within the family to decide issues on which opinion is divided. Second, since women are sometimes, however infrequently, incapacitated by their reproductive functions, this single authority must belong to the male.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (c. 1788-1860), from “On Women”:

One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or for great physical labor… Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is the actual human being, ‘man.’

Auguste Comte (c. 1798-1857), in letters of correspondence to John Stuart Mill:

[Comte] returned to his comparison between woman and children, calling women ill-formed children, and added that his conception of domestic life was “definition,” empirically drawn from an experience of over twenty years. He became blunt, spoke of women’s “inborn inferiority,” of their being unfit for abstraction and intellectual concentration; he accused them of being unable to overcome passion, of yielding to feelings… Comte concluded that education and training cannot alter the basic inferiority of women… Comte refused to even discuss the merits or potential of an appropriate education… For Comte, the primary function of women remained what it had been traditionally: that of motherhood.

Friedrich Nietzsche (c. 1844-1900), “Ecce Homo”:

Has my answer been heard to the question of how one cures a woman—“redeems” her?  One gives her a child.  Woman needs children.

Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil”:

Here and there they even want to turn women into freethinkers and scribblers—as if a woman without piety would not seem utterly obnoxious and ridiculous to a profound and godless man.

Nietzsche, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”:

Women are still cats and birds. Or at best cows.

Ayn Rand (c. 1905-1982), writing  for her hero protagonist Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, who is reflecting on his wife:

She seemed to be a woman who expected and deserved a pedestal; this made him want to drag her down to his bed. To drag her down, were the words in his mind; they gave him a dark pleasure, the sense of a victory worth winning … He felt – a profound pride at the thought of granting to a woman the title of his wife … almost as if he felt that he wished to honor a woman by the act of possessing her.

Richard Dawkins (c. 1941-present), attempting to downplay the sexual harassment of American women by joking about violence against Muslim women:

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

*****

Sexism and misogyny are universal problems.

I don’t say that to minimize the problems. I don’t say that to deflect with a “Hey, you’re a misogynistic asshole too!” I say that simply as a personal explanation of why I am reticent to join a new community — whether Christian, atheist, Buddhist, or whatever.

I want to surround myself by people who take the struggle against oppression and marginalization seriously. That means I won’t surround myself simply with Christians or simply with atheists. I will welcome anyone and everyone who takes the struggle seriously, regardless of their opinions about whether a magical old white guy lives in the sky.

And sometimes the hardest thing to communicate is the first and foremost thing we all need to recognize in the struggle: the history of sexism and misogyny belongs to all of us.

We need to own this together.

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8 thoughts on “The History of Sexism and Misogyny Belongs to All of Us”

  1. *shudder* I’m apart of no group too. I am be a Christian, but I don’t do anything with them, it seems. Too much . . . well, I dont’ have time to start.

  2. Good except the St. Paul quote. It IS in the Bible. You still believe the Bible, right?? And the Bible does also come out strongly against homosexuality, though not for persecuting anyone.

    1. The Bible contains all sorts of things, including genocide, infanticide, rape, sexism, and misogyny. Just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean it somehow becomes other than what it is.

  3. It’s true. Neither Christianity nor atheism inoculates people against sexism. I’ve seen misogyny in Christian communities, and sadly, I’ve seen it among atheists too. (I left an atheist group because of several members’ misogyny and homophobia, among other reasons.)

    On the bright side, I’ve met people of faith as well as atheists who were committed to equality. Let’s encourage those voices and add our own voices to the struggle for equality.

  4. I have been really thinking about what you have written here. If you are prepared to speak out against sexism, homophobia and misogyny then we are on the same team, and we are part of the same global community.
    You raise a couple of issues though
    I live in New Zealand and have been in a non-religious family my whole life. It would never occur to us to create a community around our non-belief. My community is the town where I live and I belong to various groups based on shared interests or geographic location.
    I am an atheist because that is what you call someone who doesn’t believe in god. I am a lesbian because that is what you call a woman who prefers women. These are not cultural issues for me, simply statements of fact.
    I don’t see a “history of atheism”; there is merely a growing collection of comments made by people who may or may not be atheists. They don’t represent a community, group or movement.
    If you don’t believe in god, call it what it is, you don’t have to join any community or culture to do that. It is also none of our business, unless you think that your beliefs are shaping your opinions.

  5. Atheism is the religion of no religion. Atheists can’t be sexist, the people performing that action can. Christianity is the religion of 1 supreme ‘white male’ and as we are apparently made under his image, females are said to be inferior as they don’t fit into that picture. Christians are taught to be sexist(maybe not sexist) and homophobic (definitely), and as they freely follow that particular religion, it’s acceptable to say Christians are sexist. atheism is not even a religion, we don’t follow any rules, we just live our lives and the fact that we have a history is untrue and we cannot be blamed as a group for the actions of some people. Christians can, as they have followed the same religion, only changing the fact that they cant have obviously unethical quotes in the bible. All in all, Christian history, one of sexism, racism, genocide, murder, etc. can be linked to that religion, atheism cannot be linked.

    1. @Lewis: My sentiments exactly. Atheists are not “one historical group” and thus cannot be blamed for their actions as stemming from their “shared belief,” as unlike theists they don’t have a shared belief. Atheists just live their lives however they see fit, without paying mind to how closely their following a scripture.

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