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Issue Date:  November 10, 2006

Misogyny: The World's Oldest Prejudice by Jack Holland MISOGYNY: THE WORLD'S OLDEST PREJUDICE
By Jack Holland
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 320 pages, $14.95
Women as scapegoats


In her moving foreword to this history of contempt for women, from ancient Greeks to present-day rappers, Jack Holland’s daughter Jenny tells us how her father died from a rare, rapid cancer at the height of his powers just after finishing Misogyny. A BBC journalist in Belfast, Jack Holland’s nonfiction was related to politics and terrorism in Northern Ireland, where he had grown up in a besieged Catholic enclave. In the last 15 years of his life, he and his American wife lived and worked in New York.

The author’s own introduction begins appropriately with a short verse from Seamus Heaney about the barbarous gang rape of a Pakistani woman for her brother’s offense. Mr. Holland had been a student of the poet in Belfast, and was as much at home with literature as with politics. The first of his four novels was The Prisoner’s Wife (1982), about the suffering of women when their men were away at war.

Author Holland observes that “Unlike racism,” according to most men “misogyny is not ... a prejudice but something almost inevitable.” It is “too obvious to be noticed.” It’s “pervasive, persistent, pernicious and protean.” His book provides overwhelming evidence to prove the point.

Misogyny began, he contends, in the eastern Mediterranean, where Hesiod’s story of Pandora’s box, 800 years before Christ, reflected the dominant cultural attitude of the Greeks to women: “Contempt was her due for exciting the lust that leads us into the cycle of birth and death, from which we can never break free.”

Tapping a rich treasury of references and quotations, the author argues that both Plato and Aristotle supported this attitude of sexual dualism, representing a society that saw woman as “other,” not normative humans like men. Though Homer dramatized the suffering of women with power and compassion, his epic poems of the Trojan War and its aftermath also stressed that a woman was its cause and revealed women’s powerlessness in matters of law and state.

Roman women were more visible historically; they struggled against the complete rule of husbands and the frequency of female infanticide, but made little headway. A good storyteller, Mr. Holland brings to life a number who tried to rebel against their role, not all prudently or for the common good. Julia, the daughter of the emperor Augustus, for example, exposed her father’s inability to control his own family by flouting all the moral laws she could.

The author moves on to show how early Christianity was affected by the misogyny of the Roman Empire in which it came to power. He emphasizes the contrast between the positive attitude and behavior of Jesus and St. Paul’s radical affirmation of male-female equality in Galatians with the growing restrictions placed on women in the third and later centuries. Negative opinions and prohibitions from Tertullian, Augustine, and other church fathers, as well as the attempt to separate a pure Mary from other women, began to overshadow the positive attractions the church held for women.

Misogyny has so many characters and stories it is not meant to be read at one sitting or summarized briefly. There are sections on ancient and medieval Christian cultures, the rise of modernity, the Victorian era, Freud, Darwin, Hitler, and women’s struggles for the vote and control of their fertility. Mr. Holland ranges from philosophical analysis to journalism where each is applicable, touching seriously on psychology and cultural phenomena throughout. Jack the Ripper is taken as seriously as Nietzsche.

His book is thoughtful, well-informed, not at all academic, though it has helpful notes and a bibliography. Misogyny is a resource for anyone who needs evidence that fear or contempt of women has ruled consistently and deeply in all cultures and religions from ancient times to our own; it belongs in every library.

It is impossible, of course, to treat the complex sources and evils of misogyny fully in a single book for a popular audience. The author apologizes even as he offers inevitable oversimplifications.

He does not, for example, distinguish sufficiently between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Adam and Eve story or between the real text and the dominant misguided versions that place all the blame on Eve for the Fall. He finds the condemnation of Eve a fundamental cause of contempt for women in history. Yet in recent decades, biblical scholars have come to see the text as an attempt to explain the human condition, not as punishment but as a reality, and not the peaceful kingdom the God of Genesis envisioned when he created us “male and female.”

Mr. Holland’s last chapter is worth reading on its own. Here he reminds us that women have been the universal scapegoats of history. After he cuts down the explanatory causal theories of others, he suggests his own, that the myth of the “autonomous man,” which has dominated all historical societies, is threatened when men face women’s connection with nature through biology. Women put men in touch with birth and death, reminding them of their own dependence. He sees men’s fear of that reality as the deepest source of all misogyny, a tough hurdle still to be overcome if women are ever to be accepted as full human equals.

Sally Cunneen is author of In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (Random House).

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2006

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