Feminists naturally decry misogyny, but many of the most extreme examples of women hating have been from women themselves. There have been numerous women who upon reaching an advanced station in life sought to deny it to other women, seeing them either as incapable or victimized.
UNDERSTANDING female misogyny requires a taste for paradox. A female misogynist is an exceptionally independent, self-confident woman who starts out assuming that other women are just like her and gets dismayed and impatient when they aren’t. Eventually, after years of watching the majority of her sex snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat and call it femininity, she realizes that women capable of leading women are also capable of despising them.
Nineteenth-century suffrage literature is replete with examples of female misogyny. In a letter to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton called housewives “the mummies of civilization” and boasted that “such pine knots as you and I are no standard for judging ordinary women.”
Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman doctor, diagnosed the illness and blamed the patient: “I believe that the chief source of the false position of women is the inefficiency of women themselves — the deplorable fact that they are so often careless mothers, weak wives, poor housekeepers, ignorant nurses, and frivolous human beings.”
Florence Nightingale was made apoplectic by neurasthenic Victorian women who cultivated the morbidly romantic image then in fashion of woman as fragile flower. “It is a scene worthy of Molicre,” she wrote scathingly, “where people in tolerable health do absolutely nothing and persuade themselves and others that they are victims.”
Caroline Norton, who pushed the Married Women’s Property Act through Parliament after being legally robbed of chattels and children by her estranged husband, blasted other women for their “feeble, supine, docile natures.” Josephine Butler, who campaigned against Victorian England’s brutal prostitution laws, looked down on women who shrank from using such words as “rape” and “hymen” as casually as she. Emily Davies, founder of the first women’s college at Cambridge, coined the acronym “LOA” — lack of ambition — to describe women less erudite than she.
The most unexpected blast came from anarchist Emma Goldman, the most freewheeling woman in America, who kicked off the fastest backlash in political history when she published her famous essay, “Women Need to Be Emancipated from Emancipation,” almost as soon as the ink was dry on the newly ratified Nineteenth Amendment.
The women’s-studies crowd treats female misogynists gingerly, either censoring them outright or else attributing their outbursts to temporary losses of equilibrium brought on by overwork. The one who defeats them is Ida Tarbell, the Queen Bee.
Ida Tarbell’s expose of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly forced President Theodore Roosevelt to take up trust-busting. A member of the New York State Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women, the star reporter of McClure’s magazine forged a second career advising women not to have careers. Posing as an unfulfilled spinster who missed out on the joys of dirty diapers and varicose veins, she wrote a series of articles called “The Business of Being a Woman” in which she proclaimed, “Women lack the vision necessary to achieve greatness.” Deploring “the essential barrenness of the achieving woman’s triumph,” she preached marriage, motherhood, and homemaking for all.
That Ida Tarbell was one of the boys is clear from the lavish approbation she collected. Said her McClure’s colleague Lincoln Steffens: “She was another fellow, a nice fellow — we didn’t have a feeling of man or woman in that office.”
British writer Arnold Bennett awarded her the ultimate backroom laurel, “just like a man,” which recalls Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher: “In her presence you pretty quickly forget that she’s a woman.”
THESE accolades describe a “virago” according to the original definition of this now-debased word: a woman of stature, strength, and courage who is not feminine in the conventional ways. Feminists know a virago when they see one, and they don’t like what they see.
Mention Lady Thatcher and they sneer, “You call that a woman?” Mention Joan of Arc and they sigh, “Yes, but she wasn’t really a woman.” Boadicea fares a little better because she was raped, but the fearless assassin Charlotte Corday, who rid France of Marat, “wasn’t really a woman.”
The current feminist claim that Hillary Clinton is unpopular because “Men don’t like strong women” is a classic example of projection. Feminists don’t like strong women because too many viragos would put them out of business. To prosper they need a steady supply of women who exemplify the other V-word, “victim.” Their all-time favorites are Sylvia Plath, the Brat of Endor, and Virginia Woolf, the Andromeda of the small press. As far as First Ladies go they probably would prefer Mary Lincoln, who went crazy — always a winner with feminists. But at least they have Mrs. Clinton, who got where she is by being a clinging vine in the most literal sense.
The philosophical divide between the woman-as-virago and woman-as-victim camps was exposed by Election ’96. The lemming-like spectacle of women voters washing up on Slick Willie made female misogynists cringe, but feminists regarded the gender gap as a triumph of distaff political savvy. Thus the paradox of female misogyny is that things are the opposite of what they seem. “Feminists” who prefer victims are the real female misogynists, and “female misogynists” who prefer viragos are the real feminists.
Given the attraction of opposites, it is also a paradox that men never admire in women any trait they despise in themselves, e.g., timidity. Men and viragos admire women like Elizabeth I, who forbade English diplomats to accept foreign decorations because: “My dogs wear my collars.”
There was a broad! Shall we ever see another?