The Guardian, 8 May 2014
Misogyny went mainstream with Jack the Ripper
Misogyny has always been with us. But for most of recorded history, your average woman-hater couldn’t even read and write. Those who could, from Roman poets to the medieval monks who wrote a manual for witch-hunters, were not shy about expressing their loathing of women. Misogyny arrived early as a literary form and went mainstream in the 19th century with the arrival of Jack the Ripper. Popular fascination with men who mutilate and murder women has never abated, and neither has the tendency to give them aggrandising nicknames.
Confronted with the frothing misogyny of the internet, it is easy to forget this history. Who could have imagined that so many individuals would use social networking sites to post torrents of abuse to women they’ve never even met? Did these people secretly harbour rape fantasies for years, returning home each day filled with loathing for women they’d passed in the street or overheard chatting to friends on the bus?
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them did. They probably hated feminism as well, and believed all those gleeful commentaries announcing its demise. Then two things happened: feminism came bouncing back, more invigorated than ever, and suddenly they had an instant outlet for their sick imaginings. In the past, abusing a woman you didn’t know required effort: discovering her name and address, posting a letter or taking the risk of making a telephone call.
Now, even the laziest misogynist can spot a woman on TV, Google her and send a threatening message via Twitter within seconds. In that sense, the internet is a monument to the wisdom of second thoughts. It has created a channel to the spiteful and illogical inner worlds of total strangers, and the sheer volume of misogyny lurking there is dispiriting.
Don’t forget, though, that the ancient Athenians are credited with inventing democracy but kept women in a separate part of the house. For centuries, confining women to the private sphere was one of the main methods powerful men used to avoid dealing with their fear of women; it’s still happening in some parts of the world. In the west, that just doesn’t work any more. Women are much more visible – and so is woman-hating.