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Misogyny: Millennia of Misinformation

In 2022, 85% of sports broadcasts were of male athletes, 96% of CEOs of British companies were men, and 83.5% of engineers were men. Meanwhile in 2021, 91% of women with children (compared to 30% of men with children) do a minimum of 1 hour of housework per day, 88.6% of NHS nurses were women (yet only 47.2% of registered doctors in the UK are women), and there are currently 225 female MPs in the House of Commons (at 35%, this is an all-time high). How, might you ask, have these statistical discrepancies occurred? By many millennia of misogyny. By many millennia of misinformation.

While the term ‘misinformation’ might have only been coined in 1816, it has been around for as long as humanity has been able to speak. And misinformation, when left unchallenged, becomes knowledge. Knowledge which shapes our cultural truths; knowledge which creates expectations and norms. And norms are difficult to disrupt. When these norms are perpetuated for centuries or – in the case of misogyny – millennia, they become ingrained in systems, in education, in policy. They become an identity, one which, when challenged, results in massive pushback. 

Now, if identity perpetuates misogyny, then the world as it is must be undergoing an identity crisis. As scientists and social scholars put the pillars which have upheld the patriarchy under intense scrutiny, the myths surrounding female physicality, motherhood, intelligence and political standing start to sway. This all leads to the question: where did misogyny come from in the first place?

The ‘fragile’ female body and the currency of physical strength

In 1967, Boston, an event took place which would shake the world: a woman ran a marathon. Or, rather, a woman officially ran a marathon. While other women – the renegades, the rebels – had run marathons by jumping into them illegally, Katherine Switzer entered under the gender-neutral abbreviation ‘K.V. Switzer’ and, despite the race manager attempting to drag her off the road mid-way, finished the race ‘against all odds’. 

Yet why was Switzer’s marathon completion ‘against all odds’? Switzer was a good runner, yes, but she was in no way an outlier. Nowadays, a third of marathon finishers a year are women – that means that roughly over 400,000 women complete a marathon each year. Clearly, we’ve hugely underestimated women. And clearly, the norm-shaping wealth of misinformation surrounding women’s physical capabilities is in abundance. However, where did the source, the disinformation, come from?

We can find the breadcrumbs of ‘scientific’ statements littered throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. Regardless of any specific evidence, the general consensus among the medical community was that physical activity was damaging for women’s reproductive organs. For example, an article in US women’s magazine Harper’s Bazaar was titled ‘Are Athletics a Menace to Motherhood?’. Bold observations indeed. However, it is not until we trace scientific figures back to Charles Darwin that the real disinformation begins to come to light. 

Darwin and Disinformation

Darwin’s theory of evolution has had a profound impact on the West and, somewhat imperialistically, therefore the world. And Darwin’s views were far from idyllic. Women, Darwin wrote, ‘are characteristic of the lower races, and anti therefore of a past and lower state of civilization’. According to Darwin, men – or white men, specifically – are the most evolutionary advanced of all the races. Put simply, Darwin was inherently racist and sexist, to the extent that it affected his work. Of course, blaming Darwin for the source of the patriarchy would not only be too easy, but incorrect. The patriarchal imperial system within which Darwin existed blinded him; and he perpetuated it.

Evolutionary theory – and with it the idea of women’s biology being ‘lesser’ than man’s – eventually met with the hunter-gatherer theory growing in popularity in the 1960s. Man the Hunter, a symposium organised by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, led the charge on the idea that men were responsible for hunting, while the weaker women were responsible for gathering. And our biological differences reflect this. Not only that, but the structure of society reflects it, too. It makes sense; it justifies gender difference and inequality. There’s only one issue with the theory: it’s wrong. 

The Equal Ancients

Recently, archaeologists uncovered the interesting truth behind the living arrangements of ancient humans: both males and females shared hunting equally, with children being looked after by other members of the group. There was little to no gendered labour. Both sexes hunted, and both gathered dependent on ability. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it would appear, were more egalitarian than we are even today. 

But what has this got to do with body composition? Well, while male bodies are generally larger and – ergo – stronger than women’s, the new understanding of prehistoric human civilisations takes away the onus of physical strength equating to societal power. Just because women had less absolute strength than men, did not mean they were incapable of physical labour and, thus, equal contribution to tasks within the society. Prehistory disrupts the ‘cultural truth’ surrounding the ‘weak and feeble’ female body. 

And if that fact doesn’t disrupt the misinformation narrative, then perhaps Paula Radcliffe will; she continued marathon training, pregnant, well into her third trimester. Or, better, Jasmin Paris might: she won the 268 mile Montane Spine Race, breaking the men’s record by 12 hours and stopping along the way to pump breast milk for her toddler. Then again, do these feats of endurance and motherhood only serve to hold-up yet another widespread piece of cultural truth: motherly instinct.

The misinformation surrounding ‘motherly instinct’

This pervasive belief that women are best suited to caring has insidiously seeped into many cultural attitudes. Look at the gender divide in professions deemed as ‘men’s work’ opposed to women’s. In the UK, for instance, women woefully underrepresent the contingent of electricians at 1%. The same goes for plumbers and joiners. In the caring sector, however, these figures reverse, with 97% of pre-primary practitioners reporting as female and around 82% of support workers as female. The underlying implications are clear: a woman’s job is to care. For children, for men, for elders; for all.

Indeed, the idea of the female as carer has been perpetuated for centuries, from myth to philosophy to science. Religion often laid the groundwork for this belief, connecting deities to birth and growth, affirming women’s most admirable attributes to that of nurturer. Take Ancient Egypt’s goddess Isis (aka the ‘Divine Mother’), for instance, whose fame came primarily for having her son, Horus (God of Kingship). Or take Ancient Greek goddess Demetar, Queen of the Harvest, whose grief over the loss of her dear daughter, Persephone, brought about an unending winter, only broken when her daughter returns to her for six months of each year (thus, giving us the changing seasons). Of course, there’s no forgetting the virgin mother, Mary, and her journey to Bethlehem. The success of these women is in their motherliness. Their ability to put their child’s needs above all else. Their motherly instinct. 

The woman as mother

Even when religion was being questioned, the role of the woman as mother was not. Ancient Greek philosophy – the first science – and its practitioners further elaborated a mother’s role. Where mothers in Israel were giving their children to a nursemaid, over in Greece Plutarch advised against this, saying, “It is necessary that mothers breast feed their own children, because they will indulge them with love and kindness.” 

However, it was in the 19th Century when misinformation truly welded women’s identity with motherhood. Again with figures like Darwin marking women as inferior, women’s worth and, more importantly, place in society was placated by celebrating the one thing only they can do: give birth. Household names such as Robert Browning jumped onto this, too, stating: ‘Motherhood: all love begins and ends there’. Where this celebration of motherhood may sound sweet, it still discreetly pushes the agenda of ‘feminity to be synonymous with motherhood’. In other words: if you are not a mother, you are not a real woman. 

Science soon followed. Biological maternal instincts were attributed to women’s wombs – taking away the potential for men to harbour such feelings in one fell swoop. It all served the cultural truths surrounding motherhood; that women are biologically designed to be better nurturers of children. Their ability to do this is instinctual, innate, spelled out in their very genomes; it might also be a lie. 

Motherly vs parental… instinct?

Just like ‘common sense’, recent studies have found that ‘motherly instinct’ is more learned, rather than inborn. According to a 2018 study conducted by Dr. Catherine Monk of Columbia University, ‘a person, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, is able to gain early and sustain throughout the development of a keen sense of their child.’ Somewhat controversially for traditionalist thinkers, this theory does not only disrupt the norms of femininity, but also those of the heteronormative family.

Over the past decade, other researchers have reached similar conclusions, and the results generally say the same thing: it’s complex. The female’s brain does change through pregnancy, they do release hormones, but do these hormones make them better carers? Where some papers observing that the production of oxytocin – basically, the love hormone – in different parental roles (mothers, fathers, gay parents, foster parents, etc) doesn’t differ, other studies came to the conclusion that the ‘parental brain’ ‘is something which sprouts from the intense focus and energy parents devote to their helpless child.’ As Gary L. Brase and Sandra L. Brase state in their 2012 research paper, “Feelings about babies and decisions about fertility could be based on the extent to which people have (or have not) internalised general gender norms of their ambient society.”

The ‘inferior’ female brain

The accumulation of these entrenched gender norms would always turn to the brain. Women’s intelligence has been undermined for centuries, resulting in a wealth of misinformation revolving around the concept of a ‘female brain’ and a ‘male brain’. This concept has driven marriage inequality, fueled educational disparity, and justified women being largely exempt from leadership and political positions. And what’s funny? The argument didn’t evolve from science; it came from 18th Century philosophy. 

In her book, The Gendered Brain, Gina Rippon explores where the idea of brain difference evolved. Where previous to this time women were seen to be purely inferior to men, the 18th Century saw a turn in theology. Here, women were deemed to be not inferior, but fundamentally different to men. They were, it was seen, men’s ‘other halves’: soft, homely, irrational, laughable. As Rippon says, ‘The “complementary roles” set aside for women ensured their inferior position in (if not, indeed, their absence from) most spheres of influence.’ Women were, once again, firmly put in their place. And that place was unequivocally under. 

In more recent studies, the jury is out on the difference between male and female brains. Women’s brains – as with the rest of their bodies – are proportionally around 10% smaller than men’s. However, some new studies find that the differences in male and female brains are virtually non-existent. There is a difference in size, but that’s due to the differing sizes of people. In terms of gender/sex difference, there is essentially nothing. Others, on the other hand, purport that each has their strong points and their weak points. Many, though, have been influenced by the very misinformation they seek to combat or reinforce. They are ‘neuro-sexist’, as it were. Brains, it would seem, are hard to think about.

The female brain in action

But what of test scores? When looking at GCSE results in the UK, on average, females have scored better than their male classmates. This is consistent across the years, with the rough average being 9% more girls receiving a C or higher. Similarly on the higher end of the scale, there still remains a 6-7% difference in those achieving A grades at GCSE. The same can be said for their American peers. Girls outperform boys at every level of every age group –  a raised eyebrow to the 18th Century misogynists who barred them from education, perhaps? 

Test scores, of course, do not necessarily denote a difference in aptitude across the genders. The likelihood is that there is little to no cognitive differences across the two, but more adherence to social expectation and conforming to norms. Faced with school, girls – after centuries of being told they are stupid – might feel like they have something to learn. Boys – after millennia of privilege – might think they know it all. Sadly for some, mansplaining won’t earn you passing grades. 

Now, how do we disrupt misogynist misinformation?

Is this it? Of course not. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. The current state of gender inequality is an accumulation of all of the labels and stereotypes which misinformation has endorsed. Now, how can we fix it?

First, let’s look at where the world stands in terms of gender equality today. Here’s a microcosm of the gender divide:

  • In leadership: Across the world, women are consistently underrepresented in politics, with only Rwanda breaching the gender divide by having a majority female cabinet. In the UK, female representation in politics accounts for between 30-40%.
  • Pay: Globally, the UN reports women are paid on average 20% less than men.
  • Safety: The WHO reports one third of women are subjected to sexual violence.
  • Education: Unicef reports that only 49% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, with 129 million girls out of school worldwide.
  • Property: Where 112 global economies have equal property rights to men and women, 75 still limit a woman’s right to assets, according to the World Bank.

Long story short: it could be better. It seems like an interrogation is in order. 

Bring on the interrogation

News outlets and social media have a huge sway over the way gender is perceived across the world. And the focus of their stories vastly differ between men and women. For instance, in politics, women are continuously subject to sexist remarks rather than… their remarks. Hilary Clinton, when suffering from allergies as she discussed the war in Syria, received the headline “Hillary Clinton Fights Back Coughing Attack.” Meanwhile, across the pond, The Sun newspaper mocked up Nicola Sturgeon in tartan hotpants. Not to mention New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden and Finland’s Sanna Marin being asked if they were meeting because they’re ‘similar in age’. Apparently running countries come second to being put on patriarchal pedestals.

Challenging harmful disinformation of this nature needs interrogation. It needs us to interrogate our own internalised misogyny, our own cultural norms. It needs us to ask: Why do I think this way? Why do I allow this to happen? Or, perhaps more aptly, would this happen to a man

It is our responsibility to quell the misogynist misinformation now before they evolve into cultural truths and behavioural shaping norms. How? Might I introduce you to the Wall of Beliefs?

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