Sexism through the Ages

Why do men put down women? What causes them to belittle, make fun of, or disregard their wives and daughters? We all know it's a sexist world, but how did it get to be that way and why is it still so?


By sexism I mean any form of discrimination or devaluation of women based on sex. Even this definition could be broadened into one that encompasses the devaluation of the feminine or yin, as opposed to the masculine, or yang way of relating to the world. As far as I know, all literate societies have been fundamentally sexist. At best one could argue that Western society is emerging out of sexism at the end of this century. Now sexism is a vast topic and I feel unable to cover it in a brief article (aside from which I'm just a male). Instead, I focus on a single aspect: the degree to which men have sought to control and subjugate women, and why this was and is so.


I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
- St Paul (Timothy 2:12)

Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them.
- The Koran 4:34

She is a fertile field for her lord.
Do not contend with her in court,
Keep her from power, restrain her...
- The Instruction of Ptah-hotep
(circa 2200 BC Egypt)

Curb thy spirit,
Observe the limit
Hate hubris.
Keep a reverent tongue.
Fear authority.
Bow before the divine.
Glory not in strength.
Keep woman under rule.
- The precepts of Apollo
on his temple at Delphi

The Code of Manu, an authoritative Indian collection of rules of life compiled in 200 BC, enjoins:
In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.

Some orthodox Hindu teachings go even further:

There is no other god on earth for a woman than her husband. The most excellent of all good works that she can do is to seek to please him by manifesting perfect obedience to him. Therein should be her sole rule of life.

In "The Teaching of the Buddha", a modern Japanese book from the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai foundation, which is frequently found in hotel rooms in Japan, seven kinds of wife are described. Three are seen as highly undesirable - the murderer, the thief and the master. The others being the mother, the sister, the friend and the maid-servant. This last is exalted above all the others as a model of womanhood: "She serves her husband well and with fidelity. She respects him, obeys his commands, has no wishes of her own, no ill-feeling, no resentment, and always tries to make him happy."

The French politician, Jacques Chirac, echoes this view, describing his ideal woman as "hard-boiled, who served the men at table, never sat down with them and never spoke."

In traditional societies women are treated in many ways like property. Whether the custom is that they be bought or sold, ie whether usage requires bride price or dowry, is just a technicality. Even in our own culture, the way that the bride is paraded down the aisle by her father is a symbolic remnant of this. The future husband is waiting at the front, ready to receive the 'merchandise'. He is not on show - it is the bride that is being exchanged.

Of the thirty or so dynasties in ancient Egypt, only four monarchs were excised from the official king list: Hatshepsut, Akhenaton, Tutankhamon and Ai. The last three were deleted for religious reasons; Hatshepsut because she was literally a king who was a queen. For in pharaonic Egypt 'pharaoh' meant male king, a queen was just the monarch's chief wife.

In modern Egypt clitoridectomy is still prevalent among lower class people, as it is in many areas of tribal Africa. The rationale given is that it makes a woman 'quiet'. I find it amazing that mothers see nothing wrong with mutilating their daughters' bodies in order to prevent them enjoying sex.

An Egyptian woman interviewed by Nayra Atiya for her fascinating book, "Khul-Khaal" explained,

As to being equal with men, this is another matter. Men don't like strong women. Any woman who takes on man's work is permeated with a masculinity which repels men. They like a woman to be weak. What's the point in a masculine woman? It would be as if a man were married to another man. A woman lawyer, for example, assumes masculine qualities, and a man's appetite is closed for this kind of woman. A woman has to be fine and weak. No man likes a he-she. A man loves to see her helpless, and he loves her tears.

In "Vanishing Africa", Mirella Ricciardi writes of a Kenyan tribe, "Bajun women marry very young so as to avoid the possibility of premarital sex relations and also so that they may be formed to their husband's wishes."

In "Fatu-Hiva", Thor Heyerdahl wrote about a Polynesian in the remote Marquesas, "Nor had he ever heard of equality between men and women, for to him a woman was only a vahine, useful for food and sex, while a man was a human being." Sixty years later, one woman reported that this is how Bosnian men talk to their women: "Please leave the room, human beings want to talk to each other."

In "Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought", Fromm asserts that two things were unthinkable to Freud, and hence limited the value of his fundamental discoveries. One of these was the equality of women:

I believe that his concept that half of mankind is biologically, anatomically and psychically inferior to the other half is the only idea in his thinking which seems to be without the slightest redeeming feature, except as a portrayal of a male-chauvinistic attitude.

Among other things, Freud believed that women are inherently narcissistic (have exaggerated self-admiration). I enjoy quoting Fromm's eloquent rebuttal of this charge:

The bourgeois man got the woman as he imagined her [i.e. sexually cold] and he rationalized his superiority by believing this deformed female - deformed by him - was only concerned with wanting to be fed and taken care of... Indeed, this insane world which does not seem to stop running into catastrophe is governed by men. As to courage, everybody knows that in cases of illness women are much better able to cope with difficulties than men, who want mother to help them. As to narcissism, women are forced to present themselves attractively, because they are exhibits on the slave market; but when they love they love more deeply and reliably than men, who roam around and try to satisfy their narcissism, invested in their penises of which they are so proud.

In 1956, Life magazine interviewed five male psychiatrists who pronounced that female ambition was the root of mental illness in wives, emotional upset in husbands and homosexuality in boys.

The double standard

The double standard of sexual morality seems to be universal in literate societies, and not only among them. It gives men the freedom to have all the sexual partners they can get, while making a woman the sexual property of her husband, present or future. The double standard is evident in the attitude of fathers who, while they are proud of their sons' sexual exploits, are paranoid about the chastity of their daughters.


Rape is the most extreme example of the male urge to dominate women. It is well known that rape is a crime of violence rather than of lust. The rapist's motive seems more to demonstrate his power over a woman than to enjoy sex with her. The estimate that one woman in five in the US has been raped is a horrifying statistic, indicating something is appallingly wrong with male attitudes to women. Even if this is a huge over-estimate, the known prevalence of rape should cause us real concern. I also think that the prevalence of rape is linked to the contradiction inherent in the sexual double standard.

Witch hunts

Speaking of male violence directed against women, the most systematic historical example were the witch hunts of the Middle Ages. The witch hunts can only be understood in the context of medieval theology, which was characterised by deep hostility towards woman. In the 6th century, at the Synod of Macon, bishops debated whether a woman is really human at all. Seven centuries later, Thomas Aquinas called woman "a failed man", useful only for procreation.

It is estimated that between the 13th and the 18th centuries between one and nine million women were tortured and burnt at the stake. While male witches, or warlocks, were thought to exist, the profession was considered primarily a female preserve. The illusion that witches existed was based on (a) hostility to women and (b) the belief that the Devil had won the souls of certain people, having made a compact with them. Nowadays, only fundamentalists see the Devil as a force affecting human lives. In the Middle Ages the Devil was seen as perfectly real, perhaps more real and immediate than Christ, who did not meddle in human affairs.

A woman was suspected of being a witch if her nose was too long, she had red hair, a humped back, was exceptionally beautiful or intelligent. Once accused, she had little chance of being spared. The most important characteristic of witches was thought to be their lechery.


Why such brutal hostility to women? One possible explanation is hinted at by the above: that men fear, and in more repressed times were obsessed by, the power that women can exercise over them through sex. Though it may not be true that "men are ruled by the head below", almost any man will admit he is susceptible to sexual influences and suggestions. No matter how strong a man might feel, he is still vulnerable to falling in love (or falling in lust) with a woman he finds sexually desirable. Hence the archetypal myth of Samson and Delilah. All rationalisation is powerless against the sexual infatuation men are prone to. To give a more banal example: if a well-endowed woman in a low-cut dress arrives at a party, most men will be disturbed by her presence. I can`t think of any corresponding situation with sexes reversed. There is an even clearer illustration of the difference between the sexes: a woman has the possibility of dressing to look like a male sexual fantasy, a man does not have the corresponding option.

Some people suggest that men are jealous of woman's ability to produce new life. Hence they build up their egos and try to make their mark outside the family unit. While women create with their wombs, men are driven to create things and ideas with their hands and minds. Moreover, men aggrandise their egos at women's expense. Because women have less ego, they can give men a measure of the admiration that they so crave.

Another theory I have read about is that men unconsciously resent the power that their mothers exercised over them when they were small. As adults they seek to redress this imbalance of power by putting down all women.


Male dominance needs to be seen against the background of history and of the natural world. In prehistoric times men hunted while women mainly stayed in the cave. Because women cared for children, they needed protection, which was provided by the male, who was in any case physically stronger. In later times men worked, hunted or fought out in the world, while women mainly stayed at home. Breast-feeding makes women the natural carers for small children. Since women's main concern was caring for children, this secondary role suited them. In most of the animal kingdom there is a similar division of labour.

Of course times have changed and sex roles have become diffuse and uncertain, at least in the West. Yet the heritage of history and tradition is still with us, and is passed on to each generation. Laws, mores (eg the traditional division into 'good' and 'bad' women), and institutions - especially the churches - play a major part in transmitting the doctrine of male supremacy. The biological differences between the sexes are also still with us, and these too influence our way of living. These biological and social factors are complex and polemical and I don't want to explore them further.

Related prejudices

The three phenomena of racism, homophobia (hatred of homosexuals) and sexism, are similar and related. Each one involves an irrational prejudice against a group of people. I think that in the case of all three there are two main reasons contributing to the prejudice: wanting a scapegoat and fear of someone who is different.

Listening to interviews with members of the Ku Klux Klan, it struck me that these were individuals who felt dispossessed and deeply disadvantaged. They blamed their situation on the Blacks, just as the German people, humiliated after World War One, found a scapegoat in the Jews. The same is true of some "morals" campaigners, who put the blame for what is wrong in our society onto homosexuals.

A plausible explanation of male chauvinism is that many men feel inferior or powerless and therefore want to have someone they can feel superior to and exercise power over. A man's wife is a convenient outlet for these feelings. Undoubtedly this is a contributing reason, as it is with racism, but I believe it fails to account for the vehemence and consistency with which men put down women and treat them as property.

The other major reason for prejudice is more insidious. Certain people are seen as being different, abnormal or inferior. Ignorance, intolerance and social stigmatisation heighten the perception of differences until the disdained group is perceived as being a threat. Thus black people are feared as being primitive and violent, homosexuals as perverted and diseased, women as both weak and manipulative.

In my opinion, while scapegoating is the major reason for racial prejudice, fear of difference is the principal reason in the case of both sexism and homophobia. Whereas racism is directed against people outside one's group, who threaten from outside, sexism and homophobia are directed against a permanent subgroup within any social grouping, and the objects of the prejudice are correspondingly more threatening.

Thus a homosexual male can disturb the peace of mind of a man who sees himself as 100% heterosexual by suggesting, by his very existence, that another way of behaviour is possible for a man. This can be threatening to a man's sexual identity. Note that men rarely feel threatened by lesbians. People who find homosexuals loathsome do so because they are uncomfortable with their own natural, unavoidable, but minor homosexual inclinations, and hence focus on decrying these tendencies in others. They unconsciously fear they might become homosexuals themselves. Thus they come to hate the homosexual inclinations of other people, but only because they hate them in themselves.

Will, a former gay-basher, who eventually came to terms with his own latent homosexuality, believes that like him, most of the young thugs who take the lead in gay-bashing gangs do so because of doubts about their own sexual identity. When they grow up, when sex holds less of a threat, they stop bashing.

My theory

I think the main explanation of the endemic male need to dominate women is fear. That men fear women and hence have institutionalised sexism to assuage a monumental insecurity. But what are they insecure about? Why are women regarded as dangerous (though necessary) partners in life, whose influence and power must be curbed at all costs?

Women are less aggressive than men. Even now there is no serious threat to the male hegemony of power. Seen objectively, a woman is not in any sense an opponent or antagonist to a man. Rather, she is his complement, and this is itself a clue. Could it be that what men actually fear is not woman but something she represents?

If the external woman is not the cause of the fear then perhaps it is the internal one. Men have always feared weakness in themselves. Strength has been seen as the pre-eminent masculine virtue since the dawn of history, and doubtless before. Softness and weakness have traditionally been identified with femininity. Related to this is the well-known male fear of feeling, which is seen as a feminine faculty.

The tenor, Jose Carreras when asked what was his greatest quality unhesitatingly replied, "I am strong." His greatest fault? "I am weak. I don't like to face problems in my personal life. I prefer to walk away."

My thesis is that a man fears his capacity for weakness and mistakenly identifies it with femininity. This causes him to fear and hence to deny the existence of the feminine side of his nature. The femininity of women threatens him because it reminds him of his own femininity, which he is suppressing. So he tries to fight his inner femininity by subjugating and dominating women.

In other words, he projects (sees in others what is in his own mind) his inner femininity onto the most natural object outside himself - woman, and then seeks to subjugate her as a way of combating his own weakness. Thus sexism is due to a double error: identification of weakness with femininity and mistaking inner for outer.

There is a wonderful formulation in the Upanishads, "Whenever there is other there is fear." The 'other' in this case is the man's disowned feminine side.

Sex and sexism

If it is true that men fear women's sexual power, this too is an instance of projection. Why does a man suddenly feel desire for a particular woman that he sees in the street, but not for another? It is not the woman herself who is sexy, only a male's reaction makes her so. His reaction has nothing to do with how sexy she feels herself. She merely triggers the male's predisposition to being affected by a given image or turn-on. I believe this is the real cause of sexual attraction. When the sight of a woman excites me this is simply because she arouses the anima image (the ideal of woman) that is already within me. What else could the response of sexual arousal be, if not a reaction to a stimulus for which there exists an inner predisposition? For example, if I am turned on by women with long hair, it is this predisposition that is the actual cause of my feeling attraction for a particular woman, not the woman herself, who may well be on her way to a hair-cut.

The woman is like the key that starts the mechanism of male desire, but she only functions as such because the man already has a lock inside him that matches her key.

As for finding lacy underwear erotic and pretty on a woman, isn't this a man responding to the feminine, not in himself - where he does not want to see it - but outside? What could predispose him so except an inner femininity, an inner need for things frilly and frivolous, a need that goes directly counter to what we call masculinity?

It is ironic that traditionally, manhood has been measured by a man's sexual potency, ie ultimately by how much he was sexually aroused by females.

Interestingly, although women are generally much more concerned with beauty in their clothes, their homes, and their own appearance than are men, exactly the opposite is true when it comes to the attractiveness of their partner. Most men will become interested in a woman as a potential partner provided they find her physically attractive. This is not true of women, who tend to prefer intellect, personality or other qualities. It is notable that Casanova, the legendary womaniser of history, was ugly to look at. I think a woman's appearance is pre-eminently important to a man because he invests his need for beauty in the opposite sex. This applies to both outer and inner beauty, ie not just to physical attractiveness but also to feminine qualities such as caring, tenderness, warmth. I am aware that I do this, that I want to see beauty in a woman rather than in myself. This kind of displacement is particularly evident in the statistical finding that the older men become, the more they are attracted to very young women. It seems men in their sixties are most attracted to sixteen-year-olds.

The other half

Yet even all this is only half the picture. What about women's role in sexism? It is well-known that some of the staunchest male chauvinists are female. The "Women Who Want to Be Women" and similar reactions against feminism illustrate this. Many mothers, if not most, favour their sons over their daughters, do not require them to do their share of housework, and allow them liberties denied to girls. In so doing they help create yet another male-chauvinist male. In particular, they perpetuate the conditioning that a woman is there to serve the male. I believe that a major difference between male and female conditioning is that women are taught to please others, men to please themselves. Women are trained to deny their own needs.

Women transmit the values of a culture, whether these values are anti-women or not. Since a child's pre-eminent influence in its first years is its mother, her role in adjusting the child to male-dominated society is paramount. In China legal prohibition is required to prevent women killing their female offspring.

Many women believed that the only way they could express their power and have an impact on the world was through their husbands or sons. They have been the "power behind the throne", since overt participation was denied them. Livia, the wife of Augustus, was an exceptionally strong woman, who no doubt exercised considerable influence over her emperor husband. Yet her overriding aim was to secure the succession for her son Tiberius (who was not Augustus' son). Needless to say, Tiberius became the next emperor.

In the Meeting Place column in the Sydney Morning Herald it is common for educated women to ask for a male partner older than themselves. Even more telling are the women who require that their man be taller than they are, as if they need to be dominated by him. It is unfashionable to point this out, but female submissiveness is real. The most extreme examples are the women who tolerate being repeatedly beaten up by their husbands. Even some thoroughly liberated women find, to their dismay, that the sensitive and gentle man is not what they want in a lover. There is a deep-seated conditioning that men should dominate in sex, and intellectual ideas have little, if any, impact on it.

In India, VS Naipaul quotes an intelligent woman, Mallika Dhasal. She was married to a prominent activist on behalf of the rights of the 'untouchables'. This woman poured out her painful feelings in her autobiography:

Male ego is the most hideous thing in our present society. Women find quite a pleasure in boosting it. It reminds me of a story in which the tree itself gave its branch to a woodcutter who had only an axe-blade and no handle... I do not believe that for anybody called Namdeo I should surrender my entire life... Even now I love Namdeo, and am willing to give him everything... Even now, whatever is good in me, whatever is creative in me, I would suppress for his sake.

One can try to explain away female male-chauvinism on the grounds that sexism is so endemic it conditions women as well as men. I think that though true, this is a superficial view. Females are also prone to projection, though perhaps less so than the male, with his silly pedestal. Virginia Woolf asked, "Why are women... so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" I think it's because men project more. Hence Oscar Wilde's characterisation of women as "sphinxes without secrets".

For her part, the female projects assertiveness, logical prowess and strength onto the male. It is easier for her to see power as being outside herself than to acknowledge that it is within. This is analogous to how the male finds it easier to see gentleness, caring and softness in a woman than to acknowledge these as being his own qualities.


Clearly sexism does not have a simple explanation: its roots tap deeply into history, society, biology and psychology. However, I believe that the main cause is that both sexes disown aspects of their own nature.

Personal postscript

When I read articles such as the one I have just written, I am sometimes irritated by the author's stance of supposed objectivity. Many write as if their own views did not come into the picture. Secondly, I am curious about the writer's personal opinions, which are often barely hinted at. Personal asides are frequently far more interesting than impersonal, 'objective' and dry statements. As it turned out, I was unable to express what I most wanted to say in the above, hence this postscript.

Though I have attempted to be impartial and objective in the foregoing article, I think it is impossible to write on this contentious and emotion-arousing subject without bringing into play my own conditioning, prejudices and experience. Since the subject of sexism must involve the author's attitude to women, I think it is worth giving my personal views, so that the reader knows where I am coming from. Please note these are my feelings and conditioning, not opinions I can justify rationally.

Basically I see women as gorgeous beings, much nicer than us men. I have thought so for a long time. In this sense I am clearly a sexist. I prefer the company of women, and feel much safer and freer talking to a woman than to a man. My conditioning is that I expect a woman to judge me less than a man would. Male-male interactions are often just one ego shell rubbing against another. I don't feel competitive with women, as I do with men. Also in their favour is that women are much more ready to talk about things that matter in life than men are. Men prefer to trivialise a conversation that touches on emotions or life issues, unless these are treated abstractly.

Joseph Campbell once observed, "In teaching women I found they were always asking to know the relationship of these materials to their own living. And this interest of women in life is something far more emphatic than the masculine interest in footnotes. Men can be too interested in the interesting mechanical details."

I see women as soft, caring, supportive, sensitive, gentle, accepting, open and vulnerable. The two qualities I value most in people are genuineness and warmth; women possess both these qualities markedly more than men. I see women as strong, as being more robust and durable than us men in a number of ways. I find most attractive those women who are highly confident, know what they want and are assertive and direct, even to the point of being blunt, about getting it. Provided they are also feminine in manner ie gentle, graceful and refined (my idea of femininity does not include shyness, frailty etc).

The feminine qualities are life-affirming and people-affirming, whereas the masculine ones are goal or task oriented. In this sense women are finer beings than men. Women are more developed as persons because they are much more in touch with their feelings and accord them a more appropriate value than do men, who often 'split' from what they feel. I know I do this too. So another attractive quality of females is that they are feeling.

The horrible story of fathers in Uganda taking away male children after their former lovers have brought them up and done all the work, illustrates well my attitude to the difference between the sexes.

Relationship is a feminine function and women are far ahead of us in this area. What do women want with these creatures called men, who compared to females, are crude, emotionally undeveloped, and emotionally unavailable? As a result women generally get a bad deal in relationships. The usual pattern is that the woman gives while the man takes. I sometimes wonder why females bother with us men at all. Most men just want to work and don't want to relate. A woman puts relationship first, a man does not. I think this is an essential difference. Men don't want to work on relationships, preferring to seek a new partner. They tend to dismiss relationship problems with, "That's just your problem," or "You're indulging."

When I think of how readily men rape women I am ashamed to be a male. I don't think I look down on promiscuous women at all. If anything I admire them for going against the negative female conditioning regarding sex. On the other hand I don't think well of philandering males, regarding them as insensitive to women. Thus I have a double standard exactly in reverse.

Women have far less ego, that is their great advantage. Thus they are more willing to look at themselves and to work on themselves. I particularly appreciate their lack of defensiveness and consequent vulnerability. In so far as they act less out of ego, they are more genuine than men. Women are the responsible sex; men spend their lives playing, pretending to be grown up. Only their toys (including war toys) and egos get bigger, while women generally take responsibility for the family. As an Indian saying points out, "A penny to a woman is a penny for the family, a penny to a man is a penny for the man". Being less in the ego, women are correspondingly more realistic than men. I think nothing is more destructive of relationships than ego. Salman Rushdie wrote, "Men will sacrifice their deepest love on the implacable altar of their pride."

I think that the male preoccupation with sex is designed by nature as a compensation, so that men would be forced to relate to women and hence not shut off their feeling side. We men need women to civilise us. That applies to manners, the finer points of living, domesticity, and developing consideration for others. It is commonplace to observe that men behave better in mixed company than on their own. Yet perhaps a woman's most important influence is to make her man more responsible. Personally, I can look forward to many more improvements in this area.

Despite all this, I don't think women are superior or better than men, just different. More fundamentally, my remarks apply only to what men and women manifest, not to what they have the potential to be.

On the negative side, there are four things I don't like about women: 1) a comparative lack of interest in sex, 2) being of the earth, by which I mean concern with trivia (including obsession with cleaning and housework) and corresponding lack of interest in ideas, 3) the longing for security, as shown in their need to get married, and 4) that a woman will put her child first, and love it more than her husband.

I know I do have some resentments against women. I used to bait some of my feminist friends and got them angry, especially by making generalisations about women. But as far as I can tell, I don't have the kind of fear of women that I describe in the above article. That is probably because I am in touch with my own feminine side.

I always expected that a relationship would primarily bring happiness. I love Robert Johnson's characterisation of woman as "the bringer of joy". Certainly my partner plays this role in my life, as she has done for twenty-eight years. It seems to me that a man and a woman should get on, should enjoy being with each other as a matter of course. It is unnatural that relationship itself should be a problem, as opposed to being an area where problems can (and do!) occur. To me it seems that provided there really is good will on both sides, just about any relationship can be made to work. I am a great believer in reconciliation. As for "goodwill", I'd define it as the willingness to compromise the demands of one's ego.

Tad Boniecki

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