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Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee.

Voices / Column

Chilling words through the ages

Trump, Cruz, and their misogynist brethren have a long legacy of base beliefs about half the world’s population

Saxtons River

It’s been a while since blatant misogyny on the scale we see today reared its ugly head so overtly in political circles. But thanks to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and others on the far right, we are reminded of just how base male attitudes toward women can be.

Trump appears to be the frontrunner in this regard. He once told a female contestant on The Apprentice, “I bet you make a great wife.” He has also said of women, “You have to treat ’em like s—t.”

And of course he implied, after network journalist Megyn Kelly asked him a question during a presidential debate, that she must have been having what was once called “the monthlies.”

Ted Cruz, who is rabidly anti-choice and anti-pay equity, and who voted against the Violence Against Women Act, is a bit more subtle.

“Putting women in combat ended up increasing casualties,” he once said, claiming that doing so also “decreases military effectiveness.”

Never mind facts, which include that female Marines have been found to “demonstrate that they are capable of performing the physically demanding tasks” required of them. There are no findings that support Cruz’s claim that having an integrated fighting force increases casualties, although one study found that women suffer injuries more frequently.

* * *

History is rife with misogynistic precedent, if not always in the political arena.

An orthodox Jewish prayer, uttered as a man’s day begins, gives thanks to God that he was not born a woman. In 1748, British Lord Chesterfield declared women to be “children of a larger growth,” while 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated, “One need only look at a woman’s shape to discover that she is not intended for either too much mental or too much physical work.”

A bit later, Sigmund Freud saw women as innately hysterical and wondered “what women want.”

Great male thinkers and writers like John Ruskin, the quintessential Victorian social critic, declared with Freudian aplomb that good writing required a “penetrative imagination,” clearly to be found exclusively in the masculine domain, and Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins made it clear that “the artist’s essential quality [was] masterly execution, a kin of male gift.”

Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, who got his heroine Hester Prynne’s strength so right in The Scarlet Letter, disparaged women writers, whom he judged to have no right to a literary life.

* * *

Closer to our own time, and female literary aspirations aside, one of the great misogynists of all time, Norman Mailer, famously said, “You don’t know a woman till you’ve met her in court.”

Pablo Picasso, like Mailer, physically abused his wives and mistresses. Picasso, by the way, believed “there were “only two types of women — goddesses and doormats.”

Even relatively benign men have disparaged women in ways we might not have thought about.

For example, when Ruth Bader Ginsberg attended the dean’s dinner for women students at Harvard Law School, the dean asked the women “to explain what [they were] doing in law school taking a place that could be held by a man.”

Some time later, Harvard’s president Larry Summers got into trouble when he declared in a keynote speech at a conference on diversity that the shortage of women in disciplines like math and science might be explained by innate differences in ability.

Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT, was so outraged that she walked out during Summers’s remarks.

“I just couldn’t breathe,” she recalled. “That kind of bias made me physically ill. Let’s not forget that people used to say that women couldn’t drive an automobile.” (And men still say it in Saudi Arabia.)

* * *

A young woman when my feminist consciousness was awakening, it took me a while to understand the phrase “The personal is political.”

But I began getting it when my father had to sign my first car loan, despite being in bankruptcy to the bank asking for his guarantee.

I certainly got it when a doctor lectured me on morality because I sought the birth-control pill.

And I really got it when my credit rating dissolved in favor of my new husband’s credit cards.

I also got the message upon learning that marital rape was legal (until 1993!) and that sterilization without consent was also legal, while abortion was not.

All of this, coupled with current attempts to control women’s lives and limit their agency in today’s right-wing political atmosphere, makes me think of chilling words from an early-20th-century textbook.

“What is a woman’s greatest duty? To have children, then more children, always to have children! A woman who refuses, who seeks to control or suppress her maternal destiny, no longer deserves any rights. That woman is nothing.”

Those words have particular resonance as we inch toward November’s crucial election. Trump, Cruz, and others like them who adhere to similar beliefs about half the world’s population, abound.

As Abigail Adams worried long ago, “All men would be tyrants if they could.”

Well, perhaps not all men, but author Sharon Biggs Waller, who researched British suffragettes for her novel A Mad, Wicked Folly, seemed to be replying to Adams when she wrote, “That is why we fight so hard. Not just for the vote, but for an equal opportunity in the world.”

Wise words indeed to recall as we enter the voting booth.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #356 (Wednesday, May 11, 2016). This story appeared on page E1.

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