DEATH threats and obscene abuse directed at women such as Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer who question the ability of men to make themselves female by filling in a form has ancient roots in male dread of the female sex. The earliest western literature is packed with monstrous female characters. Medea revenged herself on her philandering husband by killing her own children. Medusa turned those who looked at her to stone. Circe kept Odysseus on her island and delayed his journey home by seven years – though our sympathy wanes a little when we learn that the two of them spent most of that time in bed satisfying Circe’s voracious lust. As one of his honorary titles was Sacker of Cities, maybe she was doing the world a favour.
The Sphinx was a female who devoured Thebans who could not answer her riddle. Six-headed Scylla, who fed on Odysseus’s crew, was female too, as was the Hydra, at least in some accounts. The Sirens drew music-loving men to their deaths. The Furies, winged goddesses with snakes in their hair and whips in their hands, were so terrifying that in Aeschylus’s Eumenides their depiction on stage made members of the audience faint. Some women, it was said, miscarried. The Harpies were female monsters who flew like thunder flashes and snatched people away before anyone noticed. In a notorious scene depicted on pottery, they tormented poor old Phineus by stealing most of his food and leaving a foul stench on what was left. Clytemnestra was another popular ceramic decoration: she was usually shown on her way to making herself Agamemnon’s widow with a two-headed axe. Even Hera, Mrs Zeus herself, spent much of her time revenging herself on her husband’s hapless rape victims; there were more than 140 by one count, so it was a time-consuming job.
Wives were generally presented as unreliable. The 50 daughters of Danaus stabbed their 50 husbands to death on their wedding night. The women of Lemnos, tired of their men who spent most of their time away from home fighting and fornicating, killed the lot, along with the female concubines. To avoid what they had done getting out, they killed their fathers as well. An older woman, in a meeting that followed the bloodshed (the ancients loved meetings), pointed out that now they would have no one to look after them when they were her age. As luck would have it, Jason happened to be off shore with a boatload of heroes who obligingly landed and stuck around for a couple of years to repopulate the island. Such gentlemen!
Greek children learned early in life that women were to be feared. Parents threatened that Mormo, a terrifying female monster, would come and bite them if they did not behave.
It’s hard to believe that the civilised Greeks, intellectual descendants of Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, believed all this mythological hokum, but it’s likely that it formed a background to the patriarchal indifference to women’s rights and needs that we find in the epics. As is well known, polymathic Aristotle regarded females as irremediably inferior, unable even to grow as many teeth as men. (Pythias, Mrs A, must have been awaiting her wisdom teeth when he counted.) Homer seems to have understood the psychology of those who saw enemies everywhere. In the opening pages of The Odyssey he makes Zeus complain about the way mortals attribute all their faults to the gods ‘when it is their own wrongdoings that bring them misery’.
There seems to be something fragile in the male psyche that needs to project its fearfulness and insecurities on to a screen where they can be safely attacked: women often seem to the first screen to hand. Power is a seductive feeling, and weak men grasp it where they can. The nastiness of some transitioning males towards women who question their right to dominate female spaces and sports is part of a long tradition, and probably too deeply rooted ever to be eradicated. At least one banner threatening ‘terfs’ was carried in the recent Pride march in London. Whatever mutilations or social reconstructions those individuals had undergone, their aggressiveness showed they were still men all right. (If we had a motherhood month or a nurses’ month, would we expect marchers to threaten the childless or the non-medical?) In the Judaic-Christian tradition, all women are daughters of errant Eve. For insecure and weak men, men who have no self-understanding, they are all daughters of Pandora who mythically inflicted sorrows, diseases and relentless toil on the world.
No one foresaw that Berger and Luckmann’s book, The Social Construction of Reality, would lead us to our present nonsensical plight. Their argument was that certain social habits and cultural aspects were negotiable: early man hunted while early woman fed the kids; he worked outside, she within. They both knew they’d chosen it this way and when dad was injured, mum hunted. The authors pointed out that their children and successive descendants would see things as if they were a part of fixed reality, not chosen; men always do this, women always that. Behind this delusion is behaviour we still see: he washes the windows outside, she within; she cleans the house, he sweeps the drive. The authors were at pains to point out that they were merely explaining social reality, not the biophysical world, and would laugh at the idea that sex can be changed by acrobatics with language or surface surgical alterations.
All women are bitches, said a graffito opposite Leeds University 50 years ago when I was a student. Well, someone added a few days later, it’s a dog’s life. And so, as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel are finding in these sleepwalking woke times, it still is.