By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today I’m looking at the tangled roots of chauvinism.
If you heard the word chauvinist today, you’d probably either think of a quaint term for a man who looks down on women as inferior, or of someone who is blindly and excessively patriotic. The second meaning is the older, so let’s start there. The word is in fact an eponym, meaning it comes from a person’s name, in this case the possibly legendary Nicolas Chauvin, a soldier who supposedly served in the French Army under Napoleon. There isn’t any evidence that he actually existed, but nevertheless he became famous as a figure of blind patriotism and fervour for Napoleon, long after the Emperor’s ousting, and thus a figure of ridicule. The word in French goes back to the 1830s, and makes its way into English at least as early as the 1860s. Towards the late 19th century, the term broadened to refer not only to excessive patriotism but also to other forms of excessive loyalty or belief in the superiority of one’s own kind. It was then picked up in Communist Party circles in phrases such as race chauvinism and white chauvinism, in particular to counter racism in the United States. And following the model of those phrases, women in the Communist Party seem to have coined the term male chauvinism in the 1930s. After a brief vogue, the term mostly disappeared from view, that is until the feminist movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The children of former Communist Party members apparently revived the word, and from 1968 it took off again. However, the term didn’t seem to have much staying power and began to decline in frequency from the late 1970s. The phrase had been further expanded to male chauvinist pig, perhaps initially to soften its effect through humour, though this was soon picked up by mainstream media to mock feminists — in fact the earliest citation of that full phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is in Playboy magazine, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the term fell out of favour!
Before the word chauvinism arose, the word misogyny could be used to refer to hatred of women. Greek misogynia and misogynes, used originally in reference to a disease or to a comic trope of a grumpy old man who hates his wife, are composed of the elements misos “hatred” and gyne “woman”, distantly related to the English word queen. Misogyny and misogynist make it into English in the 17th century, and develop an extended meaning of prejudice against women in the 20th century, but as we’ll soon see, starting much earlier, Greek misogyny played a significant role in the development of western misogyny. But first we have to finish looking at the word chauvinism and related terms.
It was around the time that the term male chauvinism came into vogue, specifically in 1970, when the word patriarchy started to be used by feminists to mean a society dominated by men at the expense of women. The word actually goes back to Greek, coming from pater “father” and arkhein “to rule”, and was used in various Christian senses such as referring to certain bishops in the early church, with patriarchy first appearing in English in a 1561 translation of a text by protestant reformer John Calvin, after whom the Calvinist church is named. John Calvin, or Jean Calvin as he was known in his native French, is tied into this story in another way, as the name Calvin is the Northern French equivalent of the name Chauvin, from which we get the word chauvinism. It should be further noted that the name Chauvin is derived from the French word chauve meaning “bald” from Latin calvus. So I suppose you could say that this etymology, along with the paternalistic fatherly patriarchy, at least coincidentally, highlights the fact that we have old men to blame for sexual discrimination.
And it was this coincidental connection between Calvin and chauvinism that inspired me to look at the religious roots of misogyny and the ties between chauvinism and other types of discrimination. It turns out that the confluence of the Christian tradition and Greek philosophy created a toxic environment for women in western society for 2000 years. Of course the west doesn’t hold a monopoly on misogyny, which can be found in many cultures around the world, and all available evidence suggests that misogyny is the oldest human prejudice, but since we’re looking at English vocabulary we’ll have to stick with western culture. And to do that, we’ll have to first turn to the Jewish tradition, which would later become the foundation of Christianity.
That early Jewish society was patriarchal is not particularly surprising in the context of the ancient world. What is notable is that they had a monotheistic religion with a fall of man creation myth. In the book of Genesis, Adam was created by God in his image and placed in paradise, the Garden of Eden. Eve was more of an afterthought, made from Adam’s rib. Now of course different churches which share this story (which is found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) interpret the culpability of Adam and Eve in their expulsion from Eden differently, but as the story in Genesis goes, Eve gave in to the temptations of the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then shared that fruit with Adam, and following this they both become ashamed of their nakedness. Thus many have held Eve doubly responsible, or at least more responsible than Adam. In addition to their expulsion from paradise, they are made to live mortal lives and Adam must work for the necessities of life, in other words engage in agriculture, and Eve and all women who follow her are given the extra punishments of being subservient to their husbands and suffering the pains of childbirth. So this story both justifies a patriarchal society with a lower status for women but also figures women in terms of their role in sexuality (remember the shame of their nakedness) and childbirth.
Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks also have a fall of man myth, the story of Pandora, whose name means either “all gifted” or “all giving”. In the story as told by Hesiod in the 6th c BC men (and only men) had a trouble free and happy existence, though they didn’t have the secret of fire and had to eat their meat raw. The Titan Prometheus illicitly gave fire to men, and as part of the punishment for this, Zeus ordered the creation of the first human woman, Pandora, not just as an afterthought but specifically as a punishment, as she is endowed with seductive qualities as well as a deceitful character, and she is referred to as kalon kakon “beautiful evil”. Pandora has with her a sealed jar that she is not supposed to open, but overcome with curiosity she opens it, releasing pain and evil among men, leaving only hope in the jar. This myth and the fact that the king of the Gods Zeus is depicted in many myths as a serial rapist, provide a backdrop to Greek society.
Now outside of Athens there is a lack of evidence of what life was actually like for Greek women, but it’s Athenian culture which became the most profoundly influential on later western culture. Perhaps paradoxically, along with democracy, Athens in the 5th c BC developed an exceedingly misogynistic attitude. It’s important to remember that that democracy was extremely limited, including only adult male citizens, and supported through a slave economy. In this society, women remained legally children always under the guardianship of a man, they were (at least ideally) kept in a segregated part of the house and were not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied, and received little to no education.
In addition to the practical reality of women’s social inferiority in Athens, Athenian philosophers developed a theoretical basis for misogyny, and the two most responsible for this are Plato and Aristotle. Somewhat paradoxically, Plato is sometimes taken as almost a protofeminist, since in his work The Republic he describes an ideal society in which women receive the same education as men and are among the ruling elite with the same responsibilities, and men and women only differ in their biological roles in reproduction. But this comes at the cost of the denial of their sexuality. His is a sterile imagined world in which breeding is regulated and the parent-child relationship is denied in favour of communally raised children. However, it’s Plato’s idea of dualism which was to cause the most harm in the long run. Plato developed the theory of Forms in which he makes a distinction between a higher reality in which exist ideal Forms of which physical existence is an imperfect reflection. Only the intellect could engage with that higher reality, and all the stuff of physical existence, including sexuality, was lesser, a falling away from perfection. This dualism then becomes the philosophical basis for misogyny, with men associated with the intellect and women with sexuality and the imperfect physical existence. And the standard understanding of the nature of women in the ancient world, both in Greece and later in Rome, is that they are sexually rapacious as a result of their connection to the physical world. So the misogynistic response to this was rooted in fear of women and of their sexuality, hence the need to regulate and control them. Plato’s student Aristotle doubled down on this misogyny in scientific terms. He explicitly held women to be inferior to men, and believed that women were mutilated, undercooked, or imperfect males. Oh, and in an odd connection to the roots of chauvinism, he believed that the lack of baldness among women was proof of their childlike undeveloped nature!
Moving forward, it’s during the Roman period that Christianity grows out of the Jewish tradition, while also being heavily influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy. It’s a terrible irony that Christianity would become one of the systemic drivers of misogyny, given that in its early years women played a key role in its formation and spread. Jesus’s statements about women in the gospels are free from misogyny; he frequently defended women, and there were women among his followers. And women seemed to have played central roles in the activities of the new religion as it grew and spread. The apostle Paul’s contributions to the nature of Christianity are perhaps only second to those of Jesus, and his attitudes toward women are somewhat contradictory. Though he states that “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” he also doubles down on the story of Adam and Eve, saying that women should be subservient to their husbands. And from Paul we get the notion that sexuality is sinful and that celibacy is the ideal, but that if one couldn’t handle chastity, it was better to marry than to burn. So early Christianity provided the opportunity for women to choose a live a life of celibacy, which at least provided women with some control over their own fertility, giving them perhaps for the first time institutionally sanctioned reproductive choice. By the way, the word celibacy comes from Latin caelebs “unmarried”, of unknown origin but perhaps connected to the Proto-Indo-European roots *kaiwelo- “alone” or *kehi-lo- “whole”, and only in the 1950s came to refer not only to ‘remaining unmarried’ but also to ‘voluntary abstinence from sexuality’, but we’ll come back to this later. But it’s when Christianity adopts that Platonic idea of dualism that things really go downhill. The early Christian theologian and philosopher Augustine was influenced by neoplatonic philosophy, seeing his own struggles as a contest between the desires of the flesh and the striving of the will. And Augustine is largely responsible for the concept of Original Sin, that that first trespass in the Garden of Eden caused human beings to fall away from perfection, and ever since humans have carried the burden of that sin, at least until the crucifixion of Christ.
Over the course of the middle ages that dualistic divide would continue to be the source of misogyny, and paradoxically it would come along with the increasing elevation of the figure of Mary mother of Jesus. In AD 431 the Roman Church declared Mary was not only the mother of Jesus, but the Mother of God. She had also been declared a perpetual virgin. If God was thought to be perfect, the mother of God couldn’t be tainted by sin either. It’s actually kind of a domino effect. The early churches first argued about whether Jesus was human or divine or some combination, and Mary’s status rose as a result of Jesus’s elevation. She was also deemed not to have suffered death, but to have been assumed body and soul directly into heaven, a notion traceable back to at least the 5th century. And she became known as the Queen of Heaven. But in the long run that wasn’t enough. To explain her perfection, theologians eventually came up with the notion of the Immaculate Conception, that from the moment of her conception God acted to keep her free from Original Sin so that she existed in the state of perfection that Adam and Eve had before the fall, effectively removing all notions of sexuality from her, thus giving women an impossible standard to live up to: be perfect like Mary or you’ll be the source of sin like Eve. The 13th century theologian John Duns Scotus, so named because he hailed from Duns, Berwickshire in Scotland, did a lot to develop this notion of the Immaculate Conception, though it didn’t become church dogma until much later. Scotus, by the way, is also known for engaging with Plato’s notion of Forms, specifically the metaphysical problem of universals, arguing that universals, basically qualities, actually exist and are not just mental constructs. His philosophical followers, the Scotists, were later derisively referred to as Dunses by humanists and protestant reformation theologians, thus giving us the word dunce, which like chauvinist is a pejorative word derived from a person’s name. Duns Scotus is tied to the word chauvinism in another way, since Scotus’s ideas about intuitive cognition influenced Chauvin’s name double, the protestant reformer John Calvin, to argue that God can be “experienced”.
Speaking of the Protestant Reformation, it would have mixed consequences for women. The Protestants, who by the way downplayed the significance of Mary, allowed clergy to marry, doing away with the rule requiring priestly celibacy. This idea of celibacy had been gradually developed in the Roman Church but only became an absolute rule in the 12th century. The Protestant view contradicted Paul’s teachings about the sinfulness of sexuality even in marriage, and by doing so raised the status of marriage and therefore women. But they also got rid of the monasteries and convents, thus removing options for women, who could no longer choose a life outside of marriage and have control over their bodies in terms of reproduction. Protestants stressed the importance of direct access to scripture, which meant it was important for both men and women to be able to read, thus improving education for women. But they doubled down on patriarchal family structure with the father leading the household in daily prayer. Reformers like John Calvin felt that the woman’s place was in the home, and John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, wrote a polemical work with the fiery title The First Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women even attacking the idea of women holding any civil authority. In the 19th century and even later some churches, such as the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, opposed the use of anaesthesia for women giving birth, since that meant they wouldn’t suffer the pains prescribed as their punishment in the story of Adam and Eve. Now of course different Protestant churches had different ideas about women, such as the Quakers who did sometimes allow women to preach, and in more recent years many Protestant churches have supported social reforms like women’s suffrage, and in the 20th century women clergy. To date though women are still barred from the clergy in the Catholic Church. And again, views differ around reproductive rights such as birth control and abortion with not only Catholics but also many Protestants digging in their heels.
Getting back to the middle ages though, when more progressive ideas about women and sexuality did arise, the Church unsurprisingly tended to crack down on them. One dramatic example is the Church’s reaction against Catharism, from the south of France. The Cathars, from Latin Cathari meaning “the pure”, ultimately from Greek katharos “pure”, thus related to catharsis, literally “a cleansing or purging”, took the idea of dualism to extremes. They believed that there were two Gods, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God created the physical world and was evil, while the New Testament God created the spiritual world and was good. Catharism had almost protofeminist beliefs, believing that gender wasn’t a part of the spiritual realm, and thus allowing women to preach and become part of the spiritual elite. They gave special significance to Mary Magdalene, who in the Bible was the first to see the newly arisen Christ and reported the news to the apostles, thus earning her the title apostle to the apostles. Pope Innocent III cracked down on the Cathars, calling for the Albigensian Crusade to wipe them out. It was called the Albigensian Crusade after the town Albi in the south of France, from the Roman personal name Albius from a root meaning “white”. This word may have another tie in to our story in the word bigot, related in sense to the word chauvinist, though the more common etymology has a different connection. The usual theory about the origin of the word bigot, which had the earlier sense of “sanctimonious person or religious hypocrite”, is that it came from the Germanic expression bi God “by God”. The story goes that in the 10th century the Viking Rollo of Normandy, upon receiving his dukedom from King Charles the Simple of France, refused to kiss the king’s foot, saying “Nese, bi God!” or “No, by God!” Thus the French derisively referred to the Normans as bigots. In support of this theory of labelling a group by its favourite swear words, it’s been pointed out that in France during the time of Joan of Arc, the English were referred to as goddams, and during WWI American soldiers in France were called les sommobiches, but the story does still have an air of folk etymology to it. Alternatively, in a less well-known but perhaps more plausible version, bigot might be an abbreviation of albigot in reference to the Albigensian heresy, in other words the Cathars, and the word does first appear in French at around that time in the south of France.
Now returning to more recent words for misogyny, though as we’ve seen the concepts it describes aren't new, it's in the 20th century that people have noticed them enough to need new words to label them, such as sexist and sexism. These words are surprisingly recent, at least in their modern sense of gender-based discrimination, and like male chauvinism have their origins in racial discrimination, again highlighting the important connection between sexism and racism, and I suppose at least retroactively demonstrating the importance of intersectional feminism. Sexist was introduced into feminist discourse by Pauline M. Leet in a 1965 speech given at Franklin and Marshall College, in which she explicitly proposed it as a term parallel to racist. The text of the speech was privately distributed among feminists, until sexism appeared in print for the first time in Caroline Bird’s 1968 book Born Female. And that same year, possibly independently coined, the words sexism and sexist were used in a pamphlet written by Sheldon Vanauken, again with the parallel with racism explicitly made. Vanauken recommended sexism and sexist as better terms than male chauvinism and chauvinist, and in the end it looks like his advice was followed.
Of course the countering of sexism had its own terminology, and we can see a trajectory similar to that of male chauvinism with the term women’s liberation.The earlier term had been feminism, which first appeared in the 19th century originally as a generic term equivalent to femininity or in biological or medical senses, but soon enough feminism and feminist were adopted by 19th century advocates for women’s rights, and it should be pointed out that feminism when used by feminists themselves doesn’t meant hatred of men or discrimination against men, but instead equality of all people. After women’s suffrage was achieved, these words went into decline, and in the 60’s and 70’s feminists often preferred the term women’s liberation (which had been around since the end of the 19th century). But soon enough women’s liberation was adopted by their opponents in such formulations as women’s lib and libber, and by the mid 70s it too went out of fashion, with feminism reemerging to fill the void.
And so from this historical and etymological trail we can see the foundations of misogyny in modern western culture. We see the battle for control over reproduction informed by Eve’s punishment, not to mention body shaming and calls for female modesty and dress codes that frame girls as an irresistible temptation for boys, drawing them away from intellectual pursuits in schools. Thus women are the target of slut shaming, and the word slut provides an informative example. A word of uncertain etymology, slut originally meant a “dirty or untidy woman” and still can in some dialects. It gradually gained more pejorative senses such as a “woman of low character” or a “bold or impudent girl”, but could also be used in a playful way without implying serious criticism, much as we use the word scamp, originally meaning a “highway robber”, to refer affectionately to a mischievous boy. But there’s always a double standard, and by the 20th century the word slut developed the disparaging sense of a sexually promiscuous woman. And still today women are policed for their sexuality with this word, are sexualized in the media, and are blamed for their own rapes. And women continue to be thought of as a sexual commodity, as we can see so explicitly with the rise of incels, short for ‘involuntary celibates’. The term, coined in 1993 by a college student known only as Alana to refer to a website and mailing list that offered a support group for lonely people who felt marginalised by things such as rigid gender norms, mental illness, or social awkwardness, has since been co-opted by often violent and dangerous misogynistic men, calling themselves ‘incels’, who are driven by their resentment at not having sex with women, and who call for “forced sexual redistribution” of the “resource” that is women’s bodies. Ironic then that a word which originally just meant “unmarried” and was associated with an opportunity for women to have reproductive choice should now be associated with the most extreme form of misogynistic control—basically government enforced rape.
Now of course in this video I’ve only briefly summarised one strand of the story of misogyny, which is a deep and complex phenomenon. But hopefully looking at these etymologies and and their historical connections to philosophy and religion can provide some fresh insight into this ever present problem. So let me say in closing: don’t be a dunce, reject this bald sexism, and don’t be a chauvinist.
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