War Between the Sexes

For the past few months, I have participated in an online reading group with the Libertia Society.  We have been reading from Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), and last night we read an excerpt from Jane Anger’s Her Protection for Women, published in 1589.

Anger was writing to contribute to male-dominated debates on the “natural condition of women.”

Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a-madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing.  Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women?

First: I love the prose in this piece.  I read most of it out loud to myself, because it reminded me of Shakespeare.  It was immediately clear that this was not philosophy, and the vibrant language was part of that.  It’s more like a 16th Century op-ed– written to incite debate, not to reveal metaphysical truths.

Anger builds her argument that the cause for the war between the sexes (my term, not hers) is that women are essentially good and men are essentially bad.  Men love women for their goodness, but resent feeling the pressure to suppress their bad natures.  Because women are so good and humble and virtuous, they don’t enter the debate to defend themselves, and that’s why the men have built up such a library of work that rail against women.  Anger agrees that:

it is most manifest that the man is the head of the woman and that therefore we ought to be guided by them

But just because the men are the boss, doesn’t mean women aren’t superior:

The gods, knowing that the minds of mankind would be aspiring, and having thoroughly viewed the wonderful virtues wherewith women are enriched, lest they should provoke us to pride and so confound us with Lucifer, they bestowed the supremacy over us to man,that of the coxcomb he might only boast, and therefore for God’s sake let them keep it.

So, basically, women have all the virtues, but men have the ability to boast about them–because the gods didn’t want to tempt women with pride.  A Shakespeare-dork like me loves this kind of comedy.

We are contrary to men because they are contrary to that which is good.  Because they are spurblind they cannot see into our natures, and we too well, though we had but half an eye, into their conditions because they are so bad; our behaviours alter daily because men’s virtues decay hourly.

Confession time: I sincerely do not believe that all men are bad and that all women are good.  As one of our discussion partners stated at the very beginning: these are gross generalizations, and, therefore, useless.  But I did enjoy reading this; I delighted in it.  It reminded me of moments in college, while reading Aristotle or Shakespeare who describe women as stupid, animal, slavish.  My male classmates grinned at each other and the females bristled.  It was unfair to hear the male philosophers ignorantly describe women, so I loved seeing the counter-argument.  But that’s the whole problem with the war between the sexes–even as it’s perpetuated in the media today.  When we pick a side and make judgments on a collective of humans, whether it’s based on race, gender, age, ability, etc, we distance ourselves from real human relationships.  The problem Anger identifies, that men resent having their vices corrected by the goodness of women, is a refusal to be vulnerable.  Every one of us needs to open and vulnerable, to be humble enough to acknowledge when we are wrong.

I’m not saying anything new.

The purpose of Anger’s article is to respond to a book about the Surfeit in Love.  The male author of that book wants to warn men not to enjoy the company of women too much, because then they will suffer the discomfort of surfeit (excess or uncomfortably full due to excessive eating or drinking).  Anger responds with advice to women to protect themselves, “A goose standing before a ravenous fox is in as good case as the woman that trusteth to a man’s fidelity.”  She cites an author, Tibellus, who set rules for women to follow so that they don’t create lust in the men who look at them:

Tibellus, setting down a rule for women to follow, might have proportioned this platform for men to rest in and might have said: every honest man ought to shun that which detracteth both health and safety from his own person, and strive to bridle his slanderous tongue.  Then must he be modest and show his modesty by his virtuous and civil behaviours, and not display his beastliness through his wicked and filthy words.

Change the wording a little, and you have a modern argument against street harassment.  We still blame women for wearing short skirts or low-cut blouses when they get harassed, yet most of the women on the Stop Street Harassment blog note that they were not wearing provocative clothing when they were harassed.  Anger’s argument is that the men should be taught how to control their own behavior, instead of placing the responsibility on the women.

If we clothe ourselves in sackcloth and truss up our hair in [dishcloths], [vulgar men] will nevertheless pursue their pastime.  If we hide our breasts it must be with leather, for no cloth can keep their long nails out of our bosoms.

Anger declares that a man’s motive is never for love, but only for lust.  He will imagine that every woman he desires also desires him, and he will tell her anything and everything to sleep with her.  Sound familiar?

At the end of men’s fair promises there is a labyrinth, and therefore ever hereafter stop your ears when they protest friendship, lest they come to an end before you are aware, whereby you fall without redemption.  The path which leadeth thereunto is man’s wit, and the miles-ends are marked with these trees: folly, vice, mischief, lust, deceit, and pride.  These to deceive you shall be clothed in the raiments of fancy, virtue, modesty, love, true-meaning, and handsomeness.

Why do we continue to repeat these lies about each other?  They are repeated constantly in TV shows, blogs, articles, academic studies…

It’s tempting to believe that all men are liars, rather than deal with the painful misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of any relationship.  Women tell each other lies, tell themselves lies, to feel better about rejection.  For me, this article was like candy, and once the sugar-high wore off, I felt sick.

3 thoughts on “War Between the Sexes

  1. Sometimes indulging in this “war of the sexes” leaves me angry and empty. But sometimes it’s so deserved – right now I am so angry at American men and the Amerrican idea of masculinity, because traveling in Asia has made it clear that men are capable of keeping their desires to themselves. I haven’t been catcalled once, or harassed in any way. I used to think shame was a bad way to control people, but if shame is the only way to keep men from sharing their desires with the world, well, maybe we should look into a little shaming.


    1. Interesting, so there’s a difference between men having the lust and expressing it… Do you care whether men are actually thinking lascivious thoughts, or is your main annoyance with having your day interrupted by them? Anger seems to think that men can’t help but act on their lust, it’s like insatiable hunger, and the men will devour anything they can.

      You did mention that Chinese men would take your picture and you found that annoying, so would you agree that the objectification is still there, it’s just less inconvenient for the women.


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