What is “misogynistic”?

Last weekend I read Melanie Oppenheimers article in the most recent Australian Literary Review entitled Women missing in action, I was struck by the use of the word “misogynist” to describe retellings of Australia’s World War One which did not give serious attention to women.

Oppenheimer provides us with some interesting material on contemporary attitudes to womens involvement beginning with a description of Anzacs and Anzacettes (no I’m not joking) from the RSL in 1917. The Anzacettes were the nurses. It then comments that women have received less attention in recent portrayals of the war. This is in the history written in John Howard’s Australia sentimental nationalism.

Im not much of a fan of sentimental nationalism. But I was still puzzled by this word ‘misogynist’. You see if it means anything, a misogynist is someone who goes beyond sexism. A misogynist dislikes – perhaps hates women. Perhaps a misogynist resents women. There are plenty of theories as to why.

But if someone writes a history of World War One without much stuff about the nurses, does that make them misogynist? And how do we know that their motives for such omission hidden perhaps even to themselves are hostility to women? I would have thought it was incumbent upon someone making such a claim to back it up. Now you’re unlikely to find people coming out with it – saying ‘actually I just don’t like women much’ or ‘I hate women’ – though I guess some might.

But you might be able to find things that they’ve said that suggest that they do. Or things that they’ve done. But I didnt see Oppenheimer cite any evidence of misogyny in todays sentimental nationalist histories.

As I thought some more about this I felt my sympathy for this article – or general agreement with its premise – fall away. Wouldnt the suitability of writing about the 2,200 nurses in the Australian operations (over three hundred of thousand men fought) depend upon what kind of history one wanted to write?

If one were writing strictly military history – women mightn’t play much of a role. If one were writing of the people, and the experience one would want to involve them much more. If it was a general social history of Australia during the war it would be a travesty for them not to receive considerable attention. (I have no idea whether it would show that you hate women, or even dislike them, but it wouldn’t be much of a social history).

Now the book that the author focuses on is Les Carylon’s history of WWI. Lets accept that it fits the bill of sentimental nationalism. A celebration of the mateship of the troops, of their suffering and shocking experiences in the war.

I can well imagine that John Howard might, much to Geoffrey Blainey’s irritation, insist on the book winning the PM’s prize for history. But then again, while one might prefer something different, it is, surely, a reasonable, a respectable, a legitimate thing to tell the story of the suffering of the soldiers with an essentially military focus.

One might want more about the suffering of the enemies. And of the nurses. But story telling doesn’t really work that way. Just like the nurses suffering missing out in a book about the soldiers, so Gallipoli takes up a far greater place in our psyche than the Western Front, so the soldiers of the ‘forgotten war’ in Korea get remarkably little attention compared with the soldiers of el Alamein and Tobruk in WWII. And so it goes.

Finally I wondered if I should even allow myself a little anger towards the article. I don’t think of some story of the suffering of the soldiers in WWI as something very intimately associated with me as a man. My mother thinks a lot about WWI I suspect for the reasons I do. Its a compelling story of suffering, of things turning out (catastrophically) not to be the way they were imagined and a world which is simultaneously the world out of which our own world grew and a world that is completely alien to our experience.

I wonder if the real psychic ‘pull’ of the story is not even in the soldiers who fought, but in those who went from being naive boys to being dead meat or cripples in the flash of a cannon on the battlefield. Of the dumbness we feel before that fact and the magnitude of it all. Like many of us, the singer and songwriter Eric Bogle is mesmerized by this story of loss. Hes written a trilogy of deeply moving songs about it. But women dont get much of a look in in any of them.

Still, Im pretty sure hes not a misogynist.

Speaking for myself, when reading the kinds of stories that Carylon writes Im usually put in mind of an interview with an old WWII soldier I once saw on Parkinson. He commented that charging up a hill against enemy fire, you couldn’t rely on the courage of more than one soldier in four or five. I wonder (I doubt very much) if I’d be one of the ones you could have relied on. If I got to pick someone who I would have liked to have beside me – a person who might have had the courage Id pick my oldest friend John whom I met in grade two at a one teacher school which wouldnt have been so different to the way it was during WWI, Harkaway State School. But as the soldier in the interview said, you can never really know until it happens.

Those are some of the questions that I take with me when I read about the war experience of soldiers, though I know Id never get clear answers. And the role of nurses in the story? Well, whether I was a man or a women, if those were my motivations for writing or reading the book, the nurses wouldn’t be centre stage. Nor would aborigines qua aborigines, or Italians or homosexuals or introverts or redheads or dwarves for that matter.

And I think any suggestion that they ought to be, and that if they weren’t the author somehow hated them, well Id think that was a bit rich.

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20 Responses to What is “misogynistic”?

  1. Dave Bath says:

    As an aside: Is there a male-specific equivalent to misogyny? Misanthropy is generally taken to be “hates all humans”?

  2. Yobbo says:

    There’s no such thing as political correctness.

  3. David Rubie says:

    A misandrist is one who hates men.

  4. derrida derider says:

    Sometimes people really are silly. I remember once going to an exhibit at a museum on the history of mathematics. Great care was clearly taken that half – exactly half – the mathematicians portrayed were women. Truly obscure dilettantes of the right gender were given the same space as Euclid and Gauss, for instance. Of course Ada Lovelace got more billing than Charles Babbage.

    It does not take anything away from the service of WW1 nurses to tell the story of the far bigger number of soldiers who faced far greater danger and discomfort. It’s not the nurses’ fault that they did not get the same (very dubious) opportunities as the men, but the fact is that they did indeed have less scope to exhibit mass heroism.

  5. Niall says:

    This issue first arose with Geraldine Doogue’s rather persistent questioning of Les Carlyon during a discussion of his book “The Great War”. I personally thought Oppenheimer’s whinge was akin to that old sage, ‘those who can’t do, teach’. Carlyon was well and truly within his rights, in my view, to do as he did. Politely tell her that if she didn’t like what he wrote, in the context that he wrote, then she should write something herself and stop the bleating.

  6. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Just went and read the article.

    I think this is a fair enough thing for her to say (whether one agress with it or not; I don’t):
    ” … the gender implications of this new nationalism confirm that Australia is a fundamentally misogynistic country. There has been a slow and insidious obliteration of women’s roles in our war history. So cleverly is it masked that there has been little public outcry, but the evidence is pervasive.”

    She’s not saying here that Carlyon is misogynist, but rather that this is a ‘fundamentally misogynistic country’ and that writing women out of its history is one of the indicators of that. It’s a fairly detailed and precise argument even if, like me, you don’t agree with it. But her second and only other use of the word ‘misogynist’ is much closer to being inaccurate and silly.

    Speaking as a feminist, I’d be more inclined to describe what she’s talking about as patriarchal, or, rather, as a function of a patriarchal society — one in which wars are fought, by men, in accordance with masculinist values. But that’s quite different from misogyny.

    I was far more interested in something Oppenheimer has ignored, namely the rhymes she quotes at the beginning of the article, in which the ‘Anzacs’ are described in terms of what they do and the ‘Anzacettes’ purely in terms of how the Anzacs see them, that is, as relative creatures whose only interesting aspect is how much they please men. If this is the ‘recognition’ Oppenheimer wants more of then she’s not thinking very clearly; most women would rather not be mentioned at all, thanks. The WWI song ‘The Rose of No Man’s Land’ was far more of an implicitly feminist lyric, describing the nurses in terms of what they did.

  7. tigtog says:

    Nice point, Nick.

    I feel the lack of writing about the experiences of women in history generally is problematic in many ways, and reflects a broadly sexist society that in the past that gave women few opportunities to make a mark in society beyond the domestic sphere, but I agree that it is not necessarily misogynistic.

  8. tigtog says:

    I drafted the above reply before Niall and Pavlov’s Cat posted their replies, and forgot to hit send. So sorry for appearing to ignore your points, you both make many good arguments.

  9. Yobbo says:

    I guess this post completely misses the fact that we don’t read much about Army doctors either.

    I guess Australia also hates doctors?

    Or it could be just the simplest explanation – most of our war Myths celebrate the soldiers who were under fire rather than the support staff.

    In cases where nurses were in direct line of fire and died for their country, they have also been celebrated

  10. Niall says:

    An excellent point, Sam. Now if a womam author would only pen her own version of events from a feminine perspective, be it nurses, drivers, whatever I guess the argument might die a natural death. Somehow I don’t think that’s likely to happen on either count.

  11. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Don’t you believe it, Niall; have you read Betty Jeffrey‘s White Coolies?

  12. wilful says:

    And who would buy these worthy tomes?

  13. David Rubie says:

    Yobbo wrote:

    I guess this post completely misses the fact that we dont read much about Army doctors either.

    Nah mate. Weary Dunlop is a collective figment of our imaginations.

  14. Vee says:

    You would think misandry would represent hate of the androgenous.

  15. Stories of Gallipoli are – or very many of them are – celebrations of military heroism. But that heroism comes in many forms and Simpson and his donkey were dragged out of obscurity by the propaganda units just as Anzac Day itself was, and that was a ‘caring’ heroism, not derring-do – or not military derring-do if you get my drift.

    Yobbo’s point reminds me that I had meant to make mention in my post the celebration of Nancy Wake which makes the point as well as anything.

    After the war, she received the George Medal, the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the M

  16. Nabakov says:

    I guess this post completely misses the fact that we dont read much about Army doctors either.

    I don’t have to guess that that comment completely missed the point of the post. C’mon Sam, you’re better than this kinda pointless, humourless, petty sniping.

    What is often missed though is that when you ask most Australians to name a homegrown war hero, chances are they’re gonna recall Simpson and his bloody donkey, Weary Dunlop or Nancy Wake – all healers, fixers and operators and not killers. Or Monash, an engineer and builder turned almost accidently into a General who wanted to make his battles as swift as possible. Albert Jacka? Turn left at the bottom of Fitzroy Street.

    What I like about Australia is that while the ANZAC warrior mythos is woven into the national story (as so it should be), the overall emphasis is always on the sacrifice, the survivors and those that helped them survive, not on those who killed the other poor bloody bastards. Heroes who aren’t ferocious in the moment but who manifest courage, nous and dedication for the long haul. Bit like nurses everywhere,anywhere really. This is also reflected in the fact that Australians of the Year are most often drawn from the medical/life sciences/healthcare categories.

    And returning now to the book that stimulated this initial contremps, Carlyon’s “Great War”, a copy of which is sandbagging my bookshelf. What I got most out of that well written yet more than occasionally ponderous, lovingly researched and generally immense tome was the dramatic contrast between the Australian Army and all the others involved in that disgusting bloodbath.

    As Les limns it, every other military force involved were basically conscript armies led by professional officer classes. Whereas the ANZACs were volunteers hustled around by hastily commissioned officers. A complete shambles on the parade ground and utterly useless during wargames. Pathetic colonial bastards who couldn’t keep it together until it came to keeping together during the actual fighting.

    For me though, the photos are the highlight of the book. Everyone, from Monash packed into full general staff regalia and Pompey Elliot looking like a footy coach in a foul mood to some private leaning on his rifle and hanging off his ciggie and and a carefully innocent platoon about steal chickens, radiates more character, sense of immediate purpose and nonchalant poise than any other WW1 pics I’ve seen.

    The Australian Army also stood fast, unlike every other Great War army, against introducing the death penalty for desertation. Not surprisingly the vast majority of their deserters returned voluntarily to their units, unlike everyone else. Incidentally major elements of every other army mutinied in organised fashion at some point or another during that filthy war. Except for the ANZACS. They just maintained a disorganised rebellious grumble that never quite flaired up.

    In short, Australians aren’t very good soldiers. Excellent warriors, healers and just sorting this shit out right now people of all sexes though.

    I don’t think anyone who was a part of that story or is telling it thoughtfully now is a deliberate misogynist.

    It’s true though the chicks often get overlooked.

  17. Thanks Nabs,

    You’re obviously hitting your straps for BB07 (comments division).

  18. Nabakov says:

    Albert Jacka? Turn left at the bottom of Fitzroy Street.

    No, I meant right, turn right, right! Oh fuck you missed it. My fault, sorry. OK we can go around Luna Park.

  19. FDB says:

    Yeah, I was gonna pick you up on that, but y’know, why let the truth etc etc

  20. kyangadac says:

    Bit late to this thread but I did actually research nurses in WW1 a while back. There are several recent histories by nurses but the one that’s really worth reading is May Tilton’s 1934 reminiscence “The Grey Battalion”. Mind you May was not a politically correct feminist either. But if you want heroism her accounts of caring for wounded soldiers diagnosed with TB on a crowded hospital ship that took several weeks to get to Australia sent shivers up my spine. It’s not about facing guns and bullets but about facing paranoia and fear in a confined space. The rest is there as well, soldiers losing limbs, mud and so on.

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