Roots of Misogyny? {How Father Wounds Influence Gender Inequality}

Reading an old, but interesting article by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen related to Abraham Kuyper’s Sphere Sovereignty and gender inequality. You can read the whole article here {It’s very interesting…}


Father Absence as an Intergenerational Source of Misogyny:
A central claim of feminist object-relations theory (which is a revision of classical Freudian theory) is that the physical and psychological absence of fathers from their growing sons is, ironically, an important source of misogyny – that is, men’s devaluation of women. I say ‘ironically’ because, as we have seen, the doctrine of separate spheres was meant to elevate women’s status, not decrease it. So how did it backfire, according to object-relations theorists? To begin with, because mothers are usually the primary caretakers of infants, object-relations theorists refer to her as children’s ‘primary love object.’ Boy and girl babies are equally dependent on her and therefore equally attached to her emotionally. They do not, for the first two years or so, distinguish her as ‘female,’ any more than they understand what it means to be a male or female themselves. Nor do they understand that, in the world at large, their mother’s power is quite limited, since they are barely aware that there is a larger world. As mother is the center of their world, and so apparently in control of everything, she is not only their first love-object, but their first role-model: the person that both boys and girls identify with and want to be like.

Around age three children begin to get a clearer cognitive grasp of their own biological sex and its permanence, as well as that of their parents. And for little girls raised under the sway of the doctrine of separate spheres, this is at first very positive and reassuring. It means that in order to develop a relatively secure gender identity (the sense that she is, and is comfortable being a female) she simply needs to do what she would do anyway – that is, stick close to and continue identifying with her primary caretaker. But for a boy at around age three, along with the increasing certainty that he is and always will be male, there comes another message: no, you can’t grow up to be like your mother. You have to be like your father – that large male person whom you see for a little while mornings or evenings, and sometimes for a bit longer on weekends. In other words, the boy discovers that since they are not of the same sex, he cannot derive his primary identity from his ever-present, nurturing mother, but must have as his role model the same-sex father with whom he interacts very little.

This asymmetrical parenting arrangement can result in a kind of double bind for boys. They cannot simply stay unambiguously attached to their mothers, yet the role model they are supposed to imitate is largely unavailable. As a result, boys are forced to figure out masculinity more in the abstract, or from dubious secondary sources such as peers and the media. See-sawing between a desire to ‘like mother’ (who is a constant, nurturing and powerful presence) and the vague recognition that he must suppress this in order to be ‘like father’ (with whom he interacts much less frequently), he is at risk of developing deep but largely unarticulated doubts about his ability to meet the demands of masculinity.[44] Historical sociologist Michael Kimmel summarized this dilemma as follows: “[O]nce the young boy links his sense of masculinity to being separate from mother, can he ever get far enough away? How much distance from the feminine is enough? Psychologically, his sense of masculinity becomes a constant test to demonstrate the fact of that separation. But how does he prove it? And to whom?”[45]

How do boys reared under the doctrine of separate spheres deal with such doubts? For many, the safest way is to have as little to do with women and their activities as possible – to repress or deny any stereotypically feminine qualities or impulses in themselves. In extreme cases a man may do this by openly scorning or even maltreating women as he himself grows to adulthood. Less extremely, he may simply avoid women except for domestic and sexual needs, spending most of his time in exclusively male groups, and sometimes try to prove and re-prove his masculinity by engaging in risky or confrontational behaviors. Under the cult of true womanhood, he may also idealize women, metaphorically placing them on a pedestal, as Kuyper seems to have done. This too keeps them at a safe distance, but as we have seen, is often accompanied by unrealistic demands of sacrificial feminine and maternal perfection.

You can perhaps see how this masculine insecurity perpetuates itself from generation to generation. The under-fathered boy risks developing a fragile, ambivalent male identity; to compensate for this as he grows older, he may distance himself from women and ‘women’s work.’ And what is most obviously women’s work under the doctrine of separate spheres? Caring for young children. So he avoids nurturant contact with his own sons and thus contributes to their own development of insecure masculinity, ambivalence toward women, and the compensatory, woman-rejecting behavior that can result. In this way he helps to reproduce a cycle of father-absent parenting and misogyny in succeeding generations.

Nor do the results of such asymmetrical parenting stop with boys’ temptation to embrace an exaggerated and compensatory style of masculinity. Whether due to the doctrine of separate spheres — or more recently, due to escalating rates of divorce and unwed childbearing – underfathered girls are at parallel risk of embracing a kind of compensatory, lowest-common-denominator femininity in the form of premature sexual activity and unwed pregnancy. The presence of nurturant fathers signals to girls that they are valuable and interesting persons in their own right, and that their status does not depend solely on their sexual and reproductive value to men. For example, in one study of women students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fathers of these high-achieving women were recalled as encouraging, mentally stimulating, proud of their daughters’ budding scientific interests, and involved in intellectual activities with them in their growing-up years.[46] Conversely, as David Blankenhorn has noted in his book Fatherless America, “Deprived of a stable relationship with a non-exploitative adult male who loves them, [underfathered] girls can remain developmentally ‘stuck,’ struggling with issues of security and trust that well-fathered girls have already successfully resolved.”[47]

Even – indeed perhaps especially – among men who are conventionally successful in the public realm there can be a double sense of loss as a result of this intergenerational cycle, as psychiatrist Samuel Osherson found in his study of male Harvard graduates who came of age in the 1960s. On the one hand, most of these men grew up knowing their fathers as dutiful but distant economic providers, who were often socially and emotionally ineffectual at home and sometimes more childish than the children themselves. On the other hand, lacking fathers who were adequate models of male nurturance (however well they modeled economic upward mobility), they found themselves repeating the same cycle with their own wives and children. Thus, writes Osherson:

I began to see how profound and painful were the consequences of the predictable dislocation between fathers and sons, a separation we take for granted in our society. Many of the male-female skirmishes of our times are rooted in the hidden, ongoing struggles sons have with their fathers, and the varying ways grown sons try to complete this relationship in their careers and marriages.Yet despite their psychological importance fathers remain wrapped in a mystery for many men, as we idealize, degrade or ignore them. And in doing so, we wind up imitating them, even as we try to be different.[48]

What do you think? If this has validity, how should we respond?

3 thoughts on “Roots of Misogyny? {How Father Wounds Influence Gender Inequality}

  1. Actually, male misogyny is typically inherited from father figure. Father treats mother like shit, son observes and assumes it’s meant to be this way. It’s that simple.

    • Did you notice that this is an excerpt from another article and not my words? You were invited to engage with the points that were made. I don’t see how your comments do that.

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