Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hillary Clinton and Trump’s Semonidean sexism

5472Last week Hillary Clinton made history by becoming the first woman ever to become a major party nominee for US president.  One member of the Women’s National Democratic Club surely got it right when she said this to the BBC:  “It’s ridiculous it’s taken this long! So many years of hard work. We never gave up. This is a huge moment for America.”  But, as the BBC also reported, gender inequality in politics across the globe is still a huge problem:  as of 1st June 2016 only 22% of all national parliamentarians are women.

Clinton’s nomination gains even further significance because her Republican opponent in the race for the White House has a long and proven track record of misogyny, male chauvinism and sexism. This is not to say that previous GOP or Democratic Presidential nominees have been unbridled paragons of feminist virtue, but Trump is in a league of his own in this regard.  If he is elected, it will be an awful day for many reasons but the global struggle for gender equality and the promotion of better female representation in governmental politics and women’s rights in general will take a particularly big hit.  On the other hand we shouldn’t go too far down the line of thinking that Trump’s misogyny is isolated and exceptional. He is just a particularly vocal and obnoxious signifier of attitudes and biases which are widespread, sometimes unconsciously so and often at a deep and systemic level.

Trump’s misogyny and sexism sometimes sounds like the sort of thing which ancient Greek authors write about women. Take a look at Trump on women and prenuptial agreements (from his book Trump: the art of the comeback, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph Online):

“There are basically three types of women and reactions. One is the good woman who very much loves her future husband, solely for himself, but refuses to sign the agreement on principle. I fully understand this, but the man should take a pass anyway and find someone else. The other is the calculating woman who refuses to sign the prenuptial agreement because she is expecting to take advantage of the poor, unsuspecting sucker she’s got in her grasp. There is also the woman who will openly and quickly sign a prenuptial agreement in order to make a quick hit and take the money given to her.”

This sorting of women into ‘types’ (the ‘good woman’, the ‘calculating woman’…) as part of a didactic homily reminds me of a long fragment of a poem by the archaic poet Semonides (7th c. BCE).  Semonides claims that the gods created ten different kinds of women, each kind corresponding to the characteristics of an animal or an element of the environment.  For example, there is the ‘vixen’ woman ‘who has expertise in everything. Nothing of what is bad escapes her notice, nor even of what is good, since she often calls the latter bad and the former good. Her mood is different at different times’.  Or there is the ‘monkey’ woman: ‘Her face is extremely ugly […] Ah, pity the man who embraces such a plague. She knows every trick and scheme, just like a monkey. Being laughed at doesn’t bother her and she wouldn’t do anyone a good turn, but she has her eyes on and plots every day how she can do the greatest harm possible.’  The only ‘good’ type of woman listed is the ‘bee’ woman.  But her virtue consists entirely of the fact that she provides her husband with a flourishing home life and family. She is totally devoted to him and ‘takes no pleasure in sitting among women in places where they talk about sex’.

Given that Semonides is an ‘iambic’ poet whose stock-in-trade is therefore satire and scurrility, scholars have sometimes questioned the sincerity and seriousness of this tirade.  Whatever its precise tone and original intent, the fragment’s insistence that most women are a ‘plague’ to men, its heavy circumscription of their social role and its construction of women as objects of male gazing, praising and blaming are typical of ancient Greek texts, mythology and social practices.   And while ancient Greek culture allowed women an important role and a certain amount of agency in the areas of religion, festive ritual and household management and family life, even a well-off citizen wife and mother in a ‘democratic’ city like classical Athens had no political rights and lived in a society in which Trumpist attitudes to women (and even worse) were the norm.

Such attitudes entailed all sorts of contradictions and double standards.  On the one hand women were viewed as overly emotional and incapable of properly rational decision-making.  For example, Aristotle, whose superior wisdom in many matters can’t be said to extend to his views on women and slavery, acknowledges in the Politics that women, unlike slaves, have a deliberative faculty (to bouleutikon). But this capacity is akuron (‘without authority’). (It’s hard to be sure what this means: some think it means ‘without authority over their own emotions’, others go for ‘without authority over men’ or ‘inoperative’ and others argue that it designates some sort of deficiency in deliberative powers in comparison to men.) On the other hand, the male Greek imagination obsesses over the clever and calculating woman who is all too capable of rational planning and deliberation in her efforts to outsmart the husband, father or other male relative who is her guardian (kurios) and in the service of evil ends. The Watchman of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon calls Clytemnestra an ‘androboulos’ (manly-counselling, man-minded) woman.  This acknowledges Clytemnestra’s intellectual excellence at the same time as it brackets such smartness as anomalous and threatening.

Having said all this, male Greek authors do sometimes concede that women might be just as capable (or more so) than men in the public sphere – and in ways which are societally benign and productive. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that women are just as capable as men at being warriors and rulers.  He maintains that ‘natural abilities are evenly distributed between the sexes’. His interlocutor Glaucon even points out that ‘plenty of individual women are better at all sorts of things than individual men’.    Aristophanes’ comic heroines Lysistrata and Praxagora show levels of practical wisdom, organizational skill and political imagination which make a mockery of their respective plays’ male characters and in both cases it is specifically the Athenian male citizens’ political-deliberative capacities in the democracy which are shown to be hilariously and disastrously inadequate by comparison.  Furthermore, these men are at least partly undone by their excessive emotions and appetites.

So, if Hillary beats Donald this November (as I hope to god that she will), she won’t just be the first female president of the United States of America.  She’ll be another nail in the coffin for a very ancient and persistent strain of sexism and misogyny. And Donald will be like the Proboulos (Magistrate) of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, railing at the women as they effortlessly run rings round him and tie him up in intellectual and political knots.