M isogyny is like a virus. It can be fatal –
something I realised when I covered the
Yorkshire Ripper murders in the late
1970s. It has the capacity to mutate,
which is why I wrote a book called
Misogynies in the plural. And it is
infectious, which is why public life is so
toxic for women at present.
Just think about it. Last month an
inspirational Labour MP, who also
happened to be the mother of two
children, was shot and stabbed in her
constituency. The murder of Jo Cox
rightly caused an outpouring of emotion,
from shocked disbelief to calls for more
civility in public discourse. But memories
are short, especially in the feverish
atmosphere of a Labour leadership
contest. I could hardly believe my ears
when Owen Smith, in a campaign speech
about equality, said he was upset that
Labour did not have the power to
“smash” Theresa May “back on her
heels” .
Smith’s careless use of language is not
just offensive to women who have painful
memories of domestic violence. In recent
weeks, the Labour MP Angela Eagle has
had a brick lobbed through a window at
her constituency office. She has received
a torrent of abuse, including death
threats. Her colleague Luciana Berger has
contacted police after being sent a picture
of a kitchen knife and a message telling
her that she was going to “get it like Jo
Cox did”.
I have never known a time when woman-
hating has been so seething or so
widespread. When Misogynies was
published in 1989, I believed I had
identified something that was on the way
out. I was angry when I wrote the book,
mainly because it wasn’t long since I had
witnessed the hopeless police
investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper
murders at close quarters. Between 1975
and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe killed 13 women ,
while the police chased after a hoaxer
who taunted them on an audiotape. After
years of nightmares, I realised that the
murders were part of a wider and age-old
Researching the book, I found plenty of
evidence of misogyny, from Roman
poetry in the first century BC to Page 3 of
the Sun. But it was bearable because
equality legislation was coming thick and
fast and job opportunities were opening
up for women. I counted myself lucky that
I had missed out on witch trials and the
selling of captured women into slavery. I
never imagined that, all these years later,
that I would begin to see photographs of
men with long hair and straggly beards in
Syria, crammed into the back of trucks
under a sinister black flag. It is hard to
believe, but if I were writing Misogynies
today, I would have to include a chapter
about Yazidi girls being sold in slave
markets in the Isis stronghold of Raqqa.
Or Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation
so implacably opposed to girls’ education
that it kidnaps Nigerian schoolgirls and
forces them into sexual slavery.
Woman-hating has come roaring back,
borne on a tide of recession, economic
uncertainty and religious extremism. In
this country, we have just witnessed
misogyny in its “jokey” form, prompted
by May’s arrival at No 10 Downing Street.
“Heel, Boys” declared the Sun, showing a
pair of kitten heels trampling on the heads
of six of her most senior colleagues.
Haven’t you got a sense of humour, love?
It revived memories of an old trope of
Margaret Thatcher as the Conservative
party’s dominatrix, confirming that some
people cannot see a woman assuming
power without thinking of men being
Tragically, the presence of women in
powerful positions seems to unleash
misogyny rather than curb it. Hillary
Clinton’s first attempt to win her party’s
presidential nomination was accompanied
by a campaign of breathtaking nastiness.
Last week’s Republican convention
ramped up the misogyny with witch-
hunting chants of “Lock her up!” Angela
Eagle’s courageous bid to challenge
Jeremy Corbyn ended when more of her
colleagues backed Smith, a man with
much less experience. Anyone who thinks
Eagle’s campaign was flat should bear in
mind the fact that she was receiving so
much abuse that her constituency staff
had to take the phones off the hook.
Misogyny has deep roots. It sometimes
becomes dormant – usually when the
economy is doing well – but it never really
goes away. It is a mistake to regard it as
just another form of abuse; it is a
peculiarly intimate form of hatred, rooted
in relationships carried on behind closed
doors but that frequently spill over into
the public world. (Racists rarely marry
their victims but misogynists often do.)
It needs to be met with zero tolerance,
because once it starts being culturally
sanctioned, there is no end to it. When a
well-known woman starts receiving rape
threats on Twitter, hundreds of other
people join. In a more extreme example,
the prohibition of rape has been abolished
in areas of Iraq and Syria occupied by
Isis, attracting recruits who like the idea
of having coercive sex with 14-year-old
Misogyny flourishes when politics become
polarised, for a simple reason: it is as
prevalent on the hard left as it is among
religious extremists. Look at the number
of supposedly radical men who rushed to
defend the WikiLeaks founder, Julian
Assange, when he faced accusations of
sexual assault and rape in Sweden
. Some of them are still batting for this
narcissistic misogynist, four years after
he became a fugitive from justice in the
Ecuadorian embassy in London.
A day after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as
Labour leader, the three great offices of
state in his shadow cabinet were given to
men. It came as no surprise to feminists,
who know that the hard left rarely pays
more than lip service to a movement it
regards as a distraction from the struggle
against imperialism. Nor am I surprised
that Labour has become a poisonous
environment for women MPs. Last week
45 of them signed a letter to Corbyn ,
demanding that he do more to stop
harassment, vilification and intimidation.
I have watched these developments with
outrage – and a weary sense of deja vu.
Many brave women died for freedoms
that are under attack once again, all over
the world. And I am as offended by
people who play down outbursts of
misogyny as I am by those who
unashamedly revel in it. After the murder
of Jo Cox, I don’t want to hear anyone
telling worried female MPs to toughen up
or whining that they have received death
threats, too.
Woman-hating should be a nasty
anachronism, but it’s back and we have
to confront it. I know what I’m talking
about: when it comes to misogyny, I
really did write the book.