A History of Insults Against Women

Before seeing his actual words, I could dismiss Rush Limbaugh’s recent rant as his business as usual.  But reading excerpts of what he said about the Georgetown University law student who wanted to testify before Congress in support of contraceptive coverage, I felt sick:

What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We’re not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word. Okay, so she’s not a slut. She’s “round heeled.” I take it back

So, Miss Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives . . . we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

I reacted so strongly because his cruel misogyny reminds me of the 16th century European witch trials, a tragic and overlooked period of women’s history in which upwards of 40,000 women were burned at the stake or hanged as witches.  In particular, Limbaugh’s words disturbingly echo a document of the time, called Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), that became a guide to witch investigations conducted by secular authorities.  Written by two priests and published in 1486 with a papal bull, it details causes and results of witch activity as well as a specific step by step process to conduct questioning, including torture, to coerce a confession.

This document launched witch persecutions as an attack on women, says historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow in Witchcraze.  In the following negative portrayals of women from Malleus, note the assumption of women’s inherent sexual excess that is also found in Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke:

“ . . . since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.

 “But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations.  And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, . . . which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man.  And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.” 

“Women also have weak memories; and it is a natural vice in them not to be disciplined, but to follow their own impulses without any sense of what is due;” 

“For as she is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us.” 

“And that she is more perilous than a snare does not speak of the snare of hunters, but of devils. . . And when it is said that her heart is a net, it speaks of the inscrutable malice which reigns in their hearts.  And her hands are as bands for binding; for when they place their hands on a creature to bewitch it, then with the help of the devil they perform their design. 

To conclude:  All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”

The European witch trials are a cautionary tale for the 21st century.  They resulted from social upheaval during a time of economic stress.  Increased population led to food shortages, inflation and increased tensions between rich and poor, and the Reformation brought instability to the religious arena.  Women became scapegoats, especially those in healing roles like midwives, because their involvement in the realm of sexuality seemed to challenge the clergy’s authority.  For reasons not fully understood, the witch trials came to a stop almost suddenly by the mid-1700s, but the transformations in their wake that Barstow identifies offer food for contemporary thought:  Women feared other women and avoided healers and midwives.  “Women’s crimes” deserved severe punishment.  Women internalized a message that their nature was demonic.  Women feared speaking up for themselves.

I applaud Sandra Fluke for her courage.

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7 Responses to A History of Insults Against Women

  1. Michelle says:

    Do you really want the United States Government paying for women to have sex? That is what Sandra Fluke is asking for us to do. Why not abstain from sexual activity if you can not afford contraception. Since when is it a right to have contraception..and to have it for free. The political left is using contraception as a political weapon, because they know they lost the battle using the abortion argument. Ms. Fluke, as we find out is a 30 year old, women,s rights activist, who is not even in college. Rush is not the enemy here.

    • Otto von Bismarck says:

      Are you really defending someone who called a woman a “slut?” This was not just an idle remark either, but part of a three day extravaganza of misogyny. His comments were borderline perverse in his obsession over Fluke’s sexual habits. Here in the twenty-first century, we condemn such hatred of women. The fact that you do not think Limbaugh did anything wrong speaks poorly of your ability to understand what is considered acceptable in modern discourse.

      You seem to have trouble distinguishing nuance. First, you are unable to realize that this post is dealing with the content of Limbaugh’s rants, not the subject. You also seem unable to differentiate between a government mandate for insurance companies to provide contraceptive medication to women who desire it, and a government program paying women to have sex. The former is the issue at stake, the latter a myth fueled by Limbaugh and his sex crazed cohort. If you think this access to contraceptive materials from insurance companies is the same as the government paying women to have sex, you are entitled to do so. However, your lack of sophistication to understand the issue and your inability to comprehend basic tenets of nuance indicate that you are unable to push the discussion into any meaningful place.

  2. Peg Conway says:

    Although I disagree with your portrayal of Ms. Fluke’s position, the issue I am addressing in my post concerns the hateful manner in which Ms. Fluke was treated by Mr. Limbaugh. Obviously they both have the right to free speech, but even so such deep-seated vitriol is not a good sign as history shows.

  3. Tom Frank says:

    Peggy…your thoughtful commentary rocks! This is not an issue of “the government paying for people to have sex.” As it has often been said before…if men could get pregnant would this be an issue? This is about equal access to reasonable healthcare for multiple reasons. The fact that these comments came from a known drug abuser on his fourth marriage who had an illegal RX for Viagra confiscated on his return from the Dominican Republic…is just absurd. Interestingly, I’ve met Rush. He said he rarely believes what he says on-air, but he is an ‘Entertainer” and that is how he rationalizes his provocative statements. He doesn’t understand the vast legion of individuals who take him as a credible source of information. Thanks again for taking a broad and relevant perspective

    • Peg Conway says:

      I appreciate the positive feedback! And the insight about Rush Limbaugh, though sounds disingenuous — like when people say, “just kidding” all the time after they’ve zinged you, which is characteristic of bullies.

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