Nietzsche has a reputation of being a virulent misogynist, a reputation that is understandable but not ultimately justified. He did indeed make provocative statements about woman as such that are controversial to his day. This is unsurprising as his writings, both his bold statements and subtle arguments, are ambivalent and contradictory.
His relationship to feminists is equally ambivalent. His apparent misogyny didn’t stop women from reading and taking inspiration from him, like many progressive women in the late 19th and early 20th century. Later feminists loathed and scorned him, but today’s feminists are more sympathetic. As professors of philosophy Solomon and Higgens write in “What Nietzsche Really Said”, Nietzsche shares a lot of concerns with feminists, such as education and the nature of gender roles. Ida von Miaskowski, a longtime friend of Nietzsche, writes in her memoirs:
“In the eighties, when Nietzsche’s later writings containing some of the oft-quoted sharp words against women appeared, my husband sometimes told me jokingly not to tell people of my friendly relations with Nietzsche, since this was not very flattering for me. It was just a joke. My husband, like myself, always kept friendly memories of Nietzsche […] his behavior precisely towards women was so sensitive, so natural and comradely, that even today in old age I cannot regard Nietzsche as a despiser of women.”
Senior lecturer Francis Nesbitt Oppel provides the best deconstruction of Nietzsche’s writings as of now in “Nietzsche on Gender: Beyond Man and Woman”. She argues that Nietzsche deconstructs the gender roles of his day, revealing them to be deeply harmful to our creative development as human beings. Nietzsche parodies the culture he grew up in, which many readers mistake to be his genuine thoughts. Here are Oppel’s arguments from only her first chapter, summarized, with my own thoughts:
NIETZSCHE ON GENDER
Nietzsche’s “No!” to Woman, Knocking Down an Ideal
Her argument is what it says on the tin. Nietzsche deconstructs the female gender role of his day, especially the ideal of a “perfect woman”. The 19th century gave rise to a domestic ideal of women as moral guardians of the family and keepers of the house. The 19th century also gave rise to two distinct and neatly separate gender roles. Men went out to the public realm to be politicians and work. Women stayed at home to tend to the children and craft a domestic experience, from buying the right furniture to cooking the right food. The suburban housewife is America’s most prominent and modern form of this domestic feminine ideal.
Women at home formed a powerful bond with churches over time, and thus became elevated as a sacred instructor. Her home became her church and she became the family’s priest. While men sullied themselves with work, politics, and prostitutes in the city, women stood aloof from worldly wears, pure, unsexed, men’s redeemer. To work or hold political office would be to corrupt women. Nietzsche calls the female domestic ideal the Eternal Feminine, borrowed from Goethe’s “Faust”, where the pure, virginal Gretchen redeems Faust. Curiously, antifeminists have used the Eternal Feminine to argue against women’s emancipation for more than a hundred years, the very Eternal Feminine Nietzsche strikes down.
Nietzsche deconstructs the Eternal Feminine, revealing it to be a cultural myth, a gender role. Some men to this very day insist women are naturally docile, unselfish, and childish. Nietzsche, however, says it’s a mask women wear, a role they play. I personally believe it was a means to survive. As human societies became patriarchies over time and women became subjected, women had to shrewdly take advantage of their new role. In “Human, All Too Human” Nietzsche lays out that women originally used their shrewdness to control men, but over time trapped themselves in their own web (HAH 1:415). In patriarchal society, women must first and foremost be actresses, ironically “hypnotizing” the men who try to control them (GS 361). Girls are instructed by their shrewd mothers to use their cunning and charms
Now, women only vaguely remember they’re playing a specific part but still play it well. Nietzsche even accuses the priests to putting a friendly spin on women’s subjugation. Women were no longer enslaved, but now “protectors” and “guardians” (GM 2:18). Nietzsche describes women as ignoble, since they are depend on men for their sustenance, but women’s ignobility is much more excusable than men’s for historical reasons. (HAH 1:356) Notice that Nietzsche says “historical reasons”, not “natural reasons”, not “genetic reasons”. As Herodotus said, “Culture is king.”
Men willingly believe the Eternal Feminine myth because it makes them feel comfortable, both because it makes them feel superior and protective to women and because they see women as a respite from their daily struggles. Nietzsche’s best explanation is in the tale of the man and the boat. A man is thrown about by the roaring seashore, and then sees a silent, beautiful boat gliding across the waters. To his disappointment he discovers the boat is not silent but full of little noise (women’s discontent with their gender role and their manipulations), leaving him destitute. This not only infantilizes men but makes them deeply resent and distrust women.
Nietzsche even questions the “laws of nature” as a human construct. From my own reading of “Beyond Good and Evil” this is what I find: Nietzsche regards even physics (even the “hardest” of the “hard” sciences, as we may put it) as a clumsy interpretation of the world. He specifically describes it as an exegesis, comparing it to people who interpret the Bible for their own convenience. As I write these very words people from my age, “rational atheists” being the most grievous examples from my experience, misinterpret studies or conduct biased studies to validate their materialistic ideals. To the common people, science is a be-all-end-all explanation for the world while completely unaware of science’s philosophical nuances. To the common people, science is novel and fascinating because it seems to explain everything so easily, when it really doesn’t (BGE 21).
Nietzsche’s argument is very relevant with how people talk about women today. In the past, sexists used an exegesis of the Bible they barely understand to justify women’s “inferiority”. Today, sexists use an exegesis science they barely understans to justify women’s “inferiority”. Same stupidity, different label. From where I come from people use tabloids like Psychology Today and the Daily Mail to prove how men and women are “hardwired” to be different. The term “hardwire” is itself a talking point and a new form of determinism. People cite poor studies or simply twist other studies to fit their beliefs while barely knowing how to read a study at all. Historian of science and biologist Stephen Jay Gould in “Mismeasure of Man” and academic psychologist Cordelia Fine in “Delusions of Gender”, show how even esteemed scientists can unintentionally skewer their research because of cultural biases.
So, if Nietzsche deconstructs gender than why is he so vocally opposed to women’s rights? Oppel says that whenever Nietzsche bashes feminists he becomes irrational, which she finds deeply suspicious. I would like to further add that Nietzsche not only becomes irrational but hysterical. He spends a lot of time deconstructing the Eternal Feminine, but all of a sudden uses it as a prop against feminism, like so many antifeminists did and still do today. As if that doesn’t alarm you enough, Nietzsche shows his red hand outright in Beyond Good and Evil, page 162.
Before I unpack his words here, I want to put them in context of the whole book. Sadly I never got to read the whole book but I have read portions of it, including the chapter “Our Virtues”. In “Beyond Good and Evil” Nietzsche discusses how past philosophers project their moral prejudices as universal truths about the universe. It’s not too difficult to see how past philosophers would project their prejudices against women as some universal law of nature, which many did.
In chapter 7, “Our Virtues”, Nietzsche criticizes the self-appointed virtues of late 19th century Europeans. Their virtues are complex and dynamic, drawn from many different cultural inspirations, but also inconstant and without foundation. Nietzsche spends his time here throwing darts at the various moral trends of the time (the costumes people keep switching). All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he throws an antifeminist screed, prefaced with a strange disclaimer. Why? I can only guess.
Now it is Nietzsche’s turn on the hot seat. “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” was a popular virtue of 19th century Europeans, and perhaps a virtue Nietzsche identified within himself. These were certainly the virtues of 19th century, or at least what was expected of them. It is also noteworthy that of all virtues, Nietzsche spends the longest time on this one. It is the Eternal Feminine after all, the Angel in the House, or should I better put it the Elephant in the Room.
“Learning alters us, it does what all nourishment does that does not merely “conserve”—as the physiologist knows. But at the bottom of our souls, quite “down below,” there is certainly something unteachable, a granite of spiritual fate, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined, chosen questions. In each cardinal problem there speaks an unchangeable “I am this”; a thinker cannot learn anew about man and woman, for instance, but can only learn fully—he can only follow to the end what is “fixed” about them in himself. Occasionally we find certain solutions of problems which make strong beliefs for us; perhaps they are henceforth called “convictions.” Later on—one sees in them only footsteps to self-knowledge, guide-posts to the problem which we ourselves ARE—or more correctly to the great stupidity which we embody, our spiritual fate, the UNTEACHABLE in us, quite “down below”.
In view of this liberal compliment which I have just paid myself, permission will perhaps be more readily allowed me to utter some truths about “woman as she is,” provided that it is known at the outset how literally they are merely—MY truths.” (BGE 162)
Nietzsche is not just saying, “this is my personal opinion”, but explains what it entails. There are some things you can’t unlearn immediately because they are so thoroughly ingrained in you. These are your most cherished “truths”, the most fundamental assumptions you made in your entire identity, your answers to the big questions in life. There are times when you think your assumptions are validated, your convictions, but eventually you learn they’re only assumptions. And therein you can discover the problem within you. Nietzsche spells out his intent, to bring out his assumptions about “woman as such”.
As I said before, Nietzsche screed is illogical and hysterical. Nietzsche brings up the usual clichés associated with women “pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness, and immodesty”. His insults are not just silly but also strange. So, women are priggish and prude schoolmarms but also licentious and immodest? Isn’t modesty a bad quality according to Nietzsche? (BGE 163)
He insists women should content themselves with their old and worn-out charms, of amusing men, chasing away their worries, and lighten the burden of men’s supposed profundity. Strangely enough, this is exactly what Nietzsche wants to do in the Introduction. He chastises the old philosophers, the old men who projected their moral pretentions onto the universe, for their gruesome seriousness and clumsy obtuseness. “Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” is Nietzsche’s very first sentence. All the old, dogmatic philosophers, almost all of them sexist, have all failed to win her heart. They’ve all been superstitious, pedantic, or quick to generalize human frailties onto the whole universe (BGE 1). By contrast, Nietzsche advises light feet, joy, dancing, music, “evil” (which he says women are more than men), nuance, wit, and liveliness throughout his work. All of these qualities have been historically associated with women in the West.
Nietzsche tells outright that men are frightened by women’s emancipation (BGE 163). Nietzsche, and the men he speaks for, are comforted by the illusion of women being weak, docile, and simple, and don’t want that illusion destroyed. So he admonishes women to stay away from perusing truth, and instead return to acting dainty and foolish to comfort men.
Nietzsche is not above making baseless claims in his antifeminist screed, like saying no woman has acknowledged another woman’s intelligence or justice (BGE 164). When he disparages women for “stupidity in the kitchen”, he reveals a lot of historical ignorance on his part (BGE 164). These wise women have existed since the dawn of the human race, who we might call “witches”, who held deep knowledge of the earth, herbs, and medicine. However, with civilization and women’s subjugation, the knowledge of how humans can sustain themselves vanished.
He takes a break in aphorism 236. After a bit of yelling he calms down a bit to give a prudent observation for the sake of contrast. Dante and later Goethe all depicted the Eternal Feminine, taking them into Heaven, redeeming them. But, Nietzsche interjects, a nobler woman (a woman who is smarter, more educated, more aware of her gender, a woman who will stand up for herself and not abide by society’s virtues), will reject the Eternal Feminine. (BGE 165)
To continue with his rant, Nietzsche lambasts men who deny women’s inferiority as shallow and unable to brave through any fundamental problems of life. Nietzsche is braving through the “cardinal problems” as he describes them right now, except he’s going in the opposite direction (BGE 167). From my experience at least, it is sexist or misogynist men who are shallow. They are mentally weaker, more gullible, adhere more strictly to political ideologies and dogmas. They argue through aggressiveness, spouting pedantic clichés with an old philosopher’s naivety, and through sheer numbers. They are also much more likely to engage in cowardly and unscrupulous behavior. In other words, they are full of “pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness, and immodesty”.
Then, Nietzsche insists there is a permanent battle between the sexes, but then suggests a solution: Simply make the woman a slave. He overemphasizes how necessary, logical, and humanely desirable it is, which makes you question if it is indeed logical and humane. He also deliberately lies about Greece’s cultural inheritance. Greece heavily borrowed from Egypt for its scientific and religious foundations, not from Asia. As most people know, Egypt treated women very well in comparison to other ancient cultures (BGE 167). Arguing that women’s influence in Europe decreased with her gaining rights is just preposterous and odd (BGE 168).
The more he rants the angrier and more illogical he becomes until he breaks down into screaming in the last paragraph, calling women dangerous cats (if that wasn’t cliché enough) (BGE 169). The bull with gilded horns he associated with women before returns to drag Europe away, while Europe screams at the top of her lungs (BGE 170). The scene is comical, like something out of a Gilray cartoon. Nietzsche concludes his antifeminist screed in a farce.