Nietzsche’s Views on Women

[The following is an essay from a book I wrote covering the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, called No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor fati toZarathustra.  Available for purchase here.]

I.

If you are a woman, and you hold Friedrich Nietzsche in high esteem as one of the great enlightened thinkers of modern philosophy, there is a decent chance you might be unfamiliar with the full extent of the man’s musings about the fairer sex.

Since his own lifetime, the philosopher has been accused of promoting misogynistic ideas in his writings, due to his tendency of abrasively referring to women—and femininity as a whole—in largely hostile terms (as we shall explore shortly).  However, it should be stated for the sake of objectivity, that this sentiment is not universally accepted amongst prominent female authors and thinkers, as some of these individuals interpret Nietzsche’s apparently sexist aphorisms as a rhetorical strategy, used to illustrate the vain construct men have of women, and the potential to possibly move beyond this simplistic sentiment.[1]  Whether any of these more favorable interpretations are viable positions in light of Nietzsche’s own words, or simply attempts to exonerate the philosopher of the charge of misogyny, is the focus of the analysis that follows.

Although Nietzsche never wrote a single cumulative work on the topic of womanhood, his books are nevertheless filled with countless critiques and examinations of the female psyche, thereby making it possible for the reader to gather a coherent impression of the philosopher’s views on women, and gender relations in general.

Before looking into anything else, let us first give some background on Nietzsche’s personal experiences with the opposite sex.  After his father died when he was only five, Nietzsche was left to be raised in a household solely occupied by women (his mother, his sister, and two maiden aunts).  How much this affected the young man’s lifelong attitudes towards women is impossible to tell, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss it as a triviality.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche had few companions (of either gender), and virtually no real romantic relationships (nothing that would qualify as reciprocal love, anyway).  In his younger years, he would comment on his determination to remain a lifelong bachelor, because “on the whole, I hate the limitations and obligations of the whole civilized order of things so very much that it would be difficult to find a woman free-spirited enough to follow my lead.”[2]

This remark is noteworthy for two reasons: first, his expectation that a woman (even a “free-spirited” one) is to follow his lead, indicates a base level of chauvinism in Nietzsche’s mentality towards women.  And second, the philosopher seems to think his personal views are much too radical for any woman to either accept, or be capable of following.

The letter also serves to illustrate the divergent tones the philosopher adopts, depending on who he is corresponding with at any given time.  This is most evident from a later correspondence (this time with a woman), where Nietzsche uncharacteristically expresses a deep longing for a romantic partner:

Do you know that no woman’s voice has ever made a deep impression on me, although I have met all kinds of famous women? But I firmly believe there is a voice for me somewhere on earth, and I am seeking it. Where on earth is it?[3]

One can argue that—like so many men—Nietzsche perhaps feels more comfortable expressing his romantic desires to a woman, than to one of his masculine peers.  However, it is easily just as likely that this could simply be a case of Nietzsche minding his audience, and that (for all we know) he has some ulterior motive for the divergent viewpoints he expresses in the two correspondences.

Whichever the case, the fact that the philosopher is overall quite open in relating his apprehension about not wanting to settle down with any woman, is by all accounts a consistent theme in his communications:

I have not yet found a woman who would be suited to associate with me, and whose presence would not bore me and make me nervous / Moreover I know the women folk of half Europe, and wherever I have observed the influence of women on men, I have noticed a sort of gradual decline as the result.[4]

The use of “yet” in the first sentence of the above statement seems to imply that despite his unyielding mindset on the matter, Nietzsche is still interested in possibly pursuing a romantic relationship with the right woman Yet, the assertion that follows soon thereafter, indicates that Nietzsche holds a certain level of distrust in the effect women have on the character of men—whether it is a fear of being distracted from one’s work, or a deeper psychological fear of having his thinking negatively influenced, is not completely clear from the cavalier statement.

One cannot help but take note how once again Nietzsche hints that his rather heterodox social views lie as a barrier to the possibility of finding romantic companionship.  Indeed, at times, Nietzsche appears to dismiss the idea of getting married simply because he considered his personal character (and views) as too bombastic for any woman to have to deal with:

Certainly it would do me good to have something so graceful about me—but would it do her good? Would my views not make her unhappy, and would it not break my heart (provided that I loved her) to make such a delightful creature suffer? No, let us not speak of marrying![5]

Such an unexpected display of concern for the feelings of a potential spouse would almost make one believe that Nietzsche’s aloofness towards the opposite sex stems not from disdain, but from a strange sense of responsibility in not wanting to torment any woman with the eccentricities of his person.  Unfortunately, the rest of this very same letter makes such a claim nearly impossible to defend:

You can take my word for it, that for men like me, a marriage after the type of Goethe’s would be the best of all—that is to say, a marriage with a good housekeeper! But even this idea is repellent to me. A young and cheerful daughter to whom I would be an object of reverence would be much more to the point.[6]

What Nietzsche seems to want at this point in his life [1888; one year before his mental breakdown] is a spouse who will serve the role of a maid, rather than an intellectual partner.  A sharp contrast to the free-spirited woman he claimed to be incapable of finding in the first reference above [dated to 1876].

Whatever the case for Nietzsche’s obvious lack of romantic engagements, the fact remains that one can see a longstanding sentiment of distrust and ridicule towards female intelligence and character within the philosopher’s private correspondences.  A sentiment that is only amplified in Nietzsche’s published work.

II.

In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche gives us a number of witty aphorisms, which according to him shed light on the deeper layers and vanities of female psychology.  He states:

Woman learns to hate to the extent to which her charms—decrease.[7]

The same affects in man and woman are yet different in tempo:  therefore man and woman do not cease to misunderstand each other.[8]

Woman themselves always still have in the background of all personal vanity an impersonal contempt for “woman.”[9]

The second statement is probably the least damning amongst 21st Century egalitarians, as it simply suggests that men and women develop differing perspectives from equivocal external stimuli.  Although this is highly debatable, it is not altogether condemnable, since few would take the position that men and women absolutely cannot react differently in overlapping situations, and that the difference could not possibly stem from our differing biology.  Thus, the second part of the statement, asserting that this difference in perception creates a communication barrier between the two sexes, is also not controversial.  The problems arise, however, when such ideas are examined in line with Nietzsche’s statements as a whole.

For instance, the first aphorism draws on Nietzsche’s observation that the central source of power that is available to a woman is in her charismatic and sexual persuasion over men.  This leads the philosopher to purport that as a woman approaches the zenith of her ability to wield this power of persuasion (i.e. as she ages, and becomes less desirable to men), she begins to develop an ever-increasing level of discontent against the world; the rate at which this tradeoff occurs is, according to Nietzsche, moderated by the rate at which the woman feels her feminine charm to be decreasing.  Combined with the third aphorism in the quote, a reader can conclude that the overall sentiment Nietzsche is promoting is that women exist in a constant state of vanity, which causes them to occupy a perpetual state of antagonism against both men and other women.  If one accepts Nietzsche’s rationale as valid, than what follows is a natural inclination to associate femininity as an exclusively restrictive manifestation, whose existence lies squarely with its innate desire to control the emotive (and sexual) aspect of human psychology; or as Nietzsche says it, “where neither love nor hatred is in the game, a woman’s game is mediocre.”[10]

Of course, the most obvious counterargument one could raise against Nietzsche in his critique of womanhood is to point out that most—if not all—of the criticisms he makes against the opposite sex here, is equally present in the behavior of the masculine gender.

Men, too, indulge in vain interests, and have a tendency to become bitter and sensitive as age starts to diminish their charm and virility (not to mention their hairlines).  When it comes to the issue of competition—which Nietzsche characterizes as a vanity—it is only fair to say that if the philosopher wants to state that the highest contempt against women comes from other women, then one has to also acknowledge how (in light of all of human history) the greatest focus of contempt against men, has been other men.  Does it not allow itself to conclude then that Nietzsche’s criticisms of femininity are more accurately understood as criticisms against humanity, in general?

I doubt that Nietzsche would even object to any of the counterpoints made, and would probably add that they are entirely compatible with his views.  Furthermore, I suspect that the philosopher would make the counter-counter claim that such attempts at refuting his views on women, arises largely from my superficial interpretation of his words[11] (i.e. An eagerness to refute his ideas, because one has already decided his views are wrong long before one has even started reading his book).

A common approach on this topic is to make the argument that Nietzsche’s misogynistic attitude doesn’t stem from a feeling of superiority over women, but a deeply set suspicion of them:

The sexes deceive themselves about each other—because at bottom they honor and love only themselves (or their own ideals, to put it more pleasantly).  Thus man likes woman peaceful—but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceable.[12]

Nietzsche doesn’t deny that men are vain and deceptive (much of his life’s work attests to that), but he apparently sees a dramatic difference in the way the two sexes express their individual vanity and deceptive qualities.  This difference can be put very simply: men—according to Nietzsche—seek to deceive themselves first, and external factors only by extension of wanting to maintain this first self-deception.  In contrast, women seek to deceive solely the external world about their persons, thereby having no need to engage in the same sort of initial self-deception men are foolish enough to fall prey to.  This is why in the quote above Nietzsche states that man projects his ideal of woman as peaceful, and then goes on to construct societal norms to uphold the illusion that this is her natural state.

( The issue that many readers will notice is the last line of the quote, in which Nietzsche implies that women allow men to continue believing this lie by virtue of having “trained” themselves to appear more docile than they really are.  Yet, if men are making the external world fit their ideal of women as peaceful, in what sense can it be said that it is women themselves who have taken on this deceptive characteristic?—Doesn’t it follow more readily to say that, for those who grant the validity of the premise, this falsity has been imposed on womanhood, rather than concocted by it?)

When discussing Nietzsche’s views on women, it is important to remember that the philosopher wholeheartedly rejects the notion that women occupy the more oppressed role in society.  The rationale he gives for this view is directly tied in with his conspiratorial-like assessment of feminine attributes.  This leads Nietzsche to argue that a woman’s perceived secondary status is self-inflicted, presumably as a means to insure a better venture point for her instinctive interests:

Compare man and woman on the whole, one may say: woman would not have the genius for finery if she did not have an instinct for a secondary role.[13]

Having a genius for finery can be understood as having a talent for showy ornamentation; in other words, knowing how to distract others to frivolous adorations.  Nietzsche attributes this as a method by which women maintain their womanliness, and “charm” society into not taking their persons seriously enough to analyze their deceptive nature (for which their assumed secondary role serves as a perfect clout) and the full extent of their cunning influence.

Despite his chauvinism, Nietzsche staunchly believes that woman is the cleverer sex, and thereby also the more evil one.[14]  This belief in the diabolical cleverness of women leads the philosopher to conclude that the overconfidence men have in their so-called domestication of the female sex, is nothing more than a facade, promoted by women themselves:

Woman, the more she is woman, resists rights in general hand and foot: after all the state of nature, the eternal war between the sexes, gives her by far the first rank.[15]

It can be hard to follow Nietzsche’s reasoning for believing that women are inherently opposed to their own emancipation from traditional gender roles, because to do so would somehow rob them of their natural rank over men.  His justification for this seemingly incoherent viewpoint appears to be the woman’s power over birth and her subsequent control of her status as the sole vessel of life—which is a woman’s idealized state:

Has my answer been heard to the question of how one cures a woman—“redeems” her?  One gives her a child.  Woman needs children, a man is for her always only a means: thus spoke Zarathustra.

“Emancipation of women”—that is the instinctive hatred of the abortive woman, who is incapable of giving birth, against the woman who is turned out well—the fight against the “man” is always a mere means, pretext, tactic.  By raising themselves higher, as “woman in herself,” as the “higher woman,” as a female “idealist,” they want to lower the level of the general rank of woman; and there is no surer means for that than the higher education, slacks, and political voting-cattle rights.  At bottom, the emancipation are anarchists in the world of the “eternally feminine,” the underprivileged whose most fundamental instinct is revenge.[16]

Nietzsche states that a woman’s true source of power lies in her ability to bear children (essentially the power to grant life), and that this trait serves as her underlying motivation for dealing with men (who are dependent on women for the propagation of their bloodline—their physical immortality, so to speak).  Because of man’s dependence on woman in this regard, the masculine gender will readily deify womanhood (i.e. motherhood), to a higher realm of existence, a sentiment women will shrewdly use to “raise themselves higher,” to a plane of virtue that is beyond reproach.  By this logic, Nietzsche reaches the conclusion that the emergence of the Woman’s Rights Movement, championing the “emancipation of women,” is the result of the resentful infertile female, who is incapable of attaining this higher plane due to her defect in drawing strength from the source of womanly power (childbirth).  Thus, she must seek to lift herself higher by other means; namely by lowering the existing rank of the fertile woman and focusing her mind away from the ready-made “sanctity” of motherhood, towards non-feminine—i.e. infertile—interests.

There is much that can be said against Nietzsche’s reasoning here, but by far the most devastating is the fact that a woman’s control over her reproductive rights is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (so recent that it still hasn’t permeated to many sects of the human population).  While the case can be made that historically (both in modern times and in antiquity) men have shown an abstract, philosophical reverence for the feminine form (for her ability to create life), this abstract idealization has very rarely gone far beyond a sparse collection of poetic musings.

In practice, women, and their reproductive capabilities, have historically been subject to the control and regulation of their male counterparts (mostly husbands, or other male relatives), for various reasons that range from basic chauvinism, to the outright superstitious.  This is a fact that Nietzsche fails to address in his above philosophizing about “women” and their “idealized elevation by men”, despite it being an indispensable part in any thorough narrative about femininity, and history thereof.  (I cannot personally see how to reconcile this fact with the picture Nietzsche has presented thus far, and I refuse to hypothesize on how the philosopher could have possibly countered the objection, for fear of infusing undue thoughts into the man’s philosophy.)

But even if, for the sake of argument, the reader grants Nietzsche’s narrative above as valid, there is still a simple discrepancy that stands out when looking at the philosopher’s views on the subject as a whole.  If Nietzsche’s criticism against women lies in their vain control over men to further consolidate their fertile power as the “higher” being (the creators of life, “the eternally feminine”), why is he so staunchly dismissive of the women (the “infertile” breed) who, in his view, are working to overturn this sentiment?  I suppose the answer lies in Nietzsche’s conviction that a woman’s mindset is unfailingly tuned to propagating deception about her feminine nature, thus no matter which side she happens to fall in the gender equity debate, her motive is to be viewed with suspicion:

So far enlightenment of this sort was fortunately man’s affair, man’s lot—we remained “among ourselves” in this; and whatever women write and “woman,” we may in the end reserve a healthy suspicion whether woman really wants enlightenment about herself—whether she can will it[17]

To Nietzsche, women are incapable of separating the search for objective truth, from their own subjective interests.  Thus, in women’s hands, truth reduces to nothing more than a whimsical dictum, to be discarded with if found inconvenient; making truth antithetical to femininity:

From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth—her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.[18]

There is no seriousness in a woman’s thought, according to Nietzsche, and any profundity a man ascribes to her stems from his inability to see past her vain shallowness.[19]  Playing perfectly into the cunning woman’s hands, as it frees her from having to indulge in the petty seriousness men are foolish enough to pursue:

Let us men confess it:  we honor and love precisely this art and this instinct in woman—we who have a hard time and for our relief like to associate with beings under whose hands, eyes, and tender follies our seriousness, our gravity and profundity almost appear to us like folly.[20]

I imagine how we who hold a certain degree of admiration for Nietzsche’s usually sharp analytic mind are by now feeling a clear sense of embarrassment for the philosopher’s strenuous desire to convince us of this simplistic and one-dimensional portrait he is drawing of female psychology.  Some Nietzscheans might try to soften the impression by pointing to the quasi-preface Nietzsche himself provides before stating his case against the feminine sex, where he seems to claim that his musings on womanhood are to be primarily understood as just his subjective opinion on the matter:

After this abundant civility that I have just evidenced in relation to myself I shall perhaps be permitted more readily to state a few truths about “woman as such”—assuming that it is now known from the outset how very much these are after all only—my truths.[21]

This is a noteworthy admission by the philosopher, indicating his possible awareness that the analysis he is providing on women is more of a personal assessment, and shouldn’t be regarded as the final word on the topic.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that Nietzsche’s words on the subject of womanhood are stated in absolutist terms (a practice the man himself spent much of his active life criticizing in others), which makes it near impossible to approach from a rational standpoint.  Not to mention, the not-so-subtle undertone of suspicion and conspiracy that emits from the spiteful prose, causes the reader to instinctively view Nietzsche’s own words with a layer of suspicion, unable to shake the feeling that perhaps this fight stems more from the philosopher’s desire to settle an inscrutable personal score (though I’m inclined to find such seemingly handy conclusions much too convenient to be of any real use).

Acknowledging his subjectivity on the subject or not, it is clear that Nietzsche does not see woman as being naturally inclined towards intellectual matters, because he identifies such matters as fundamental about a want to seek truth, which is barred to women because to face the truth of their deceitful character is too shameful—and ultimately harmful—to their person:  “Among women: ‘Truth? Oh, you don’t know truth! Is it not an attempt to kill our modesty?’”[22]

This defensiveness, according to Nietzsche, serves simply as a crafty cover to distract lurkers and probers from inquiring too deeply into the shallowness at the core of the female psyche:

Woman has much reason for shame; so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness and immodesty lies concealed in woman.[23]

Feminist Nietzscheans have proposed the idea that Nietzsche’s over the top misogyny in his writings is his unique way of demonstrating the absurdly chauvinistic sentiment exhibited by the domineering males of his days[24]; not to mention, accentuate the superficiality of the traditional gender roles, many women themselves refused to deviate from in his time.[25]  Although, at the face of it, one might be generous enough to consider that Nietzsche’s sexist prose might be a rhetorical tool he uses to point to a deeper level in the intricacy of human behavior—which most of us are just not capable of grasping—I personally find such rationalizations highly dubious.

This is most evident by the fact that Nietzsche does not extend to women the ability to take part in the intellectual project the philosopher has spent his entire career championing; the transvaluation of all values.  And central to this project is the discarding of religious thought, a theme that Nietzsche repeats so often in his writings that it has become synonymous with his name.

While Nietzsche maintains that all men ought to move beyond the superficiality of deities and the supernatural, and embrace godlessness as the only viable stance for the thinking person, the philosopher flatly refuses to even consider the attempt to have women, too, take part in this intellectual reevaluation—and ridicules those men who do:

Here and there they even want to turn women into freethinkers and scribblers—as if a woman without piety would not seem utterly obnoxious and ridiculous to a profound and godless man.[26]

If nothing else, this alone (in my opinion) negates any attempt to reconcile Nietzsche’s views on woman with our modern understanding of gender equality.  Nietzsche simply does not see intellect as a “natural” characteristic of the opposite sex.

As I said before, I don’t think it would be accurate to wholly ascribe to Nietzsche the label of having a superiority complex towards women.  His views are better characterizes as hierarchical, placing women in a natural role, which in his unique view actually places her in firm control over the masculine gender.  To Nietzsche, woman is most powerful in her “natural state,” and that state is one of deceit and suspicion towards the external world, with no other interest but the propagation of her own image as the ideal of virtue, desirability, and (overall) the symbol of fertility itself.

The extent to which Nietzsche’s premise in all of this fails is best demonstrated by the superficiality and paranoia-like generalizations his argument takes against the supposed superficiality and paranoia of femininity:

What inspires respect for woman, and often enough even fear, is her nature, which is more “natural” than man’s, the genuine, cunning suppleness of a beast of prey, the tiger’s claw under the glove, the naiveté of her egoism, her uneducability and inner wildness, the incomprehensibility, scope, and movement of her desires and virtues.[27]

[1] Nietzsche’s onetime companion, and possible love interest, Lou Andreas-Salomé [see Nietzsche in His Work (1894)] & feminist author Frances Nesbitt Oppel [see “Nietzsche on Gender” (University of Virginia Press: 2005)] are probably the two most well-known proponents of this viewpoint.

[2] “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Bâle, May 26, 1876.

[3] “Letter to Madame Louise O.”, Rosenlauibad, August 29, 1877.

[4] “Letter to His Sister [Elisabeth Nietzsche]”, Nice, Wednesday, March 23, 1887.

[5] “Letter to His Sister”, Nice, January 25, 1888.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, Part Four “Epigrams and Interludes” (1886), section 84.

[8] Ibid, section 85.

[9] Ibid, section 86.

[10] Ibid, section 115.

[11] He practically says so much in section 238 of the previously quoted book, when he refers to those males who reject his analysis of the shallowness of womanhood as “incapable of attaining any depth.”

[12] Ibid, section 131.

[13] Ibid, section 145.

[14] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “Why I Write Such Good Books” (1908), section 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows” (1888), section 27.

[20] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[21] Ibid, section 231.

[22] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” section 16.

[23] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[24] See footnote 1, above.

[25] Nietzsche’s reference to woman as occupying the place of “work-slaves and prisoners” in society has been cited as evidence of his understanding of the cultural subjugation of women (Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, section 18).

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 239.

[27] Ibid.

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