The Logic of Misogyny and the Burning of Bridget Cleary

                                       Part 1: The Logic of Misogyny

In her recent book ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ Kate Manne has explored the concept of misogyny. Manne noted that a lot of attempts to understand misogyny rely on hypothesis of the psychological attitudes men hold towards women. Manne’s analysis of the concept is different. She notes that a sexist person will hold certain attitudes and beliefs about women; but the same isn’t true of misogyny.  A sexist will believe things such as; women are less intelligent in general than men; women aren’t competent to do the same work as men etc. A misogynist doesn’t have to hold particular beliefs about women’s competencies or role in a society. In order to count as a misogynist a man merely has to behave in a way that involves policing woman’s behaviours; of punishing them when they fail to act according to dominant patriarchal standards etc.

Manne conceptualises misogyny as follows:

Rather than conceptualising misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women- as a matter of deep psychological explanation, or indeed whatsoever.” (Kate Manne ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ p. 59)

In the above quote Kate Manne’s use of the term “target” is ambiguous.  When you say that one person makes another person a target of violence this typically implies some kind of intentionality. Does a dog target a rat when it attacks it? In a sense it does target the rat to some degree. But does the dog conceptualise the rat and act on these conceptualisations? This is unclear; see Brandom (1995), Davidson (1990), versus Fodor (1975) for debates on this issue. But nobody would argue that a hurricane targets the island it lands on. The hurricane’s behaviour isn’t intentional behaviour so the hurricane cannot be said to target an Island it hits. When Manne speaks of ‘targets’ of misogyny, she notes that we shouldn’t focus on the psychological states of the agents who ‘target’ women. Conceptually this seems confused. If psychological states are barred then how can we distinguish between a hurricane ‘targeting’, versus a dog targeting, versus a human targeting? It would seem that by focusing on the logic of the situation Manne is ignoring very real distinctions. Her sidestepping psychological explanations seems to imply a simply behaviouristic explication; x occurs and it has consequences for y; but her use of the word ‘target’ seems to slip in intentionality and moral judgement.

So is Manne guilty of a contradiction in her explication of misogyny? I don’t think so. Manne seems to be gesturing towards what Dennett calls ‘competence without comprehension’. Dennett explicates competence without comprehension in terms of free floating rationales. A free floating rationale is pretty much a paradigm of Manne’s ‘Logic of Misogyny’. A Cuckoo egg is placed in a nest of another bird. When the Cuckoo is hatched it typically systematically pushes the eggs of the bird whose nest they have landed in out of the nest. It is clear that the Cuckoo doesn’t represent rival eggs in the nest as rivals to be destroyed. The Cuckoo is born with competence to destroy rivals without having comprehension as to why he behaves as he does.

On Manne’s conception of the ‘Logic of Misogyny’ it is similar to the Cukoo’s behaviour. But it is not identical. Manne obviously isn’t saying that misogynists are identical to Cuckoo’s or stotting Deer. On Manne’s picture some Misogynists may represent their misogynist views and consciously act on them. Some Misogynists may be partly conscious of their views but they may be acting on unconscious frustrations (a deep routed psychological contempt for women). But while it is difficult to disambiguate whether behaviour is intentionally planned, an unconscious strategy, or an innate programme created by natural selection; we can abstract from these messy details if we focus on the structural situation and who it benefits.

The ‘who benefits’ approach; has yielded an incredible amount of results for Ethno-Scientists. Ethnologists aren’t always concerned with philosophical distinctions. When they study ethnology they are often ambiguous as to whether they are speaking of conscious non-verbal thought, unconscious computations, or free floating rationales. Nonetheless, ethnologists still manage to study the behaviour of non-human animals and discover who benefits.

Though Manne doesn’t use this logic she also seems to be discussing the issue of who benefits. And in the issue of who benefits; she correctly notes that the beneficiaries are typically white western heterosexual men. Those who deny the validity of Manne’s understanding of misogyny must accept that she is using  similar logic that ethnoscientists use. If they want to attack Manne’s approach they need to extend their critique to the study of all animal behaviour.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary

With these preliminaries aside it I think it is worth thinking through a particular case that exhibits what Manne was worried about. The case I am talking about is a horrific murder that occurred in 1895 in Tipperary in Ireland. Bridget Cleary a twenty six year old woman was murdered by her husband. Her husband Michael Cleary was aided and abetted in the wife’s murder by his wife’s father and by neighbours and other family members of Bridget Cleary. The murder was horrific and made headlines around the world. Domestic violence was common in Ireland at the time Bridget Cleary was murdered and a husband murdering his wife while not an everyday disturbance; wasn’t entirely unheard of either. The reason the murder made worldwide headlines wasn’t because a husband murdering his wife was considered shocking; rather it was his reason for murdering her. Cleary murdered his wife because he believed she was a changeling who fairies had left in place of his wife. Furthermore, this belief which Cleary held wasn’t a lone delusion he held, the story of changelings being left in place of people was a folk myth in Ireland of the time.  Changelings were traditionally used in folk stories to explain strange behaviour of members of the family; neighbours, friends etc. Today we sometimes hear parents say that their child was developing normally and that when the child got a vaccine he developed autistic symptoms. In Ireland through-out the medieval period and up until the late 19th century, if a child appeared to suddenly change his behaviour there was no concept of autism, nor any mythology of vaccines causing autism, for people to fall back on. People though did have a system of folk beliefs to rely on which told of fairy abductions and people being replaced by changelings to explain the otherwise inexplicable behaviour of their children. Though the changeling myth was sometimes used in relation to children with various developmental disabilities, it could also be used to explain someone who had a stroke. Even today with modern science and some very effective therapies; family members of someone who has had a stroke have to face up to the person post-stroke being an entirely different person than pre-stroke. In medieval Ireland when people in general had such poor understanding of science, a concept such as a stroke would have been unknown to the peasant class. A woman could go to bed with her husband and wake up to find him unable to speak and move half his body. Again the notion of fairy abduction offered an explanation of a kind. The person who you woke up beside who could no longer talk and couldn’t move half his body was a changeling; the real husband was “away with the fairies”.

The events leading up to Bridget’s murder began innocuously enough, while out on a delivery Bridget  was caught in the rain and developed symptoms that which her doctor later diagnosed as mild bronchitis. When Bridget was having trouble recovering from her illness, her husband Michael contacted a doctor to see her, and a priest to see her, as well as a local fairy doctor[1] Jack Dunne. The doctor didn’t seem to be overly worried that Bridget’s illness was very serious and he prescribed some medicine for her. The priest bizarrely, gave Bridget last rights (a Catholic ceremony reserved for terminally ill patients), despite the doctors good prognosis. However, it was the fairy doctor who set the tragic turn of events in place. Upon seeing Bridget in her sick bed he pointed and said “that is not Bridgie Boland[2], before turning and leaving the house. This behaviour from a fairy doctor was taken as evidence by Michael Cleary that the person in his bed was no longer his wife but was a changeling left by the fairies.

Bridget’s mild case of bronchitis was treatable with the medicine of the time. But a variety of different events conspired to make things spiral out of control. Despite multiple attempts to get the doctor to see Bridget it was days till the doctor arrived. The priest giving last rights implied that she was dying and in Ireland of the time a priest’s word would have been as trusted as highly as a doctor. This state of affairs would have led to Michael Cleary panicking and possibly resulted in his susceptibility to believing Jack Dunne’s story of the fairy abduction and replacement with a changeling. The doctor didn’t seem overly interested in Bridget Cleary and didn’t turn up for days and when he did he smelled of Alcohol, and the priest seemed to have given her up as dead. Michael Cleary’s disorganised mind may have believed that Jack Dunne’s fairy story was the best explanation and way of saving her. On the day that he murdered his wife Cleary’s father died and this didn’t help Cleary’s mental state.

Before continuing I should note that the above paragraph could be construed as a paradigm case of what Kate Manne calls himpathy “the flow of sympathy away from the female victims toward their male victimizers” (ibid p. 23). When discussing himpathy Manne notes that it involves:

“In the case of male dominance, we sympathize with him first, effectively making him into the victim of his own crimes” ( ibid p. 201)

It could be argued that by noting the role the doctor, the priest, and the witch doctor played in Bridget’s murder, and the death of Michael Cleary’s father I am trying to elicit sympathy for him; portraying poor Michael Cleary as a confused victim of his own crime while ignoring the real victim Bridget Cleary. This is not my intention I am merely setting up the circumstances under which the brutal crime was committed; before detailing the actual crime; I will later discuss what this crime reveals about the logic of misogyny.

With dwindling faith in medical science Michael Cleary followed Jack Dunne’s advice and obtained a fairy remedy which was supposed to be a cure for his wife’s ailment. The remedy was a collection of herbs that he boiled in milk; he then tried to force his wife to drink the remedy. Because of the horrendous taste of the drink Bridget refused to drink it. In response to this Michael threatened to burn her with a hot poker if she didn’t drink the remedy immediately. Michael then (with the help of visiting neighbours) pinned Bridget to the bed and her arms were held and the drink was forced down her throat. While she was being threatened and forced to drink the potion, urine was thrown on her intermittently, as part of a ritual to remove the supposed changeling. She was asked continually “are you the daughter of Patrick Boland?”, while they tried to force the potion down her throat. They eventually dragged her down to the fire and threatened to throw her in it if she didn’t answer their questions correctly and drink the potion. Near the end of the night with Bridget exhausted, tired and terrified, they seemed to temporally accept that she wasn’t a changeling and Bridget was allowed sleep.

The next morning at 7am Michael contacted the local priest and got him to say mass for Bridget. Later that evening Michael started forcing her to drink holy water. She was offered a cup of tea, and he made her partake in a ritual where she had to eat a slice of bread and answer “Are you Michael Cleary’s husband?”, this was supposed to be done three times; she did it twice but refused on the third time. Cleary flung her to the floor and began forcing the food into her; he continued with the assault, ripping her clothes off. He lit her clothes on fire and emptied the paraffin oil all over her. Bridget lay there burning to death.

                 Part 3: Understanding the Murder

Bridget’s ordeal was so horrifying that it is hard to even understand it today. Seemingly as a result of her husband’s strange folk beliefs in fairies Bridget was force fed, threatened, abused, and eventually burned to death. What could explain such a horrific murder? It is tempting to seek an answer in terms of the internal thought processes of Michael Cleary; however, there is little reason to think that at this remove we can extrapolate what Michael’s exact thought process was when he committed the murder[3]. However we can understand the murder in terms of cultural systems and who they benefit

Strangulation and Force Feeding

“But Bridget Cleary was the one who ended up dead. She had accumulated power, both economic and sexual, it seems, far in excess of what was due to a woman of her age and class, and when the balance tipped, all anger flowed towards her.” ( ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’. p. 136)

In the introduction to her ‘The Logic of Misogyny’, Kate Manne discussed the case of strangulation. She noted that strangulation is typically called choking, but that this terminology is incorrect. Choking involves an internally obstructed airway, where the airway is obstructed by an external object, where as strangulation is caused by external pressure exerted on the throat or the neck (Manne: ‘Logic of Misogyny’ p.1). Such strangulation is a common form of domestic violence which can sometimes lead to death. Strangulation is predominantly a male type of violence that occurs in all known cultures and socio-economic groups (ibid p. 2).

Manne makes the following point about strangulation:

Strangulation is torture. Researchers draw a comparison between strangulation and waterboarding, both in how it feels-painful, terrifying-and its subsequent social meaning. It is characterizes as a demonstration of authority and domination.[4]” (ibid p. 3)

Because of the gendered nature of strangulation and the fact that it is a type of torture used to implement a type of social control it is a paradigm case of misogyny for Manne. As we saw above Manne understanding of misogyny is non-psychological. Whatever the reasons the man may give to justify his use of strangulation, from the point of view of behaviour it is a form of torture that serves to control the victim and punish her for violating some implicit patriarchal laws.

There are aspects of Bridget Cleary’s murder that fit Manne’s discussion of the logic of misogyny. As we saw above Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband with the help of her father and neighbours because they thought she was a changeling who was left by the fairies in replacement of the real Bridget. In 1895 in rural Ireland belief in fairies still persisted though the belief was becoming less and less prevalent.

When Michael Cleary murdered his wife Bridget Cleary he didn’t strangle her; instead he brutally assaulted her and then burned her to death. Prior to murdering his wife; Cleary and his accomplices, engaged in force feeding her a herb/milk remedy, holy water and bread. Bridget Cleary’s husband was forcing her to swallow food against her will, the subjective terror of choking on food forced into ones throat would be similar to the horror of being strangled or being water boarded. Furthermore, whatever her husband’s motives; by forcing her to eat something against her will he was establishing dominance and the ritual had social significance; Bridget’s body wasn’t her own it was owned by her husband. Bridget had to answer in a particular way, eat what she was given on threat of violence. Independent of any motives we can impute to Michael Cleary his behaviour was the behaviour of a man controlling body of another human being against their will.

In her seminal book on Bridget Cleary’s murder Angela Bourke noted that the act of holding down Bridget down and forcing food down her throat, was a signal to Bridget and whoever else was watching that Michael Cleary was in charge of Bridget Cleary (‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 106). Bridget was described by those who knew her as an attractive, and self confident young  woman.  Unlike the vast majority of women in Ireland at that time Bridget was self sufficient, she had a job as a sewist which earned well and she also earned money from the eggs of the chickens she owned. Michael was living in Bridget’s town near her relatives. After eight years of marriage Bridget and Michael had no children. While not having children would have seemed unusual at the time; a lack of children would have given Bridget more freedom than other women of that era. There were rumours that that both of the Cleary’s were engaged in extra marital affairs.

By the standards of the time Bridget Cleary was an exceptionally confident and free woman. Independent of the motivations underlying Michaels attack on Bridget it illustrated one key point. Michael was in control of Bridget; he was in control of what she ate, how she answered questions, and ultimately he had control over whether she lived or died. Michael’s behaviour was a concrete and horrific instance of the logic of misogyny. Bridget had more freedom than her peers and Michael’s behaviour was a way of policing her behaviour and putting her in her place. When she didn’t accept that place the result was her death. As Angela Bourke noted:

“Her refusal to eat what he gave her had sinister implications for the body politic within which they lived. It was not so very different in its significance from the force-feeding of suffragists and other prisoners by state authorities in later years”. (ibid p. 107)

Against this background we can see that independent of Michael’s actual views his behaviour was operating as a form of misogynist policing force punishing Bridget for not conforming to societal standards.

Even the use of the Fairy and Changeling myth in relation to Bridget may not have been entirely coincidental. The Fairy myth was used in a variety of different circumstances. It was used to label those who were viewed at the time, as less than human; those we would today label autistic or with a psychiatric disorder, a neurological disorder, learning disability etc. But it was also used to stigmatise women who were considered too assertive, angry or clever (ibid p. 177). Angela Bourke put the point succinctly:

 “The Fairy-belief tradition which is pejoratively called superstition might more positively, if less felicitously, be labelled a vernacular stigma theory. It is precisely a way of labelling people as not quite human, and serves to rationalize the ambivalence or hostility felt towards those who are different.” (ibid p. 207)

It is no wonder then that the fairy myth played a big role in the torture of Bridget Cleary. As a woman who was assertive, and self-sufficient she was a perfect exemplar of what the unconscious misogynistic police would consider a paradigm example of a woman who was away with the Fairies.

Free Floating Rationales

In our above discussion analysed the logic of Michael Cleary’s murder of Bridget. We noted, following Manne, that this logic could be understood independent of his idiosyncratic beliefs. We did this by considering Bridget in relation to her society, what ends Michael’s behaviour achieved as opposed to how he thought about these ends, and we also briefly examined the role that Fairy tales played in facilitating this behaviour. These Fairy Tales are better off thought of meme structures; or free floating rationales which were selected in their particular environment for a variety of reasons. But these reasons need not have been represented by the agents who were moved by these memes.

Looking at some memes we can discern certain uses they had in shaping behaviour:

“Fairy-Legends carry disciplinary messages for women as well as for children, warning them about behaviour considered by a patriarchal society to be unacceptable. Undoubtedly, too, some of them have been used as euphemisms for domestic violence. Roddy Doyle’s novel ‘The Woman Who Walked into Doors’ takes its title from such a euphemism in modern life. A woman in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who had obviously been beaten might explain the marks of violence as having been inflicted by fairy abductors, while a violent husband might account for his actions as loss of patience with a fairy interloper.” ( Angela Bourke: ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 37)

Patricia Lysaght in her ‘The Banshee: The Irish Death Messanger’, noted a similar pattern in ‘The Banshee’ myth where the mythology was used to influence human behaviour:

“Many of the variants stress that the encounter with the being and the improper actions towards her are the result of a dissipated life- being out late at night carousing and card-playing or the like…the legend also teaches the value of good behaviour in stressing that those who are violent, discourteous towards women or given to drunkenness and late hours may run great risks. The Lesson not to pick up combs and such-like objects accidentally found is also spelled out, especially to children…” (Lysaght ‘The Banshee’ pp. 179-181)


Many of these idiosyncratic myths and fairy stories were simply adopted because their hosts found them catchy. But a lot of them were shaped because those in their environment found them useful for shaping behaviour. In a patriarchal society a lot of this behaviour would have been shaped to serve those in power e.g. men. It is for this reason that we need to carefully study our current mythologies and see how they are structured and most importantly who they benefit?

[1] A fairy doctor was an Irish equivalent of a witch doctor.

[2] Boland was Bridget’s maiden name prior to marring Michael Collins.

[3] There is little reason to think there is a fact of the matter about what Michael Cleary was thinking when he committed the murder; see Quine ‘Word and Object’ 1960 and Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ 2018.

[4]  Manne cites the work of Sorenson et al (2014) “A Systematic Review of the Epidemiology of NonFatal Strangulation, a Human Rights and Health Concern” as evidence that strangulation is a form of torture.

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