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I was looking in the library at my university, and found a yearbook from somewhere in the 1870s-80s. For the graduating class, the put their major, political party, religious denomination, and 'remarks'. Some of them were 'normal' stuff like "British Citizen", or "Believes in co-education of sexes". But one of them that stood out to me simply said "A misogynist". Did that word have a slightly different meaning in the 1870s-80s? Or is this a better question for a history stack exchange, to ask if this was a 'normal' thing to say back then?

Yearbook

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    I think not. Just a college kid being a smart-aleck. – Xanne Nov 7 '20 at 0:48
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    Note the one below it. – Hot Licks Nov 7 '20 at 1:15
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    @livresque Based on the place names and majors, I'd guess this is Virginia Tech, or some other engineering school in Virginia. (And lo, I was right: digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/Bugle/1895Bugle) – TaliesinMerlin Nov 7 '20 at 2:21
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    Have you noticed that several of the others make anti-feminist comments? "Opposed to Women's Rights." "Home is just where she ought to be." Evidently attitudes like that were considered acceptable in an all-male class. – Kate Bunting Nov 7 '20 at 8:48
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    It seems possible that this was an issue of political debate between the members of this class, given that you've got several members expressing positions against womens' rights, and a couple expressing support for it. – nick012000 Nov 7 '20 at 10:28
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It's the distinct context of the yearbook that makes it hard to understand the intent behind misogynist.

The meaning of a misogynist hasn't changed much. In the 1857-9 novel The Virginians, William Thackeray calls Henry Warrington a misogynist at the end of a conversation, and then adds an editorial comment against the attitude:

"And so the little country nymphs are gone, or going, sir?" asked the Chaplain. "They were nice, fresh little things; but I think the mother was the finest woman of the three. I declare, a woman at five-and-thirty or so is at her prime. What do you say, sir?"

Mr. Warrington looked for a moment, askance at the Clergyman. "Confound all women, I say!" muttered the young misogynist. For which sentiment every well-conditioned person will surely rebuke him.

What makes Mr. Warrington a misogynist is his strong dislike of women, at least at this point of the novel. The narrator notes that his misogyny isn't something that a "well-conditioned person" would condone. That's still true today.

If being called a misogynist (i.e., a woman-hater) is widely considered a bad thing then and now, why would a student be called that in a yearbook? Yearbooks have often been jocular texts, places where the students can poke fun at one another with labels, pictures, senior quotes, and class titles. Here's what an article about the early history of Swarthmore's yearbook says about the humorous tone of the book:

The early yearbooks resemble humor magazines, with a section devoted to roughly drawn cartoons and jokey poems. One of the goals of the 1889 Halcyon describes that of many succeeding ones: to present “a delineation of the follies and foibles of student life,” including lighthearted descriptions of individuals.

There is also a strong tendency toward clubbiness, with plenty of small, silly groups like 1890’s women-only “The Adipose Tissue Association,” whose motto was “Laugh and Be Fat.” Each class is treated as a kind of club, with its own cheer (“Re, Rah! Re, Rah! ’89 Re, Rah!!”), colors, motto, and badge. Freshmen are hazed—forced into midnight immersions in the Crum.

The intention behind misogynist can be celebratory or critical, joking or hazing (or both), and it's often hard to tell. For example, see a few of these literary quotes selected for seniors from the 1897 yearbook for the University of Tennessee, The Volunteer:

enter image description here

That third quote, "A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing"? It's hard to know whether Essery was howling along with his classmates or whether those were fighting words. They could've been both! Misogynist reads in the same register.

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    That fourth quote is a potentially savage one, too. – Dave Nov 7 '20 at 14:08
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    For all we know, it could be applied to a man particularly noted for his fondness for women. Irony also being a possibility. Just as Essery could have been the athlete of the class. – Mary Nov 7 '20 at 15:45
  • This is as good as we can get. It may well be an in-joke that's now forgotten. It's hard to know how seriously to take it. Opposing women's rights wouldn't be an unusual position, and while it might get you criticism or argument it wouldn't get quite the same negative reaction as it gets today (in most quarters). Similarly if a slightly earlier yearbook had said "wants to own lots of slaves" that would not be exceptional as a serious position in the early 19th century but still might be a joke then or now, as a reference to someone's bossiness or keenness for organisation. – Stuart F Nov 9 '20 at 17:39
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Based on the the other student comments in the Yearbook, I'd have to agree with what @nick012000 said in the comments: It's pretty clear that there was some kind of running discussion/argument/debate about women's rights around or just prior to the student's providing their personal comments to the Yearbook. In all likelihood, someone called someone else a misogynist (deprecating, even back then) and they decided to own it, though whether as exaggeration or irony is unclear.

In short, it's just college kids being college kids.

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Did that word have a slightly different meaning in the 1870s-80s? Or [...] was [it] a 'normal' thing to say back then?

I suggest you remember the quote from L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

The meaning of misogynist has not changed from when it was first recorded 400 years ago:

OED

A. n. A person who hates, dislikes, or is prejudiced against women.

1620 Swetnam Arraigned i. ii. sig. A 4 [Mysogenos loq.] Swetnams name, Will be more terrible in womens eares, Then euer yet Misogenysts hath beene.

[...]

1995 New Yorker 19 June 34/2 It's an incongruous scene, where old-school misogynists mix it up with radical feminists.

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  • It is rather unclear what the point is of the quote about the past being a foreign country in an answer that says that the meaning of the word has not changed? – jsw29 Nov 15 '20 at 17:44
  • @jsw29 Perhaps you do not understand the quote? It implies that in the past things were different - some things were acceptable, and some were not - just as in one country something is acceptable, but in another not. (The quote is quite famous.) It is thus times that have changed and not the word. I hope this helps. – Greybeard Nov 15 '20 at 18:43
  • The comment was not about the quote itself, which is indeed well known and quite clear, but about the oddness of starting an answer with a quote that says that things do change, and then immediately, without any transition, proceeding to say that what the question is about did not change. – jsw29 Nov 15 '20 at 20:01
  • @jsw29 As there were two points to the question thus there were really two answers. The first speaks of the past, the second of the meaning of a word. – Greybeard Nov 15 '20 at 21:25
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There was little concern for political correctness in those days. I imagine that all these people were men. It is clear that some were opposed to feminism and, in particular, one of them simply hates all women (or professes to).

At the time there would be no backlash concerning this. He was simply stating his opinion.

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    Was there really little concern for political correctness, or was it more that being against women in politics (or, occasionally, in general) was a politically acceptable opinion? I've read some early 20th century yearbooks. They are jocular and glib, but I didn't see anyone unironically saying they were communist or atheist. (Note the religious affiliation in this example - that seems like a point of correctness.) – TaliesinMerlin Nov 7 '20 at 1:01
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    @TaliesinMerlin - Yes. I don't think political correctness was even a concept back then. After all, it was only in the 1860s that slavery was officially abolished in the US - probably there are some year books mentioning that if you go far enough back. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 7 '20 at 1:07
  • Sexism was acceptable, misogyny was not. They perceived a huge difference between the two and calling someone a misogynist was most definitely intended as a criticism. – RBarryYoung Nov 8 '20 at 23:02
  • And the term Political Correctness did not exist, but the concept and practice has existed for as long as politics has. The only things new about it is the phrase itself, and the myth that it is somehow uniquely associated with or created by modern liberalism. – RBarryYoung Nov 8 '20 at 23:06

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