Aaargh. I am late again, but do check out
When I first started to explore the conservative Christian blogosphere, I was surprised to learn how much affection there is among these folks for my very own Jane Austen. If there is one thing extreme social conservatives and raving feminists have in common, it is a strong affection for Jane. I suspect, however, that we see quite different things in her novels.
The thing is that Jane Austen harshly criticized the social structures of her era but she was no revolutionary. She wrote in a clear-eyed fashion about the very unromantic consequences of complete female dependence. Notwithstanding the frothy, lighthearted surface of many of her novels, she always makes it quite clear that the marriage and courtship game was one of great and serious risk for women. Refuse a man's proposal and you might well wind up enduring a lifetime of poverty and humiliating spinsterhood. Austen, however, never proposed any alternatves to the strictures placed on women. All of her heroines, spirited though some of them were, operated within the confines of their societal roles.
The lack of any open rebellion against patriarchal norms in Austen allows social conservatives to embrace her as one of their own. Pride & Prejudice ends with a happy marriage, exults Charlotte Allen of the Independent Women's Forum. The Feminists must hate that! And oh how wonderfully chaste and "proper" the manners were in those days, notes Plugged In, the Focus on the Family online entertainment magazine. (That is assuming one considers it "proper" to obsessively discuss other people's income and to make material considerations primary when assessing another person's suitability as a marriage partner.) Such interpretations, of course, completely overlook the fact that much of what conservatives love about Austen were simply conventions of her time (like the title "Mrs.," the fact that Austen remained in her father's household into adulthood or the fact that Mr. Bennet was the "head" of his house). The areas in which Austen deviates from the conventions of her time however reveal the heart of a feminist forerunner.
The agency with which Austen invests her female protagonists -- even in the face of unimaginable social and material pressures -- is in and of itself feminist. In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet refuses to pander to Mr. Darcy, even though he was an eligible bachelor of rank and wealth, well situated to rescue her from a difficult future. Ultimately, when Lizzie finally wins Mr. Darcy, it is not because he has been captivated by her "fine eyes," but because he respects her intelligence, respects her spirit, and repsects her character.
Even more impressive, Elizabeth Bennet declines quite decisively a marriage proposal from the dreadful and pompous Mr. Collins. It is impossible to overstate what a gutsy move this is for Lizzie Bennett. Due to the quirk in the manner in which her father had inherited the house in which they all lived, Lizzie and her mother and her four sister were all to be turned out off the house upon the death of their father so that the house could pass to Mr. Collins. And still Lizzie said no to Mr. Collins's proposal. Jane Austen wrote this chapter in the most hilarious way possible -- with the condescending Mr. Collins refusing to take Lizzie's refusal seriously ("I shall chuse to attribute [your rejection of me] to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.") and Lizzie insisting, "Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart." Jane Austen may have been the first woman to insistently make the political point that No Means No!
I don't mean for my discussion of Austen to be overly divisive. There is something for everyone to love in Austen whether you are a feminist or not. One loves Austen not only for the spiritedness of her protagonists and harsh social critique, but for her witty dialogue, the intimate portrait of domestic life in this period, strong characterization, and her basic values regarding the development and honing of one's character and behavior. One romanticizes Austen's time and place at one's peril, however. While there is no way to know what Austen would have thought about modern day feminism, she definitely didn't let the patriarchy off the hook and for that, among other things, I will always love her.
NOTE: I found some good stuff while I was surfing around to see what other feminist bloggers have to say about Jane. This review by Bad Feminist of the recent Pride & Prejudice movie starring Keira Knightley is right on target. And a major Austen fan, Amanda at Pandagon, notes about the movie as well:
. . . it irritated me to no end that Austen’s delicate portrayal of Charlotte Lucas’ decision to marry Mr. Collins was changed from a sad statement on the state of women to a tedious swipe at women who had to make unfortunate choices under oppression. And that’s mostly because the filmmakers’ didn’t want to trouble the audience with the idea that Mrs. Bennet’s desperation to marry off her daughters might have more to it than just a stereotypically shallow love of weddings.
SECOND NOTE: The other reason Austen qualifies as feminist is that she's funny as hell. She's exhibit A in opposition to the old canard that women aren't funny.
Back when I was an adolescent, I militated against the idea that the lack of female role models in certain disciplines is a problem for young girls. I felt vaguely insulted at the notion that I was expected to identify only with people of the same sex as I. At thirteen, when I had to write an essay about my role models, I made a point of including Leonardo da Vinci as well as Elizabeth I. I felt that there was no reason I shouldn't be just as inspired by or identify just as strongly with a man of achievement as a woman of achievement.
But if I tell the truth, I have to admit that my inclusion of Leonardo, wonderful though he was, was a bit forced compared to my obsession with Elizabeth I and my strong sense of identification with her. And when I look back at my childhood, I realize I was desperately searching everywhere for examples of powerful women. What a sense of vindication and triumph I felt when we finally got to Elizabeth I when my mother and I were reading about the monarchs of England! How I hung on every word uttered by Margaret Thatcher and Jeanne Kirkpatrick! How frustrated I was when rebellious female heroines in literature seemed to give in, like Jo in Little Women.
And there's another interesting phenomenon I have noticed lately. When I am channel surfing I am far more likely to stop and listen to Condoleezza Rice or Laura Bush than the President or any other male politician. I think I am simply more interested in what Rice has to say than in any of her male predecessors because she is more like me. I even often find myself more interested in Laura Bush than male politicians, even though Laura Bush holds no actual power! I have never tested it scientifically, but I think on some level I am initially more interested or attracted to what women are saying or doing than what men are saying or doing.
Another example: I am not especially interested in watching sports on TV -- except I will pause for a few minutes if it's a women's team. My husband commented to me a while ago that he thought it was weird that I am not interested in football since I am such a "warlike" person who enjoys "aggression and strategy." (Yep, that's what he said.) And I realized in a flash that I have never been interested in football because I simply couldn't identify with the players. I knew from early childhood that girls don't play football, and it's hard to be interested in a situation if you know there's no chance you're ever going to be in that situation or anything remotely resembling that situation. On some level, I think sports fans imagine themselves playing the game -- and that's what makes it exciting, that feeling on some unconscious level that you could be that guy trying to get the puck in the goal or hit a home-run. Women are much less likely to have that feeling about professional sports that are closed to them.
On the other hand, I think that feeling of greater interest in my own sex is more of a first impulse rather than a lasting feeling. I think men and women can identify with each other, be interested in each other's activities, and be inspired by each other. But it's just not obvious at first. The movie character with whom I most closely identify is Michael Corleone from The Godfather. I first went to see that movie when I was 19. I had never seen it before that because just looked like a boring movie about a bunch of guys killing each other -- yawn -- but when it was played at my college, I dragged myself to see it because I knew it was a "classic." And boy, just like everyone else in the world, I came away feeling it was the greatest movie ever! And after numerous viewings throughout my 20s, I developed a sense of kinship with Michael. The early parts where Michael is a young goody-two shoes who isn't taken very seriously but then morphs into a practical, intelligent risk-taker seemed to parallel my own professional career (or at least how I like to imagine it!). And who doesn't know exactly how Michael feels when he is going to do his first hit and he's scared to death and he can't find the gun behind the toilet at first! Thus, I overcame my first impulse not to like the Godfather-- but I almost didn't go to the movie at all, and really only did so from a feeling of duty or obligation to see a classic film.
I am guessing there must be studies out there regarding whether people have a propensity to be more interested in heroes of their own sex. Just based on my own experiences, I believe this propensity exists. I suppose one could think of it as sub-conscious sexism, but however one labels it, it is a problem for women due to the historic power differentials between the sexes. If my hypothesis is correct, young girls and women may be less likely to be initially attracted to certain fields in which there are very few women-- and that lack of initial attraction may hinder the entrance into certain fields by women who might have enjoyed and thrived if they had given it a second look. Having forced myself to sit down and watch a few football games with my husband, I now appreciate the intricacies and the strategy and the drama of the game. But I spent more than three decades totally ignoring football because I didn't have that initial attraction to it. This sub-conscious sexism (if my hypothesis is correct) is also a problem for women because it means that men are less likely to be interested in the first instance in what we think or what we have to say-- and men are generally still in most positions of power in society so that's gonna hurt us.
As a result of my thinking about all this, I no longer scoff at the importance of female role models, especially in fields where women are underrepresented. I think this greater interest in one's own sex doesn't have to mean that men and women have to be segregated by interest forevermore. Once the initial disinclination to identify with the experiences of the opposite sex is overcome, there is no reason that a woman cannot identify with Michael Corleone or with Tom Brady, or that a man cannot identify with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice. (When we watched it this weekend, my husband was groaning right along with me, "Oh God, not him," when Mr. Collins came in to propose to Lizzie.) The key is to be conscious of and overcome one's initial prejudices.
I am posting this request for submissions from a Smith College student (hurray Seven Sisters/Five College System!). Do help out if you can.
Disclaimer: If submitting your story will in any way put you in danger, please do not attempt to do so until you can ensure your own safety.
I, a student at Smith College, am in the process of creating a compilation blog to illustrate the various intersections of identity and societal influences that play a role in the differing experiences of domestic violence (including physical, sexual, emotional, or similar kinds of abuse). Instead of the largely white, heterosexual, middle-class stories
of domestic violence that dominates the sphere of knowledge, this blog project will include a truly diverse array of experiences. Domestic violence is not limited to white/heterosexual/middle-class populations, and neither is this project. Of course, any experiences of DV within the white/middle-class/heterosexual populations are welcome as well.
I am therefore sending out a call for submissions. If you have been a victim of domestic violence (as defined, for the purposes of this project, above), or have been directly involved in another person's experience of DV, and wish to speak out about your experiences, please email your submission to: email@example.com
There are no style or length limitations. The one request I have is this: in order to aid in the reader's (and my) understanding of your experience of DV, I would appreciate if you included your location in the world - e.g. a general geographic region, gender identity, sexual orientation, cultural background, etc. Feel free to include as few or as
many locators as you wish.
The deadline for submissions is: Monday, May 1, 2006.
More detailed information about the project is available at the blog, Speaking Up, Speaking Out Against Domestic Violence. If you have further questions,
feel free to email me at the address listed above.
Yesterday's discussions on modesty had me thinking about my mother's mini-skirts. As I said in the comments thread, any kind of cultural mandate that expresses women's primary value as her sexuality is anti-feminist. Thus a cultural mandate that modesty is a crucial moral imperative for women is really just the flip side of a cultural mandate that sexualizes women at every turn. I should be able to live my life without having to always be covered from neck to ankle but I should also be able to live my life without feeling pressure to show more skin than I would like.
Thus, I should be against the late '60s era mini-skirt craze wherein women almost universally wore very short skirts. Several inches above the knee was the expected norm. But, although I don't personally remember that era, I have very fond nostaligic feelings for the late '60s mini-skirt. My sense of nostalgia most likely stems from my mother's example as a devoted and highly successful practitioner of mini-skirt wearing. Hot pants too (with perhaps less fortunate results -- it's hard to like hot pants).
When my mother was a teenager in a minister's family in the '50s, her devout first cousin confided in her that he hoped to marry a homely woman because a homely woman was certain to be more Godly. My mother still tells this story almost fifty years later because, to her, it expressed an anti-beauty and anti-pleasure ethos in her extended family that she desperately wanted to escape. She became quite the fashionista in the '60s and her love of beautiful clothes included wearing very beautiful but very short dresses. These dresses were all very conservatively cut in the top -- often with long sleeves or even high necks -- but she wore her dresses with the hem lines as high as they could possibly go with any degree of decency. I once asked my mother how she sat down in those dresses and she said, "Very gingerly."
My mother even got married in a white mini-dress -- which sounds vaguely shocking until you remember that, in those days, a mini-dress was just a normal day-time dress. And indeed in the wedding photographs, even the older women were all wearing skirts a few inches above the knee. These were Establishment people, not counter-cultural types. My mother also wore her mini-dresses to her job as a secretary in a very Blue Chip organization.
I suppose I like the idea of the mini-skirt because I associate it with the explosion of rebellion against the stifling conformity my parents experienced in the '50s. To me, the mini-skirt has always been about being young and having fun and looking great.
My mother, however, has mixed feeling about her '60s attire. On the one hand she had a lot of fun with it. On the other hand, she admits to feeling a bit sheepish about the way her '60s outfits draw one's eye to her legs when one looks at the old photos. She has also pointed out to me the troubling contrast between the semi-nude secretaries in her office fluttering around waiting on their fully clothed male bosses. As many people have pointed out, less clothing generally equates to less power.
In addition, sexual harassment was very much the norm in my mother's office, blue chip and ultra-respectable though it supposedly was. Bottom-pinching was a frequent occurrence, and more than once my mother had to turn to a male colleague at lunch and say in her frostiest manner, "Please remove your hand from my thigh." The big boss in the company, a married man, constantly called my mother's roommate, also a secretary at the same firm, to try to arrange an affair -- leading my mother's roommmate to break down in tears on numerous occasions from the stress of the pressure placed on her. There was a real sense that the mini-skirted secretaries were there as eye candy and sex objects, in addition to their functions of taking dictation, typing, filing, and answering telephones.
I certainly do not mean to imply that women have the responsibility to prevent sexual harassment by dressing more modestly. But I do imagine that there may have been some sort of connection between the cultural norm at that time of wearing extremely short skirts in the workplace and the expectation that women employees were there so that their male superiors could get their jollies.
Hmmmm . . . I'm not sure I'm leading to very profound conclusions here. (After all, we are talking about mini-skirts.) But I guess I like the idea of fashion as an opportunity to express beauty and pleasure and sexuality, but I dislike the idea of fashion promoting power differentials among classes of people. Today I think we probably have a much better cultural norm in which most people with common sense would probably not wear a mini to the office (Ally McBeal notwithstanding), but where one might wear a very short skirt to a nightclub. It's all about context. It's also about personal choice and agency. Today, if I wear a mini-skirt it's because I have made a choice to wear one in a particular context-- not because it would look weird if I don't.
Relationships are indeed full of surprises. Last night, my husband, heretofore a jeans and a t-shirt kind of guy, walked in the door bearing shopping bags full of -- corduroy trousers. Red, green, and brown. And the brown ones have little Scottie dogs all over them.
Oh dear, it seems I have very much put my foot in my mouth (or on my keboard) and have possibly permanently alienated a conservative Christian cyberfriend whom I both like and respect. The faux pas occurred during today's thread on the current "modesty" movement.
With regard to quotations in my post from two young men who appeared to blame girls for baiting them into sin, Richard said "men with viewpoints like the writer probably comprise something less than 2% of the nation's male population. Kevin and Jack are clearly freak stereotypes often promoted by the Left to color men with the aura of Neanderthal characteristics."
I in turn responded (in pertinent part), "I would love to dismiss these Neanderthal attitudes as the rantings of a random group of crackpots, but I don't feel we necessarily have that luxury." First, I would like to clarify and then to apologize:
(a) I do believe the hatred of women as the "devil's gateway" is a backwards attitude, and I believe that certainly the seeds of that hatred were present in the young men's comments. One can certainly argue whether I have interpreted their comments incorrectly. But I believe that the theory of modesty I described is very likely to lead to some terrible attitudes that are not intended at all by my Christian cyberfriends, but are likely to result nonetheless from that theory of modesty.
(b) My reference to "random crackpots" was that I WISHED these people were random crackpots. My main point, however, was that these ideas are becoming accepted among intelligent, well-meaning people. In other words, the people who hold these ideas are not random crackpots.
Although I didn't intend to demean anyone, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This blog aspires to be all about discussing IDEAS, rather than insulting PEOPLE. I will slam my hardest at ideas that I think are wrong, but I hope never to hurt a person with my blogging. I think my comment was quite wrongful and insensitive in this regard. I do sincerely apologize and hope to be forgiven.
I have been asked to comment on Phillip Longman's idea that social conservatives are going to gain ascendance because liberals are not having enough babies. Unfortunately, Longman's article, "The Return of Patriarchy," in Foreign Policy magazine does not seem to be readily available on line, but you can get the gist of his basic thesis here. He is saying that folks like me who subscribe to Enlightenment ideas are going to become vastly outnumbered by the children of families with patriarchal and other traditionalist values-- because these families breed at a much higher rate than families like mine.
Longman's thesis has caused widespread gloating among the most conservative segments of the blogosphere. And I'll admit that after first learning of Longman's idea, I have tossed and turned through more than a few nightmares involving The Handmaid's Tale.
So does this mean I had better get cracking and start reproducing? Well, I think taking on the obligation to pop out as many children as possible just to keep up with the natalist crowd would defeat the very feminist values for which I stand. It woud be essentially giving in to defeat.
The fact of the matter is:
-- There are a lot of factors and variables and unknowns that could affect the development of cultural values over time, as others have argued.
-- Even if the patriarchs take over due to sheer Darwinian strength, that doesn't mean their values are right or good. Might does not make right.
-- I have studied enough history to accept that humanity is liable to suffer through cycles of enlightenment and regression. It is not impossible that we may be in for another Dark Ages in the coming centuries. While this is a terrible thought, I hold out hope that humanity will eventually come to its senses, and that eventually, even should the worst occur, we will again get back on the track of progress towards an ideal of equality and fairness for all. If there is a Dark Ages, perhaps one day there will also be a Renaissance in which feminist, humanist, and Enlightenment ideas are re-discovered. (I have a fanciful, and really utterly ridiculous, idea that perhaps our humble little feminist blogs might live on somehow to inspire future generations of restricted girls with the idea of what could be.) The ideas are out there in the world, and that's the important thing.
-- Even in the worst eras of history, there have almost always been pockets of people somewhere in the world straining towards enlightenment. My father, perhaps inspired by the history of his Jewish forbears, always says, "Don't assume a good thing is forever. Keep a Swiss bank account and get ready to bail for a more enlightened place if the freedoms we cherish ever go kaplooie."
Because I already know it.
Just kidding. Really what this post is about is whether it is appropriate for strange men to tell a woman she's hot. I am really putting this post up because the comments thread on the last post has veered somewhat off-topic, so I am going to place the comments regarding compliments under this post.
My basic view is that I really don't want to hear your views on whether I am hot or not, unless I know you really well. This is not only a feminist view but a matter of good old-fashioned etiquette. If you don't know me, it's presumptuous of you to comment on my looks. I don't exist as a decorative object for your enjoyment. I exist to go about my business.
NOTE: The first four comments in the thread below were originally posted below the prior post. I have removed them to this post as a means of controlling "thread drift" -- because that's the happy, shiny, friendly kind of blogger I am.
Here is a recipe for misogyny:
(1) Believe that engaging in lustful thoughts is a grievous soul-endangering sin.
(2) Believe that women have a moral responsibility to prevent men fron engaging in lustful thoughts about them.
This recipe for misogyny happens to be the theoretical basis for the modern Christian "modesty" movement. This kind of attitude is liable to cause downright hatred of women because young (and not-so-young) heterosexual men are, by nature, going to be "tormented" by lustful thoughts about women all the time and they are naturally going to turn their frustration at this state of affairs upon the women who inspire this lust.
We see the seeds of this kind of misogyny in the comments of some young men who hold the beliefs described above:
“Each and every day is a battle—a battle against my sin, a battle against temptation, a battle against my depraved mind. Every morning I have to cry out for mercy, strength, and a renewed conviction to flee youthful lusts. The Spirit is faithful to bring me the renewal I need to prepare me to do war against my sin, yet the temptation still exists.
Sometimes, when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, ‘She probably doesn’t know that a hundred and one guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again, maybe she does.’ To be honest, I don’t know the truth—the truth of why she chooses to dress the way she does. All I know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it at all costs.
For the most part, the church serves as a sanctuary from the continual barrage of temptation towards sin. However, the church’s members are not free from sin yet, and there are girls both ignorant and knowledgeable of men’s sinful tendencies. I must confess that even church can have several mines scattered about.”
“The one place where I might think I wouldn’t have to face as much temptation is at church, but this is not always the case. When ladies whom I’m friends with dress immodestly, it definitely has a negative effect on our friendship. When a woman dresses immodestly it makes it difficult to see her as a sister in Christ. There is a constant battle going on as I’m talking with her. Communication becomes more difficult as I’m trying to listen to her, because I’m trying to fight temptation.”
This is pretty much the same attitude early church father Tertullian expressed when he said, "Dear sisters, you are the devil's gateway...you are she who persuaded him whom the devil did not dare attack. Do you know that every one of you is an Eve?"
Frankly, if evil thoughts are in and of themselves damaging as Christians believe, or if they are likely a prelude to evil actions, then I would ten times rather have a man say to himself, "Hey, a roll in the hay with Happy might be kind of fun," than to think, "Happy is such a dirty little whore, she's the devil's gateway."
I have nothing against modest dress at all. In fact, I tend towards modest dress myself. But I view it as a matter of good etiquette rather than a moral imperative, and more importantly, I think the men around me hold the same view. It's not polite to show a lot of thigh in the workplace or at church because it draws needless attention to attirbutes that are irrelevant to the mission of one's office or one's place of worship. The beach or a nightclub, however, are a different matter, but by all means, cover up even at those places if you are not comfortable showing a lot of skin. The problem however comes from viewing modesty in women as a moral imperative and placing responsibility on women for reining in men's lust.
The other pernicious aspect of this modern Christian modesty movement is -- where does one draw the line? Randy young men are inclined to feel lust at even the slightest "provocation." Even if I am covered in loose material from neck to ankle, a sexually imaginative young man (and trust me, they're pretty much all sexually imaginative) is still going to have a pretty good idea of my general build. Even the sight of a finely turned ankle, a pretty face, or some luxuriant hair is likely to inspire a good amount of l-u-s-t.
Chances are, if you are female and not some kind of hideous swamp creature, you are at some point or another going to inspire some sexual thoughts in the men around you despite your best efforts. There's nothing you can do to prevent it. Even if you wear a burka, men are going to think about what is underneath the burka. Groups like the Taliban understand this and thus not only imposed the burka on women but also restricted women's ability to leave the house -- or even to talk or laugh in the presence of men. These inhumane restrictions on women were inspired by precisely the same reasoning as that outlined above.
The bottom line is that women cause lust just by BEING. Anti-lust attitudes -- or certainly attitudes that place responsibility on women for causing lust -- are thus inherently anti-woman, and a very dangerous strain in our culture.