Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Romanticism, Feminism, and Misandry

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and paleley loitering? (La Belle Dame)

This is a little interjection into my series on Callum Brown's thesis that religion became feminised in the 19th century.

Callum Brown writes (The Death of Christian Britain):

As femininity and piety became conjoined in discourse after 1800, the spectre arose of masculinity as the antithesis of religiosity. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, a wife's femininity was perceived as a threat to piety and household, and a husband established his moral status by controlling her. From 1800 to 1950, by contrast, it was a husband's susceptibility to masculine temptations that was perceived as a threat to piety and household, and the wife established a family's respectability by curbing him. Exemplars of piety changed sex, from being overwhelmingly male to being overwhelmingly female, and the route to family harmony no longer lay in the taming of the Elizabethan shrew but in the bridling of the Victorian rake, drunkard, gambler and abuser. (p88)

During 1887 and 1888 the religious newspaper the British Weekly published some forty articles on 'Tempted London', a series concerned with the moral condition of men and women in the capital. Men and women were dealt with separately - men during the first thirty articles, women in the last ten. The nature of moral weakness in the two sexes was conceptualised very differently. The articles on women were organised on the principle that occupational exploitation corrupted women. ... The iniquity of the trades in which the women worked were studied in detail, focusing on low wages, home working, long hours and the exploitation of employers and merchants. ...The women themselves were not deemed 'immoral', ... but as victims ...

...The men's articles were organised around three headings: drink, betting and gambling, and impurity. The venues for each temptation were studied in detail... (p89)

Brown's focus on the role of gender in religious change forces us to confront something which is not far below the surface in a great deal of Victorian fiction: the Romantic exaltation of the female, and contrasting, jaundiced, view of masculinity. There are a number of things which I think need to be absorbed from this in any discussion of gender in the Church today.

First, this view of women is not an intrinsic part of Christianity. A very different view prevailed before 1800. The similarity with medieval Chivalry is superficial. Romantics liked to refer to Chivalry, but not only can the two movements not be rolled together as 'the attitude before Feminism' (as they were separated by three centuries), but they are quite distinct in content. As I have noted on this blog, Chivalry did not deny women's sinfulness, nor did the Chivalric ideal stop men exercising authority over rebellious women.

Second, the pre-1800 view of women Brown describes is specifically Protestant. There are of course aspects of Catholic thought and culture which provide parallels, but Protestants were perfectly aware at the time that Catholics had a broadly contrasting view of things, and created a picture of Catholicism as effeminate, soft, and indulgent, as a polemical response, a picture which, remarkably, survived some decades after Protestantism's own flip into femininity.

I realise that this is going to sound parti-pris to non-Catholic readers, but it really does look to me as though Catholic culture was able to maintain a reasonably balanced outlook on gender as Protestant culture veered from one extreme to the other: from misogyny to misandry.

Third, and this is the most surprising but also the most undeniable aspect, we can't blame Feminism for the misandry found in Evangelical and other religious circles today. The Evangelical blogger Dalrock likes to examine the extraordinarily unbalanced treatment of men and women by conservative evangelicals in the USA, a treatment with echos in the Catholic Church, but what they sound like is exactly what their predecessors sounded like in the 1880s.

Fourth, this sheds a very interesting light on Feminism. Feminism is (among other things) a reaction against the distorted conception of femininity which Romanticism built up - women being made of glass, having no sexual appetites, having no legitimate ambitions outside the home, etc. etc. - but feminists are not so eager to jettison the feminine moral superiority which was part and parcel of that conception.

Feminists regard the women of the 1950s and earlier as in need of 'liberation'. A new vocabulary is required, however, to describe the abject enslavement and denigration of the men of that era: chained to brain-numbingly tedious and meaningless industrial or clerical jobs, when they weren't being mown down in brutal wars, and told, for their pains, that they were intrinsically wicked and that all their favoured pastimes were wrong. Who was going to free the men?

The take-home message I'd like to convey to the readers of this blog is this: that it is a mistake to attempt to deal with Feminism, whether that is imagined as opposing it or in some way coming to terms with it, by appealing to Romanticism - by rolling back one's conception of femininity to 1955. This is what I see both the cod-Chivalric movement and the Alice von Hildebrand / Theology of the Body movement as trying to do. The reality is that insofar as Feminism rejects Romanticism, in its angelic conception of femininity, it is right to do so, even if it is unable replace this conception with a better one. Insofar as Feminism accepts Romanticism, in its view of women as morally superior to men, it is wrong.

In many ways I appreciate Romanticism. Romanticism as a movement opposed important errors, and was responsible for great artistic achievements. But it is not the route out of our present morass.

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  1. Your objections to Brown's view does seem valid.

    If I may give my own personal view, I think it all began with the slide into the admiration of pagan achievements / way of life. It seems to have begun around the 13/14th century. The whole idea of "enjoying life" seems to have grown from this movement.

    Initially, men were probably the first to embrace it since they had more power and means in society. They were also probably more likely to get exposed to these ideas due to education. Women in general, probably resisted these trends since they probably had limited exposure. Its not to say that women were saints. But they were just more likely to have received an informal Catholic education from their own mothers rather than the formal education and academic circles that fostered bizarre ideas.

    Around the 16th, 17th and 18th, many countries started to see the fruits of these ideas. Infidelity in marriage, gambling, drunkenness started to become more popular and widespread. But those things were having a toll on women and children. Women were left trying to run a household with little money because their husbands wasted it on their pleasures. Other women were left single and having to raise a child, the result of men taking advantage of them. Many of them probably turned to whatever means available. Prostitution was probably one of those jobs. Then there were wars in Europe which did its part to further burden women.

    So it was natural that at some point, women were going to have to make their life reasonably secure. They started to leave their homes and make their way to cities to find jobs. This also made it easier for them to fall victim to false promises and sexual advances of men. The abortion solution probably started to become popular around this time since all of a sudden, there was a good demand. Contraceptives probably started to become developed and favorable around this time due to this rise of demand as well.

    Then as women also started to become educated, they were also exposed to the same messed up ideas that started all of this mess. They also began their effort to "live the good life". The world started to become a struggle between men and women to establish their own perceived needs to "live the good life".

    The other thing that should be noted is that most of the historical social observations come from persons who occupied particular part of society. For an example, it would be inaccurate to construct a view of the entire society of Britain by looking at the descriptions of a William Shakespeare. Due the lack of the internet, radio, T.V and easy access to books (not to mention illiteracy), the ideas of London were probably far more disconnected from an English town. All the messed up ideas were probably more concentrated around societies tightly connected with academic circles and had proximate exposure in some way to the supporters of such ideas.

    This probably explains the rise of feminist movements and other movements around the 20th. With fast transportation, telephone, recorded media, news papers, the stage was set for the seeds of erroneous ideas to be uniformly spread. Thus, it did.

    So as you say, I don't think rolling back the clock to 1955 is a solution. If we were to roll it back and let it continue, we will still be where we are in 61 years.

    1. TC, none of this sounds remotely plausible to me. You seem, for a start, to have a very rosy view of the earlier Middle Ages.

    2. I actually do not have a rosy view :) I think the world has always been messed up. But I do think that things got seriously out of hand with the type of developments around the middle of the 2nd millennium.

      As for plausibility? Well, I feel I cannot debate that claim. At the end of the day, its just a narrative we spin around what has happened. But I would be interested to hear what you think is OFF about the narrative I proposed.

      I am learning here too :)