|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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