Sunday, August 07, 2016

Was religion feminised in the 19th century? Part 4: what happened in the 1960s

St Anne, Our Lady, and the Infant Jesus: from the Walker Art Gallery
In the first post of this series I set out the sociologist Callum Brown's account of how piety came to be seen as female by evangelicals in the 19th century; in the second post I gave an explanation of how this came about: the influence of Romanticism. In the third post I made certain caveats about how British Catholicism fits into Brown's picture. Now I want to address the million-dollar question: why did religious practice collapse in the 1960s?

Callum Brown is a little short of explicit explanation, beyond saying that the 'discourse' changed, but one thing he makes clear is that Evangelical religious discourse was hugely dependant on women by the end of the 1950s. The dependance had started long before, with women picured as the pious ones, by contrast with 'heathen' men, but the situation was particularly acute in the post-war religious revival. For example, popular boys' magazines, which had started with a strong religious element, dropped this in the 1930s, just as girls' and women's magazines (if they survived at all) dropped explicit religious content in the 1960s.

What the discourse was about, was feminity and respectability. This was an era, as I've noted in an earlier post in this series, that affiliation was more importance than practice: thus 'rites of passage' moments are marked with religious ceremony (baptism and marriage etc.); a higher proportion of children were sent to Sunday school than adults went to church.

In this situation, a loss of concern for respectability and the opinion of others, particularly of the older generation, would have a far greater effect than it would have on a discourse focused on battling sin in a hostile world, which is more what it looked like in the early 19th century. Even that more robust version of the discourse, if predicated disproportionately on women, would be vulnerable to an alternative source of female self-understanding, alternative, that is, to the idea that the woman in the house was holding things together morally. Thus, if women had something else to undertand themselves as being about, such as the seeking of new experiences and seeking value in the world of work, and if that seemed more attractive, then the whole house of cards would tumble down.

Now, in the 1960s there was indeed a rejection of the notion of respectability, of the idea that one's worth was dependent in some important degree on the opinions of the older generation: thanks to the numbers and financial resources of the young in the context of the baby-boom and the prosperity of the 1960s. There was also a ideology abroad, which said that women could attain self-worth not by keeping house, but by joining the labour market.

The last factor, feminism, was not, contrary to Brown's naive contention, a miraculous, spontaneous effusion from ordinary women; it was the goal of a long campaign by elite women. As Carolyn Graglia (Domestic Tranquility) has set out, for decades feminists had waged a ferocious campaign of villification of housewives. Housewives are described by these charming ladies as mentally retarded, lacking in imagination and creativity, and as no better than prostitutes, for failing to do paid work outside the home.

Graglia also illustrates other important factors, which she experienced personally as a young woman in the 1960s. First, since the 1930s female education had been modelled on the education of boys, which meant that what she was actually trained to be able to do was not running a house, but working in an office. All her work habits and skills were directed towards office-type work. Second, the collapse of tightly-knit extended families (often in the context of ethnic ghettos in the USA), because of suburbanisation and (especially in the UK) slum clearance, deprived women starting families of the practical help of their own mothers and other older family members and friends. Third, this era saw (partly as a consequence of the last point) the rise of books by supposedly qualified people on child-rearing, the take-home message of which was 'You're doing it all wrong!' These promoted the idea that your children are only really safe with paid, professional, carers.

All in all, young women in the late 1950s onwards were bombarded with the idea, and to an extent the reality, that they couldn't cope in the home, trying to cook and sew and look after children: they were much more comfortable, and much more valued by the elite women of the day, working in an office.

Another factor, which I've already dealt with, is that what Feminism was opposing was a highly problematic Romantic conception of femininity.

Feminism's ideological push would not have been successful without these other factors: indeed, it had not been successful in earlier decades. It found itself pushing at an open door in the 1960s because of the sudden disapearance of opposing forces, above all the influence and support of the older generation.

These factors led to the triumph of feminism, and that led to the collapse of Brown's Evangelical discourse as a dominating feature of British society and culture. The Catholic Church was also affected by this, but I need to say something about how the Church's own changes of policy interacted with these factors.

One satisfying thing about this explanation is that it explains why church attendance fell in the 1960s and 1970s at exactly the same time as membership of book clubs, sewing circles, membership organisations of all kinds, and neighbours chatting over the garden fence, described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone,  which I have discussed here. All these things happened together, because they were the consequences of the factors, themselves linked, of suburbanisation (with its implications for the loss of leisure to commutting) and women adopting a new self-understanding and joining the labour market. They no longer saw themselves as primarily home-makers, with the time and the vocation to connect local communities, and given how religiosity was understood at that moment, this meant that they ipso facto gave up their role of corralling the children and menfolk into church on a Sunday.

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  1. Dr Shaw: an excellent article, but may I offer two corrections? The author of 'Domestic Tranquility' is F. Carolyn Graglia; I think you may be muddling her with the ardent feminist Camille Paglia. And (this is really just pedantic) the adjective deriving from the verb 'depend' ends in -ent (dependent); it's only when it's a noun that it ends -ant ('The man died, leaving three dependants').

    1. Thanks, you're right of course, I'll correct it!

  2. I wonder where you would place Ste Therese of Lisieux in all this and her doctrine of seeing herself as a bride of Christ?

  3. Why Ste Therese particularly? It's probably easier to identify canonised female religious who didn't think of themselves in that way! St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila come to mind for starters.