© 2008 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2008 WTM Enterprises.
All rights reserved.
Two conflicting conceptions of feminine dignity;
feminism as male-role-envy
By F. ROGER DEVLIN
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One of the hallmarks of Western civilization is the unusually high status it has accorded women. That has often been attributed to the influence of Christianity, which prizes certain typically feminine virtues (mercy, humility) more than pagan society had. But Tacitus had already noted the respect paid to women's opinions as being typical of the pagan Germanic tribes of his time. Some believe the regard paid to women to be a reflection of conditions in ancient Northern Europe, where the nuclear rather than the extended family was the more important economic unit. But however it may have originated, women's position in our civilization has recently been eroded by economic developments and by the feminist movement. The present essay aims to explain how this has happened and argue the need to reverse the process.
Much confusion exists regarding the feminist attack upon women's status, because the feminist movement has always presented itself to outsiders — usually with success — as an effort to improve that status. Feminists, as we all know, assert that women are rightfully the "equals" of men and deserve a "level playing field" on which to compete with them. In our time, it is a rare person whose notions about women's claims remain wholly uninfluenced by these slogans; that is true even of many who think of themselves as opponents of feminism. For example, certain would-be defenders of Western civilization believe Islam presents a danger to us principally because it does not accept "equality of the sexes." Indeed, they sometimes make it sound as though they would have no objection to Islam if only Muslim girls were free to wear miniskirts, join the Army, and divorce their husbands. Or again, many in the growing father's movement describe their goal as implementing "true" equality rather than recovering their traditional role as family heads. I have even known conservatives to earnestly assure young audiences that the idea of sexual equality comes to us from Christianity — a crueler slander upon the Faith than Voltaire or Nietzsche ever imagined. The extreme case of such confusion can be found in "mainstream" conservatives such as William Kristol, who claims to oppose feminism on the grounds that its more exotic manifestations "threaten women's recent gains": in other words, the problem with feminism is that it endangers feminism. It is difficult to combat a movement whose fundamental premises one accepts.
In fact, the high standing of women in our civilization not only long predates feminist ideology but is logically incompatible with it. To understand why, one needs to keep two points in mind: 1) women's traditional status was linked to behavioral expectations — fulfilling the duties of their station; and 2) it assumed qualitative differences and complementarity (rather than "fair" competition) between the sexes.
As to the first point: strictly speaking, it was never women as such who enjoyed high status but rather the social roles proper to them — those of wife and mother, chiefly. Being born female (or male) is merely a natural fact of no intrinsic moral significance, but the filling of a social role involves effort and often sacrifice. Accordingly, the respect paid to women was not an unconditional birthright; it was reserved for women who fulfilled their feminine obligations.
Among those obligations, marital fidelity was of supreme importance: so much so that in our language general terms such as virtue and morality have often been used to refer specifically to sexual fidelity in women. That is owing not to irrational prudery, as the apostles of sexual liberation imagined, but to the recognition that all which is necessary to destroy a race and civilization is for its women to refuse to be faithful wives and mothers.
The Western tradition also includes a strong presumption that women wish to fulfill their role; in other words, women are assumed to be "virtuous" until proven otherwise. In certain eras it was dangerous even to suggest that a lady might not be a paragon of sexual self-restraint if one did not have very strong proofs: an aspersion upon a woman's honor was grounds for a duel. Of course, that does not make much sense when women have no honor; and today, the proponents of equality and liberation openly repudiate the very idea as an "oppressive social construct." But to be frank, I suspect honor never was actually the primary determinant of women's behavior. Good example (especially from their mothers), habit, lack of opportunity, religious instruction, and, in the last instance, the prospect of social disgrace and financial ruin were probably always more effective with them.
Men, however, have often been encouraged to believe that women are naturally monogamous, unmotivated by anything so base as sexual attraction, and only seek "good husbands" whom they disinterestedly marry out of love. This pleasing and edifying view of womanhood is the basis of the West's cultural forms surrounding relations between the sexes: gallantry, chivalry, courtship, and companionate marriage. These are what place love, in Edmund Burke's phrase, "if not among the virtues, among the ornaments of life."
There are also certain more practical, if less delicate, considerations involved: viz., if a husband trusts his wife, he can skip rushing home from the office unannounced to make sure she is not in bed with the gardener. That leaves him free to devote his full attention to his own role as breadwinner for children he is sure are his own.
The socially beneficial effects of the chivalrous view of womanhood are quite independent of its accuracy. There is not necessarily any pre-established harmony between what is true and what it is useful for men to believe. A man may be better off not knowing the whole truth about women — even, or perhaps especially, his wife. But most women cooperated enthusiastically in promoting the chivalrous view, even if they were not taken in by it themselves. That is partly because they have been shrewd enough to perceive the advantages of maintaining a high reputation with men and partly because they are naturally more reticent than men about their sexual urges ("modest").
But whether based upon knowledge or pleasing illusion, the regard in which our civilization has held women depends utterly upon their practice of monogamy, and makes no sense apart from it. As long as cases of female adultery were few enough, they could be passed off to men as freaks of nature, akin to two-headed babies. When, on the other hand, wives in their millions act upon the feminist plan of "liberation," walk out on their husbands, separate them from their children, bankrupt them in divorce court, and shack up with other men, that system breaks down. That is where we are today.
To my mind, the most remarkable feature of the revolution we have undergone is the time lag between the changes in women's behavior and changes in men's attitude toward them. Men often strain to blame their own sex for what has gone wrong, though the natural disadvantage of the male's position makes his primary responsibility unlikely on a priori grounds: since women have greater control over the mating process, they are inherently likelier than men to be at the root of any fundamental breakdown in family formation and stability.
It seems that many men have an emotional need to believe in the inherent virtue or innocence of women, a bit of sentimentality akin to the Romantics' cult of childhood. Even today, under a burgeoning feminist police-state, male commentators not infrequently berate their own sex for an allegedly insufficient appreciation of the lofty claims of womanhood. The kindest thing one might say of such men is that they are condemning themselves to irrelevance. A somewhat less kind judgment might be that they are collaborators.
The chivalrous view of women is helpful for keeping in check the naturally wayward desires of young husbands in a substantially monogamous society; it is useless or positively harmful in a society being run by spoiled and tyrannical females who have "liberated" themselves from domestic obligations. As usual, conservatives are busy calling for the barn door to be shut long after the horse has run off. Our task today is not to "safeguard" or "protect" marriage but to rebuild it almost from scratch. The strategy for doing so will necessarily be different from the strategy for defending it when it was merely under threat.
Let us now turn to our second point about women's traditional status: namely, that it implied sexual complementarity and cooperation. This means that their status cannot be maintained once complementarity is displaced by a normative ideal of sexual equivalence and competition. The feminist movement has, of course, effected precisely such a displacement, thereby undermining the respect for women they claim to promote. I will now try to explain how that happened.
First, a caveat: most critical discussions of feminism concentrate on refuting its doctrines, such as the ascription of feminine traits to upbringing rather than nature. My approach will be different. While such formal refutation of doctrines is not valueless, it seems to me to mistake the fundamental character of feminism. The feminist movement consists essentially not of ideas at all but of attitudes, or even mere emotions. Feminist "theory," as it is grandiloquently called, is simply whatever the women in the movement come up with in post facto justification of their attitudes and emotions. A heavy focus on feminist doctrine seems to me symptomatic of the rationalist fallacy: the assumption that people are motivated primarily by beliefs. If they were, the best way to combat an armed doctrine would indeed be to demonstrate that its beliefs are false. But in the case of feminism, even more than Marxism and other political ideologies, it is rather the beliefs that are motivated by various personal and nonrational needs. I propose, therefore, that feminism may be better understood through a consideration of the feminist herself.
A feminist in the strict and proper sense may be defined as a woman who envies the male role.
By the male role I mean, in the first place, providing, protecting, and guiding rather than nurturing and assisting. This in turn involves relative independence, action, and competition in the larger impersonal society outside the family, the use of language for communication and analysis (rather than expressiveness or emotional manipulation), and deliberate behavior aiming at objective achievement (rather than the attainment of pleasant subjective states) and guided by practical reasoning (rather than emotional impulse).
Both feminist and nonfeminist women sense that these characteristically male attributes have a natural primacy over their own. I prefer to speak of "primacy" rather than superiority in this context since both sets of traits are necessary to propagate the race. One sign of male primacy is that envy of the female role by men is virtually nonexistent — even, so far as I know, among homosexuals.
Normal women are attracted to male traits and wish to partner with a man who possesses them. Healthy societies are marked by a cooperative reciprocity between the sexes, but an unequal one in the sense that it involves male leadership of the female, somewhat as in ballroom dancing.
The feminists' response to the primacy of male traits, on the other hand, is a feeling of inadequacy in regard to men — a feeling ill-disguised by defensive assertions of her "equality." She desires to possess masculinity directly, in her own person, rather than partnering with a man. That is what leads her into the spiritual cul de sac of envy.
And perhaps even more than she envies the male role itself, the feminist covets the external rewards attached to its successful performance: social status, recognition, power, wealth, and the chance to control wealth directly (rather than be supported). She tends not to give much thought to the great mass of men who struggle to fulfill the demands of their role without ever attaining the rewards of superior performance.
Let us consider next what envy is. First, it involves a painful awareness of something good or desirable in another person. This much it has in common with emulation. The emulator, however, is primarily concerned with self-improvement. Envy has a fundamentally negative character; it wants to bring the other down rather than raise itself up. The envier usually does not admit that explicitly but rather claims to have been cheated, whether by the envied party or by the surrounding society: he disguises his envy as a zeal for justice. Often he claims to want to compete on a level playing field, but maintains that competition has been "fixed."
Envy, however, is distinct from the sense of justice in being fundamentally unappeasable. The righteously indignant person genuinely wants to come to a settlement. By contrast, if the envied party grants what the envier demands, it merely further demonstrates his superiority and provokes more envy. One reason the feminists have gotten as far as they have is that many men are untroubled by envy themselves. These men cannot understand the psychology behind feminism. Sincerely caring about women and wishing to promote their welfare, they waste effort on futile attempts to reason or compromise. They imagine that limited concessions might persuade feminists that men are not really so bad after all.
But it is a metaphysical impossibility to "grant" what a feminist envies: the successful performance of the male role including risk overcome, obstacles surmounted, and objectively verifiable achievement. What the appeasers actually do is grant women some of the external appearances and rewards of such achievement. That is the meaning of corporate hiring and promotional preferences. But a little reflection will reveal why such concessions can never satisfy the feminist. She is humiliated precisely by the awareness that her advancement is an unearned act of charity on the part of the hated "patriarchy." It would be difficult to imagine, in fact, a more efficient means of stoking her frustration and resentment. (The situation with racial preferences, incidentally, is precisely analogous: thus, one book on Black beneficiaries of "affirmative action" is aptly titled The Rage of a Privileged Class.)
Indeed, concessions are perceived as signs of weakness, and whet the appetite for more concessions, a cycle that could only end with the complete self-destruction of the envied party. In other words, feminists' claim to be motivated by love of justice or fairness is flapdoodle. Feminism is a species not of righteous indignation but of hatred.
In practice, since the feminist can never be the equal of men at the male role, she concentrates her efforts upon sabotaging that role. In other words, because she cannot level up, she contents herself as best she can with leveling down. So the practical consequence of feminist political power is to make it impossible for men to "do their thing" (fulfill their role). For example, women may not be able to have careers as glamorous and successful as they imagined, but one accusation of "harassment" is all it takes to destroy the career of a man whose accomplishments she could never equal. And there is no question that many women get a sadistic pleasure from wielding such power. I myself once heard a woman boast of getting three different men fired.
A whole legal industry has mushroomed within a single generation based upon newly invented crimes and torts of which only men can be guilty and only women can be victims. Obviously, the Western tradition of high regard for women is not going to survive the spread of such behavior indefinitely. Women who wonder why men do not seem to "respect" them any more might seek the answer in the mirror.
Envy of the male role has devastating consequences for women's performance of their own proper role as well. Although it may be a secondary or supporting one in relation to men, it is indispensable for the survival of the race: the woman bears, nurtures, and to a great extent educates the rising generation. The feminist either refuses to fulfill her natural role or at best does so resentfully, sullenly, and poorly. For that reason, feminism should not be treated merely as a personal folly on the part of some misguided or spoiled women — it is a mortal threat to any society in which it truly takes hold. Enemies of heterosexual cooperation and procreation are enemies of the human race.
May 15, 2008
© 2008 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
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