Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ladies Against Feminism

Anyone who's been following my blog may have guessed by now that I am somewhat on the conservative side. Namely: I have voted for McCain, made fun of Obama, and expressed admiration for Sarah Palin. (Look under "Current Events" for all this.) Some circles would doubtlessly declare me a "right-winger," as imagining your opponents to be a monolithic juggernaut is pretty much a universal human trait. O'Reilly, for example, often loudly condemns what he perceives to be a relentless phalanx of "secular progressives" (which he has distinguished from mere "liberals") who wish to more or less tear down America as we know it. But, needless to say, human beings are not bees in a hive and lumping all people who disagree with you under a single blanket term is always a bad idea. And speaking of bad ideas:

Seriously: GET A LOAD OF THIS!

Now again, as a conservative myself (though not like that) I can sympathize with some of their grievances, such as the damaging effects of "hook-up" culture, the peril of "demographic winter," and the hazards of the welfare state. And yes, feminism does have its roots in socialism, although that certainly doesn't delegitimize the movement as a whole, as the women behind LAF like to claim. But what truly bothers me about this whole project of theirs – not just the LAF website itself, but the whole network surrounding it – is that they do to the female gender what all diehard sociopolitical warriors do to their enemies: they corral all women under one set of parameters and imagine we all want the same thing, that we are all exactly alike. Specifically, they assert, time and again and again, that the only way for any woman anywhere to find fulfillment is to marry young, submit to their husbands, bear as many children as possible (no birth control allowed!), and go to church every Sunday. A notion which, to anyone with a functioning brain, is so patently ridiculous I shouldn't even have to risk carpal tunnel syndrome reeling off every last million thing wrong with it. As one feminist puts it on her blog: "No, the peeve of peeves is the idea that all women are alike. The question, 'so what do women want?' pisses me off more than almost anything in the world. . . Why? Because asking 'what do women want?' presupposes that I want the same thing as, say, Sarah Palin, who will want the same thing as Hillary Clinton who will want the same thing as my friend Kira who will want the same thing as He Kexin, Olympic gymnast from China." (There's a mean little part of me that would like to send her a link to LAF, sit back, and watch the sparks fly.)

Let's look at this, for example. It's on a blog called The Walled Garden, which is written by a team of regular LAF contributors. This "excellent series" was recommended on the LAF homepage as "helping to dispel the silly (but very entrenched) notion that a 'real' education is only available at a very high price and inside the walls of an institution." Okay, so you don't want to go to college. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. If you've got an alternative plan, go for it. Now perusing their list of subjects suitable for a lady . . . they've got good literature (yes!), music, writing, drawing, painting, journalism, cooking. Hmmm, glad to see stuff that I like is considered acceptable. Okay, they've also got housekeeping (duh), needlework, knitting, crafts, sewing, time management, budgeting, Bible studies . . . again, not bad stuff. Everyone can probably pick a thing or two or three they enjoy from that list.

But look again.

Where are math and science? Economics? Medicine? Veterinary science? Politics and political science? Computer science and programming? Engineering? Biomedical engineering? Physics? Astrophysics? Geophysics? Biophysics? Nuclear, particle, and atmospheric physics? Quantum mechanics? Biology? Zoology? (Oh wait, scratch those last two; you won't get very far there denying evolution. . .) Optics? Psychology and psychiatry? Sociology? Criminology? Linguistics? Aeronautics? Are you noticing a pattern here? What they're saying, in other words, is that a "lady's education" is ultimately limited to what you can learn and use at home. LAF has said elsewhere that they do not want women to be "ignoramuses" (their word) and recommend correspondence courses or classes at a nearby community college while living at home. (Many of them are also big Jane Austen fans.) And there is absolutely nothing wrong with crafts and the arts – they're what I enjoy! I simply don't do math and science, but I recognize that many other women do and I admire the intense study and dedication, not to mention sheer brainpower, required to excel in some of these fields. But of course, such years of schooling would also interfere with woman's "divine role" as wife, mother, and homemaker; a frequent lament on LAF is that so many women devote precious time to education that could be spent helping one's parents at home, courting, and getting married. And why bother spending the money to send a girl to learn subjects that have absolutely no bearing on her God-given domestic duty?

A deeply old-fashioned and utterly archaic viewpoint of course – one that was old by the 1920s. Obviously that's only one aspect of a shockingly reactionary website, but as an intellectually-oriented woman, it's the part that infuriated me the most. I graduated from college in May and haven't been able to find a real job yet due to the lousy economy. As a result, I am currently living at home with my parents and I @#%&ing can't stand it! I want to live in the city, preferably NYC, with my own apartment, earning my own money, taking pride in my own work, enjoying my life as a single . . . but noooo, according to LAF I should be waiting patiently in my parlor for Prince Charming to come along.

The use of the word "parlor" there is quite deliberate, by the way. One thing you notice right away about Ladies Against Feminism is all the Victorian imagery. To be fair, one of LAF's founders, Jennie Chancey, addresses that issue and argues that they are merely trying to demonstrate how women used to enjoy their femininity. But just examine the blog Homeliving Helper , belonging to LAF's other co-founder, one Lydia Sherman (WHO HAS THE SAME NAME AS A NOTORIOUS SERIAL KILLER!). She's got more Victoriana going on than every period costume film made in the last ten years. Much as LAF emphatically claims that they are not trying to emulate some bygone glorious past, I can't help but to wonder whose Word they're going by: God's or vintage Western culture's? Because their dream of the ideal Christian life is ultimately as much American as it is (supposedly) biblical. It's the nineteenth-century vision of the "Republican Mother" I discussed in my last post, which was, oh irony of ironies, very much a novel, "feminist" concept in its own day! As Elizabeth Kerber discusses in her book, the soaring rhetoric of the Revolutionary War demanded a new generation of strong, educated patriots, and it was now believed that the home was foundation of American liberty, and women, as keepers of the home, would play a vital role in the shaping of American destiny. "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world." But evolution is inevitable (in both society and nature, although here I'm talking about the former), and this innovative model that came out of the Revolution eventually settled into the bourgeoisie "angel of the house," the well-dressed genteel lady who kept a beautifully-decorated abode for her world-weary husband. But the influence of both is glaringly evident on LAF.

An immediate counterpoint would probably be to bring up Domestic Felicity, the blog of Anna T., a Russian-born Israeli Orthodox Jew and active member of the LAF Internet family. (She is also a contributor at the The Walled Garden. Her English is absolutely flawless – heck, she knows it better than some native speakers!) Clearly, one might say, she is neither a Christian nor an American, and yet clearly LAF has resonated strongly with her. No denying that. And I like Anna, I really do, and I feel bad about including her in this disparaging post, especially since I lurk so often at Domestic Felicity. She seems like such a sweet girl and she herself made the conscious choice to go the LAF route and she seems quite happy with it. She's what Judaism calls a baal teshuva, a secular Jew who has become observant and reading her life story, I can't help but to be happy that she's finally found peace. Anna is highly articulate and knows full well what she's doing and what she's talking about, and I truly respect her. Which leads to another question – if the LAF lifestyle (religion, submission, motherhood, domesticity) is really as flawed as myself and many other ordinary women would find it, then how to explain women like Anna who make the informed decision to go that route?

Back in February 2000, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by Margaret Talbot entitled "Inward Christian Soldiers", about a family of fundamentalist Baptists who seem to fit the LAF profile. I remember she used Tim Leary's iconic phrase "Turn on, tune in, drop out" to characterize the manner in which members of the Christian Far Right such as the Scheibners and the LAF folks are turning away from the American mainstream and setting up their own conservative counterculture. That may sound like an oxymoron, but that's exactly what a counterculture is: the "culture and lifestyle of people . . . who reject or oppose the dominant values and behavior of society." Despite the connotations of sixties craziness, I think the word can also be applied to the opposite end of the sociopolitical spectrum. If we are willing to admire hippies, radicals, beatniks, bohemians, and other self-imposed "outsiders" for their refusal to be "normal," and if some of us are even willing to romanticize people of lower classes and other social outcasts as somehow closer to nature or more "authentic," then shouldn't we also, by corollary, at least respect what Ladies Against Feminism is doing? Are they not turning away from a mainstream they believe to be toxic and refusing to conform as well? The documentary film The Return of the Daughters, produced by Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, is described on the Botkins' website as a "highly-controversial documentary [that] will take viewers into the homes of several young women who have dared to defy today’s anti-family culture in pursuit of a biblical approach to daughterhood, using their in-between years to pioneer a new culture of strength and dignity, and to rebuild Western Civilization, starting with the culture of the home." Now obviously I've been strenuously objecting to LAF and its mission, but then again, when someone is genuinely freaked out by some counterculture's activities, isn't that a sign that they're doing something right? Or are shock value and nonconformity the property of the Left only?

In conclusion, I guess it all goes back to my argument that you cannot lump all women under a single rubric. If there are women out there who envy and emulate the Sex and the City lifestyle, then it’s only logical to assume that there are women who desire the opposite. An ex-Mormon atheist named Richard Packham runs an intriguing site where he tries to debunk both the LDS Church and religion in general. Included is a report by Kent Ponder, Ph.D called "Mormon Women, Prozac® and Therapy." Although much of it is specific to Mormonism (he discusses aspects of LDS theology that some women find troublesome), I think it demonstrates very effectively why it is so misguided, and even dangerous, to assume, as LAF does, that all women would be happy as Stepford Wives. Ponder writes that:
If a church's "belief shoes" (by analogy) are all narrow, even though they vary in length, which women will think this works? Those with narrow feet, of course; they will benefit. Those with wide feet will be in pain and wondering why. When bishoprics and therapists have strong religious conviction that narrow shoes are God's only true shoes, they offer corn and bunion pads to pained women with wide feet. Women who've been taught to believe that narrow feet are the true feet will accept this belief and the officially dispensed corn pads, whether their own feet are narrow or wide. Their thinking doesn't let them even conceive of solving their problem by changing their shoes.
In summation, I think it really depends on the individual and what makes her happiest. The women of LAF have the right to live as they wish; some, like Anna T. and the Botkin sisters, are even admirable in their convictions. But every day I thank God – though not the God LAF believes in – for my feminist forbearers and the fight they gave in order to grant myself and my contemporaries the freedom to think this way: to recognize that women have a choice.

It's also interesting to note that, for all their complaining about what liberalism (I use that term in the popular sense) has done to Western culture, Ladies Against Feminism sure seems to have benefited from it, particularly when it comes to society's new emphasis on tolerance and multiculturalism. Once upon a time, American Protestant fundamentalists would never have dreamed of associating with Jews or Catholics, yet the LAF folks seem to have embraced them as allies. Food for thought.

Also, some alternative Christian viewpoints:
Overcoming Botkin Syndrome
Quivering Daughters
Taliban Rising
True Womanhood in the New Millennium
Under Much Grace
White Washed Feminists

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

Girl, you're awesome! I wish more people would reveal this puffed swans for what they are.

E. L. Fay said...

Thanks! But in the months since this was written, I've learned more about this bunch and now think I was entirely too kind in this post.

I still do like Anna T., though. She's such a sweetheart.

Jennifer said...

Hi again! I just reread this, really reread it, and it's truly a GREAT article, one of the most explorative I've read. That quote you included in the last part about shoes is one of the best I've seen and perfect for these narrow-skulled women.

You were partly right: you were a little too nice, partly because I find the Botkin sisters not admirable at ALL. They're utterly delusioned and hurt. Too bad, cause they could rule the world if they thought they were entitled to the power God grants women. Oh well; their fault and their loss. Meanwhile, there are women like you who aren't afraid to accept God's greatest inheritance: a great brain and a wild heart. He has rules, but no box, and nor do the spirits of His children. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, He's not a tame God.

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