Thursday, October 28, 2010

A question on natural childbirth

Last week I got a question in my inbox prompted by That Post on Natural Childbirth that I haven't had time to answer yet. Around the same time this awesome post: Baggage Check appeared on The Unnecesarean, and it made me think about the same question again. So here's the question:
Given your experience with NCB, and given your wish to avoid both the extreme natural birth advocacy and the dogmatic medical model of birth that's so dominant, what will you tell your girls when they're old enough to be having their own babies (if they choose to have babies)?
I have to admit that I'm not sure what I'll be thinking or feeling about it that many years down the road. But I would say something like this now. "Natural childbirth is not perfect and it's not easy, but it's doable, and it's worthwhile." I didn't have a traumatic birth experience, but I didn't have a conflict-free one either. I didn't glide through it with no effort or emotional distress, but it wasn't anywhere near impossible or as dangerous as we've been taught to believe. And if I hadn't had to consistently resist the medical staff involved, it would have been a lot less stressful. But in the end you can't know how things will go, and you should be prepared to utilize whatever resources you honestly need. The hope is that you can use the technological resources to your benefit rather than being coerced into following a script that requires you to submit to them whether they're necessary and/or helpful or not. And the hope is that you'll come out of the childbirth experience feeling stronger and more confident/supported/heard than you did before. That would be a perfect childbirth experience.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Fallout

Trigger warning: sexual abuse.

So, remember how my uncle the molester went to prison and my grandpa the molester died and I promised some posts about that shit and then I never posted anything? Yeah...

I just spent a few days with my bestest BFF helping with her wedding, and when we get together we talk a lot, and about everything, even in the midst of frantic last minute wedding preparations. So the topic came up, and it occurred to me that one of the most pervasive experiences you have growing up as a kid who was sexually abused is that you always wonder what each experience is like for "normal" kids.

Of course, I've thought about this before. When my grandpa died I felt really sad - more than I had expected since I basically have no relationship with him, and haven't for years. But that's what I felt sad about. Not sad that he had died so much as sad that he had made it so that I didn't want a relationship with him. Sad that I lost out on that experience. And this was exacerbated by the fact that my grandpa was actually a pretty good grandpa to the kids he didn't molest. He was funny and quirky and playful and helpful and attentive and just so deeply flawed and terribly damaged in this one way that made all the rest of it useless and out of reach for me. For most of my cousins, he was a great grandpa, and they had a really good relationship with him. It would be easy to dismiss the lost relationship if he had just been an all-around asshole, but of course, that's rarely the case. So it's much more complicated than we tend to think, and how we tend to portray abusive relationships in pop culture.

I didn't always just feel sad about it. Through the years I've felt kind of guilty at times when I would go home to visit and would have no interest in interacting with him. And then that guilt would trigger anger that he made it that way and that my family wasn't better at giving me an escape route from having to see him all the time. And this stuff is so complex and subtle that it takes years to sort out. I think over time I got really good at recognizing the emotions and thinking my way through them and finding my own escape routes, or being evasive and emotionally distant when there was no other escape route. And I got over the whole guilt and resulting anger thing. So now what's left is the sadness that the experience of having a healthy relationship with a grandpa through your teen years and young adulthood (my other grandpa was pretty awesome all the way around, but died when I was 12) just wasn't an experience that was available to me.

Thinking about my reaction to my grandpa's death got me thinking about this dynamic where the abused child is always aware of the difference between hir experience and the imaginary "normal" experience. I think this is especially acute during those years when you're exploring your sexuality and navigating intimate relationships with peers. These can be uncertain times in themselves, but it seems like the experience of abuse heightens the uncertainty and undermines the confidence you may have otherwise had. Of course, it's impossible to know, since you've never experienced this developmental phase any other way, and kids tend to have an exaggerated sense of this fictional "normal" person. So this is something I need to give a little more thought to, but I'd be interested in hearing if other people had this same experience. I think it's important to talk about this stuff because there's such a tendency to either act like abuse victims are thoroughly damaged, completely powerless creatures, or like everything is in the past and thank god we can move on now that you've worked through this thing and it doesn't effect you anymore.

More later...

Picture of the day


Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Art of Womanliness, Redux

A comment from the previous post:

Jack Danger Canty said...
This blog post and discussion fascinates me. So much so that I wanted to find out what, exactly, a site would look like if these same principles of honor, kindness, integrity, etc. were written for an all female audience.

So I built one:

It takes the live site at and translates it so that the gender of every piece of text is swapped. We now have, for example, a complete article on "Archetypes of American Womanliness"

As I read it I think "most of this makes sense, though these archetypal ladies seem to have poor relationships."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Coming Out Day

Monday Miscellanea

A former Guantanamo prisoner describes the experience as "Kafkaesque" and sues the U.S. government.

Senator Jim DeMint thinks that sexually active unmarried women and openly gay individuals should not be allowed to be teachers. Apparently single, sexually active, straight men can totally pull it off, though.

A shift to HTML 5 will give marketers unprecedented access to the info on your computer. Sing it with me
marketing makes the world go 'round
it makes the world go 'round
some marketing firm soon will target you
if no one's targeting you now ...

In North Carolina a court ruling curbs zero-tolerance school policies, which are all too often extreme and over-reaching, and serve to further marginalize the very students who most need help and support from their schools and communities.

And in other news mainstream American obstetrics confirms that research has little or no impact on how they practice medicine. In spite of a new study (which confirms a number of previous studies, incidentally) showing that light consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is not only not harmful to the child but may in fact involve some benefits, American obstetricians remain committed to their anti-alcohol dogma. Among other things, the study found
Boys whose mothers were light drinkers during pregnancy were 33% less likely and girls 31% less likely to have behavioral, emotional or intellectual problems than nondrinking mothers.

Both boys and girls in this category were also less likely to have hyperactivity: 27% and 29%, respectively, and scored higher on measures of cognitive functioning.

The opposite was true of children born to mothers who were heavy drinkers. These children were more likely to have problems across the board.
Of course, European doctors and moms have known this for years decades centuries. But why would we let the facts intrude upon our practices? Everyone knows that pregnant women are not to be trusted. If alcohol in excess is harmful to a developing fetus, then we must forbid pregnant women from alcohol consumption altogether. The poor dears won't be able to grasp the concept of "light drinking." And even if they could process such a subtle concept with their delicate lady brains, they probably wouldn't be able to limit their consumption of alcohol once they started drinking anyway. Everyone knows that self-control is not a female characteristic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Conversation about Birth Rape

About a month ago now, a flurry of intense conversations on the term "birth rape" circulated through the feminist blogosphere. Although birth rape has been the subject of conversation before, there were several posts written within a few days of each other that are particularly relevant here:

What is "Birth Rape"? by Irin Carmen at Jezebel
Bad Birth Experiences Aren't Rape by Amanda Marcotte at Slate
The push to recognize "birth rape" by Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon
"Birth Rape" Rhetoric is Ugly, Misleading by Lindsay Beyerstein at BigThink

These posts produced outrage (on both sides of the issue) and a great deal of intense commenting and some name-calling and a lot of hurt feelings. It also prompted a number of thoughtful responses that were posted in the days and weeks following, and I'll link some of them below.

Although I read much of the commentary, I didn't post on it here or comment in many of the ongoing comment threads because there are times when this whole conversation makes me feel tired and depressed, and it's hard to say much of anything. It's also difficult sometimes in the context of a blog to address such a sensitive, complex issue with the degree of thoughtfulness and inclusiveness it deserves. But the flurry of birth rape posts did prompt a private email exchange between six feminist bloggers/ birth advocates that seemed really productive to me. Too productive to remain private. So I'm posting it here for your reading pleasure.

Note: this kinda starts in the middle of an ongoing conversation, so it might take a second to get your bearings - keep reading.

B wrote:

Okay, Clark-Flory just pissed me off even more. Is she ever going to let this drop? She has now called the use of the term birth rape "casual" and compared it to people who say things like "Man, that aerobics class totally raped me."

For fuck's sake. Growling and grrring all over the place here. How insulting can she be?

F wrote:

Yeah, if it weren't for the word "casually", I wouldn't be upset as much, because she'd just be talking about debates on how to define rape.

About 80% of the time, I'm ok with her, but the other 20% she tends to say clueless stuff.

Of course, since Salon commenters are only a little above YouTube commenters, she usually comes off looking ok in comparison. Which is why I never read the comments.

U wrote:

That's absolutely disgusting, and I had to leave a comment to that effect. If she doesn't think "rape" is the right term, that's all well and good, but my goodness you'd think she'd have more sense than that. :/

K replied to F:

Salon comments are like YouTube Light. That's a great comparison.

I think what we saw last week was another example of how women who "allow" themselves to be vulnerable (and giving birth is a great biological example of that) just don't fit that second wave narrative. I don't have high expectations in the first place when it comes to folks who seem to feel like motherhood is when women sell out (read: those women who let us down deserve what they get), so this whole manufactured brouhaha was pretty predictable. Cognitive dissonance is itchy and stingy, no?

I've seen the same type thing coming from biological essentialists (the "all women should birth vaginally, breastfeed, stay home" set) when a woman decides to get an epidural and ends up with a c/s. They want everyone to do things one way--their way-- so they resent and find indirect ways to tell women they got what they deserved for not _____.

D replied to all:

So I've been mulling over this for a little while because I want to respond in a thoughtful manner. It's worth saying up front that I:
  1. identify as feminist
  2. have kids, one delivered by truly awful, likely totally unnecessary cesarean
  3. am uncomfortable with the terminology "birth rape."
I probably don't need to show my cred, but my cesarean was worse than awful, I hated my body, I couldn't bear to even think about sex for a very long time and would cry and panic if my husband came near me. I still shake when I get into stirrups. I didn't think I was going to die, but I hoped I would. I really, really get the feeling of loss of agency and basic humanity.

I am in a constant process of working through what exactly it is that makes me uncomfortable. I think part of it is that I am very concerned with the meaning of words (no surprise I ended up in law school), and think of rape primarily as a term with legal significance. This really pisses some people off, and I've been accused of boo-hooing on behalf of women who have experienced rape (I have not, and don't pretend to know what anyone else feels or speak for them) and denying the existence of date rape (wtf). I have seen some people make some pretty sweeping claims about whether or not a battery in an obstetrical setting constitutes rape, and I'm left a little confused I guess. So I'll work through it and you can read or not. Maybe grab a cup of tea...

At common law, rape was sex without the victim's consent by force. As time has progressed, we have expanded the meanings of some of the words, specifically "sex" (as including penetration of orifices other than the vagina with things other than a penis, not requiring ejaculation), "consent" (no longer implied in an intimate partner or potential intimate partner), and "force" (to include even the most minimal force required to complete the act and threat of force). Basically, the trend has been expansive and inclusive.

The Model Penal Code, which was supposed to be this sort of utopian criminal code, but is actually still sort of retrograde (um, spousal exception? deviate sexual intercourse? what century is this?) defines rape exclusively as including sexual intercourse, but creates a separate category of "sexual assault." Essentially, this crime is when a person has or causes another person to have sexual contact with them knowing that the victim finds it offensive (and a smattering of other permutations not relevant here). The Code further states: "Sexual contact is any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of the person for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire."

I think that the magic, from a legal perspective, is in finding a definition of rape that is neither too narrow nor too broad. As others have pointed out, feminist theory tells us that rape is not about sex, but is about power and control. From a legal perspective, though, it's necessarily about asserting power and control in a sexual manner. This doesn't necessarily have to lie in the gratification of the rapist, as the Model Penal Code suggests, but I think there has to be a sexualized element (such as inducing sexual humiliation). People assert power in a lot of ways, and obviously not all of them are rape. Not just because the laws are retrograde, but because the word has to have some sort of parameters to have legal meaning.

This raises a number of questions for me. Does the fact that obstetrical touching involves genitals necessarily make it sexual? Body as sexual vs. nonsexual is a distinction that we're comfortable making in the context of breastfeeding. In fact, a big part of my complaint as a birth activist is that medical personnel objectify women's bodies, divorcing them from humanity/sexuality. When a vagina is a hole a baby comes out of, you can stick your hand in it, cut it, sew it, whatever. It involves a sexual organ but is not sexualized if that makes sense. If someone fondles my breast on the bus, that is (in most jurisdictions) a sexual assault of some sort. If someone does a breast exam, against my will but in good faith looking for cancerous lumps, is that a sexual assault? I'm not so sure. To add another dimension, is the act judged by the intent, or by the fallout? Generally speaking, the law says by intent; I think other disciplines would look at result to the victim. If the feeling caused by rape is similar to that caused by an obstetrical battery, are they the same? Then again, what if I had say a colposcopy that, while technically consented to (or maybe I was silent, or maybe I revoked consent), was painful, terrifying, and left me with symptoms of post traumatic stress? Is that a rape too? Without being flippant at all, what would we call it, gyno-rape? What about a tooth extraction? CPS taking my child away? All of these things might leave me feeling powerless.

When it comes to people talking about what happened to them and how it made them feel, I have no place telling them that they can't call it rape, or liken it to rape, or torture, or whatever else. In any event, the words that women choose illuminate how they feel about what happened, and that has independent value. I understand that the usage is not casual. But I also think that it is important that we have a name for what is happening. Like from a legal perspective. The importance of this is that it would give us a mechanism by which we can hold providers accountable. Great strides were made when we came up with the concepts of "child abuse," "domestic violence," etc. To the extent that it matters what anyone outside the choir thinks, "birth rape" doesn't really resonate. At all. Then again, neither did "partial-birth abortion" or "African-American" and nobody has let that get in the way.

But it also involves telling doctors that they are rapists. This is much more than telling some frat boy that having sex with an unconscious woman is rape. It's telling someone who in all likelihood thought they were saving a life that they are a rapist. This is where it breaks down for me a little. I've heard people say "look, I had to do the' run down the hall with full hand in the vag' because of suspected prolapse and crashing heart rate." Does this excuse them from a violation of informed consent or make them not an asshole? Not in the slightest. But (at least in my definition) a rapist has some sort of malicious or sexual intent - no confusion here as to what they were trying to do. It's either get off or humiliate. Barring some of the more egregious cases, I don't think this is what is going on in a lot of the cases women are calling birth rape. Maybe, for the purposes of institutional change, there's a less destructive way to have this conversation. (For the purposes of personal restitution though, by all means, call them a rapist and key their car!)

Anyway, I think that there is a gap between the metaphorical definition of rape and the legal definition, and that causes me trouble. My inner conflict might make sense if you think about someone who, say, is given a vaginal exam without a word and someone who is digitally penetrated by a perv claiming to perform an ultrasound (an actual case from my torts book). I feel like there is a difference there, and the "birth rape" terminology erases that difference.

So I guess I'm not any closer to an answer, but at least I've thought a little. I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts.

B replied to D:

I think you make some valid, reasonable points, D. I sometimes hear women call, say, unnecessary c-sections 'rape' and it does make me cringe a little because it didn't involve any non-consensual VEs. In that sense, I can see why some would see that as a 'casual' link. On the other hand, when it comes to instances of actual forced VEs, I think there is something very...paternalistic about telling women what they can and can't call the violation against them. Even if in a legal sense 'rape' doesn't hold up, the pain, shame, anger and degradation are often just as powerful, with similar effects on the psyche. It's the dismissal of that pain and the allegation that birth rape/assault somehow diminish 'real' rape that really gets to me.

S replied to D:

FWIW, I'm totally on board with you about most of this. I feel pretty cautious about the use of the term, and it took me a long time to form an opinion on it when the terminology first came into broader usage.

On the one hand I really am sympathetic to those who worry about diluting the meaning and power of the word "rape." This is something to be taken very seriously. On the other hand, I think that birth and reproductive autonomy are areas where women are especially vulnerable due to the cultural context, and it's so easy for individuals who work within patriarchal systems like the medical industry to violate them in egregious ways. And this is one criterion from a legal standpoint, right? The comparative vulnerability and powerlessness of the victim in relation to the perpetrator is commonly factored into legislation as is clearly seen when dealing with laws that protect children and disabled individuals, for example. The problem is that we as a society don't recognize this huge power imbalance between birthing mother and medical care provider, so the potential for coercion and violation that comes with it is largely invisible.

But obviously this vulnerability alone is not enough to get you to something as serious as rape. I do think the intent vs. consequences issue is central. Obviously most medical professionals are not going to derive sexual pleasure from mistreating birthing women. But I do believe some of them derive pleasure from dominating and/or humiliating them. And generally speaking this combo of sexual violation + pleasure is enough to get you a conviction of rape-rape (hence the jettisoning of the ejaculation requirement...). And of course the damage done to the victim is often intensely sexual. So I think I fall somewhere in the middle where I think there is a select group of cases where "birth rape" is applicable. Reproduction and birth are inherently a part of a woman's sexual life, even if the medical professionals involved don't perceive it that way. Hence the damage that can be done to a woman during birth is, or can be, sexual in nature. I suspect that the vast majority of cases would be better categorized as birth assault, but I still want to reserve the term "birth rape" for those especially outrageous cases where there was either a clear intent to dominate and humiliate the mother or a flat-out criminal disregard for the mother's well-being.

And at the very least, in cases where you can't establish intent or personal gratification at the pain and humiliation inflicted, there should be some sort of criminal negligence standard so that doctors who claim to have had the best of intentions of saving the baby can still be held to a kind of reasonable person standard in which anyone should have known that treating a birthing woman this way was going to inflict terrible damage and psychological trauma. But as far as I know doctors are generally allowed to hide behind the "I was trying to save the baby" defense. And I think this is what motivates the push for recognizing birth rape and trying to force people to take it more seriously. In the absence of any culpability, and in the face of the cultural apathy regarding this issue, I think the tendency is to go to the furthest extreme in order to capture attention and shock people into taking it seriously and making changes. Does that make sense?

F replied to S:

S, that is it exactly--"rape" captures attention, and also underlines the severity of the woman's experience, in a way that "assault" doesn't--it's too vague.

"Medical assault" gets a little closer and is probably as precise as you can get, legally. But it doesn't have the visceral tug, and it doesn't really get at the wrongness of twisting the experience of birth, which is so particular to women, into an occasion for medical battery.

"Rape" didn't even mean what it means now at one time (it was closer to "unauthorized use of woman's vagina/uterus by a man who is not her owner", yes?).

So I guess I don't worry about the appropriation as much; I think that a woman assaulted during birth has enough in common with a traditional rape victim that outside of a courtroom, "rape" does not really get diluted, in the way that "that spinning class really raped me!" does.

B replied:

I agree wholeheartedly, F.

U replied:

Sorry for the later reply.

I totally get D's reply, and agree with it. I think it's hard when discussing it because, for me, it all bends on how "rape" is defined in a certain area. However, I also agree with F in that I'm not really worried about dilution. I think part of the issue in the back of my head is what used to NOT be considered rape (date rape, marital rape, etc.), and how taking the power away from the victim to name their pain is somehow...abhorrent to me. I think "assault" is convenient only in that it gives an actual criminal place to attach the events but doesn't really describe it to me.

It's tough, because we don't want to encourage the idea that women are lovely little fragile creatures who require special delicate touches (by saying that women are especially vulnerable - I've had several professors describe birth as making women "incompetent") but the situation is a bit tough.

S replied:

Yes - I agree on the point about not making women into fragile little creatures. But I also think that being vulnerable (especially during a specific event in your life) and being incompetent are two totally different things. I think the dominant and convenient myth is that women are incompetent during labor and delivery, but you can work to eliminate that while still acknowledging the huge power imbalance between birthing women and medical care givers, and the resulting vulnerability and potential for abuse.

Your thoughts?

Additional posts on birth rape:
On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing by Cara at The Curvature
So, About this Birth Rape Thing by Emjaybee at The Unnecesarean
SEXIST BEATDOWN: Nation of Whoopi Goldbergs Edition by Sady and Amanda at Tiger Beatdown
It's not RAPE rape by Amity Reed at The F-word
Are there other posts that should be included here? Send 'em my way!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Art of Womanliness

Today at work I met this woman, and we started talking about our respective areas of expertise /interest /research /teaching /etc. I explained to her my whole postmodern-feminism-environmental-ethics thang, and she was like "oh, I'm really interested in gender too. You should check out this website." And she typed in And at first this site looks like it might be kinda tongue-in-cheek, but it's not. And at first I thought maybe she was being kind of ironical, but she wasn't. So first, this makes me realize that sometimes you think you're communicating with a person but you really aren't connecting at all. And second this website raises a lot of questions for me. Questions like
  1. What do we mean by "manliness"? How is it defined and what makes it so valuable?
  2. Is "manliness" really an art?
  3. If so, is "womanliness" also an art?
  4. What would a website called "the Art of Womanliness" look like?

I think sometimes as feminists who've been feminists for a long time, we're so used to rolling our eyes at this kind of cultural artifact that we no longer take these questions seriously. I mean, obviously "manliness" is a social construct that is practiced and defined differently in different socio-historical contexts, etc. etc. But I think from time to time it's worthwhile to revisit the questions of how manliness (womanliness, masculinity, femininity, etc) is defined in our culture here and now, what significance this has, how it's influenced by the events of our time, how it fits in with other dominant cultural narratives, etc.

A quick poll of your peers will generally reveal that the connotations for words like manliness are still predominantly positive, while there's a bit of confusion surrounding the term womanliness. It is clear that womanliness has a strong tendency to be one of two things: an old-fashioned word that has homemaking and nurturing connotations, or an insult used primarily against men. Womanish is especially prone to this kind of negative usage. But beyond this asymmetry, what are the real differences between manliness and womanliness?

The founder of The Art of Manliness tells this story about the birth of the website

My idea for the Art of Manliness came about as I was standing in Borders bookstore looking at the men’s magazines. It seemed to me that the content in these magazines were continually going downhill, with more and more articles about sex and how to get six pack abs. Was this all there was to being a man?

And as I looked around at the men my age, it seemed to me that many were shirking responsibility and refusing to grow up. They had lost the confidence, focus, skills, and virtues that men of the past had embodied and were a little lost. The feminism movement did some great things, but it also made men confused about their role and no longer proud of the virtues of manliness. This, coupled with the fact that many men were raised without the influence of a good father, has left a generation adrift as to what it means to be an honorable, well-rounded man.

Talking about honorable manliness was to me a niche seemingly not covered on the web or elsewhere, and I decided to start The Art of Manliness to talk about all things manly- both the serious and the fun, but with the ultimate eye toward encouraging readers to be better husbands, fathers, brothers, men.

So he looked around at the version of masculinity that the manmags were selling, and he found it lacking. So far so good. I can sympathize with that. I look around at the version of femininity that the the girlmags are selling and I find it lacking too. But there are two important caveats here. For one thing, magazines, and media in general, exist primarily to sell products in our culture. It's capitalism, baby. Marketing drives media. Period. And nobody behind this marketing is sitting back asking "what should women/men really be like?" or "what's the best way to live?" Cuz that would be silly, right? You don't sell shit by asking ethical and/or philosophical questions. The only answer to a question like "what kind of men/women should we be" a marketer is going to come up with is "men/women who buy a lot of shit." So I would naturally expect the version of masculinity/femininity exhibited in any media outlet to be marketing-driven and totally irrelevant to the real underlying questions.

Secondly, I wonder why this discontent he experienced applied only to the version of masculinity he saw, and not to the version of humanity as a whole we're presented with. Because mostly what you see reflected in magazines is shallow, narcissistic, self-involved, entitled, petty people, right? And this ain't by accident, y'all. It turns out that one thing that shallow, narcissistic, self-involved, entitled, petty people are really good at is buying shit. But this isn't a gendered thing. Women and men are presented with different avenues to gain their material fulfillment in the vast marketing machine, but it's all the same thing in the end. It's just that by differentiating the marketing you sell twice as many products - one for the women and one for the men.

So what are the manly virtues according to a website like AOM, and what does this say about womanliness? A quick perusal of The Different Types of Manliness over at AOM yields the following list of manly virtues:

  • Toughness, leadership, courage, sacrifice (the Warrior)
  • Self-sufficient, free-thinking, independent, able to be his own man (the Lone Wolf)
  • Free spirit, courage, vitality, risk-taking (the Adventurer)
  • Well-dressed, well-mannered (the Gentleman)
  • Idealistic, driven, civic-minded, principled (the Statesman)
  • Hard working, loyal, good husband and father (the Family Man)

So these virtues all seem to be pretty nice, right? I mean, I like well-mannered, loyal, hard-working, self-sufficient, idealistic men. But that's probably because I like well-mannered, loyal, hard-working, self-sufficient, idealistic people. What makes these characteristics male, or especially desirable in men more than women? And if these wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory characteristics are exclusively masculine, what virtues are left for the ladies?

When you teach a class on gender, if you ask a group of college-aged kids to define feminine virtue they unhesitatingly list sexual purity and modesty as the only two synonyms they know for the term, and act as if it's a quaint, outdated phrase. The thing is, I get the sense from sites like AOM that this isn't far from their sense of what womanliness amounts to. But I'm not sure why. You can infer from the About page that the founder of AOM and his wife are Mormon, although they go out of their way to avoid saying so. So I kind of expect their gender politics to be extremely conservative and somewhat, um, quaint. But doesn't a religious framework like theirs have any positive characteristics associated with womanliness?

And this brings me back to the question "what would a website on the Art of Womanliness look like?" So I did a google search just to make sure there wasn't one of those out there. And what did I find? A discussion thread at AOM. As you read through the discussion thread on the Art of Womanliness, here are some thoughts on what a site like this should do:

  • "cover the virtues and values of being a woman, etiquette, classic fashion, and womanly skills. I like to see stuff on dating, gardening, cooking, friendship, and how to negotiate feeling like an independent woman, while also feeling like, well, a woman" (yes, but what does it mean to "feel like a woman"?? And what are the womanly skills?)
  • "It shouldn't say working or being a breadwinner is wrong but it should have an area in the Family and Relationships section that does celebrate the stay at home mother as well. Chivalry should also be celebrated, and women should be noble in those ways too"
  • "They should emphasize the differences between men and women so they can enjoy being women as much as we enjoy being men"
  • "I think some of the ideas mentioned here like fashion, dating, family and be honest, a lot of the things on this site I do apply to my own life as a woman. The general basic rules of respect, courtesy, manners, and the like are helpful to anyone."

And so on. But we're still left to ask "how are the male virtues different from the female virtues? This is never really specified. It seems like being respectful, courteous, responsible, etc are listed at the top of the list for both men and women. Of course, there are many veiled (and not so veiled) references to things like housekeeping and child-rearing and gardening and cooking and being a friend. Which brings us back to the same old "men should be adventurous and bold and idealistic and courageous and women should keep a clean house" dichotomy of a century ago which sites like AOM claim to eschew. But really, what else is underpinning this? What are the female virtues in this view, and how do they differ from male virtues?

And since we're so insisitent that there are in fact two distinct sets of virtues, why is this true? One commenter from the discussion mentioned above was so explicit as to claim that

It's hard for men to talk about this for fear of being chauvinist. Some food for thought. Men and women had certain roles that we both fell into out of natures guidance. We had those roles for centuries. Then all of a sudden the rules changed. While. I agree that most of this is for the better, it has to be confusing for women. What compounds it is that women feel like they can't be women and can't talk about it with other women.

So there it is - the ol' essentialist narrative (along with the ever-infuriating phrase "be women" with no accompanying explanation of what that means). But here we hit the performative contradiction, right? Art and artifice and artificial are antonyms for nature and natural. If manliness (and womanliness) is an art, can it be natural? If it's embedded in our very biology and issues forth from us in spite of ourselves can it be something that is lost and must be relearned? Could it be something we have to form discussion forums on and write articles about and establish support groups to regain? I mean, you're born with it, right? So what's with all the learning and policing?

In a way I really sympathize with the intent and the feeling behind sites like AOM. We do live in a world that tends to encourage shallow, petty, immature behavior. It truly is depressing to watch the juvenile dramas played out in celebrity culture and emulated by the masses. But why is this a gender issue? Good character - people who run deep, who do what they say they're going to do and finish what they start and stand by their friends and loved ones - is a thing of beauty and something to cherish. I agree wholeheartedly. But the issue isn't gendered and the enemy is neither feminism nor changing social roles. No, the enemy is much more ubiquitous and powerful than that. Look to the consumer economy that requires relentless market growth and perpetual buying, buying, buying, and then to the marketing machinery that feeds it, my friend. Thoughtful people who value something other than their image and their belongings don't feed the consumer economy in the right sort of way, and thus you will never see these characteristics truly valued and nurtured in our culture until we shift away from our economic practices.

So there's your target. The massive Capitalist-Marketing-Consuming Juggernaut. Good luck with that.