The Changing Face of Female Dignity

In a series of articles written for Salvo Magazine over the years, I have contrasted the outlook of modern feminism with what female writers in the past have written about female dignity. What has emerged from this research is a stark juxtaposition about the meaning of female dignity.

Consider that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many female thinkers defended their sex precisely by asserting, maintaining, and celebrating appropriate sexual distinctions. For example, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Wordsworth once noted that “in an ideal state of society we never lose sight of the womanliness of women . . . why should it be considered a compliment to any woman to be told she writes, paints, sings, talks, or even thinks, like a man?”

Even more progressive female thinkers who challenged conventional feminine virtues and roles still took it for granted that there was a connection between biological sex and innate gender distinctions, and that such distinctions were a source of one’s dignity. For example, Abigail Adams (1744–1818), who is considered a pioneer of early feminism, wrote to her sister praising Thomas Jefferson’s daughter for “so womanly a behavior.” Similarly, in the works of eighteenth-century female novelists who are now celebrated as proto-feminists, we find examples of women asserting their female dignity precisely by glorying in their inherent womanliness.

By contrast, twentieth and twenty-first century feminist writers have seen themselves as defending their sex precisely through their attempts to neutralize the sexual polarity. For them, it is no longer acceptable to emphasize the womanliness of women, as Elizabeth Wordsworth and Abigail Adams did, but neither is it acceptable to praise women for being like men. Feminism of the twentieth-century questioned the very category of womanliness and turned toward androgyny and egalitarianism.

I have explored this further, along with some of the implications, in the following articles:

What Does a Kiss and a Slap Have in Common? Answer: “gender colonialism”

38phillipsThose who subscribe to Salvo Magazine should be expecting Salvo 38 (Fall 2016) to be arriving in your mailboxes any day. (Those who do not yet subscribe to Salvo can fix that by clicking here.)

In this issue I’ve contributed a short article about feminism. In my article, which is available to read for free HERE, I’ve explored the latest development in the topsy-turvy world of feminist theory: the notion that when men act gentlemanly towards women, or when men have too much warm-hearted affection towards a wife or girlfriend, such men are actually perpetuating the same system of “gender colonialism” that includes rape and wife-beating. The article is a continuation of a theme I started exploring in Winter 2013 with my article ‘The Massacre of Valentine’s Day‘, in which I observed that hostility to positive man-woman relationships runs like a golden thread throughout much third-wave feminist literature.

 

 

Women and the Draft: I Sometimes Hate Being Right

American female fighter

Women will likely have to register for the draft, Army Secretary says

I read in the news today that U.S. military Army Secretary, John McHugh, said earlier this week that there is a likelihood that women will eventually have to register for the draft in order for “true and pure equality” is to be realized.

This is one of those situations where it doesn’t feel good to say “I told you so”. But I predicted this three years ago in my Salvo article ‘Mixed Companies: Women in Combat, Feminism & Misogyny.’ Thankfully, this particular Salvo article is available online so you don’t even have to subscribe to our wonderful magazine to read it. (Still, we strongly encourage you to subscribe so you can read all the other excellent articles.)

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Feminism and the Body

Eve's RevengeIn her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

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We All Accept Gender Inequality

gender inequality

Few people want a world where men and women are really treated the same.

Although we’re supposed to be living in an age where men and women are equal, in practice no one really operates according to the principles of gender equality.

Before going any further, it may be helpful to define what I mean when I talk about men and women being “unequal.”

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Feminism, Commercialism and the War Against the Female Body

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

A number of writers have recently been alerting evangelicals to ways in which their thinking has become captive to Gnostic-type ideas about the body. Instead of treating the body as something good, which is in the process of being redeemed (Rom 8:23), it is easy for Christians to slip into the trap of talking about the body as if it is a prison from which we must ultimately escape. (See the ongoing series we have been doing on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.)

But it is not only in religious communities that we find these types of pessimistic approaches to embodiment. A theme that keeps reemerging in the wider secular culture of the West is an underlying angst concerning the body. Indeed, if current trends in transhumanism, technohumanism and postgenderism continue, Christians who understand about the goodness of creation may soon represent the last hold-out in affirming the goodness of the body.

Troubled By Embodiment

In her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

Barger illustrated this in a fascinating section of her book where she describes a conversation she had at a Midwest feminist conference, Barger attended some fascinating panel discussions about gender, sexuality and feminine identity. Afterwards, Barger had the opportunity to have coffee with a young lesbian, who had ‘come out’ at fourteen. Barger reflects,

“It was a pretty heavy conversation, I must admit. But the simplest question was the one that seemed to confound us the most. What I asked, and am still asking, was ‘Do our physical actually existing bodies matter in all this?’

…in our search for meaning and a more authentic identity, our bodies have become obstacles to be overcome. But as we seek transcendence, can we radically sever who we are from the body? It appeared that in the panel discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation, sex itself was wholly disembodied. No references to the body were made except as an appendage to the discussion. There was no questioning whether our sexed bodies provide any information regarding the nature of our sexual identity.

I asked the young lesbian whether she had ever considered her body as informing her identity. I wondered whether it said anything about her and how she was to live. She was ready to affirm that her race was important in informing her identity, but she hadn’t thought about her sexed body in quite the same way. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.

Like most people, I have trouble thinking about the body without thinking about the mess of it. It is a complex set of needs, yearnings, and assumptions, overlapping in physical and cultural space, that continually limit our possibilities. In our attempts to transcend our social situation, we do not want our body to define the content of our life whether by race, age, sex, or disability. But to talk about sexual orientation and desire without talking about the bodily field in which they are expressed is to engage in dualistic thinking that will forever keep us from having a coherent understanding of ourselves. As unfashionable as it may be, the reality is the my body informs me every day not only about my place in the world but about what is needful for my life to flourish. How we view the body and our own body ends up directly affecting what type of spirituality we will embrace and how we see our relationship to the Divine. The current formulation of how the body, specifically a woman’s body, is related to spirituality has set us up for disembodied spirituality.

In fairness, the type of feminism described above is only one type, yet it is gaining traction and is a powerful influence on young women. At best, it teaches them that the body is irrelevant to personal identity; at worst, it teaches that the body is an enemy to true fulfilment that must be overcome.

 A Body, a tomb

In hundreds of different ways, women today are pressured to see their bodies as a barrier to the liberation of their true self. Echoing Plato’s statement from the Gorgias (“soma sema” – “a body, a tomb”), they have come to look upon the material body as a prison house from which we must escape. This finds expression in feminists who see biological realities like pregnancy as the last frontier for feminism to conquer.

Even in more subtle forms, however, feminism has left women feeling like strangers to themselves. This state of affairs was articulated by Susan Bordo in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo writes that “What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self…and as undermining the best efforts of the self.”

Commercialism and the War against Women

Feminism isn’t the only culprit to blame. Commercialism has also played an enormous role. Commercialism dehumanizes us through industries and technologies that democratize our concept of beauty. In the process, beauty becomes unattainable to the vast majority of women; if it were attainable, all women would be squeezed into a homogeneous mold since there is an increasingly limited range of options we are told can count as true beauty. In this way, the idolatrous claims of commercialism turn out to be a cheat: while promising to release our individuality and fulfil our self, these idolatries actually do just the opposite, removing our individuality and homogenizing us.

In Geoffrey Jones’ book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones shows that the emergence of the beauty industry led to unprecedented homogenization of beauty ideals throughout the world. The industry thrives on sudden shifts in fashion and fads, which create new markets by disrupting incumbent positions on what is and is not beautiful. Entrepreneurs build brands and markets which define the aesthetic and ethnic boundaries of human beauty. These boundaries are reinforced by Hollywood.

The type of commercialist ethic that Jones describes in his book has led to the commoditization of the body. This commoditization implicates a subtle dualism in which the body is separated from the self. This Gnostic-type dualism turns my body into my natural enemy.

The crypto-Gnosticism of our age has done enormous harm to women, for it comes with a false, yet appealing, narrative of fall and redemption. If our ‘fall’ is represented by those aspects of our body with which we would rather change, then redemption is found in our release from the body’s limitations through products and services that promise to transcend our limitations.

Powerful commercial forces have an economic incentive to continue and perpetuate these false redemption motifs and the ongoing ‘cold war’ against the body that naturally results. The assumption behind these products is that if the body can be released from the constraints of creaturely embodiment, then the true self within can be saved. True individuality is thus seen as the ability to construct our identity for ourselves, to be completely autonomous, unconstrained by the fixities of outside reality, including the reality of the body.

Just think about it: if a girl doesn’t like the color of her hair, there are products that can fix that; if a girl doesn’t like the size of her breasts, there are processes that can change that; if a girl doesn’t like the size that she naturally is with a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are products that promise to fix that and make her unnaturally thin; if a girl doesn’t like her face, there are products and processes that can change that; if an elderly woman doesn’t like her age, there are products that promise to make her look young again. In short, the body becomes infinitely malleable under the dominion of raw will. The net result is that women are predispose to find their embodiment in time, space and flesh a hindrance rather than a gift.

Mass Produced Beauty

The problem with the commercialist ethic is not simply that it holds out unattainable goal posts regarding the quantity of beauty it is possible for real people to exhibit; it also offers a wrong qualitative understanding of beauty. Much of what falls under the stereotype of ‘the beautiful woman’ is a decontextualized, mass-produced idea of beauty that is disengaged from other aspects of personhood that have historically always been understood to play a part in contributing to a woman’s beauty.

Feminism and commercialism are not the only factors at blame in encouraging women to see their body as the enemy. All too often men have behaved in ways that implicitly linked physical appearance to moral worth. When this is combined with unrealistic ideals of female beauty, women are left deeply troubled about accepting the goodness of their own bodies. In the modern world this is finding expression in a growing number of women who do not even want their husbands to see them without any clothes on.

The Goodness of Creation

This state of affairs is lamentable, but it provides an exciting opportunity for the church. Building on passages such as Genesis 1:31 and Romans 8:23, Christians are able to whole-heartedly affirm the goodness of creation. And that includes our bodies. Indeed, the body and all that it involves—hands, eyes, legs, brains, bottoms and breasts—is genuinely good.

Christ could have been resurrected as a ghost, but he wasn’t (Luke 24:37-39). Christ’s physical body was renewed and transformed. Those of us who are united to Christ can expect that our physical body will also be renewed and transformed, not something to be cast off as a hindrance to true liberation.

 

Gender Equality Takes Center Stage

The attempt to eradicate all vestiges of gender distinction from society was brought to the forefront of public debate as a result of the debate on male-preference primogeniture. American readers may be unfamiliar with the term ‘male-primogeniture’ so a brief word of explanation may be helpful. After explaining about primogeniture and the current issues surrounding this, I will argue that gender equality is neither possible nor desirable.

Queen Victoria was only able to inherit the throne because she had been the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg.

Queen Victoria was only able to inherit the throne because she had been the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg.

The rules of succession for the British thrown are governed by a system in which firstborn sons take precedence over their older sisters in line for the throne. A woman will only inherit the throne of Britain if she has no male siblings. A younger brother – no matter how young – will always bump ahead to first-place in line above older sisters. Given the system of male primogeniture, the present Queen became monarch only because she did not have any brothers. Similarly, Queen Victoria (1819 –1901) was only able to inherit the throne because she had been the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg.

I don’t intend to defend or criticize the system of male primogeniture in this post. In fact, I don’t think it is a clear-cut issue Biblically. Rather, I’d like to use the recent debate as an opportunity to make a few observations about gender equality.  Specifically, I will suggest that (A) gender discrimination is both laudable and inescapable, and that (b) those who are advancing gender equality are often guilty of the same problem as those who practice male domination; as such, feminism and male domination are both opposite sides of the same coin.

OK, I suspect a lot of angry readers will not read any further, but hear me out.

Gender Discrimination: God or Bad?

In a letter last week to the heads of the different Commonwealth countries that share the monarchy with England, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We espouse gender equality in all other aspects of life and it is an anomaly that in the rules relating to the highest public office we continue to enshrine male superiority.” The Prime Minister is not alone in seeing the current succession laws as a card-carrying case of gender discrimination. Earlier in the year when Keith Vaz MP put forward a Bill attempting to change the succession laws, he commented

“At the centre of this debate is a great principle: gender equality…. Our country leads the way in equality issues, and that should be reflected in our succession rules…. Sex discrimination has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1975. Some 35 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Britain’s employers must ensure equality between the sexes. Those who break the law are rightly punished. The Bill attempts to bring such gender equality into our succession rules.”

In his book The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain, Anthony Browne showed that gender discrimination is not only accepted in many instances, but many times is laudable and defensible. Browne writes:

“Young men pay higher rates for car insurance than young women and older men, because young men are, on average, more dangerous drivers than young women and older men. A young man who is a safe driver is thus discriminated against because of the characteristics of other people in his age and sex group….Anti-discrimination campaigners may publicly declare that all discrimination on the grounds of sex should be outlawed, but they are unlikely to agree that all men should have the right to use women’s toilers, that men should be allowed to go to women’s gyms, or to demand overturning the right of women’s clothes shops to refuse to employ men….Men pay smaller pension contributions than women for a given level of private pension, for the simple reason that, on average, they have shorter lives and so on average claim less….The various forms of rational discrimination that are widely accepted are not often called discrimination – although that is clearly what they are – because accepting that some discrimination is actually essential to the working of a society would undermine the public acceptance of a ‘zero tolerance of all forms of discrimination’. The war on discrimination would become meaningless if there were general public awareness that actually some forms of discrimination are needed.”

Sex discrimination simply means treating a person differently than you would if that person were a different gender. For example, when a man dates a woman he is, in a sense, ‘discriminating’ since he would not offer the same treatment to members of his own gender category, unless of course he is gay. In short, there are many cases where men and women are unequal, and these are diversities to be celebrated rather than inequalities to be lamented. The real question, therefore, is not whether something is a case of discrimination, but whether it is a case of justifiable discrimination.

When this is applied to the question of male primogeniture, as well as all the other controversial issues about gender equality, it follows that what we need to ask is whether sex discrimination in this case is rationally justified. We cannot know that male primogeniture is wrong merely from the fact that it discriminates against women. Rather, the burden rests on those who oppose the practice to first establish that it is a case of unjustifiable discrimination. However, instead of making this case, opponents of male primogeniture tend to follow Mr. Vaz in simply assuming that the discrimination of the succession laws is equivalent to illegal and unjust discrimination. This is a typical feminist move to short-circuit rational discussion of the specifics merits of the issue, turning it instead (but erroneously) into a question of political correctness.

Gender Equality: Myth or Reality?

A related issue concerns gender equality. On this issue, there are two primary views. First, we have the egalitarian view which maintains that men and women are equal in all respects other than biology. Egalitarians maintain that individual persons and society in general both have an ethical obligation to treat men and women the same. They will often point out that because men and women are equal in both value and human nature they are also equal in respect to their functions and tasks. Egalitarians are also fond of pointing out that their equalitarianism acts as a hedge against male chauvinism, patriarchy and gender hierarchy. This is because lack of gender equality implies male superiority, or so the egalitarian alleges.

The alternative to gender equality is the view known as Complimentarianism, or variations of it such as New Feminism. According to Complementarians, men and women have been created as the natural compliment of each other. Consequently, men have a unique role that only they can fulfill just as women have a unique role that only they can fulfill. Such roles are equal in value and dignity but unequal in function. Complimentarians rightly point out that egalitarianism is based on a faulty non sequitor, assuming that equality of function and task can be derived from equality of human nature and of value. By contrast, Complementarianism completely avoids this error, making a distinction between personal worth and personal function. Other strong-points of Complementarianism are that

  • The claims of Egalitarianism are unscientific since they have been disproved by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
  • The role-differentiation assumed by Complementarians is Trinitarian, emphasizing the beauty of mutual interdependence.
  • Men and women flourish best when they function as one another’s compliments.
  • Evidence exists for the fact that the different bodily structures of men and women lead both to different lived experiences in the world. Such differentiation makes Egalitarianism impractical.

Feminism and Male Domination: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Interestingly, feminism and gender egalitarianism are actually just the opposite side of the coin of male domination. Both feminism and male domination assume that there is a necessary relation between personal role and personal worth. Both insist that personal role and personal worth must go together, so that any limitation to the former reduces or threatens the latter. The only difference is that while feminism thinks this is a bad thing, and hence attempts to increase a woman’s worth through nullifying any limitation of role, male domination thinks it is a good thing, and hence attempts to decrease a woman’s worth by maintaining her role.

Feminism thus shares the very premise upon which male domination is founded, namely, that my personal significance is measured according to my rung on the ladder, and my opportunity for personal fulfilment enlarges or contracts according to my role. Both are wrong. As Ortlund as pointed out,

“Ironically, feminism shares the very premise upon which male domination is founded, namely, that my personal significance is measured according to my rung on the ladder, and my opportunity for personal fulfilment enlarges or contracts according to my role. By this line of reasoning, the goal of life degenerates into competition for power, and no one hungers and thirsts for true fulfilment in righteousness. No wonder both male domination and feminism are tearing people apart.”

We are now in a position to see how David Cameron has unwittingly capitulated to the same error as those who practice male domination. Think back to his comments cited earlier that “We espouse gender equality in all other aspects of life and it is an anomaly that in the rules relating to the highest public office we continue to enshrine male superiority.” Given that the context of Cameron’s remarks is the succession of the throne, it seems clear that by ‘gender equality’ Cameron means equality of function. Mr Cameron assumes that for the law to recognize a functional difference between men and women (which it does when it gives the throne to the first-born male over older daughters) is to have the attitude of one sex being superior to the other. He thus presupposes that equality of worth is dependent on a woman’s role or function, and that to limit that function is therefore to limit her worth and to enshrine male superiority. By implication this reduces a woman’s value to her function since it assumes that a limitation of the latter reduces the extent of the former. Such an implication is demeaning to females even though those who espouse it think they are elevating women. But such is the legacy of gender egalitarianism.
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“Whatever the hell we want”

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Last Tuesday was the one hundredth anniversary of “International Women’s Day”, which occurs every year on March 8. On this day, various organizations throughout the world sponsor celebrations which, in the words of the Wikipedia, “[range] from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements.”

That sounds legitimate enough. After all, who wouldn’t want to celebrate the achievements of women or the respect and appreciation we owe them?

I began to get suspicious, however, when the name Marie Stopes kept popping up in association with last Tuesday’s festivities. A birth control pioneer in the early 20th century, Stopes is best remembered today for her views on ‘family planning.’ But she is also distinguished by having an international chain of abortion clinics named after her.

An article celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day listed 1921 as one of the key years in the history of women’s accomplishment since it was this year that Marie Stopes opened the UK’s first birth control clinic in London. Nor is that all. Locals in Sierra Leone threw themselves into last Tuesday’s festivities, not least the “Marie Stopes Sierra Leone women” who, according to a press release, make up over half of the population of Sierra Leone.

What last week’s celebrations failed to mention, however, was that Marie Stopes was a social Darwinist who saw contraception and forced sterilization as means for achieving what she called ‘racial hygiene.’ In 1935, Stopes attended the International Congress for Population Science in Berlin, sponsored by the Nazi regime. The conference must have made a significant impact on Stopes because in 1939 she wrote a gushing letter to Hitler to accompany some of her poems.

Stopes shared Hitler’s desire to achieve a perfect race, urging the “sterilization of those totally unfit for parenthood be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory.” Putting her ideas into practice, Stopes opposed her son’s plans to marry a woman who wore eye glasses lest he contribute to diluting the gene pool.

Marie Stopes was not an anomaly. As I pointed out in my article “Social Engineering and the Dark Secret of the American Left”, in the early 20th century almost the entire left-wing movement was obsessed with Eugenics, social engineering and race theories. By mixing the biological theories of Darwin with the social theories of men like Francis Galton and Thomas Malthus, many liberals believed that it was the job of government to ensure that the surplus population did not expand, especially among the undesirable races. “Family planning” played a key part of this agenda, especially abortion. When Margaret Sanger created the “Negro Project” in 1939, her explicit aim was to bring birth control to American blacks in order to reduce their populations.

Now granted, the organizations who sponsored last Tuesday’s activities have little continuity with the racism of Marie Stopes. In fact, they probably do not even know that Stopes held such views, as this has been a carefully guarded secret among Left-wing feminists.

Yet many of the organizers of International Women’s Day did share Stopes’ underlying philosophy. In the article ‘Celebrating 100 Years Of International Women’s Day’, the authors pointed out that, “the notion that we can do whatever the hell we want is only possible because of the women who courageously marched, shouted, protested, pioneered, laughed, loved (and danced) before us. It is their passionate spirit we celebrate today.”

It is perhaps appropriate that the article went on to list Marie Stopes as one of the women whose spirit they were passionately celebrating, for Maries Stopes was indeed a woman who embodied the ethic that “we can do whatever the hell we want.” For her, that meant the sterilisation of those deemed “unfit for parenthood.” It also meant child-labor among the lower classes and forced sterilization of poor women. For Stopes’ feminist descendants, it means the right to pursue abortion, lesbianism and pornography. Who’s to say which is right? Unfortunately, when “whatever the hell we want to do” is our only criteria for assessing our decisions, we cannot say which is preferable.