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.