Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Mansfield on Womanliness

I’m late in noticing it, I know, but Prof. Harvey Mansfield was the commencement speaker at Hillsdale College this year and you can read the text of his remarks in the June issue of Imprimis. Rather than focusing directly on the question of "manliness" Mansfield, instead, took up the question of femininity or womanliness--and did this, as he put it, by way of suggestion. This method was, for him, both wise and prudent--but it leaves open a host of questions (perhaps to be addressed by others as he seems to both hint at and hope for).

The most compelling "suggestion" Mansfield makes is in the title itself: A New Feminism. The title takes on the dual purpose of "suggesting" both that there is something wrong with the current feminism and--which is more--that there may be something good in feminism as such (or reconfigured, or reconstituted, or rightly understood). Many thinkers and writers have attempted to take on the task of redefining what feminism "really is" in the (vain and, perhaps, vainglorious) hope of saving feminism from itself. Indeed, most books that one reads these days from feminists are books that seek to set feminism on the "right track"--either by harkening back to its "founding" or by insisting that it re-birth itself drawing on principles either missed in its founding or incompletely understood at that time. But Mansfield does not make such an attempt here. Because he merely suggests things, he does not have to enter into the fray of that presumptuous discussion.

What he does do is begin with some different conclusions about the natures of both men and women than those adopted by feminism’s fore-mothers. To put it simply, he notes that men and women are both the same and different. Feminism began by emphasizing the "sameness" of men and women over (and sometimes against) their differences in order to achieve a more equitable situation for women vis a vis the workplace and politics. But the standard of judging its success should not be whether or not that project was successful (it was) but whether or not it has produced greater happiness. A mere glance at the covers of most women’s magazines (and, increasingly, one might add--the men’s magazines) in the grocery line suggests that it has not produced much happiness at all.

Mansfield seems to suggest that the problem with the current feminism’s origins (in Beauvoir and others) is that it was not nuanced enough. In denying the existence of or denigrating the existence of "femininity" we seem to have created a sexless society in which no one really seems to enjoy both our common and different natures. Mansfield seems to pine for a feminism that recognizes and encourages femininity--but emphatically states that putting the genie back into the bottle (especially regarding the workplace and politics) is both impossible and, probably, undesirable. So what then can best work to secure our happiness?

A most telling suggestion about how to get to a better place comes in the section where Mansfield reconsiders the old "Double Standard" regarding sex:

The traditional double standard of sexual morality had been higher for women than for men, but feminists posited that men could get away with anything. Rather than trying to elevate the standard for men’s sexual behavior up to that of women, as nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century feminists proposed, the Beauvoir feminists proposed to lower the standard for women down to that of men. The result of abolishing the double standard has been to do away with any standard. Moderate feminists such as Naomi Wolfe have begun to have second thoughts about this result.

I confess to having thought about this more than I have studied it, but a thoroughgoing study of these very early feminists may prove quite interesting if, as Mansfield suggests, it shows that the problem with today’s feminism is not so much--as conservatives frequently like to argue--that it produces emasculated men (though it can and sometimes does) but rather, that it produces far more masculinzed men and women. Feminism, ironically, has made us all more "manly" but not in a way that is either admirable or conducive to our happiness. Perhaps what he’s getting at is that in some ways, we are all pigs now. What we all need to do, he seems to suggest, is to buck up and act like real women.

Discussions - 7 Comments

buck up and act like real women
Are you finding yourself having a hard time with this? I found myself much too busy when I was being a mother to worry about my femininity. Yet, after 28 years of motherhood and my sixth child approaching maturity, things seem a little more problematic as I find my way into the work force to escape a possibly terminal boredom with housework. The more public world I am entering is a little challenging along the lines you and Mansfield discuss. In helping my female students negotiate the minefield of male/female relations and expectations, I try to make it sound simple; as in "Just say NO!" Harvey Mansfield’s address would support that simplicity. it may be time to recover women’s modesty as a virtue. And while all of the girls have supported the idea in principle, in the classroom, they seem, nearly to a girl, to be crushed by engagement with the adult world.

I did appreciate the proposal that To return to happiness, women need to take their equality for granted and dismiss it from their present concerns.
I never thought myself demeaned by giving myself to raising and educating my children. But I know it was a lousy career decision. We have to take it for granted that child-rearing is a sacrifice. It is probably a very rare woman who can ever manage both excellently. Maybe you know some? I do not. Have you found a way?

Perhaps you want to look at the pre-Beauvoir/Friedan feminist. It is hard to be entirely sympathetic with them, given the ends we live with and some aspects of their lives and characters as cited in the biographies. They did have several good points.
Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments

There is not much to argue with there.


I used to argue that we were just enduring a swing to a rude extreme, as a result of the abuses of men. But that was some thirty years ago and we may not have hit the apogee of that swing even yet.

Kate: I always love to read your comments. I also love Mansfield’s line about taking "equality for granted." Of course, that’s what all successful women (and men) have always done. It has always struck me as the best approach for anyone who means to accomplish anything in life. If you spend too much of your time in existential crisis, when will you have time to achieve anything? As for finding a way for both a "career" and "childrearing" I find that I dislike the model of juxtaposing the two things as if they were on par with each other. In certain respects, it is a false choice. For a great majority of women (and, I might add, men) "career" does not mean anything more than "job." For these women that fact is not quite so sad as it is for men because their "calling" or "passion" can be and often is their home and family. For men who do not love what they do there is still the family--but never in quite the same way that it is there for women. But for all of us, there is much more to life than the workplace and fulfillment can be found in many more places than an office.

Is fulfillment often found in washing the dishes and making the beds? I doubt it. I don’t know anyone who enjoys those tasks in and of themselves. But I don’t know many men who enjoy pushing papers or digging ditches or loading trucks. The "fun" or "fulfillment" comes from a sense of purpose and from the relationships you develop in performing such tasks. One problem for women is that they often neglect to develop adult relationships--i.e., friends in the same way that men do. Friendlessness is not a necessary condition of motherhood--but it is easy achieve if you don’t work at it. I don’t wish to romanticize the role of housewife and suggest that I or anyone that I know is some kind of paragon of womanhood because we perform this job on some sainted level. I know I don’t. It is a struggle like anything and everything else and on just as many levels. But I think that it does not need to be a struggle in the existential way we modern women have made it by juxtaposing it to the mythology of "career." I think that can very often be a cop out for women not creative enough to see that their boredom stems from their own mental and/or physical laziness. I know, for example, that if I can manage things in a certain way each day, I have time to blog or read or do any number of things that make me happy. And I can always listen to talk radio as I do housework or cook. At the end of the day I can always enjoy reading to my kids as I put them to bed. I always know way more than my husband does about what’s going on in the world and in our family because he’s cooped up in an office all day focusing on business. So he listens and has good reason to listen to my opinions. I don’t find what I’m doing boring, in general, but when I get restless there are outlets if I’m willing to work hard enough to find them. And if/when I’m ready, I’ll go back to the workplace and figure out then what it means to be "feminine" in it (as I did before I was married and had kids). I don’t worry about not being able to find such a job because if you think like that then you won’t. If I can’t find one, I’ll make one.

You may be right in your swing theory, Kate. I have heard that argued before and have been tempted to agree with it. But the problem, from my point of view, is that it is too neat and mechanical. Perhaps too easy to be true? I don’t know if human history really operates like that. And I’m not sure that "the abuses of men" were ever the cause of it if it does. My view of the "abuses of men" has always been that men (in general and as a group) will only abuse women if women let them. There may have been times in history when women as a group allowed this--but I have always found it a bit presumptuous to assume that my grandmothers and their grandmothers were pushovers. The problem now is that women today think they are preventing abuse but they are actually encouraging it. Is it presumptuous for me to say that? Perhaps. But I see plenty of evidence for it. It is perverse, I know, but you see it with the girls you discussed above. The REAL abuse being done to these girls is not by the men of the world but by a sick and twisted idea of "equality" that actually encourages subjugation and objectification. As for me and my daughter, it’s difficult to find a pedastal in the world we’ve created, but I will still insist on one and do my best to deserve it and encourage my daughter to do the same.

I love your pedestal! I am trying to get my daughter to use one, but her older brothers will keep hiding the thing.

Actually, I have pled the case for years that women had to have more subtle power in society, historically, than anyone, any feminist studies expert, will ever admit today. My grandfather was a state representative in PA and if he hadn’t had my grandmother reading every piece of legislation and telling him how to vote, he would have been an abject failure at the job. Yes, I have always been able to keep up with news and information better than any man I know. It was George Gilder, but I don’t recall which book, maybe Men and Marriage who said that the only people who could keep up with information in the world were the kept ones; wives. No one else has that kind of time.

I used to explain to my collegiate friends that my life with my children was the only job I had loved that had loved me back. A few stopped speaking to me, then. Julie, I do know women who love their houses and the work they put into them. I envy them the simplicity of their lives. Everyone has to clean house or pay to have it done, and think what a joy it must be if you love it. Yet I spent the many years in what might have been total tedium even as you do. A nursing infant on one knee of my lap and a volume of Flexner’s biography of Washington on the other is the image that comes to mind. I understand your day very well. Now I use an Ipod and listen to podcast lectures or to books as I work, and as my children are grown I have more time to read. Friendlessness has never been a problem because where I live there were many stay-at-home moms and we helped one another. As your children grow older and are involved in activities, you find friends among their friends’ mothers and that felt effortless. These lovely women are all still friends, now with effort, but it is such a pleasing effort!

No, the sacrifice in motherhood that I meant was of career. We who devote ourselves to making a home have sidelined ourselves in the race for position. Not incorrectly, nor pointlessly, as you are quick to observe, but if your goal had been ambitious, as mine once was, to do this mom thing is to direct energies elsewhere than to that goal. Many women make a way beyond their child-rearing years, and I am working in that direction. I am trying to find a way to earn money at something more than a job. I dread the boredom of a tedious job as much as I dread housework. Teaching works for me. I can ensure that the time spent in my classroom is NEVER boring.

I do think men have been cruelly abusive to women in many cultures. The Judeo-Christian heritage we were fortunate enough to be born into is one of the few cultures in history where women have had the opportunity to live as we live, with any kind of fulfillment or choice. Sharia, purdah, cultures where women are bought and sold, the bondage that marriage can be in cultures where polygamy is practiced; women are objects, property in many cultures in the history of the world. It is just another reason to love America that we are so free. Just think of women’s suffrage; that men would (whether they had to or not according to the Constitution is a separate issue.) vote to allow women that political right. Men are often generous in their friendship towards women and I know many such.

Which makes it all the sadder that it is in no way presumptuous for you to say that women are objectifying themselves and inviting abuse. We have written before about this in terms of clothing, but that was only emblematic of the problem at large. Perhaps in another generation we all will have sorted out how to live together well and happily. Manfield’s current sadness at the failure of today certainly resonates. I don’t know if we need pedestals, but we do need some comfortable place to stand in relation to men, equal and free, and yet not ever the same.

Kate: Dittoes all around--except the part about sacrificing a career. I hear you but I don’t go all the way down that path because, as I said above, I think the value of a career is highly overstated in our society. For most people, it is just a trumped up name for a job. Some people have callings beyond a mere job--but not as many as would like to think it. I think it came about because--as Mansfield noted, "men need to feel important"--so our society had to figure out a way to glamorize what men do. Unfortunately, women told these noble lies for so long that they started to believe them! And I think that if you are lucky enough to have a family then it is (not entirely, but at least a little bit) greedy to expect another "calling." For what could be calling you with greater force than your home and family? I too had great ambitions as a young woman that (as you can see) I have not entirely discarded--but many of those ambitions I now see were incomplete or not as attractive as I once thought. Teaching, though, is a fine calling and almost as important as motherhood. You are lucky to have both available to you.

But if you ever need a third, I suggest you blog or write. You’re good at it.

But let me make myself clear: I’m not opposed to "careers" for women. I’m only opposed to romanticizing careers over and against the family. I even think there are ways to manage a "career" or job with a family. But it’s quite tricky and I though I consider myself to be quite capable, I don’t seem to be able to do it on anything like a full-time (or regular part-time) basis. If women want to work, fine. But they should go into with their eyes wide open and not kid themselves about what, exactly, they are sacrificing.

Thank you for the encouragement. Maybe God will help me find a way, as I do seem to feel "called" to spread out from home and hearth a little. This is not "against" my family as my family is growing up and becoming independent and sometimes seem to be pushing me out the door. Paying college and private high school tuitions is part of my (and their) interest in having a job for money. I am at the other end of what you are doing with family, you see.

You are very right, very correct, to my way of thinking, in how you see "careers" and how you value your family. The women I mentioned who stopped speaking to me when I expressed my love for my family did so because I was forcing them to think about what they were sacrificing. They seemed to need not to hear it, and I always wondered if it did not hurt them that I had found a way. Or ought I say, I found a man who would keep me so I could raise our children and do something very important in a small way. Without manly men, you and I and women like us do not have a chance.


That you have a foot in the public space via this blogging is a wonderful thing and pleases me about you. I enjoy your writing, too, and hope you keep finding scope for it. Have you seen the new post on men and women and relative rates of success in colleges? We might join them there as it pertains to our train of thought.

Kate: I don’t mean to imply in any way that YOU are sacrificing your family or their interests because you are able now to fulfill some of your own (and, as you correctly note, the money it generates fulfills some of theirs). (I’ve got kids in private school too so I know what you’re talking about--as soon as I get them both in there full time I’ll be looking for ways to help out with the tuition too!) These things we’re discussing are general principles that do not apply in a hard and fast way to any given situation. As kids grow up their needs change and we can change with that in ways that suit everyone’s interests best. But I also think that mothers have to be careful not to put themselves in situations that do not give them the room for changing with their children’s needs. It can be very easy to fool oneself about what one’s children need if their needs are put into a position of having to compete with one’s own. But that’s not unique to mothers. Fathers struggle with that as well--as, for example, when they have a chance at a promotion that requires a move, etc. Life does require us to grow up and it seems we never quite finish that process . . . darn it!

I’ll try to meet up with you again in that new post about men in college if I have anything else to say about it (though I think I have exhausted my thoughts on the matter elsewhere). But it won’t be today. My taxi/lifeguard/vet/cook/housekeeper services are needed today in a big way.

Yes, yes, and yes. My yesterday was spent helping my aging mother in one of her favorite, and very American activities; going mall shopping. My mother is a lovely woman and in no way a dog, but she does remind me of an aging hunting dog a friend once had. She was so willing to go for a run, but her legs wouldn’t carry her far any more. Every other instinct was in play, but her body couldn’t meet her expectation, and it was a sad thing. My mom in a department store during a sale, and surely she was once one of the great shoppers of the Western World, is the same way. I run and fetch and ferry her about to save her legs from her too-many desired steps. She shuffles along, head held way up, scenting the air-conditioning for the hint of a good buy, the sight of a 70% off sales sign. Then, after far fewer fruitful hours than she might have enjoyed in her gloriously spendy past, I took her home so she could collapse in a nap and I rushed off to feed the kids. Factoring the aging parent in the mix.... the following frontier.

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