“A&E” refers to Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, authors of So Much More. I chose the abbreviation to save space and time.
At the end of chapter 8, A&E have a go at history:
When the first brave wives came with their husbands to the shores of Plymouth in 1620, they brought character and the customs of Christendom with them. Unfortunately, most modern history books give inaccurate depictions of women from this time, and often focus entirely on the “feminists before their time” who did little or nothing to build up their society, and often had little cultural significance.
I can’t help but nitpick here and point out that the Pilgrim wives on board the Mayflower were not the first married English women to reach North America. They were preceded (by nearly 40 years) by Eleanor White Dare, mother of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America and a member of the famous “Lost Colony” of Roanoke. This doesn’t affect any arguments about Christendom, of course, since we’re still talking about English women from the same general time period; but I still find it annoying, even though it’s only obliquely relevant to the actual issue here: A&E glossing over things about history and portraying early American women as pretty darn close to perfect and/or superhuman:
These are the women that the feminists of today refer to as poor, oppressed victims of a chauvinist society, imprisoned in long skirts, chained to the family hearth, and prevented from realizing their full potential. These are the women true historians refer to as the mothers of our nation, the heroines who built our society. They were courageous without being authoritative. They were sympathetic, compassionate and considerate of the feelings of others without being driven by their emotions or obsessed with their feelings. They enjoyed being feminine and beautiful without being slaves to fashion or their appearance. They were firm of resolve without being feministically stubborn; strong in faith, mind, and character without being independent; and self-disciplined without being self-centered. Most of all, they were proud to be women. They had no need to feel guilt or confusion over their role and had no wish to act like men.
You may share my sentiments after reading the above, and think that those are some pretty sweeping generalizations to make about an entire society’s worth of women, over the course of multiple generations. No American woman was ever overly emotional, selfish, or a slave to fashion before feminism came along? No American woman ever suffered from a mental illness or lacked coping skills, because they were all of “strong character” and not “obsessed with their feelings”? (Take a look at emotional hardship among pioneer women for just one example.) And even if we could establish any of these traits as a generalized, macro-level pattern (which I think is pretty questionable), that doesn’t mean there wasn’t all sorts of bad behavior in early America.
Notice also that A&E are pitting “true historians” against “feminists.” “True historians,” of course, agree with them about historical views of women’s roles (A&E’s chosen example is from Alexis de Tocqueville) being better and more accurate than modern feminist ones. Aside from being just a new manifestation of their favorite rhetorical tactic – pre-discrediting their critics so they don’t have to examine their arguments – this also sets up a false dichotomy. Either early American women are “the mothers of our nation,” or they are “poor, oppressed victims…prevented from realizing their full potential.” Has it occurred to A&E that it’s possible for both these things to be true? Just because someone didn’t have the opportunity to realize their full potential because of a particular social structure, doesn’t mean they couldn’t make the most of the opportunity that was afforded to them. Conversely, a person being able to get something positive out of a bad situation, does not make the situation, in fact, good. Again, this is not an either-or.
More importantly, though, A&E act as if no one questioned anything about the existing gender roles and prevailing views of women until long past de Tocqueville’s time (Democracy in America, which they cite, was published in 1835). Unfortunately for them, that isn’t true, because de Tocqueville was predated by several decades by one of the first proto-feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The entire book is available for free online here. For this post, I will point my readers to the Autodidact’s analysis of it here, as he has taken the time to extract several passages that give us an idea of the contemporary views of women Wollstonecraft was critiquing. They are, let’s just say, substantially less flattering than A&E would probably like to think. For instance, this one, about how the only purpose of women’s education is to please men (all of the following quotes are from Jean-Jacques Rousseau):
For this reason, the education of women should be always relative to the men. To please us, to be useful to us, to educate us when we are young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.
Or this, in which women can’t be trusted with making their own decisions:
Women have, or ought to have, but little liberty; they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them.
…and finally this, in which women can’t even determine their own religious beliefs, and are in fact so completely “docile” that they can’t be held accountable for their own decisions:
As the conduct of a woman is subservient to the public opinion, her faith in matters of religion should, for that very reason, be subject to authority. Every daughter ought to be of the same religion as her mother, and every wife to be of the same religion as her husband: for though such religion should be false, that docility which induces the mother and daughter to submit to the order of nature, takes away, in the sight of God, the criminality of the error.
A&E don’t address these (horrendous) ideas about women at all. Do they know that people believed things like this? What do they think about these ideas? I would think they would be especially disturbed by the last one. What if a woman’s husband was a non-patriocentrist? According to Rousseau, she would then be obliged to reject patriocentricity as well, and not only that, but she would be “let off the hook” by God for doing so. Since A&E and other patriocentrists have basically come within a hairsbreadth of making patriocentricity a salvation issue, they should be having seizures over this idea. Instead, all we get is crickets. It makes one wonder why.
To be fair, at the very end of the chapter, A&E do seem aware that they could be accused of whitewashing history or idolizing particular historical eras:
There were many wonderful, biblical aspects of American society 200 years ago, due to that society’s strong Christian heritage, and there are many lessons to be learned from studying those who came before us. There were also mistakes made during those times that we can learn from. We should not aspire to merely duplicate a previous era, but rather to build on its good points and learn from its bad ones. We should identify the legacy in all its richness, then build on it.
I actually agree with this statement, in principle. Not everything about a given historical era will be bad, and not everything will be good, and we have learn how to distinguish the two so we don’t, out of ignorance or laziness, promote something bad or throw out something good. That being said, judging only by So Much More, A&E appear to be extraordinarily bad at doing this. In this chapter, they’ve completely skipped some extremely defective and unbiblical notions about women that were held in the 18th century. In others, they’ve peddled a conspiracy theory about Karl Marx and completely blown past the existence of slavery in America.
And so I’ll close this post with my lingering questions. A&E say that we should learn from our mistakes. They’re right. But how are we supposed to do that if we never talk about them, or even point out what they were? And since clearly A&E believe that there were in fact mistakes made in American history, what do they think those mistakes were?
The same strength of purpose which the young wives of America display, in bending themselves at once and without repining to the austere duties of their new condition [marriage] is no less manifest in all the great trials of their lives. In no country in the world are private fortunes more precarious than in the United States. It is not uncommon for the same man, in the course of his life, to rise and sink again through all the grades which lead from opulence to poverty. American women support these vicissitudes with calm and unquenchable energy: it would seem that their desires contract as easily as they expand with their fortunes.
I have often met, even on the verge of wilderness, with young women who, after being brought up amidst all the comforts of the large towns of New England, had passed, almost without any intermediate stage, from the wealthy abode of their parents to a comfortless hovel in a forest. Fever, solitude, and a tedious life had not broken the springs of their courage…I do not doubt that these young American women had amassed, in the education of their early years, that inward strength which they displayed under these circumstances.
…Hence it is, that the women of America, who often exhibit a masculine strength of understanding and a manly energy, generally preserve great delicacy of personal appearance, and always retain the manners of women, although they sometimes show that they have the hearts and minds of men. – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (as quoted by A&E)