Welcome to Our New Age—the Victorian Feminist Era
How can we call out male sexual predation without lurching into zealous excess? Christian conservatives and feminists should work on this one together.
We are in the midst of a powerful cultural shift that is dramatically changing the way we view power and sex.
A truly positive outcome will require good women and good men allying against the bad guys to change the world and bring about a healthier and safer environment for us all. Done right, this will be a win-win (not a win-lose) paradigm.
Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric (from men and women) undermine this noble cause. When a Christian pastor defends Roy Moore by observing that “there are some 14-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for 20,” he damages Christianity and manhood in one fell swoop.
By the same token, when a young feminist recently declared she is “not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs” in the process of weeding out the bad guys, she is also harming the cause. The same people who warn about broad rhetoric turning all Islamic people against us should exercise the same prudent specificity in calling out what constitutes almost half of the world—our brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, husbands, and friends. We don’t want to create more chauvinists and alt-righters.
Too many working-class men (who never had the privileged status of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or Charlie Rose) already feel victimized by 21st-century America. Once occupying a relatively privileged position in our society, they are simultaneously forgotten and shamed. They already feel emasculated, and talk permeating our national media that sounds like misandry will only further alienate them.
While good women and good men must band together, two specific coalitions of stakeholders within these broader categories are perhaps most important, inasmuch as they are already activists: liberal feminists and conservative Christians.
Yes, these are strange bedfellows, but both have a motive. (And, one could point out, they have teamed up before, in the distant past, for other social-justice programs.)
Consider William Wilberforce, a British member of Parliament who is famous for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. Much less noted is his other life’s mission, which he called “The Reformation of Manners,” which included “social conscience” reforms such as stopping child prostitution. To accomplish his goals, Wilberforce teamed up with a diverse group of activists.
It occurs to me that we might be in the midst of our own reformation of manners. But where are the William Wilberforces?
Just as feminists will have to be careful not to alienate potential allies, Christian conservatives (who today lionize Wilberforce) will also have to find a way to accept victory. This cultural shift is, after all, consistent with what devout Christians have spent decades warning about. In fact, if a man devoutly lived his life precisely the way a Christian pastor might advise, he would have little to fear in this current milieu.
Still, there is a temptation for conservatives to view this moment with suspicion. After all, the catalyst for this came from secular feminism. It would be easy to cast some of this as political correctness, and this temptation would be greatly helped along if there was a perception that the real goal is to destroy manhood—not to end practices that we should all view as wrong.
Conservatism can sometimes reflexively conserve the status quo—even when they once opposed it. The irony here is that, in this case, defending the status quo means defending the excesses of the sexual revolution.
So how should conservatives view the current environment: as a threat or an opportunity?
In a sense, it could be both. Rich Lowry put it very well at National Review when he acknowledged the tradeoffs: “Any revolution has its pitfalls. There will be false allegations that will be believed. There will be a conflation of relatively minor infractions with criminal acts. And, in all likelihood, there will be an over-correction that will create its own wrongs. But a model of predation practiced by scruple-less powerful men is getting destroyed before our eyes, and it’s a very good thing.”
For years, old-fashioned conservative values about comportment seemed antiquated. Today, it might be time for us to revisit them with our sons—especially in an era where shared civic and religious institutions that once served to informally shame and civilize us have largely disappeared.
I recently went back and re-read an old speech that conservative leader Morton Blackwell delivered in the late 1980s on the very topic of “survival values.” As Blackwell noted, views about sex are not linear. The man who takes his cues from today’s norms might soon find himself dangerously out of step: “In ancient Rome, Marcus Cicero’s thundering denunciations of the sexual behavior of Marc Anthony were followed in the next century by the open depravity of Nero and Caligula. And in England, the licentiousness of the Stuart restoration period was followed two centuries later by the Victorian era. The pendulum swings back and forth over time.”
The pendulum, it appears, is now swinging back in a more puritanical direction. To be sure, this is a secular movement that was the product of left-leaning feminists. But rather than resisting the it, social conservatives should perhaps be cheering it on.
Maybe this is an opportunity for Christian conservatives to step back from partisan politics and spend some time talking about masculinity, chivalry, and old-fashioned virtues that used to be called “gentlemanliness. Rather than seeing these old-fashioned attributes of gentlemanliness as a sign of weakness, we should see them as the definition of masculinity. Modernity made them look silly, but maybe it’s time they were back in vogue.
Would feminists welcome this? Twenty years ago, groups like the National Organization for Women used to criticize groups like the “Promise Keepers” for being paternalistic. Today, the Promise Keepers’ mission seems both quaint and needed. I found an old New York Times article about the group from 1997. “Promise Keepers extols a man who is a leader, while also possessed of characteristics once stereotyped as feminine: a nurturing parent, a model of marital fidelity and a churchgoer who cultivates close friendships and likes to sing,” the piece said.
Bill McCartney, the group’s founder, was quoted in that same article making a pretty obvious point: “If men are a principle cause of family meltdown, crime and racial strife, then men also are central to the solutions to those problems.''
Changing the world will require good women and men working together. Feminists and Christian conservatives should unite around shared goals. It sounds crazy, but all we need are a few leaders who care more about fixing things than scoring points. Will they emerge?