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Corseted Minds: Does Fear of Irrelevance Send Conservative Men Fleeing to the Victorian Age?

If you focus on the utilitarian value of human beings, you may find yourself at some point nervously glancing in the mirror.

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Despite his “postmodern” pretensions, Poulous has similarly channeled the era of corseted minds and bodies. But unlike Olasky, he’s not even aware of it. Through the medium of his rather silly blog, a revenant of the 19th century has made a ghastly appearance on the public stage. This ghost is called the “Angel in the House.”

"The Angel in the House" is a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854. A sentimental meditation on the nature of ideal femininity, it was a popular during the late 19th century and dominated mainstream representations of women well into the 20th.

The poem told the tale of Patmore's courtship of his first wife, Emily, whom he presents as the model of womanhood: a selfless wife and mother who radiates moral purity and thus renders the holy domestic sphere a refuge from the sinful outside world – the world of men. The poem captures a contradiction: Patmore zig-zags between a desire to praise female superiority and a need to assert male domination. Like Poulous, the poet was less an outright misogynist than a person deeply troubled by a paradox. How to reconcile women as objects of both love and fear? One might call Patmore's solution "Sentimental Sexism."

In response to the Angel in the House trope that held sway for decades, 20th-century feminist writers spilled rivers of ink explaining how the trick of deifying women for their supposed closeness to nature merely keeps them fetishized, distant and shackled. They showed that this cultural sleight of hand was really just a way to distract men from women's troubling qualities.Virginia Woolf had perhaps the most memorable response to this repressive ideal: “[The Angel in the House] bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her" ("Professions for Women").

And what are the troubling qualities of women? Many things, but especially our fearsome sexual desires and the fact that our bodies represent not only nature’s creative forces, but its destructive capacities as well. With our monthly bleeding and “closeness to nature,” we are reminders that what is born must also die. Since the beginning of western civilization, managing such anxieties has been a patriarchal obsession. The creation of heavenly fathers, virgin mothers and the imprisonment of the Angel in the House have all been responses to the awful fear that the womb is the tomb, the vagina a frightful man-trap, and feminized nature one Scary Mother. The Virgin Mary is woman purified of such toxicities.

But for all this anxiety, men can’t do without us. The 19th-century obsession with such paradoxes never entirely disappeared, and it is partly responsible for James Poulous’ hairball. But there’s more.

What are men for?

If you have the instinct to focus on the utilitarian value of human beings, you may find yourself at some point nervously glancing in the mirror. That’s why the real question bothering today’s conservatives is not “What are women for?” but “What are men for?”

The discussion of women that has erupted in the political arena –largely due to the GOP’s long-term strategy of focusing on wedge issues to distract voters from their economic interests – have given many of us visions of Margaret Atwood’s  dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the world Atwood conjured, the religious right has triumphed and women are made into reproductive slaves.

But I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because in order to get there, conservatives will have to give up capitalism, a system to which the money men who ultimately call the shots in the GOP are most enthusiastically dedicated. Ironically, it was in the Victorian period--right as all the religious sentimentality was reaching a pitch-- that the American economy was transforming into the most aggressive capitalist system in the world. The Calvinist religious tradition receded and in its place emerged a Protestant consumer culture that was beginning to center upon women, who found themselves in a period of sociological transition in which their cultural influence was increasing. At the beginning of the 19th century, for example, a female writer was an aberration. By the end of the century, women writers were flooding the market for popular literature. They were using the very sentimentality that had been deployed to keep them in their place to widen their sphere.