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


In the last 50 years, American women have finally been able to reliably earn a living, thus rendering men economically unnecessary. Women are outstripping men in education. We’re breaking the glass ceiling. Childbirth out of wedlock no longer carries disgrace. There’s enough sperm stashed away in banks to promulgate the human race indefinitely. On a biological level, modern science has debunked the Adam’s rib story about the female being a derivative of the male.

Still more shattering, there’s even worry that the Y chromosome is in danger of extinction. At the very least, it has seen better days. As the New York Times recently reported:

“Men, or at least male biologists, have long been alarmed that their tiny Y chromosome, once the same size as its buxom partner, the X, will continue to wither away until it simply vanishes. The male sex would then become extinct, they fear, leaving women to invent some virgin-birth method of reproduction and propagate a sexless species.”

That’s gotta make Rick Santorum nervous. (Though the Times does concede that men may have “long-term viability” after all).

Conservatives find themselves in an era of technological advance, information on steroids, women on the rise, and men who do not know what their role is supposed to be. Can we be surprised that they look back wistfully on a “simpler time” when gender roles were strictly defined – and when men did the defining?

The Angel in the House

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And young conservatives, apparently. In a recent episode of the birth control battles, James Poulous, a Georgetown grad student styling himself a “postmodern conservative,” plunged into political quicksand on Tucker Carlson’s blog “The Daily Caller” with a much-reviled essay: “What are women for?” This question, he announces, is the most pressing of our time. Writes Poulous:

“In a simpler time Sigmund Freud struggled to understand what women want. Today the significant battle is over what women are for. None of our culture warriors are anywhere close to settling the matter.”

All righty then. The sophomoric and risible qualities of his posting aside, Poulous has an argument, of sorts. He makes a roundabout suggestion that the utilitarian purpose of women is to get married and make babies. But not quite comfortable with leaving women as two-legged cattle, he endows us, based on our “privileged relationship with the natural world,” with a moral purpose, too. Women are here to civilize the barbaric ways of men. In response to the predictable social media/web backlash, Poulous has posted two defenses of his original essay. Amid the hurly-burly of the gender wars, he notes that “everyone else feels their civilization is in peril, and the bile rises accordingly.”

I’ll say. Poulous is like a cat spitting up a hairball, unaware of what has irritated his tummy and looking around in vague embarrassment at the mess he has made on the living room floor.

So let’s play the veterinarian and find out what brought on the attack.

Is the question of “what women are for” a significant cultural battle? Well, yes. But not of our time. In the Victorian era, however, it was quite the rage. Conservatives have a particular affinity for the mores of that period and like to recycle them. Conservative author Marvin Olasky pawed around the 19th-century shelves of the Library of Congress to unearth an outmoded view that poverty could be cured solely through private charities. Known as the “turkey basket” approach after the Victorian custom of bringing the poor baskets containing turkeys at Christmas, Olasky renamed this relic “Compassionate Conservatism.” A bestseller rose from the dust.

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.

As Joyce Appleby explains in her book The Relentless Revolution, it was capitalism that helped let the Angel out of the house, driving the medical breakthroughs that made the development of reproductive technology possible. And it was capitalism that withered away the bonds of power between men and women that for millennia had been based on male religious authority, and replaced them with bonds based on economic value. The priest no longer determined what women are for. The advertisements in Vogue, maybe. But not the priests. This is the postmodern paradox that conservatives must contend with. And it's driving them absolutely bonkers just now.

Nostalgia for a simpler time is a form of dragging your heels. It's a protest against something to which you have already partly capitulated. The demise of patriarchal structures, which ultimately derive their authority from religious systems, has been in progress for a while, and it will continue. The tragedy for conservatives is not this demise, but their failure to imagine a viable, dynamic and diverse culture in its place. A place in which men and women do not ask what the other is for.

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