Had a good (but busy) time the past two weekends, at the Alabama Philosophical Society and the Mises Institute conference on imperialism respectively. And this coming weekend I’ll be at Tulane to give a talk on free will.
But now, on to some blog business:
I’ve complained before (see here, here, and here) that religious conservatives’ attitude toward women is too often one that regards womanhood as fundamentally other-oriented and thereby encourages women’s subordination to the demands of men and of families. (I’ve also suggested that one of Rand’s valuable, though partly inadvertent, contributions to the cause of feminism is her revival of the 19th-century libertarians’ insight that an ethics of self-sacrifice contributes to the subjection of women.)
Larry Beane’s piece on LRC today illustrates the point I’m making. Commenting on the case of a female U.S. soldier in Iraq who ran over a small boy because she’d been trained not to stop, Beane writes:
First of all, as a traditionalist Christian, I have to say that this is not the proper vocation for a woman. We strain the gnat by exempting women from combat duty, but swallow the camel by training them like men (and usually with men), dressing them in masculine fatigues and boots, outfitting them with weapons, putting them in trucks in combat zones, and expecting (even ordering) them to run over little children.
This is not the biblical understanding of womanhood.
God has designed the female body from the womb up. Even her arms bend differently than those of a man to accommodate her hips. Women are completely designed around the uterus. Their very bodies are temples where the miracle of life begins and is nurtured – the safest and most gentle environment for humanity on the planet. Women are equipped with breasts to feed and nourish babies once they have been delivered from the womb. Women are the cultivators of life, the primary teachers of the human race, the defenders of civilization. Theirs truly are the hands that rule the world by rocking the cradle.
But how many mothers are away from the cradle, neglecting their roles as the teachers and civilizers of youth, doing something “more fulfilling” – such as driving supply trucks in Iraq? And what has happened since women in large numbers have abdicated their vocation as defenders of civilization? Well, we now live in a society that expects mothers to be soldiers and to kill children – and they do it. Their maternal instincts and godly vocation of nurturer do not override their orders to kill.
On this, three points:
1. To say that women are “completely designed around the uterus” is to reduce women, insultingly, to a biological function, and specifically an other-directed one, and to take that function as determining their destiny; it is to say that women’s function is to serve others. But an entity whose primary function is service to others is a natural slave. Calling women’s bodies “temples” and telling them that they “rule the world” does little to soften the insult. If, as I venture to suppose, women are persons, then, just as with men, a woman’s central and ruling faculty is her reason, not her uterus. In Aristotelean terms, the reproductive capacity belongs to the nutritive soul, not the rational soul, and so its operation is subordinate to the needs of reason and not vice versa.
Nor will it be any defense to say that men, too, are destined primarily to service. For a) that would make men slaves as well, which is no improvement; and b) in any case the religious conservative’s claim is generally that women are especially oriented toward service, and adding as an afterthought “oh yeah, but men are too, somewhat” does little to counteract the overall tendency toward the subjection of women in particular.
2. Beane’s argument seems to be this: women’s primary function is nurturing; hence, when women are encouraged to neglect nurturing in favour of seeking a fulfilling career, this goes against the natural order, and the result of this unnatural deviation is that women end up doing bad things like running over innocent children. But first, the inference from the perils of careers that require being desensitized to inflicting death on the innocent to the perils of careers, period, seems a rather heroic leap. And second, even if women’s running over children were an argument against women valuing careers, why wouldn’t men’s running over children – which presumably also happens – thereby be an argument against men valuing careers?
Now it’s obvious from Beane’s overall discussion that he thinks running over innocent children is wrong whether it’s done by a man or by a woman. I am happy to say that this is a point on which Beane and I are in complete agreement. But given that fact, it’s hard to see how this is a special problem about women in military roles. The purported fact that women are divinely ordained to be walking wombs can’t be the reason why it’s wrong for them to run over children, because it’s wrong for men to do so as well, even though men aren’t walking wombs. Well, whatever the reason is for its being wrong for men to run over children, why can’t that be the reason it’s wrong for women to do so as well?
Beane does suggest an argument to show that women’s focus on careers can be blamed not only for women’s but also for men’s running over children: “Most men no longer have examples of manly and honorable fathers and grandfathers, not having been taught by their mothers from the cradle to revere chivalry and decency, nor to defend life and to protect the weak. No, our mothers are too busy wearing army boots.” But this won’t do; for it suggests that male violence against the innocent is a recent development, a product of women’s liberation from the role of compulsory homemaker. A glance at history suggests otherwise: when the Israelites “utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai” (Joshua 8: 26), men, women, and children, was it because their mothers had been too career-minded to teach them chivalry? What about the Athenians in Melos? What about the Romans, well, anywhere? When the French soldiers at Agincourt killed “the poys and the luggage,” were their mothers all in army boots? The patriarchal family has reigned for millennia without preventing male violence against the innocent; indeed, male violence against the innocent has been a not infrequent occurrence within the patriarchal family itself.
3. While I don’t regard the Bible as an authority one way or the other on such matters, it’s perhaps worth noting that it’s not entirely clear that the “Biblical understanding of womanhood” consistently places nurturing first. When Lazarus’s sister Martha is pursuing her feminine nurturing duties, “cumbered about much serving,” and complains that her sister Mary is neglecting her household chores by pursuing religious studies with Jesus instead, Jesus famously takes Mary’s side. (Luke 10: 39-42) One could read this as a vindication of a woman’s choice to reject homemaking in favour of some other vocation.
The Catholic Church, of course, has traditionally interpreted this passage as licensing only the choice of nun – another nurturing role – as an alternative to wife and mother, but this interpretation is hardly inevitable. After all there is also the prophetess Deborah, who (though herself in fact a wife and – unless Judges 5:7 is metaphorical – a mother as well) “judged Israel at that time. … and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:4-5) Hardly a conventionally feminine role! Moreover, she even participated in military operations: when Barak “went up with ten thousand men at his feet” we are told that “Deborah went up with him.” (Judges 4:10) We’re not told that Deborah was personally involved in acts of warfare; but we are told this (Judges 5:24-27) about another woman, in terms of high praise:
Blessed above women shall Jael
the wife of Heber the Kenite be,
blessed shall she be above women in the tent.
He asked water, and she gave him milk;
she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
She put her hand to the nail,
and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
and with the hammer she smote Sisera,
she smote off his head,
when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.
At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down:
at her feet he bowed, he fell:
where he bowed, there he fell down dead.
In short, Jael and Deborah wore army boots. Whether they did so in just or unjust wars is hard to determine given the Bible’s narrative vagueness, but they certainly did so with the Bible’s approval.