What might a libertarian from the American Midwest and a fiercely patriotic Chinese army major have in common?  More than one might think, I find out regularly.  As part of my idiosyncratic ad hoc social circle in Nanjing, the three of us get together now and then for dinner and wide-ranging conversation.  Usually it ends up with the two of them joining forces against me on one or another topic.  My failure ever to have owned a pair of jeans was one such matter of shared mirth for those from both sides of the Pacific.

I learned a few weeks ago that nostalgia is decidedly out of fashion, too.  Both had heard before my lamentations of the soulless urban landscape sprouting around us, among other things.  It must have seemed quaint.  But horror greeted me when I remarked over the main course, in somewhat offhand fashion, that the future will be better if it turns out more like the past than like our present trajectory.  By the time I was sipping my coffee, I had been duly enlightened as to my folly.

What struck me was that both my dinner companions, despite their quite different backgrounds and ideological sympathies, agreed wholeheartedly on my main error.  To find worth in traditional modes of thought was, they insisted, to favour the oppression of women.  The Midwesterner asked, apparently rhetorically, how many women write for FPR.  The army major told me that the greatest evidence of social progress was that, when my Midwestern colleague disagreed with me at the dinner table, I did not pummel her into submission.

Jests aside, I suspect I am not the only fellow of traditionalist leanings to encounter this knee-jerk reaction from enthusiasts of modernity.  The position of women in premodern life is always a sore point eagerly poked at by critics.  Only a few days after that dinner, I gave a talk on premodern cosmopolitanism, which I had assumed had nothing to do with gender.  Two colleagues independently asked me in later conversation why I had left out the women.

Since this question keeps coming up as a handy bludgeon against the past, it might need answering more deliberately than we tend to do.  I am not going to argue that there was no oppression of women in the past, though what and where it was might need more nuance than such instant feminists offer.  As I sit typing here in this old courtyard house in Peru, I am sure one would have seen many women slinking around subserviently under its eaves a century ago.  Go a few miles out of town to the countryside, and one would have seen peasant women at the same time holding the purse strings quite firmly and earthily puncturing their husbands’ pretensions.  Things are never clear cut.

But let us take the modern liberal position at face value, and concede that women were, on average, much more hemmed in in premodern societies than they should have been.  What is the upshot for those of us who take longstanding traditions of wisdom seriously?

This will depend on why we think such oppression happened, and what rôle traditions of thought played in perpetrating it.  To be sure, many stalwart male defenders of tradition in centuries past invoked it to their own advantage, and to the detriment of their wives and daughters.  Hypocrisy and double standards are part of human nature.  “Foolish men,” wrote the seventeenth century Spanish-American nun Juana Inés de la Cruz, “who criticise women without reason, not seeing that you are the cause of just what you condemn.”  Any idea can be hijacked for wicked purposes.  Still, hijacking usually says more about the hijacker than about the idea itself.

More direct critics insist that the content of the great traditions is itself biased.  Undoubtedly one could point to some prescriptions about how women should behave, and find a strong whiff of male chauvinism around them.  But practices may shed less light on the essence of a tradition than do the virtues that those practices are supposed to cultivate.  Practices are a means to an end, and vary according to circumstance.  Virtues, as understood in any tradition, involve the fulfilment of human nature across time and space.  Take the seven virtues identified by Aquinas in the Middle Ages: prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity.  Nothing on that list is confined to men or to women.

To be sure, many such thinkers did have one blind spot regarding women.  Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, both assumed women’s generally limited capacity to attain excellence of an intellectual and political sort.  But we must be careful to distinguish between the argument about what human beings should aspire to, on the one hand, and a practical (mis)judgement about how likely any person is to reach the goal.  Those misjudgements rested on facts that would be hard to deny in any premodern society.  As none other than Simone de Beauvoir noted in the 1940s, going from one pregnancy to another in rapid succession did effectively rule women out of callings in which they would have displayed the qualities praised by male intellectuals.  This was a practical constraint, not a matter of content bias.

Indeed, if the traditions were inherently masculine, then one would expect men to adhere to them for longer.  The onslaught of modern liberalism has shown quite the opposite.  Usually men have led the way in breaking down traditional pieties and place-based certainties.  If masculine bias informed the traditions, then it led the way into nihilism just as feverishly.  Whether in South America or in China, I have seen many more or less traditional villages in which women hold the fort, often providing needed ballast, while men get taken in by the bright lights and laxity of the city.  I might even venture that, if we counted noses, we should probably find more traditionally minded women than men around the world.

A slightly different indictment of tradition is that even if the content is, in the abstract, gender-neutral, that it was articulated by men still gives it a certain perspective.  Tradition supposedly bears the thumbprints of Roman patricians with browbeaten wives or frustrated monks who shivered in mediæval abbeys.  I have no idea whether classics of philosophy and theology written by women would have been any different.  There are enough women intellectuals of all stripes today to suggest that they would not have been.  But such a claim about perspective slides easily into dangerous territory.  It amounts to treating any tradition of thought as the property of some people rather than others, as their lens for looking at the world or their club for beating others over the head.  That too many people in all ages have done so, we cannot deny.  It is tempting to be rigid and sanctimonious as a reason to avoid asking oneself hard questions.  No doubt many a condescending husband cited the scriptures and then told his wife she could not possibly understand them well enough to argue back.

But no sincere traditionalist could reduce a tradition to property in this way.  He–or she–would see a tradition as the embodiment of standards binding on human beings as such: not as something that we possess, but as something that should possess us.  It was the discerning and conscience-bound few, who took truth seriously, who stopped infanticide in Arabia in the seventh century, and who thundered indictments of slave-driving exploiters in the Americas in the seventeenth.  They did not do either for their own convenience.

And what of the household, where the progress-besotten tell us domestic tyranny was par for the course?  Where did the decent husbands of history come from?  Count noses again, and I suspect we shall find exactly what the enthusiasts of modernity deny.  Fixity can be an excuse for avoiding hard questions; but so too can vertigo.  The decent husbands of history were those who took truth seriously and held themselves to what it demanded even when difficult.  Their memory should not be lightly forgotten.  When we dance on the grave of tradition, sooner or later we lose our footing altogether.

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Adam K. Webb
Adam K. Webb grew up in England, Spain, and the United States. He is now Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, an overseas campus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has authored three books, including Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015). His interests range broadly across political thought, and efforts to recreate room for traditions and liberty on the emerging global landscape. He divides his time among urban China, rural England, and other corners of the world.


  1. There is a blindness in modernity — a vital lie — which does not see the intitutions that make the so-called individualism and autonomy it celebrates possible.

    Traditions reside in instutional arrangements that satisfy basic criteria for communal life — security, justice, authority, etc. Traditional societies used the household to meet these needs. Today we use the state and the corporation. The freedoms secured by those mega-institutions are won at the expense of local institutions — principally the household.

    In the household women cared for children (a very labor instensive activity) and men were concerned with security and the administration of justice. Because force must be justified, the authority of men had the be reinforced by traditions, religious sanction, and reason. Both were highly engaged in the economic wellbeing of the household, but along lines that made sense of their physical differences.

    It is only with the rise of the modern state and the modern business that these practices could even be questioned. The question we should press upon modernists is this, “Are your institutional arrangments sustainable?” I think not.

  2. The modern world is trying to abolish the whole category of “woman,” is trying to remake her in the image and likeness of Man, even as they reduce the role of man from father to mere consumer. The movement that claimed to “free” a woman to enter the workforce now demands that she do so. But if you have to do it, it’s not freedom. If a woman has no freedom to be a mother, then she has no freedom at all. If men cannot claim a living wage, then women, by and large, cannot claim a woman’s role; they will have to go to work to make ends meet.

    It would be hard to find, I think, anything more anti-feminine than modern feminism. It is almost as if we made notions of femininity subject to the whims of a group of misogynists. The claim that women are “just as good as” men may have allowed a few to run for president and serve on the Supreme Court, but has forced millions of women into the paid work force. The joke that making women “just as good as men” is a come-down has a kernel of truth, for women can no longer take for granted the right to spend time with their home and children. If before they were forced to do so, now they are practically forbidden to do so. Indeed, they cannot even take marriage for granted, since that has become a unilateral contract, the only kind of contract that can be broken by the mere whim of one party. Some may think of this as “equality” since either party has an equal right to break the contract. But in fact the burden of divorce falls disproportionately on women, especially if she has children.

    This is not to speak against feminism per se. In fact, a real feminism would be a gift to the world just now, but it would have to be a Marian feminism, a feminism rooted in the twin virtues of chastity and motherhood. It would be centered on the hearth and home, even if not confined to that; it might extend to the boardroom, the oval office and the supreme court, but there is a certain priority to be observed. Most women, like most men, do not aspire to be president. Someone can always be found to do the drudgery of running the country; there is no substitute for women in having children and running the home.

    Even as purely sexual objects, women have become optional and marriage even more so. Again, the “freedom” to have sex outside of marriage has practically become an obligation to do so. And if a child should result, the woman can no longer count on the support of the father. Indeed, he thinks himself a real gentleman if he offers to pay for the abortion. And if the women refuses, well then the responsibility is completely hers, and hers alone. The logic is impeccable: if abortion is a woman’s sole right, than having a child is her sole responsibility. Want a child? Get a job, not a man.

    And finally it comes as no surprise that women aren’t even allowed to look like women. The fashion industry is dominated by homosexuals, for whom the ideal is not the woman’s body, but the boy’s. And women must starve themselves to conform to their idea of beauty, the young (and generally hip-less) boy. The natural curves which have defined the ideal feminine form to nearly every civilization have been replaced by a kind of cultural bulimia.

  3. An important topic, and a worthy treatment of it, as always Adam. My thanks.

    A couple, somewhat random thoughts in response:

    More direct critics insist that the content of the great traditions is itself biased. Undoubtedly one could point to some prescriptions about how women should behave, and find a strong whiff of male chauvinism around them. But practices may shed less light on the essence of a tradition than do the virtues that those practices are supposed to cultivate.

    Very true, and I would go even further than that. As a student of Confucian thought, with its “five relationships” (including master to servant and husband to wife), I recognize that such proposed arrangements of li, or propriety/ritual, can easily be carried in directions which oppress women–and as your Chinese army major friend would no doubt insist, frequently did so oppress, arguably for a couple of millennia or more. But those proposed arrangements also can be understood as supporting practices which do the opposite of oppress; they may be read so as to sustain practices which are democratic, and feminist. Tan Sor-hoon and some other Chinese and Western scholars have done much to develop the case for “Confucian feminism” and “Confucian democracy” over the years.

    All of which contributes to a central point about tradition, which your post makes in passing, but which I think deserves central consideration: the simple fact that traditions–forms of living which are recognized over time as being connected to moral goods–require phronesis; they depend upon practical judgment. Why? Because the context of any act of judgment will change with time, and with the results of inevitable demographic, environmental, technological change. To wit:

    But we must be careful to distinguish between the argument about what human beings should aspire to, on the one hand, and a practical (mis)judgment about how likely any person is to reach the goal. Those misjudgments rested on facts that would be hard to deny in any premodern society. As none other than Simone de Beauvoir noted in the 1940s, going from one pregnancy to another in rapid succession did effectively rule women out of callings in which they would have displayed the qualities praised by male intellectuals. This was a practical constraint, not a matter of content bias.

    In the world before the social and technical infrastructure for any kind of even basic family planning was widely available, then of course even the most judicious and compassionate of interpreters of tradition (and to be sure, in this fallen world, the majority of said interpreters probably were neither of those things) would forget about women, because–thanks to the realities of sexual desire and the sexual relationship between men and women–they never saw women as being capable of being able to pursue being certain virtues; they only saw women as capable of relating to a much narrower set of virtues. Arguably, in the eyes of God, that narrower set of virtues are a higher set. Be that as it may, it nonetheless was definitely a narrower set, and political and social expectations were set according.

    Aristotle and Aquinas misjudged. Their traditions (and Confucius’s too) were likely not wrong, insofar as the treatment of women are concerned; the practical application of them, following the judgments of those in positions of authority, is the more likely culprit. I do not think this makes traditions ultimately a hostage to technology, thus giving a kind of individualism the upper hand. But I do think it makes tradition, as a concept, engaged in an ongoing give-and-take with their own context, which includes technology (broadly conceived). As contexts change, judgments about how to live a “traditional” life should and must change also. We who value localism, and the sort of limits-through-tradition which support local communities, need to recognize and embrace that. Insofar as the needs of half the globe’s population is concerned, I think feminism has made it more likely for families to be able to realize and conserve local virtues in their lives…and the reverse as well: that the most successfully local, traditional, and “conservative” families ought to, I believe, embrace much of the feminist context of today.

  4. I hear you, John.

    It’s gotten to the point where curvy or healthy looking women are considered overweight. Emaciated thin is in. Because I’ve always preferred the natural looking women, I’ve had to endure taunts of “you like fat chicks” for a good chunk of my 22 years.

  5. Brandon, women have been taught to ask the question, “Does this make my butt look big?” Their great-great grandmothers, who wore bustles to emphasize the hips, asked, “Does this make my butt look big enough?”

  6. ‘This is the substance of the contention I offer about the historic female position. I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time. I do not deny that even under the old tradition women had a harder time than men; that is why we take off our hats.’ – Chesterton, The Emancipation of Domesticity

  7. This is all very high minded, and I appreciate my betters of FPR for keeping their standards far above mine. I am about to administer a turn here, do not think it is for lack of consideration of your more philosophical approach.

    Today freedom as a very concept is twisted into self-willed rubbish. Freedom in the past was a matter of being unfettered to fulfill one’s nature. One’s nature is utterly unique, yet also utterly common in the sense that as much of our nature is shared (we are of same substance, not like substance) our hypostasis is fulfilled in the development of ourselves to purpose.

    How can one say prior to modern medicine and mechanical production methods that a woman’s nature (with notable exception, for Queens and Saints throughout history) was to bear up children and the home?

    My own wife today is a homeschooling mother of only 2 yet even attending Church regularly can be a logistical challenge for her. Yes, with some great effort she can endure the service, but neither the 16 month old, nor herself can meaningfully participate for their own sakes (though their attendance is a boon for the community). It is a kenotic activity for her, a sacrifice, not adding to the strength of the day, but calling on it.

    My wife has had a small child in her lap (as we keep having them at such intervals) for over 14 years!

    All this high minded thinking forgets that prior to modern medicine having children was dangerous, yet necessary and requiring a great expanse of the prime of one’s life.

    The Gnostic feminists who want to deny the biological reality and the cultural necessity of the sacrifices women made and still must make to continue human existence are childish.

    This explains the lack of record left by women in history, for women’s record is history itself. We men merely document it, comment on it, philosophize about it and agonize over it. Women actually do it. Would any of us claim the our Lady the Theotokos, fount of incorruption, was nothing less than the altar of history and its throne?

  8. “Feminism” in its popular manifestation has had a relatively easy time of making “woman as good as any man” because men themselves aint quite what they used to be. The credit card and service job are the gold standard of our hilariously simple-minded, “gender-neutral” society. Equality in this realm is an equality within a state of materialist serfdom. Hardly progress, it is retrograde, casting the species as little more than livestock.

    The fact that I have heard the phrase “I’m just a housewife” on more than one occasion makes me depressed that such an exalted thing as a mother can be so utterly devalued in a culture that brays so relentlessly about “progress”. With motherhood so maligned, it is no surprise that the adults so produced are so relentlessly infantile.

  9. Ah, at last we get to this. Thank you for your piece, it is important. For example, for my wife, all of history is discredited and there are no examples for us to learn from because of “what they did to women.” It does not even rise to being wrong, but it is a common view that is hammered into the people through the education system. This desperately needs a response.

    This is also really part of the Gnosticism that undergirds the modern ideal, as pointed out here recently. The Gnostics based their program on the refutation of physical reality, declaring it all to be an evil prison that their beliefs were to provide the escape from. In the same vein, feminism/ modernism declares all of history and tradition to be evil and discredited and their ideology the escape from it. So nothing of value exists in the past, and everything must be created anew from whole cloth by acts of political will.

  10. DW, When my wife stayed home with five children, people would ask her a question that would set her teeth on edge: “Do you work?” If we keep telling women that motherhood is worthless, they might just come to believe it. Then it is a simple matter to get them to chemically alter their bodies so that they can be “more like men.”

  11. Medaille,
    My Bride, The Concept, one of the busiest people I know once in a while looks melancholy and tells me that she wishes she would have done something with her life. The kiddies fledged, she has more time to think about this witless society’s message to her: You should get a job, hire a nanny and let the kids be raised by television because motherhood is not a productive economic activity.

    I do my best to dissuade her from this propaganda but the prevailing lack of respect for motherhood….and life itself for that matter, it is a heavy rock to push. I tell her we made a choice and it was the best thing we could have ever done. The proof of it is three gainfully engaged, vibrant and self-possessed citizens.

    The only one who should be ashamed is me, for not being around more.

  12. D.W.,

    My wife and mother of my children, jewel of the home that she is, regularly (when the commotion of home life settles for a few days I can predict this is coming) exhibits considerable self-doubt. Though she remains steadfast in her convictions concerning the nobility of her charge, everything it seems (especially in Southern California with a husband working in education, but as mere “staff”) is against her daily labors.

    Even with the beast (television) long turned off, messages from the neighborhood McMansions (the neighborhood on the other side of the stone wall from our mobile home) from friends and acquaintances, even from our inner-city ethnic Church’s financial strain… oh wouldn’t it be better just to give in and live an economically motivated lifestyle!

    I should have a better job (in terms of short term salary), she should get a job, we should consume and donate our excessive personal error to our Church (so, what? both confession and our donation could be twice as large? is that conducive to our salvation?).

    I was brought up by parents utterly uncompromising, they wired my brain to be as it is and I cannot be otherwise. It was great advantage to me that I was disassociated with my peers even in my youth (preferring the company of elder persons). But she has married into this attempt at true culture, viewed as parasitical sub-culture to the non-culture of America.

    Even family gatherings have become disruptive to the peace of home we have established. This last 4th of July I was told by my brother-in-law within 1 hour of my arrival that all I need do is rip up my roots, come work for the military industrial complex that employs him to further American Empire, and I could have plenty of money, a big house and be closer to them.

    Closer to them? Perhaps that is not something I want.

  13. If I compare my occupation with that of my sister, there is no question which is more worthwhile and which is more fulfilling. I work in a university library supporting mostly pointless–but also some solid–research. My sister has spent her life home schooling 5 children and overseeing the domestic front: cooking, cleaning, and generally running the household. How can anyone possibly think that the middling jobs most of us have offer more profound rewards than making a home?

  14. John, I think you have identified the heart of the matter:

    ‘The modern world is trying to abolish the whole category of “woman,” is trying to remake her in the image and likeness of Man, even as they reduce the role of man from father to mere consumer.’

    The legal rights and opportunities for education and self-reliance available to me as a young woman are gifts for which I am deeply grateful, and which my grandmothers and great-grandmothers did not have. However, the same cultural upheaval that opened those doors for me was concurrent with a deterioration in what it means to be any kind of human being, woman or a man, in our culture. Although I will be the first to affirm that irreparable griefs resulted from the rigid system of gender roles that was prevalent in our past (and still is in many places), I object more to the rigidity and violence with which the roles were enforced than to the roles themselves. The tragedy at any point in history comes in reducing peoples’ worth to specific roles assigned based on very general categories and then judging individuals for their failure to fulfill those roles. Many people are now just as rigid as the misogynists of old in asserting that any woman (or man) who does not work outside the home for money is really not worth much and has somehow disrespected herself by exercising her freedom to focus her energies on her home and family. Many people blame feminists for the decline of the family as the fundamental unit of society, but only a very few of the women who are now glad to have equal opportunities in society also personally resent and devalue families. I am inclined to think that the idea of “economic value” is the real culprit here and that Women’s Lib mostly got swept along with the wave of values that would have us all defined not by the realities of our experiences, our physiology, our history, or our humanity, but by what services we provide and what products we consume.

    We make a fundamental mistake when we count the value of any person by her “value to society” as an economic unit. Whether we judge men and women based upon salary and prestige or on the number and quality of children they can produce, we miss the point. Society needs people to do all sorts of things. We need women and men to raise children, run businesses and organizations, to grow food and teach and protect one another. But as long as a society values economic interests over human interests, there can be no “value to society” that is not superficial and dehumanizing. An individual’s value, whether male or female, can only truly be judged on a much more personal scale by asking the question, “HOW does this person do what she does?” Is she a kind and honest boss? Is he a loving and supportive father, husband, son, brother, and friend? Is he thoughtful and dedicated to the integrity of his work? Is she a loving and supportive wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend? THESE are meaningful questions.

    It is sad that in a time when many consider themselves so enlightened and progressive we are unable to recognize and celebrate the human (rather than economic) value of each person who is humbly and sincerely living out her vocation, whatever it may be.

  15. To MMH: The reason why we moms can feel that way is because it is a difficult and thankless job and it is difficult to not feel that we got the short end of the stick when it comes to the division of labor. That is a short sighted view, I’ll admit, but it’s easy to fall into when your in the middle of things.

  16. My wife tells me that the one thing she misses from when she worked part time before we married is that she doesn’t have the regular strokes, “Good job on this or that” that go along with reasonably healthy working environments. She had a fairly pleasant evening customer support job that involved almost universally getting doctors paid money (in other words, if they got to her desk they got their money). She got to make frustrated folks happy each day. She was friendly and well liked.

    Now she’s isolated with the kids. Even with Church and a homeschooling group, it’s not the same as spending a few hours a day with folks happy to talk to you.

    I appreciate this emotional sacrifice, but it’s also a false choice. She could be more involved in the social aspects of what she’s doing (she could come to cub scout events and stay more often after services at Church, etc). And workplaces are full of other stresses, with home-life one’s not going away. There is a bit of romanticism and a bit of fortune (or misfortune if you consider that now she “remembers enjoying work” and must work against that memory).

    Mostly I think the endless proselytizing by our un-culture about what meaning in life is or what might hold fulfillment will wear on her without much relief for some time. Everyone’s interest (economic or socio-political) is in disturbing my home. Whether it is to justify their own lives, or the added productivity or the additional monies that we would have to spend, all the pressure clouds over an otherwise peace-seeking household.

    Liars and lunatics, all of them, and they try to draw us all into their fetid delusion.

  17. When my wife was at home with the children, many other women were as well; hence they could have a rich social, civic, and political life. In fact, I was first elected to office by a corps of such women. Now women at home tend to be isolated and lonely. This is very difficult for them, as it would be for any of us. These are social decisions about social systems. The ideology of individualism isolates us all, put particularly women in a womanly role (yes, there is such a thing, pardon my chauvinism.)

  18. I have to ask, what does it look like to have a society which respects the role of women and motherhood? When did we have one? Many people point to the 50’s as a golden age for that sort of thing, but I have to question that. Perhaps it was true in a more agrarian society but if it did they were probably unaware of it as a explicit thing. But given the world we live in, what would it look like today? It’s great to have my other mom friends bring me a meal when I have a baby, but what if people who weren’t “in the same boat” did? That would be more encouraging. I was amazed when I had my fourth child that of all my neighbors who brought me a meal (actually two meals), but our lesbian neighbors.

    Any thoughts? I always find it interesting to hear people talk about a society when motherhood were more respected, but I don’t know what that would be like.

  19. There is no golden age. Though many a nostalgic traditionalist will romanticize one. However, I would say that you probably are going to do better by looking at agrarian life, or even pre-modern cosmopolitan life, than to find anything now.

    I think the biggest problem with redeeming women’s roles comes from the same problem with redeeming much ecclesial life. Much of real life (for which Churches and the home were the hub of the wheel) went undocumented. It was lived and passed down organically from mother to daughter or bishop to priest. It was oral. It was private, in the sense that how your family did thus and so, or how things were done in this town or region was really not the concern of others.

    Unfortunately modernity strips out all this, by abstracting out all the necessary details and the dehumanizing all the participants, it attempts to dike the chaos of reality behind a wall of delusion. Modernity suggests that there is such a thing as a universal or ideal woman. Thus creating something we can all endlessly argue about, something worth having a cultural civil war over.

    There is no such ideal “woman’s role” though we might talk philosophically about what it means to bare children. But nuns bare no children and are no less women. I have visited such nuns who have a monastery near me. They are unmistakably women and carry on their organically informed micro-culture without much trouble from the norms of the outside world.

    My wife and mother of my children has spoken often of the inspiration of femininity she gets from experiencing the lives of these nuns, even though her own life is quite different.

    Women are going to have to figure this out and rebuild for their own daughters a woman’s role.

  20. “Things are never clear cut…”

    Indeed, they are never clear cut. Within every culture and time period, there has undoubtedly been an apparent contradiction: those who are seemingly restricted by societal traditions/ taboos, are often strangely empowered by the same regulations. Power dynamics between the genders are no more easily understood than those between social and economic classes. This is often due to the fact that people generally interpret traditions/ taboos/ mores in ways which benefit themselves. Added to the complexity is the fact that not all women will be affected in the same way, depending on a myriad of factors. Many of my friends who are married with children feel traditional culture entitled them to more time with their husband and children, and thus mourn the passing of those traditions. However, for an unmarried woman approaching middle age, a return to the same taboo might seem unwelcome. After all, the same taboo might help one while hurt the other. There are many other factors to take into account as to whether or not a tradition helped women, as women are not a homogenous group.

    As for the great traditions being inherently biased, the question must be raised as to where one draws the line between the tradition itself and the interpretation. If one includes the writings of St. Augustine (especially with regard to original sin) as “tradition”, then it would be much more difficult to argue that there is not an inherently machismo slant. Whether women’s low status caused a certain reading of the Garden of Eden story, or else such a reading caused women’s status to be low is difficult to argue. It is, perhaps, easily difficult to argue that women’s pregnancy led to views of their inferiority when in many other societies worldwide women were equally as inclined towards pregnancy, but did not necessarily have the accompanying decrease in social status. This would especially be true in matrilineal societies, where women enjoyed an uncommonly high social status.

    The constant renegotiation of tradition has always existed. It is not a clear distinction between “traditionalism” and “modernism,” but instead a signal that each generation reinterprets tradition in a way which it believes to be more suitable to the current situation. In this way, it is natural to believe the current interpretation to be superior, as a sort of evolutionary narrative tells us it is so. Each generation has the conflicting voices both yearning for the past, but also telling us how far we’ve come. While one can repudiate feminism (which in and of itself is difficult to do, as no commentators have specified which group or wave of feminists they are referring to), the ultimate question must become whether it has led us to an interpretation of these traditions more suited for the present. While we can easily long for the past, we must remember that not all suffered or gained from past interpretations equally. In the present, we cannot expect that everyone will also gain in the same way or equally. Perhaps this would be the proper time to bring Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown into the mix. If the interpretations of tradition that we are currently using do not benefit the majority psychologically, socially, etc., and does not lead to the perpetuation of the society itself, then the interpretations will simply change.

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