Kearneysville, WV. Edmund Burke lamented that the age of chivalry has passed. He was, of course, commenting on the attempted eradication of all social distinctions by the revolutionaries in France. Burke went on to argue that European civilization had, for hundreds of years, been constituted by the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman. Burke saw in the French revolution the attempt to destroy both ideals. He believed that if the spirit of the revolution prevailed, civilization would correspondingly decline.

The religious side of the equation is fairly straight-forward, and to the extent that Europe has become predominantly secular, this would surely provoke dire warnings from Burke. To be sure, Americans still go to church in fairly high numbers and God-talk is all too frequent among our politicians. However, by some indicators we are noticeably schizophrenic, embracing religious practices on Sunday while the rest of the week living lives not much different from religious skeptics. A purely privatized religion, one quarantined to Sunday morning, is anemic and probably not capable of maintaining a civilization in the way Burke imagined.

But let’s put religion aside for a moment. What about the gentleman? The word has not gone completely out of favor. Many of us attempt to raise our sons to be polite, to hold the doors open in deference to others rather than to barge in first, to refrain from talking with mouths full of food, to listen without interrupting, to help those in need. Yet with all that, our conception of the gentleman is hamstrung, for the gentleman is a social role that implies a recognition of forms and limits that constrain action even as those very forms and limits elevate the meaning and nobility of actions they enjoin.

Forms and limits are not welcomed in a culture that sees freedom as the highest good, a culture that fairly worships at the altar of individual choice. The history of the liberal project has been a steady and determined attempt to defy limits, to destroy forms, to expand the idea and practice of liberation to all spheres of existence. How can the idea of the gentleman, the essence of which necessarily depends on the propriety of limits, co-exist with the goals of liberalism? One admits of limits and finds nobility in respect for them; the other finds limits offensive and seeks to break down any hint of limitation, form, or residue of difference. When seen in this light, the gentlemen appears to be a throwback to an older age, an era that progress has left behind, an ideal embraced only by romantics and the hopelessly and helplessly nostalgic.

Which brings us, of all places, to Iowa. By now most of us have heard of Joel Northrup, the high school wrestler who chose to default rather than wrestle a girl. The stakes for Northrup were high: this was the first round of the state tournament where he had a good shot at the title. He expressed his reasoning in a statement released by his high school:

“Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.”

He continued with praise for Casey Herkelman, the girl involved, expressing his respect for her accomplishments. The girl and her parents released a statement indicating their respect for Joel and his steadfast commitment to his beliefs. In short, there was no apparent rancor from either side.

It seems to me that Joel Northrup was raised to be a gentleman, and when he drew his first opponent at the state tournament, this ideal ran hard into the leveling impulse of the age. Or to put it in old-fashioned terms, gentlemen don’t wrestle with ladies. Reversing the sentence provides another truism: ladies wouldn’t dream of wrestling with gentlemen or of wrestling with anyone for that matter. Now I am on thin ice here, for if I embrace the idea of a gentleman, I am simultaneously embracing the idea of a lady. Doing so must appear, through the caustic lens of liberation, to be suggesting that ladies and gentlemen are substantially different and that a gentleman treats other gentleman in ways markedly different from the way he treats ladies. Precisely.

Richard Weaver once wrote that when the gentleman disappears so too goes the lady. Both ideals depend on each other and a society that provides the space for each will be far different from a society where both are seen as quaint relics from another time. Still it is heartening to see a young man attempt to uphold the ideals of the gentleman. Perhaps that singular ideal can be sustained during our long sojourn through the wilderness of liberalism. If and when we emerge on the other side, it may provide a hopeful reminder of what is possible and how a decent society might be constructed around ideals that foster acts of nobility, deference, propriety, and kindness.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. I know we can only expect so much. But he should not have praised her accomplishments because they were not praise worthy.

    While a girl wrestler is sickening bell weather, it’s not in turn a surprising one. But having wrestled, what I find surprising is that the girl actually ever won.

    I was once told a story by my brother who played lacrosse there of a wrestler at Syracuse who took a blindsided baseball bat to the face when he came around a corner just to even the playing field a bit when some guy wanted to fight him.

    And while high school is not college, neither is Iowa your typical state when it comes to high school wrestling. A girl winning in any state is amazing, but Iowa?

  2. In regard to the end of ladies and gentlemen, it’s quite amusing seeing the psychosis among many young women today who wouldn’t know how to act like a lady to save their lives, yet get irritated when men don’t act chivalrous toward them. The idea of a two way street is utterly lost on them.

  3. Love the girls: I can easily imagine how other young men, faced with the prospect of wrestling this girl and unwilling to default on principle, could have been utterly confused as to what was allowed—how hard they could pin, where they could touch in order to get her down, etc— effectively giving the girl a huge advantage in the match. Nature (recognizing the gentleman/lady ideal) is struggling against the practical demands of the circumstances in that case, and both lose. That’s how I figure she may have gotten so far in competition.

    Good article.

  4. As C.S. Lewis noted in “Studies in Words”, the definition of “gentleman” referred, originally, to a matter of station, not action. It was corrupted to mean something like “a rather nice fellow.” So, too, with the word “lady”. Perhaps aristocracy is indeed necessary for the “gentlemen” to exist.

  5. Thanks, Mark.
    I was on a high-school wrestling team back in the day before girls wanted to wrestle—and least officially—and there was a clear distinction between girls’ and boys’ sports.
    Like you I applaud Joel for upholding the ideals of a gentleman. The tradition that Joel upholds is worthwhile because it is anchored in reality as seen in both nature and revelation.
    I found myself identifying with the paragraph you wrote that begins with, “Forms and limits.” I find myself—even as an old conservative guy—pulled by the forces of desire for autonomy, and recognition of the value of appropriate limits. The problem—or one problem—is often traditions that have no real authoritative merit are passed on as well. I can imagine a scenario, not too long ago, where a young man might be cheered by many upholders of social order for refusing to wrestle another young man of a different ethnic group. When “Thus saith the Lord,” is put on an equal footing with, “That’s how grandma did it,” we forfeit.

    Love the girls,
    If you look at the derivation of “bellwether,” you will see that she can’t be one.

  6. Howard Merrel writes : “If you look at the derivation of “bellwether,” you will see that she can’t be one.”

    Please explain why she can’t be one. Because she certainly appears to fit the common use of the term as both presage and influence of a future trend.

    And thanks for correcting my spelling, fortunately it was close enough for it to serve its convention which is typically the best I can hope for.

  7. love the girls,

    I offered my comment somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
    As the term is used today, this young she-grappler may well be a bellwether. I hope she is a stray, but fear she may be leading a flock.

    Here, though is the derivation of the word from Word of the Day: Origin:
    “Bellwether is a compound of bell and wether , “a male sheep, usually castrated”; from the practice of hanging a bell from the neck of the leader of the flock.”
    From that viewpoint she can’t be one. Part of the point Dr. Mitchell was making. There are differences.

    I did note several instances of writers calling female leaders “bellwethers.” So you have plenty of company.

    As to spelling, I don’t know if mine is right. It was just the one that came up most on the Google search.

  8. I appreciate Mr. Merrell’s comment that not too long ago “a young man might be cheered by many upholders of social order for refusing to wrestle another young man of a different ethnic group.” I would like to build in this vein a bit. I’m wondering if we can’t have respect for and find nobility in limits that aren’t based on archaic concepts of gender as well as race. I certainly value a concept of limits based on social restraint and general respect for every member of society, an order based on caring for the freedom of others rather than first asserting my own individuality. However, I would certainly caution Dr. Mitchell about the thin ice upon which he treads. The Victorian concepts of lady and gentleman, even without the aristocratic class constraints, are, in my opinion, exceedingly harmful to both men and women. A proper lady, like a child, did not speak unless spoken to, her body was forced in to unhealthy (shall we say limiting) fashions, and she had little to no control over her romantic or financial affairs. What is bad for one half of society (women) must be bad for the whole (men and women together).

    Now to get back to the matter at hand. While I can’t say I advocate Joel Northrup’s attitude towards his female opponent, I do thoroughly appreciate the respectful, self-sacrificing way he relinquished his ambitions in order to uphold his beliefs. I can agree that wrestling is a strange exception to the general policy of women and men participating in sports separately yet equally. I would imagine and hope that someday, perhaps in Iowa first, women will have their own leagues in which to participate. And they should. Why shouldn’t the sportsmanship and mental and physical discipline taught in wrestling be a part of a modern day conception of what makes a lady?

    • Becca,
      I too especially liked Howard Merrell’s comment about race. It is an important reminder that some of the limits and standards that we imagine are rooted in the nature of things are in fact false impositions that serve to further distort (and solidify) our social ideas. The question, it seems to me, is this: is the relationship between men and women analogous to the relationship between people of different races? If we argue that gender is merely a social construction, then the imposition of social differences is wrong-headed. If, however, the differences between men and women are real, then that may merit different social treatment–such as men not wrestling with ladies. With all that, I am not suggesting we go back to some Victorian order where, as you rightly point out, women were often mistreated. I hold out hope, though, that the best of the tradition of gentlemen and ladies can be salvaged and the differences between men and women celebrated bereft of those aspects that served to denigrate half of society.

  9. Becca,
    You zeroed in on the question.
    “The question, it seems to me, is this: is the relationship between men and women analogous to the relationship between people of different races?”
    The answer is no. There are fundamental differences between the sexes.

  10. That was Dr. Mitchell who distilled the big question. Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that it is really an unanswerable question, we can all pick sides (both sides with Biblical and cultural backing) but I don’t know that it will be more than that, picking sides. I have recently began to think that, whether biologically or culturally based, the reality is the same, men and women are different. My hesitation with the concept of ladies and gentleman goes back to the tension brought up in the original post- “How can the idea of the gentleman, the essence of which necessarily depends on the propriety of limits, co-exist with the goals of liberalism? One admits of limits and finds nobility in respect for them; the other finds limits offensive and seeks to break down any hint of limitation, form, or residue of difference.” I long for what Dr. Mitchell states in his closing sentence, a decent society “constructed around ideals that foster acts of nobility, deference, propriety, and kindness.” I just don’t see how such a decent society can be structured with walls that exclude anyone who does not fit a specific concept of something as basic to the individual as gender. I am a woman. I seek with everything I am to foster acts of nobility, deference, propriety (well maybe less so propriety), and kindness. I feel as though, because she likes to wrestle, people have assumed that Casey Herkelman does not meet the definition of “lady” that any “decent society” would establish. I don’t wrestle but I’m commenting on this blog because I feel as though I wouldn’t meet that definition either. I suppose I am afraid to be told that I cannot both be myself and be a woman. I do not mean to imply that anyone here has made such a statement. This is simply my reaction to the notion of “ladies” and “gentlemen.”

  11. @Casey… I’m a lady who doesn’t fit a lot of cultural definitions of “lady” either.

    I don’t necessarily see anything fundamentally wrong with a lady wrestler, firefighter, police officer or other non-traditional professions for women. While I am none of those, nor do I desire to be, I am what Stonewall Jackson’s chaplain would have derisively called a “politickating woman.”

    As soon as someone or some group of people get to define words like “lady” and “gentleman” based on a code of conduct which they personally approve of, they also arrogate to themselves the right to determine who doesn’t fit in that class – based not on universal standards, but on their own preferences.

    And so, here is my challenge: Dr. Mitchell says that he is not talking about Victorian definitions of lady and gentleman. Ok, so what is he talking about?

    What makes a lady a lady versus being just another female human? a gentleman a gentleman as opposed to just a male human? If it is a matter of universals, then why can we not just say that a lady and gentleman are a male and female who practice integrity. They are honest, trustworthy, caring, courageous, faithful, just, merciful, humble, etc… yet none of those things are predicated on sex.

    If it is not a matter of universals, then you are going to conflate character with cultural expectations and lose the truth in the process… you’ll determine that gentlemen are strong and self-sacrificing and have a certain size bank account while ladies are pretty and charming and like to shop and certain stores, and so on, no? And then we get back to what I mentioned earlier – you’ve drawn the lines to exclude someone based not on their character but based on your expectations.

    “A liar is no gentleman or lady.”
    “A coward is neither a lady or gentleman.”

    Those are statements based on character.

    “A wrestler is not a lady.”

    That is a statement based on culture.

  12. “That is a statement based on culture.”

    Of course it is. So is language. Which includes the phrase “that is a statement based on culture”.

    Anything about human relations is based on culture. The mere fact of being based on culture says nothing about validity.

  13. Becca (& M. Mitchell),

    I noticed after-the-fact that I had attributed Dr. Mitchell’s words to you. Apologies to both of you.
    I think these are your words:
    “One admits of limits and finds nobility in respect for them; the other finds limits offensive and seeks to break down any hint of limitation, form, or residue of difference.” I long for what Dr. Mitchell states in his closing sentence, a decent society “constructed around ideals that foster acts of nobility, deference, propriety, and kindness.”
    You are not alone in that desire. I think a case can be made that this longing is part of the human condition in this fallen world.
    As to the first part of your statement that I quoted, I am both of those people. I don’t like limits, but I have learned that appropriate limits bring greater freedom in the long-run. I think I hear you asking a question that I still–even as a guy close to collecting Social Security, I suspect, from your payments–find myself asking, “What gives you the right to tell me what to do?” (A while back Dr. Mitchell had the Father of our Country asking that question of the TSA.) The most satisfying answer to that question is, “I created you.”
    Solomon wrestled with these issues. His conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is germane, here. “Fear God, and keep the commandments.” I am told that the words that follow that are difficult to translate. The translation of “duty” is too narrow. Some translators say something like, “this is the whole of man.” The NASB’s translation, “this applies to every person” is better. Coverdale, showing that newer is not always better, says, “for that toucheth all men;”
    You are right, there is a choice to be made. It is a choice that can be made on the basis of considerable evidence. If, as I believe, women and men–including our marvelous differences–are the result of God’s creation, and if, again as I believe, the Bible is the product of revelation from that same God, then it makes sense that His commands rightly drawn from His Revelation, when rightly applied to His creation would cause that creation to run better. Romans 8 speaks of even the non-human creation groaning because at present God’s rulership of creation is not being heeded. You and I are fortunate in that we can choose to bring our part of the world into greater allignment with God’s commands.

    I don’t think Dr. Mitchell, and certianly not I, desired to impugn the character of the young lady who had accomplished the incredible feat of getting to that tournament. She is likely a young lady operating within the mores handed to her. She is obviously a highly disciplined, capable young lady. BTW, your writing skill, clear thinking, and rare honesty, would indicate that you, too, are a lady of substance.

  14. @ Jason Taylor…

    True. In context though you will find that I am setting up a distinction between universal (cross-cultural) truths and cultural norms, which may or may not have a relationship to such universal truths.

    Some people I know would suggest that women should never participate in any contact sport.

    Some would say that certain sports are acceptable but not others.

    Other people say that it is OK for a woman to learn self-defense (martial arts or even shooting) but that she should never compete against a male.

    Others say that a person can develop any skills they are given, according to inclination and withing the bounds of good character and just laws.

    In some areas and times, decent women didn’t show their faces in public. In some, they don’t show their ankles. In some, they didn’t show their neck. Where my mom grew up, they didn’t show their uppper arms. In some, they didn’t go about without wearing pantyhose.

    All of these are cultural values – Not universally right or wrong… which doesn’t mean that they should be flouted unwisely. Indeed, there is a good biblical case to be made for respecting the values of the culture you are in – so long as they do not oppose divine principles. Yet, the fact that they are changing and not universal means that we as believers should not necessarily argue for the preservation of the old order every time culture shifts.

    Culture changes have both positive and negative effects and as wise believers who understand the times, we should avoid a negative and judgmental aspect toward those who involved in a culture shift that we find personally distasteful.

  15. In response to Becca, Mark Mitchell wrote: I hold out hope, though, that the best of the tradition of gentlemen and ladies can be salvaged and the differences between men and women celebrated bereft of those aspects that served to denigrate half of society.

    Becca asked how we can make those distinctions without just choosing sides. I will ask you how your conservative position is not just founded on what you are comfortable with given the time you live in? It was not so long ago that state protective laws based on what were thought to be gender differences made it illegal for women to hold certain positions. There were men’s jobs and women’s jobs codified by law and even union contract. In 1969, my graduate advisor told me that men of lesser academic qualifications were chosen over women because women were just going to get married and have babies. Obviously, our Constitution did not give women the right to vote. The state protective laws, the selection for graduate school and not allowing females to vote were all based on perceived gender differences. I don’t know, but I presume that you support equal pay for equal work, selecting graduate students based on merit and not gender and amending the Constitution to give women the vote. At one time, those positions would have been wildly liberal and flown in the face of what was believed about the differences between men and women. Obviously, you don’t want to go back to a Victorian time, but how do you justify this particular line in the sand? As pointed out by EMSoliDeoGloria traits of what we might consider good humans cross gender lines.

    Certainly there are physical differences between the genders. But there are differences within gender. Most girls, and most boys, don’t want to wrestle. I agree with Becca who feels men and women should compete separately. While living in Ohio, I saw girls competing against boys in hockey. In Minnesota there are girls’ leagues so they compete separately. My guess is that Casey is competing with the boys because there are no girl wrestling leagues. There is an Iowa college that has a girls’ team. So, what’s the limit you want to set and why? Do ladies wrestle each other? If wrestling is “violent” is it okay for gentlemen to be violent with each other? There may be benefits in limits, but in this case is it better to limit Casey’s freedom by not allowing her to wrestle? If there are female college wrestling programs that limit may preclude her from scholarships.

  16. I hope there are more of these young men out there. As a mother of four girls, I am pleased to see that there are boys who still understand that the essence of what it means to be a gentleman (or if you are squeamish about that word, I could say, “real man”.) I totally approve of his action and used this scenario as a teaching moment for my daughters as to what a real man looks like.

    I do not, however, blame men for this wrong-headed blurring of the sexes today. I blame women. With the feminist revolution and subsequent mind-set, women insisted we wanted to be “equal” with men but what this has evolved to mean is that we want to be “the same” as men. While I believe we are equal to men in intrinsic value, its easy to see that we will never be the same. I can tell you that having been in the military, I found from first-hand experience that women cannot and should not be expected to perform at the same physical standards as men. No woman ever beat a man in running or strength endurance while I was in the service. They should not shower or live in the same quarters with men because of modesty and good sense and personnel management. This is why women are not and never should be allowed into the combat arms. It generally weakens the standards and performance of the whole unit. It is disingenuous and illogical to think differently.

    If the young woman wanted to wrestle, she should compete with other females. There would be no question of immodesty or whether her opponents held back in fear of hurting her. There have always been equal but separate teams for competitive sports up unti this crazy relativistic age…and that is as it should be. The young man did the right thing. He gets it when many adults cannot. Vive la difference and hooray for this young man!

  17. Mr. Merrell,
    I have thoroughly appreciated your comments and I thank you for the compliment. I find you to be unquestionably thoughtful and respectful. I did not mean to accuse you (or Dr. Mitchell) of personally attacking Miss Herkelman’s character. I don’t think you did, or at least I don’t think that was your intention. It may be that applauding Mr. Northrup’s actions as gentlemanly necessarily criticizes Miss Herkelman’s actions as unladylike. However, I think the best possible thing to do for all sides is to make a statement that leads to productive and thoughtful conversation.

    I don’t agree with a lot of what you said. I think that’s fine. We seem to have come down on different sides as a result of our different experiences. I did want to say that your statement, “There have always been equal but separate teams for competitive sports up unti this crazy relativistic age,” is just absolutely false. That Casey Herkelman must compete in men’s wrestling instead of in a women’s league is a prime example of the inequality between men’s and women’s athletics. Since the 1972 enactment of Title IX, leaps and bounds have been made in women’s sports (haha get it, leaps and bounds in sports). But clearly there is room for improvement.

  18. “That Casey Herkelman must compete in men’s wrestling instead of in a women’s league is a prime example of the inequality between men’s and women’s athletics”

    I am not so sure. I would probably attribute this to a lack of interest. While this young lady wants to wrestle, most do not. It would probably be exceedingly difficult to field an all-female team, much less build a league in which schools schools could compete without traveling vast distances. Does this amount to inequality? I suppose so. But it’s no worse than the trouble a lot of kids face when they want to play polo or jai alai. There is not enough interest, and/or it would cost too much to field a team, so the school district says, “Too bad.”

    Maybe if you buid it they will come. But with regards to female wrestling, I suspect not. Many colleges can’t even manage to field a men’s team.

    But as for Lisa’s comment that women can’t ever compete, I disagree. Go to your local school’s track meet. In CERTAIN events, you will see at least some of the girls beating some of the boys. Women are quite adept at running, especially at distance. It is my understanding that women are closing the gap quite rapidly at the marathon level, and typically beat men in “ultra marathon” events at the 50 or 100 mile level.

    Also, this young lady obviously made the state tournament. In Iowa. I can’t attribute all of that to squeamishness on the part of her opponents. Take her out of Iowa and place her in, I don’t know… Delaware. I bet she might actually do quite well. Remember, Wrestling isn’t all about upper body strength. Some people have an advantage in terms of quickness, flexibility, etc. There is not a prototypical “body type” that has a natural advantage over others. I will concede that MOST females would probably not fare well competing with the boys. But never say never.

  19. Carry on with the philosophical debate (I’m siding with Becca here), but I thought a few facts may be helpful to dispel some ignorance on the wrestling side of the question:

    – girls competing as part of high school wrestling teams has been commonplace for 15-20 years

    – In many places there are girls’ leagues now (I know in Hawaii this is especially true, but also many other places)

    – the girls don’t win because the boys are unsure. There are some girls out there who are just very good wrestlers.

    – Women’s wrestling has been part of the Olympics for at least the last two olympic cycles, and the U.S. has one of the best teams

    I would also dispute the notion that wrestling is a violent sport. Violence to my mind implies an intent to harm. The whole point of wrestling is to provide a form of physical contest where the violence has been removed. The goal in wrestling is always control and never harm. The rules are carefully designed to prevent harm.

  20. Well put Mr. Mark. Forget the “gentleman” issue and put it in practical terms: who wants to wrestle, nevermind try to win a match, in a very public arena, with an erection?

    If I “wrestled” with a girl in highschool, this problem would have raised itself.

    It’s just not right to ask a young man to have to do that.

  21. I don’t know about no gentleman or ladies, but dudes don’t wrassle chicks. Let’s keep it strictly greco-roman. Sometimes a dude’s gotta use the sphincter poke trick to get out of a hold, and we don’t need things to get any more intimate than they already is.

  22. i applaud the parties in this event for being civil about the situation. i do wonder if a girl can wrestle boys then why can’t a boy pitch on a girls softball team? i also have to say, as much as i like Burke on some things he was a complete romantic. why would the attempted eradication of all social distinctions by the revolutionaries in France be bad? it be like demolishing the clique system in high school. since Burke would have been in with the cool kids the social structure was where it should be by his lights. i doubt he ever thought a farm girl might have an idea worth his consideration. whenever folks talk about the good old days it reminds me of a comment i read about the Civil War in Russia . a corespondent noted that one main appeal the Whites tried to use to win over the populace was “Remember the Best of Old Russia”. unfortunately he noted they were often making this appeal to people whom had never know the “Best “ and were in fact more likely to have been familiar with the worst. i am glad the revolutionaries prevailed on that score and i don’t have to know my place and defer to my “betters”. i know there are still people who based on their race, religion, physical prowess or economic good fortune feel they are a cut above. thankfully i don’t have to take their crap they way i would have in Burke’s day.

Comments are closed.