Feminist Praises Old-Time Values, Manners,
Writer Charlotte Allen claims that old-fashioned morals, manners and family
structures gave women more freedom and fulfillment, not less.
By John Crouch, Attorney at Law,
Crouch & Crouch, Arlington, Virginia; (703)
Copyright John Crouch 1994. / / Amicus Curiae, College of William
Other Crouch Articles
Lawyer-turned-freelance writer Charlotte Allen brought a wholly unexpected
message to the College of William &Mary on March 29 and 30. Traditional
manners and extended families allowed women more freedom, privacy, power
and self-worth than they gain from the fragmented families and communities
produced by the modern "cult of self-fulfillment," she argued.
Extended families have been the basic social unit worldwide and throughout
history, even when people physically reside in nuclear households, Allen
claimed, citing several studies. People in such families have important
relationships with different family members, so that their self-worth and
contentment do not depend on a lifelong emotional and intellectual romance
with their spouses.
Allen described a way of life that is now largely abandoned. It was characterized
by families bound by duty and necessity rather than by a quest for self-fulfillment.
They were economically productive units in which women did socially respected
work in or near the home, children helped with chores, and older people
helped raise children.
Allen read an excerpt by feminist author Germaine Greer that described a
mid-20th-Century Italian family. The married couple grew apart as their
romance wore off, but maintained a web of relationships with in-laws, siblings
In contrast, Allen explained, American women who moved to the suburbs after
World War II found themselves isolated from any extended family or community.
Their only long-term relationships were within the household, and they were
forced into inescapable intimacy with only one person. Their husbands became
their only source of adult conversation.
Suddenly, women began noticing that men weren't "supportive,"
or "responsive," and didn't share their feelings. Their discontent
focused on the only family relationships they had left.
Middle-class women and young people began emphasizing "self-fulfillment"
and "feelings," and eventually every generation embraced the new
value structure. Baby boomers retained the emotional desires of adolescents
well into middle age. Older people gathered in their own communities and
no longer had much influence on the young.
Today's youth are the first generation to be raised within the "cult
of self-fulfillment" rather than being converted to it. They are a
"Me Generation" upon a "Me Generation," Allen warned.
They are both frightened and frightening.
Now "we have no traditional customs" because contact between the
generations has withered, Allen continued. People "have to reinvent
everything" for themselves. Marriage, childbirth, child-raising and
aging are wholly new and terrifying experiences, rather than basic, familiar
phases of life.
The postwar move from settled extended families and neighborhoods also put
women's working lives and self-esteem in crisis, Allen said. Women's work
maintaining the household came to be seen as second-class drudgery, a mere
support system for the breadwinner. They were not respected unless they
had a career. By now, said Allen, every woman is expected to be a "Superwoman"
who does it all, balancing a full career and a happy family.
Even when this model satisfies the needs of some upper middle-class women,
she noted, it is imposed much more rigorously on working-class women, who
have less to gain from being expected to work outside the home.
The "Superwoman" model has eroded respect for single women, as
well, Allen claimed. Until recently, unmarried career women were able to
do great things that they couldn't have done while raising a family. They
seemed self-assured, well-respected by their male peers, and were often
closely involved in their extended family. Now, Allen said, if a woman has
no husband or no children, people think there is something wrong with her.
Successful working women, she continued, pursue marriage far past the point
of diminishing returns.
Allen also read extensively from Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady,
the autobiography of Florence King, who is the National Review's spinster
columnist. Miss King was raised by her forceful maternal grandmother and
her father, while her mother worked to support the family. Her parents were
strong-willed people with very little in common, but they stuck together
contentedly as long as they had Miss King to raise and the grandmother to
put up with.
Miss King's grandmother raised her to be a "lady," one who outwardly
observed certain proprieties and thus was able to insist on respect and
deference from men. As her father observed, quoting Cervantes, "A lady
is a woman who can make herself respected even among an army of soldiers."
Miss King's most important lesson in the book was that, as a "lady,"
she was able to do exactly as she pleased in private and still get along
perfectly with her conservative neighbors.
This neglected concept is the key to current problems of sexual harassment,
Allen argued. Rigid, formal systems of manners put a high value on human
dignity and privacy, and frustrate the aims of overreachers and control
freaks. Being inflexible, they protect everyone equally and constrain the
Therefore, Allen blamed the explosion of sexual harassment cases on the
trendy informality adopted by workplaces in the 1960s and '70s, and on the
utter abandonment of any predictable rules governing social life and mating.
Both these trends unfortunately coincided with women's increasing presence
in the workplace.
Allen said employers -- and women themselves -- should insist on observance
of the formal, businesslike manners that used to be standard in the workplace.
She thought this would prevent harassment more effectively than more laws
would, because the law only sets a minimum, while manners set a higher standard.
Allen had harsh words for the right wing, as well as for the left. Both
sides idealize an over-wrought, sentimental vision of families, she said.
The right wants to force everyone to go back to the often unsustainable
nuclear model, while the left expands the definition of family so that even
the nation is supposed to be a family, bound tightly by gushing sentiments.
By defining families so broadly, the left denies that actual families are
something unique, not easily replaced by artificial institutions.
But if right-wingers claim to be pro-family, Allen asked, why do they insist
that welfare mothers with several young children work outside the home?
Why do they oppose letting immigrants bring their brothers and sisters to
Audience members hoping for a legal or universal definition of family found
that Allen, like most Americans [in 1994], had not spent much time pondering
issues of gay parenthood. When asked about gay families, she said her personal
definition of family was as something "generational," which would
not include childless people (such as herself). When specifically asked
about gays raising children she said she didn't know any personally, but
"Sure . . . maybe it'll work."
The Mary & William Feminist Law Society and the College's Women's Studies
program sponsored Allen's March 29 lecture. The following morning she tried
to clarify her views over breakfast with Mary & William members at the
home of Professor Valerie Hardy, who organized the lecture.
- John Crouch
Return to: Americans for Divorce Reform
|| Crouch Articles || Crouch
& Crouch || Divorce Reform Page