Friday, April 27, 2007

The Pretty Noose

"Diamond rope, silver chain
Pretty noose is pretty pain
And I don't like what you got me hanging from."
Chris Cornell, 'Pretty Noose'

Thinking Girl's Feminism Friday post about The Weaker Sex started me thinking about the other generalizations that I've heard applied to women. Of course, I grew up hearing that generalization -- usually in the lovely metaphorical form the weaker vessel. I also grew up hearing that women were better at lots of things: like taking care of children, or visiting people, etc.

Last summer, as I dug through the archives of the Gospel Advocate exploring Silena Moore Holman's (that's General Holman to you) attempt to bring the Woman Movement into the proto/early Church of Christ, I noticed a disturbing tread in the arguments used against Holman. The editorial staff of the Gospel Advocate would lavish hyperbolic praise on the work they insisted women should be limited to. In comparision with other Cult of True Womanhood pieces of the time, I suspect the writing was actually quite tame -- given the largely agrarian audience of the GA not surprising, but as Mr. Lipscomb -- normally fairly nuanced and reasonable for a post-bellum white southerner -- descended into apoplexy, the melodramatic exaltation of woman's work as the "queen" of the home stood out in the context.

I became, in my notes, to label this particular argument: The Pretty Noose. It's basically lipservice exalting the position of women as purer, nobler, more glorious than that of men who have to deal with the dirty public square. Women should be grateful to have been given such an honored position within God's creation. The limitations placed on them by society are there to honor them.

Yes, you may start the cries of "BULL!" now.

I've recently heard this same line of argument used in a handful of online debates and repeated in a number of more recent materials from more-conservative elements in the CofC (*cough* Getwell *cough*). Not to mention conservative Christians outside of the CofC. And not all of the people I've heard it from are intending to be patronizing. They -- it comes from both men and women -- genuinely believe it. And I'm willing to speculate that at the beginning of the Lipscomb/Holman debates, Mr. Lipscomb genuinely believed this as well. This is why the mania that ensued after Holman continued to press her case (It basically consisted of this: some women were better suited for work in the public sphere than the private sphere and further than following in the footsteps of Mary of Bethany she had the God-given and Christ affirmed right to do so.) is so fascinating. It reveals the lavish praise of women's work to be nothing more than a smokescreen for a deep-seated misogyny -- a pretty noose to keep women in their place and to hang those who dared to step away.

Lipscomb's response to Holman was throughly out of character for him. His mockery and temper reached new heights, and Lipscomb, well-known for publishing opinions with which he personally disagreed, failed to publish at least one of Holman's responses. Sewell's responses surpassed Lipscomb's in excessive rudeness. Finally, Lipscomb's record played out into his true opinion of women. Women were not, as he had previously insisted, the guardians of everything pure and good in the world. Women were nothing more than the daughters of Eve and responsible for every evil that existed in the world. Allowing women to exist independent of a male head would “introduce confusion and strife for supremacy into every household. When woman did take the lead she shipwrecked the world” (Lipscomb, "Woman and Her Work," GA, Oct. 13, 1892).

And, so spun out in the pages of the classic Gospel Advocate we find that the Pretty Noose has revealed itself to be just that. Women aren't encouraged to stay home an raise babies because society values that work above all else; women are constrained because society possesses a deeply internalized hatred and suspicious of them. At the end of the day women aren't valued -- they are feared, they are weak, and they must be controlled by a male.

“While it does seem rather bad that two big brothers must fight one little sister, still, I am grateful for the implied compliment, and feel encouraged to continue.” Silena Moore Holman, 1888.

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