Media Matters

Francine’s Anti-Victorian Prose

The McGreevey story just doesn't stop yielding up its lessons for our feminized times.

By 8.30.04

Send to Kindle

The McGreevey story just doesn't stop yielding up its lessons for our times. Last week, the novelist Francine Prose wrote in the Washington Post that "It might be argued (and I would agree) that Dina McGreevey's most intimate feelings are not the public's business. And there's something admirable about remaining silent and displaying grace under pressure." But if you had sensed a "but" coming, you would not have been mistaken -- even though Miss Prose, ever the stylist, avoided the word itself.

"So perhaps," she went on, "what's troubling is the way that Dina McGreevey's sphinx-like presence at her husband's side seems like yet another aspect of the message we've been getting lately about the role of the wife, the political wife in particular, and, by extension, women. The stalwart, forgiving angel with endless patience and charity for the prodigal husband is the Victorian model, noble enough to be sure, but lacking certain qualities that we now recognize as fully human. What about pride and dignity, integrity, self-awareness?"

What about them indeed! The Victorians would have replied that pride, dignity and integrity, at least, were precisely the qualities upheld by the reticence and restraint Miss Prose otherwise admires, their opposites the likely casualties of any public wrangling with her husband about matters of the heart. As for "self-awareness," she can hardly imagine that Mrs. McGreevey didn't know what she was doing. My guess is that we are to understand here a liberal interpretation of the word "self" to mean something like this. A woman's self is her independent identity, distinguishing her in particular as an individual rather than the wife, which is to say the mere appendage, of her husband. Anything which puts her wifehood ahead of her individuality is therefore something which is, ex hypothesi, lacking in self-awareness. Such a use of the language has the added advantage, from the feminist point of view, of making an old-fashioned sort of self-definition on the basis of one's wifehood literally impossible.

Like everybody else alive today, I have heard the Victorians maligned on almost every ground imaginable, but not until I read Miss Prose's article had I heard the qualities of forgiveness, patience and charity described as being less than "fully human." Back in the days before the churches had learned to find sin only in capitalism, imperialism, racism, sexism and homophobia, I seem to remember that they used to take something like the opposite of this view of humanity. We were only really "fully human" when we did achieve such virtues, for the sake of which we had been created, and left their sinful opposites of vindictiveness, anger and hatred behind us. It is a good illustration of the way in which feminism is not a matter just of liberal divorce and abortion laws, of equal pay for equal work and Title IX, but a radical deformation of some basic truths about the world that can now be routinely discredited by being labeled as "Victorian."

AS IT HAPPENED, the Post had offered us another example of the same phenomenon only the week before when it published April Witt's lengthy and admiring profile of Jessica Cutler, the Capitol Hill legislative aide whose sex diary brought her instant fame and fortune and a contract to pose for Playboy last May. Or, as Miss Witt put it, "Jessica's unapologetically snarky chronicle of her busy sex life, her audacious refusal to keep the pawing patriarchy's dirty secrets, her contempt for honest but unglamorous public service, her cynical wit and sexy looks would combine with the power of the Web to launch her into low-orbit celebrity."

Here seems to be yet another feminist excuse for indiscretion, namely that "audacious refusal to keep the pawing patriarchy's dirty secrets." It will have to be explained to non-ideologues that by "the pawing patriarchy" Miss Witt means Miss Cutler's sexual partners whose status as men is enough to enroll them, in her view, in the putatively oppressive confraternity known as "the Patriarchy" which no one has ever observed directly but whose existence is an article of faith to all the most politically sophisticated feminists.

Both Mrs. McGreevey's reticence and Miss Cutler's signal lack of same convey a similar message to the ideologue, or to someone like Miss Prose or Miss Witt whose thinking on such subjects has been formed by ideologues. But the feminism of the ideologues is becoming ever more remote from ordinary life. Sam Schulman, writing in the July-August number of Commentary compares it to the British heavy guns on Singapore in 1941 which were pointed the wrong way and couldn't be turned around when the Japanese attacked from the wrong direction:

The great feminist objection to marriage in the age of sexual revolution -- the fear of "losing one's identity" -- has become an historical artifact. It seems only yesterday -- 1970 -- when the singer Carly Simon could fret aloud that, should she wed, "I'll never learn to be just me first/by myself." But I do not believe this concern has been uttered anywhere east of the Urals by any educated woman in the last twenty years. The problem of a woman in the real world has not been to find her identity within marriage, but to find marriage at all.

Mr. Schulman outlines the main reason for this state of affairs, namely that the long years in which women are now expected to establish themselves in a career before marrying and having babies leave too small a "window" of time into which those important parts of life have to be crammed. But he might also have mentioned the effects of the sexual revolution and the curious feminist superstition that, just as it is liberating to talk about one's private and sexual life in public, so it is confining and oppressive not to do so.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.