Yesterday I described some of the social scene at Shawmut River Baptist Church in James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh, which explains why feminism isn’t very appealing to women in that community. But I still left a big question hanging: why are women so insistent on the inverse of feminism? Why do they insist men should hold the positions of authority in church, family, and nation?
One point becomes clear throughout the book: the official positions of power don’t mean a whole lot. For instance, while the church is technically run by the pastor, his deacons and a board of trustees, all of them male, when Ault asks congregants who the most powerful people in church are, the uniform answer is the pastor, his wife, his parents and his in-laws. Women confine themselves to the domestic and family spheres and leave the institutional, “public” spheres to the men; but the family sphere looms so large in this society that it comes across as a fairly even trade. For those of us looking at things on the large scale, where men make laws, direct armies and control billions of dollars, it seems like giving away the store. But in Shawmut’s small-scale world, things look different.
More provocative, though, is Ault’s analysis of female influence over men. The Baptists have a saying: “The man is the head, the woman’s the neck that turns the head.” Normally that doesn’t seem to me to say much for women’s power, because it still seems to be affirming men as the ones who really matter, and women matter only to the extent that they affect them. But Ault sees female influence as being much broader than this.
Recall how, back in my first post about this book, I described how the community operates by a consensus that seems to belong to no one individual: it’s “how we’ve always done things” or “what everyone knows.” After watching how men and women interact during his years there, Ault concludes that women are the ones who mainly control that consensus, largely by running the gossip network.
The word “gossip” sounds light and trivial to us, but as anyone who’s read the Epistle of James knows, in a tight-knit society it’s deadly serious business. In a word-of-mouth society, it’s how information is conveyed and group opinions formed. Ault says even the pastor is at its mercy:
Once reputation crystallizes, whether true or not, it provides a lens through which all members can legitimately see what that person’s actions obviously are … In the quiet flow of normal conversation unruffled by dissent or controversy, ice crystals of “fact” gradually form, linking up slowly with others in a grid, which, as layer upon layer form, might eventually become solid enough to drive a truck across. Meanwhile, anyone trying to navigate the waters of life at Shawmut River had to beware these ice-formations-in-the-making hidden beneath its surface.
Frank’s preoccupation with gossip was understandable. Rather than the all-powerful commander of his ship, he seemed its frustrated pilot, nervously scanning the seas around him for signs of hidden icebergs whose creation and movement he was unable to control, things that would drive parents from his school or turn his flock against him.
Anyone who’s been on a schoolyard knows that gossip is a heavily female thing (and social-psych studies have confirmed this). And the fact that the women are more likely to be at home with family and neighbors, rather than at impersonal workplaces like men, makes it even more likely that they’ll hear and spread the word. All this isn’t particularly new.
But Ault’s novel (to me) claim is that women succeed in forming public opinion precisely by being invisible. Remember that the consensus opinion becomes a consensus because it isn’t attached to any particular person — it’s just what “everyone knows.” But that means that it can’t come from those in official positions of power:
…to achieve this collective voice, gossip must distance itself from the voice of individual authority and individual accountability. But patriarchal authority, whether in father or in pastor, requires the posture and voice of individual accountability. Furthermore, as heads of households, men are, as individuals, continually vulnerable to questions of honor, forcing them into defensive and aggressive postures and efforts to save face and to be and appear strong….
In the traditional regime of gender, then, women’s place in the family — where families involve broader ties of mutual aid among relatives — and the posture of individual strength and accountability required of men as household heads give women certain advantages in elaborating common belief in ordinary talk. Removed from positions of formal authority, women thereby enjoy certain indirect means to shape an oral tradition through the continual stream of day-to-day moral judgments carried largely in talk. And it is at least partly for this reason, perhaps, that women are seen in settings like Shawmut River to be the principal carriers of morality.
This all sounds manipulative, but Ault doesn’t see the Shawmut women as consciously deceiving him (or other men). They sincerely believe they are simply transmitting what everyone knows, those external, eternal values they all believe in. But by submerging self into the group’s collective unconscious, women achieve a collective power that balances the individual power of men. And on some level women derive their security from this, and they don’t want it to change. (I suspect this dynamic extends well beyond this church or this country. A book I have on India remarks that, “although so many Hindu practices seem to the disadvantage of women, it is women who uphold the customs and caste rules most vigorously. Hindu women also observe their religious obligations much more faithfully than men.”)
Raising the whole specter of female influence over men is, well, uncomfortable. It has historically been used to disbelieve or blame women who claim to have been raped or abused, on the theory that women are really in charge of their men, or if they aren’t perhaps they deserve what comes to them. For that reason, many feminists have dismissed the idea out of hand as a male paranoid fantasy that justifies abuse.
But, given Ault’s comprehensive observations, as well as my own experience, I’m willing to believe him. I just want to qualify it with a few points:
1) Some women are better at this than others. In fact, reading about the whole female scene at Shawmut brought back unhappy memories of my own difficulty fitting into female groups as a kid, usually because I didn’t know “what everyone knows” and felt like there were unspoken signals flying around that I couldn’t follow. For that reason, I generally wound up hanging out with guys who were themselves rejects from male groups. Ault doesn’t deal much with the whole question of gender misfits; in a community as small as Shawmut River, there aren’t many of them. But I suspect that one of the driving forces of feminism is the way urban life lets gender misfits (including homosexuals) congregate in their own groups, and perhaps plot the overthrow of those gender norms they find so oppressive.
2) Even women who have the knack for influencing men need a stable and cohesive society that will socialize men so that they behave in a fairly predictable way. The incident with the braless hippychick, for instance, wouldn’t have happened at Shawmut because the language of clothes is generally agreed upon; you wouldn’t have a woman claiming that her choice of apparel means X when everybody else thinks it means Y (or, as seems more the case, has a lot of different opinions what it means). If women basically know how a man is going to react to an action or word on their part, it becomes a lot easier to have the effect on him they want.
But women in modern society run into colliding and nebulous behavioral norms, so we don’t have that kind of assurance. Another unhappy memory wanders into my head as I think of this. Some time ago I dated a guy who treated me badly (I’ll spare you the details). When I tried to go talk to him his mother intervened, saying, “You know how men are, what are you expecting?” Once again, I ran into an “everybody knows” that I didn’t know, in this case because my “everybody” wasn’t her “everybody.” In the little subculture where this guy and his mother lived, it was basically accepted that men were pigs; but women like his mother felt they were pigs they understood, and therefore could basically manage. And so the son lived up to his mother’s low expectations.
The women at Shawmut River, to their credit, do try to improve their men by bringing them to Christ. But it’s worth noting that they basically swap out their old model of man for an even older one. Relying on time-tested gender roles with predictable rules means men can still be managed. Trying to create a New Man, or letting men figure out for themselves what they want to be, would make men unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous.
3) Even under ideal circumstances, there’s still an element of randomness to human behavior. Men can do totally unexpected things, and women are, you know, human and fallible. So I don’t think women deserved to get raped or beaten for these failures any more than I think men deserve to get killed in duels for not being swift enough with a pistol.
Whew! Time to take a break. But obviously, all this has larger implications for both politics and religion. More on that to come.