Not Ashamed of Modesty

Feminism constantly tells women we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies, our desires, our gender, our career goals – of anything really. We can do and be whatever we want and nothing should hold us back. It sounds good in theory, but like many things humans do it can be taken to extremes.

Take the Women’s March from a few weeks ago as an example. If you want to march around with what one blogger I follow delicately called a pink taco on your head I won’t stop you. But those of us who don’t do things like that aren’t any less “women” than you are, nor are we less interested in being treated with dignity, respect, and equality. In fact, that’s a big reason we express our notions of feminism (and femininity) in different ways.

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Photo credit: “Day 68” by Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA via Flickr

Today, I’m going to take society’s claim that there’s no need to feel shame about the kind of woman you are to heart and say I’m not ashamed of modesty. Depending on your background this word may have provoked a strong reaction. Perhaps you think modesty is a repressive, old-fashioned list of rules telling women how not to dress and act. Or maybe you think modesty sounds safe – a way to hide from attention you don’t want any more. But modestly is about so much more than a set of rules for covering yourself up. It’s more powerful and – dare I say it? – sexy than we often think.

Let’s start with a working definition of modesty: Modesty is concealing what you do not want everyone to know or see so that you can reveal yourself only to someone you trust. It’s typically associated with the idea of sex and how much skin you show, but it has to do with other things as well. For example, you might also exercise modesty by not calling undue attention to yourself or by reserving certain parts of your personality for people you know well. Continue reading

Wanting Children While Single

You snuggle babies every chance you get, longing for the day when you might hold your own child. Or perhaps you don’t hold babies any more because the ache of wishing they were yours is just too much. That’s the kind of grief and longing we associate with women in relationships who want to have a child and can’t get pregnant. Yet this desire isn’t confined to women with a man in their lives whom they love.

I’ve always felt guilty for how much I sympathize with the barren women of the Bible. As far as I know, I could have children if I found the right guy to marry and it seems rude to compare myself with women who are physically unable to have children. It also seems out-of-order to long for children before meeting the man I’d want to be their father.

I’m not alone, though. A woman I met through this blog while working on The INFJ Handbook shared her desire for children by asking why so many children are born into broken families while we, who would make good moms, are left barren. Since then, I’ve come across other women who feel the same way. If you’re committed to not having sex before marriage and/or not having children without a man in your life, then single women can know the pain of empty arms that long to hold a child.

Cultural Back-lash

Longing for children is unpopular in today’s society. We’ve become so obsessed with the fact that women are more than “baby producing machines” that the notion of being a mother has becomes synonymous with female oppression. Instead of seeing motherhood as a beautiful thing that many women desire, we’re told kids should take a back-seat to your career, your other desires, and your empowerment as a woman. And if having kids is actually one of your top life goals? well, clearly you’re still living in the pre-feminism dark ages. Continue reading

Female Difficulties

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comMy title for this post is the subtitle for Frances Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer. It was one of the first books I put down when compiling my Classics Club Book List, and I’m reading it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event. Finishing this book means I’ve now read all Burney’s major fiction works (that is a grand total of 3,133 pages of text, so it’s a pretty big deal). I am Reader, hear me roar.

Note: spoilers follow for this 202 year old book.

The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties is the tale of a penniless emigree from revolutionary France trying to earn her living in England while guarding her own secrets. Combining the best elements of the gothic and historical novels, this newly appreciated work is an extraordinary piece of Romantic fiction. Burney’s tough comedy offers a satiric view of complacent middle-class insularity that echoes Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s attacks on the English social structure. The problems of the new feminism and of the old anti-feminism are explored in the relationship between the heroine and her English patroness and rival, the Wollstonecraftian Elinor Joddrel, and the racism inherent within both the French and British empires is exposed when the emigree disguises herself as a black woman. (Goodreads summary)

This is probably the Burney novel that I found most frustrating. Evelina, her first novel, is the easiest to read, though it still engages with the darker side of 18th century romance. Her next two, Cecelia and Camilla, are more difficult (especially if you’re expecting an Austen-style romance). The heroines are persecuted relentlessly, in grave danger several times, and the heroes fail to live up to the name.  The Wanderer takes these themes a step further. Instead of giving her characters ineffective guardians, Burney doesn’t leave the Wanderer, who goes by the name “Ellis” for much of the book, anyone to turn to at all. Instead of revealing the plight of a young woman having difficulty navigating the marriage market, Burney shows the struggles of a woman completely alone without name or resources to protect and support her.

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties #ccwomensclassics post | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe Wanderer is a scathing rebuke of society on many different levels. Burney takes full advantage of her lengthy text to discuss the French Revolution, snobbery in the upper classes, gender inequalities, racial stereotypes, modern suspicion of an afterlife, suicide, social perceptions and stereotypes, abusive/coercive relationships, and duty to family (just to name the ones that come to mind within a minute). The amount of ground she covers is really quite impressive. Even more impressive is that she manages to show both sides of most issues. Sometimes you can easily tell where Burney stands, but not always. For several of the ideas discussed, it seems she just wants readers to open their eyes and see that things aren’t always black and white.

What frustrated me when reading The Wanderer wasn’t the issues being discussed or even so much the drawn-out plot line. It was Ellis’ character. The narrative stays with Ellis but maintains a distance that makes it very difficult to sympathize or identify with her. For the better part of the book, we don’t know any more than the other characters about who she is and what her motivations are. We rarely even know what she’s thinking. What’s worse, we seldom hear her say anything. There are a few scenes where Ellis speaks clearly and decisively, but mostly she stands mute. She is silent while other characters misconstrue her motivations, put words into her mouth, accuse her unjustly, and even propose romantic connections. A few words pass her lips, but mostly she stands in acute emotional agony hoping the other characters will understand her inarticulate protests. Even Mr. Harleigh, the heroic figure in this story, becomes so frustrated by this that there are times he is almost violent in his insistence that she give him a straight answer.

Silencing the main character frustrated me, but it also draws attention to the difficulties Burney is discussing. It might be tempting to read the subtitle “Female Difficulties” simply as a critique of the challenges women faced in 18th century society. We could say that it is the other characters who make life difficult for Ellis because society is set-up to be suspicious of a woman alone and to limit her options. But it goes even deeper than that. The type of femininity ingrained the naturally elegant and lady-like Ellis make her situation even more difficult. She is one of her own worst enemies because of her limiting view of her own role as a woman. It’s not seemly for a lady to perform in public, so she refuses to give a concert until she’s shamed into it by a need to pay her debts. It’s not ladylike to accept pecuniary aid from a man, so she becomes entangled in a host of embarrassing situations trying to return gifts that were made anonymously to spare her delicacy. It’s a shame for a woman to run away from her husband, so she conceals the fact that she was forced into a marriage that’s barely recognizable under the law even when it means leading on another man who’s falling in love with her.

Like today, 18th Century culture was struggling with ideas surrounding gender definitions, roles, and expectations. Burney recognized that the problems regarding inequalities between men and women weren’t just external, but also ingrained in prevailing ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity. I argued when writing my undergrad thesis about her other novels that Burney countered the gender crisis of her day by advocating for a return to Biblical gender ideals where men and women are recognized as having unique strengths and roles yet also viewed as equally important. In this book, published 18 years after Camilla, there’s little evidence of that hope. Burney seems more cynical about society’s ability to change and points out problems without offering a way to fix things. It’s up to us, the readers, to try and find a solution or to live with the consequences of inaction.wanderer

 

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Evelina: A Darker Look At Courtship

When I first read Evelina, my observation was that Frances Burney’s style “represents a shift nearing the latter part of the 18th century from fiction as a didactic tool to fiction as a pleasurable reading experience.” While I’m good as saving my literary observations (I have copies of everything I wrote in college), I’m apparently not very good at taking my own advice. This is the first time I’ve read Evelina for pleasure rather than analysis

I chose Evelina for a reread on my Classics Club Book List, and it also fits neatly into the Classics Club’s year-long Women’s Classic Literature Event (Tweet about it with #ccwomenclassics). The first time I read Evelina was in Spring 2010 for an upper-level course on The Early British Novel. Though I didn’t hate any of the other 4 books in this course, Burney’s little epistolary novel from 1778 was by far my favorite.

It’s no wonder, then, that when our professor asked me and one other student if we’d like to read more Burney in an independent study I said “yes.” We read Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) – both weighing in at a solid 900+ pages. Then we branched out into Ann Radcliffe with The Romance of the Forest. That lead me to my first undergraduate research project titled “Unmanned Heroes: 18th Century Female Writers and Male Sentimentality. That turned into a 25-page research paper titled “Biblical Answers to the 18th Century Gender Crisis” (click on the title if you’d like to read this), which led me back to reading Evelina academically.

Reading "Evelina" for #ccwomenclassics | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Me at the Denman Undergraduate Research forum in 2012

Now, 4 years later, I’m back reading Evelina and enjoying it more than ever. Frances Burney was a fantastic (and, sadly, under appreciated) writer. Though Evelina was first published anonymously, Burney never hid the fact that she was a female writer. Her novels were quite popular with the general reading public and in artistic circles even during a literary age we often think of as belonging only to “dead white man.” Her style and success paved the way for writers like Jane Austen. In fact, Austen took her title Pride and Prejudice from a scene in Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, and when Austen’s father was seeking publication for that novel he described it as “about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina.”

Comparing Burney to Austen (another favorite writer of mine), there are clear similarities, especially in Evelina. Both writers focus on a young woman who “marries up” by the end of the novel. Both critique society and social norms with a thinly-veiled sarcastic wit. But the differences are at times even more striking than the similarities. Nowhere in Austen will you find a scene like the one in Evelina when Captain Mirvan impersonates a highwayman and drags Madam Duval into a ditch where he terrifies her for sport. And, though Austen does have her Mr. Willoughbya and Mr. Wickhams, you’ll not find any of her main characters in situations so dangerous as Evelina’s.

Throughout the course of the novel, Evelina is persecuted by a man named Lovel, hounded and even kidnapped by Sir Clement, affronted by a staring Lord (in front of his fiancee), and rudely accosted by strange men at Vauxhall. To quote an essay by Judith Newton that appeared in a 1976 edition of Modern Language Studies, there are few places Evelina can go “without being forced, intruded upon, seized, kidnapped, or in some other way violated.” Newton describes this persecution as a “woman’s fate” once she entered into the marriage market in the 1700s, and points out that Burney “is one of the few writers in the century to take the discomfort of it seriously.”

Indeed, while I’ve frequently thought I might like to visit Jane Austen’s England, Burney’s is much less appealing. It’s populated with aggressive and vulgar people, the public places are unsafe without a large party and/or male protection, and it’s painfully obvious how vulnerable and option-less women were without family and fortune to their name. But it also feels more real. Sense and Sensibility came out in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813 – a scant 33 and 35 years after Evelina. Things had changed, but not that much. Much as I love Austen, I wonder if Burney was in some ways the braver novelist for calling out her contemporary society on its darker sides.click to read article, "Evelina: A Darker Look At Courtship" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Mighty Women

It seems odd to me that I’ve read the “virtuous woman” passage scores of times without bothering to look up the word “virtuous.” The Hebrew word, chayil, was mentioned in the first message given as my Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) site this year. I even had it in my notes, but forgot about it. God brought it to my attention again at the end of the Feast, when a man handed me a booklet titled “A Mighty Warrior: The Hebrew-Biblical View of A Woman” by Dr. Frank T. Seekins. I can take a hint — one Bible study/blog post coming right up!

Mighty Women | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Into The Hebrew

Chayil (H2428) carries the basic meaning of “‘strength,’ from which follow ‘army’ and ‘wealth'”(Theological Wordbook OT, entry 624). It’s used about 20 times of God’s might or power, and about 85 times to describe an attribute of people.

When chayil is used of people, there’s a marked difference in how it’s translated for men and women. For men, we find translations like “mighty man” or “mighty men of valor.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “The individual designated seems to be the elite warrior similar to the hero of the Homeric epic.” For women, however, “it is translated ‘virtuous’ (ASV, RSV ‘worthy’ or ‘good’), but it may well be that a woman of this caliber had all the attributes of her male counterpart.”

While Biblical women were not typically warriors and did not serve in the army, we do have the example of Deborah acting the part of a “mighty woman of valor.” We also know from passages like Ephesians 6:11-13 and 2 Timothy 2:3-4 that all Christians are spiritual warriors. God’s women must be just as valiant as His men!

Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an armory, on which hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men. (Song 4:4)

O my love, you are as beautiful as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners! (Song 6:4)

Both these passages from Song of Solomon are descriptions that the male lover, who represents Christ, uses toward the female lover, who represents the church. Great men aren’t frightened of strong women; they embrace them as allies.

A Little More History

You might wonder why English translators decided to use “virtuous” or “good”for chayil when the Hebrew leans more toward “strong” and “mighty.” I suspect there were two reasons. Firstly, the original meaning of “virtue” in English was closer to chayil. It arrived in English around 1200 from Old French with the meanings, “force; strength; vigor; moral strength.” Originally, the Latin virtatum meant “high character; goodness; manliness; valor; bravery” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

Secondly, with prevailing attitudes of gender around the time early Bibles like the 1611 King James Version were released, translators were probably hesitant to call women “mighty” or “powerful.” By the 1590s, “virtuous” was losing the more martial aspects of the meaning, shifting toward moral characteristics. In reference to women, “virtuous” became used as a synonym for “chastity.” In the King James Version you can still see this word used for “power” in the New Testament passages where dunamis (G1411) is translated “virtue” (Mark 5:30; Luke 6:19, 8:46). In the New King James, references to Christ were changed from “virtue” to “power,” but the “virtuous woman” in Proverbs 31 only changes to a “virtuous wife.”

The high moral standards are essential for godly women. Commands regarding modesty and chastity are recorded elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:9), and the character of the Proverbs 31 woman is beyond reproach. But being a “virtuous woman” with is more involved than we might assume from what we’ve grown up hearing about “traditional gender roles.” “Virtue” has suffered a similar fate as the word “meekness,” which our culture thinks of as synonymous with “doormat” while the original meaning carried the idea of strength submitted to God.

Mighty Women | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Allies in Battle

God created men and women to fight for Him together. They’re both supposed to be strong, and they’re both supposed to support each other.

Men and women were created by God to be allies. As a culture, we have lost the concept of powerful allies; the very thing that Proverbs 31 is telling men to value. …

When a woman’s power is undercut, a situation is created where men and women become enemies. Instead of supporting each other, we battle and undermine God’s call to reflect Jesus relationship with His bride, the church. …

The Biblical concept is clear — A woman of power is to be valued and supported. It is God’s call for women (and men) to become mighty and powerful. (Seekins, p. 2)

I think many women balk at the Proverbs 31 model because it seems so domestic and submissive. “I don’t want to be a stay-at-home barefoot-and-pregnant good little wife,” some protest. “Why would God ask for such an outdated model of femininity?” But when we look closer at Proverbs 31, I think we find that’s not actually what it’s saying.

The first two descriptions show a woman who does her husband “good and not evil,” and who has earned his complete trust (Prov. 31:11-12). Her husband is respected by all, and it’s implied this is in no small part owing to her support as his ally (Prov. 31:23). In addition, she cares for the poor and needy, practicing the command to “love your neighbor” (Prov. 31:20). She’s respected by her children, husband and the community, and her opinion is highly valued (Prov. 31:28-29, 31).

The Proverbs 31 woman is shown actively engaged in business. She works with her hands, engages in trade “like the merhcant’s ships,” and oversees workers in her household (Prov. 31:13-16, 19, 22, 24). She’s not full of anxiety because she has confidence in her ability to care for her business and family (Prov. 31:18, 21, 27).

Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness. (Prov. 31:25-26)

It’s still an intimidating picture to try and live up to, but there’s no reason to reject it as demeaning to women. If anything, this “outdated” model is far more powerful than anything modern women’s empowerment movements have come up with.

When a woman understands her calling to be a mighty warrior and a perfect ally, she will conquer and control life. She will remember that the men in her life are not the enemy; her weapons are not meant to be used against them. The weapons of her strength and power are to be used against their enemies (Seekins, p. 23).

God calls all of us to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Eph. 6:10). Both men and women need to recognize this, and embrace our roles as “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7), fighting as allies for and alongside the Captain of our Salvation, Jesus Christ.

Women’s Classic Literature Event

Extra post this week because I’m so excited about the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by The Classics Club. I’ve read many great classics written by women, and look forward to discovering more over the next year. Even if you’re not part of the Classics Club reading challenge, you’re still welcome to jump on board with this event using the #ccwomenclassics hashtag to share what you’re reading.

A Survey for the Women’s Classic Literature Event

Introduce yourself. Tell us what you are most looking forward to in this event.

  • As a female writer, I’m all for reading literature written by women. I studied English at The Ohio State University, and my undergraduate research project focused on Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft. For this event, I’m most looking forward to seeing my fellow readers discover amazing classics by women writers, and then gathering suggestions from them for my own “to-read” list.

Have you read many classics by women? Why or why not?

  • I have read quite a few. We picked out some for my high school curriculum (homeschooled), then in college I was blessed to take classes from English professors who made sure to teach fine books written by both men and women.

Pick a classic female writer you can’t wait to read for the event, & list her date of birth, her place of birth, and the title of one of her most famous works.

  • Mary Shelley, born 30 August 1797 in London, England. I’ve read some of her mother’s writings, but nothing by her. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s most famous work.

Favorite classic heroine? (Why? Who wrote her?)

  • Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte. I love first-person narrative when it’s well written, and Bronte makes Jane a spectacular narrator. She’s a strong, clever woman and I admire her moral strength and unabashed living out of her Christian faith. (Bonus: Jane’s a fictional example of my INFJ personality type.)

Recommend three books by classic female writers to get people started in this event. (Again, skip over this if you prefer not to answer.)

  • Evelina by Frances Burney. I did my undergraduate research project on Burney, and highly recommend her work to fans of Jane Austen. Evelina is the shortest and most manageable of her novels, so I suggest trying that one out before jumping into the 900+ page Cecelia or Camilla.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. If you haven’t read this famous classic yet, I hope you will. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and I love the characters.
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I love this book and the BBC adaptation staring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. The casting is perfect, and my only quibble with the plot adaptation is the ending/proposal scene … but no more on that for fear of spoilers.

Will you be joining us for this event immediately, or will you wait until the new year starts?

  • I’ll probably write about Tenant of Wildfell Hall in November or December.

Do you plan to read as inspiration pulls, or will you make out a preset list?

  • I’ll pull from the women writers already on my Classics Club list, and maybe add a few more as inspiration strikes.

Share a quote you love by a classic female author — even if you haven’t read the book yet.

  • Here’s one I took note of when reading Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Women’s Classic Literature Event | marissabaker.wordpress.com

caterpillar credit: Eli Duke, CC BY-SA via Flickr