false dichotomies: "homeschooled girls vs. feminists"

homeschooled girls

So, Robert Knight, an extremely conservative writer for Townhall and whose articles occasionally appear in publications like the Washington Times, wrote an article last Tuesday called “Homeschooled Girls vs. Feminists.” Since the article spends most of its time talking about grown women, I have to admit to some mild annoyance to the persistent infantilization of women in conservative circles. College-aged females are women, thank you.

My real problem with his article, however, is the false dichotomy he frames in the title and then argues in the piece itself. Just a quick review: a false dichotomy, also known as the false dilemma, is an attempt to reduce a complex, nuanced argument down to two separate, extreme positions. This type of argument is probably more familiar to people as “black and white thinking.” Knight’s article is an excellent example of how fundamentalists approach almost any issue– it’s us against them. Good, godly, homeschooled “girls” (grr) verses those big, bad, bra-burning, man-hating feminists.

First of all, I’m a homeschooled graduate and a feminist. My existence flies in the face of Knight’s argument. Also, there has not been any backlash against homeschooling led by feminists. If a feminist figure says anything at all, it’s to comment on the sexist attitude in religious homeschooling culture. Also, the feminist who said that, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, homeschooled her children and published that article in Home Education Magazine. The only people who really seem to be saying that feminists oppose homeschooling are homeschoolers. In fact, there are many feminists who choose to homeschool– women like Sara Schmidt. And Suki Wessling.

But it’s not an uncommon reaction for homeschooling advocates to point at people like me who want to see common-sense policies introduced and start shouting “you’re all a bunch of feminists!” See Robert Knight, and “Overhere” (who was commenting on a secular homeschooling forum). In these sorts of discussions, feminists get painted inaccurately, and motivations are attributed to us that fall right in line with the anti-feminist rhetoric that’s existed for decades. We’re just selfish. We think homeschooling means signing ourselves into a “concentration camp” (which, granted, that comparison comes from The Feminine Mystique…).

Which is, le sigh, not true.

But, I’d like to address how Knight sets up this dichotomy in his article. He’s responding to an article I can’t read, “Feminism’s Worst Nightmare: Educated Women,” by Lou Markos for The City (published by Houston Baptist University), but giving the somewhat paranoid nature of most of his writing, I’m going to assume that this essay is pretty typical fare, and probably falls inside CBMW and CWA -type arguments, which Knight seems to share.

Knight shares Markos’ presentation of the “homeschooled girl”:

They possess a razor-sharp wit with which they can cut pretentious people (especially males) down to size, but they rarely use this skill, and only when they are sorely provoked …

They have a firm knowledge of the Bible, but they (unlike my biblically-literate male students) don’t engage in forensic debates over minor theological points of controversy; they will, however, step in if the boys get too contentious or triumphalist …

Home-schooled girls have wonderfully synthetic and creative minds that make connections across disciplines … they are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing and most play instruments and draw. …

They have not bought in to the lies of our modern consumerist state: that is to say, they do not judge their value and worth on the basis of power, wealth, or job status.

There are some pretty specific attitudes that Markos (and now Knight) are praising.

  • These young women are quiet and submissive, meek and gentle– they rarely react, and only when “sorely provoked.”
  • They understand what their place is when it comes to the Bible; they always let men lead discussions and refuse to become involved in discussing theology or become a part of a debate– they only lovingly point out that a debate has become “contentious.” They know better than to think they can engage with men on theological issues.
  • They pursue stereotypically feminine talents.
  • They find their value in the patriarchal attitudes of being a mother, wife, and homemaker and see employment as inconsequential.

Knight follows this up with talking about how Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are so popular– which he attributes to these works as not catering to “politically correct feminist lenses.” All that claim does is demonstrate a rather astonishing lack of historical awareness of either the Regency Era or WWI-era Britain. Trying to appropriate Jane Austen as some sort of anti-feminist figure is ridiculous. I’m not overly familiar with Downton Abbey, but many of my friends love it for explicitly feminist reasons.

And, apparently, feminists are engaged in the “real war on women” because we have some sort of campaign to encourage promiscuity and convince women not to ever, ever get married. Which is a pretty typical conservative phrasing of feminist arguments– they take the sex-positive, anti-shame, you-can-get-married-when-you-want-to-who-you-want narratives of feminism and completely flip them upside down.

Feminists also supposedly scream a lot about how there’s no differences between men and women and about how much we hate femininity and feminine women:

They have the wit and discernment to perceive that the feminist is finally a greater threat than the male chauvinist: for whereas the chauvinist demeans femininity, the feminist dismisses it altogether as a social construct that has no essential grounding in our God-created soul. It’s no wonder feminists hate the feminine Sarah Palin with white-hot intensity.

I would like to actually address this issue, because it’s something that as a feminist I bump into a lot, and I think it’s the essential disagreement between egalitarians and complementarians. Feminists and egalitarians both assert that while biological factors exist (besides the obvious reproductive differences, there’s also different skeletal and muscular structures), that substantial and essential differences don’t. Men and women are both created with the imago dei, both receive spiritual gifts, and both can serve in equal roles. Egalitarians recognize the variety and complexity of all people, and are uncomfortable with dividing that variety according to patriarchal stereotypes.

So yes, feminists actually believe that “femininity” is a social construct that has little grounding in biological sex–  men, women, and trans* persons can have traits and attitudes reflective of socially constructed “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Knight isn’t wrong here.

However, what Knight believes is that there is absolutely a fundamental difference between men and women– and it’s doubtful if he recognizes the legitimacy of trans* persons (which would be an attitude he shared with some). He believes that this difference is a part of our “God-created soul” and arguing any differently is akin to arguing against God and his Holy, Inspired, Infallible, Inerrant Word (instead of just a traditional interpretation of it).

It’s interesting to note that Knight spends so much of his article recognizing women he describes in terms of Proverbs 31– as “strong” and, at many points, very capable and intelligent. I think it’s possible that if Knight could engage with feminism, he’d realize that the feminism he’s portrayed here is nothing more than a straw man. I think the views he’s expressed here are sexist, but they come from this conservative preaching-at-the-choir that’s happened for decades now. Organizations like CBMW and CWA have spent a long time telling Christians what feminism is and what feminists do, and it’s gotten to the point that many Christians accept these portrayals without analysis or research.

Feminists don’t hate men.

Feminists want a world where gender privilege no longer exists, where people are treated the same regardless of their sex or gender identity, where women and trans* persons are no longer oppressed by violent systems. That’s it, really.

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  • Unfortunately, the argument that Downton Abbey shows how wonderful the prefeminist days were or that it horrifies or repulses liberals due to its essential conservatism is one that crops up on the right.

    • Wait, people describe Downton Abbey as being pre-feminist? Pretty sure Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792.

      • Plus the women’s suffrage movement started in the UK in the 1870’s… Pretty sure that counts as a feminist movement…

        • Indeed, one of the characters in the show is a young woman fighting for the vote. Another of the show’s characters is a socialist (and a real one; he advocates for the complete dismantling of the aristocracy and the complete redistribution of wealth). His socialistic tendencies are shown making him a great manager of the Estate. Both Sybil and Tom are wonderful characters and they are anything but conservative.

          Lord Grantham is easily the most conservative character on the show, and he’s a dead ring for many modern day conservatives: he’s someone who’s grown up his whole life in immense privilege, and now in his middle age he’s watching the world change around him and he struggles mightily with these changes. Yet, even then, it’s obvious that this isn’t some pre-feminist utopia — the person who runs the entire family is very obviously the dowager Countess, and she is exactly the opposite of the charms supposedly espoused by homeschooled women. She’s loud and quite opinionated and lords over both men and women equally.

          Anyone suggesting that the success of Downton Abbey has anything to do with anti-feminism cannot have watched the same show I did. As an avowed feminist, the strength of the female characters dealing with the difficult circumstances they’re placed in makes it one of the most feminist shows on television. I love it for that.

          And yeah…Austen. Oy.

  • “They are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing and most play instruments and draw.”

    Hah, this sounds like something Caroline Bingley said in Pride & Prejudice: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.”

  • As a young, straight, white, affluent, Protestant man who is an avowed feminist, the idea that some or even most feminists are man-hating is incredibly annoying. You know how many issues I have conversing with other feminists? None. I have none problems. Because feminists don’t hate me.

    • Doesn’t sound like we’d have any reason to hate you either (and thank you for speaking up).

      Hey, you know who has a lot of trouble conversing with feminists? Men who feel really threatened and/or infuriated by feminism. Those guys have a lot of trouble talking to women who don’t defer to their magic sex organs or their undeserved privilege.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a misogynist actually correctly characterize feminism in my entire life. To correctly define it is just about to declare its validity as a concept and an ideal. There’s a good reason why patriarchal Christians especially need to demonize feminism like this. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that feminism–and all the social progress feminism represents and brings along with its other gifts–is the main enemy of that kind of Christianity. People locked in that delusion genuinely believe that there is a Proper Order to Things, and that women who step outside the boundaries are doing more than making individual choices: they are threatening every single thing patriarchal Christians want and everything they believe about how the world works. Such women are declaring that no, accident of birth does not qualify someone more to lead or to follow; they are saying that they refuse to support the status quo just because not supporting it makes the patriarchal types uncomfy; they are refusing to kowtow to those who do not deserve their privilege–and they are peeling back that privilege. And I’ve just named some major tenets of patriarchal Christianity. I still remember how shocked I was to realize that they seriously think if they can roll back feminism, it will all go right back the way it was (at least in their gauzy mis-remembered 1950s fantasy world) and women will stop being all uppity and it’ll all be perfect again. They don’t want to move forward. They want to roll it all back.

    So yes: they attack women’s rights. Yes: they have launched an all-out assault on reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education and the de-stigmatizing of voluntarily-chosen sexual expression. Yes: they demonize feminism and try their damndest to silence and dehumanize feminists. They know, quite correctly, that if feminism carries the day, the changes to their little narrow lives will be monumental. But they think, incorrectly, that there’s a way to get the genie back in the bottle.

    PS: As a longtime feminist, I totally agreed with this piece. I have never once actually heard any feminist slam homeschooling (except for the really ickie religious patriarchal kind you’ve outlined lately). Many feminists choose homeschooling for their own kids. If I’d ever had kids, I probably would have as well. There is nothing about well-done homeschooling that is incompatible with an egalitarian outlook on life. It’s curious that someone could say such things when the truth is so easily accessed. It’s almost as if the people saying that stuff wanted to deceive their audience. But they’re Christians–how could that ever be? 😉

  • Preach it!

    Also, for the record, I am a feminist. My wife is a feminist. Not only does she not hate me, she is a joy to be married to, in part because of her feminism.

    I do find it odd that in this false dichotomy, the only “feminist” they seem to envision is Helen Gurley Brown. Hence the obsession with promiscuity.

  • Great disection. One of my very best friends is both a feminist and a homeschooler. I often wonder how she does it all.

  • Having just stumbled into your blog link-hopping from No Longer Quivering, I’ll be adding the RSS feed to my reader. My home education during the ’80s and ’90s was much more along the unschooling variety, but still wanted to put my hand up as someone who definitely identifies as a grown homeschooler and a life-long feminist! Anyone who sets the two practices up in opposition is oversimplifying both, when in fact there are myriad ways to do/be both feminist and home educated.

  • http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/05-Markos-Article.pdf

    There’s the Markos article you referenced. I found it today and shared it with Homeschoolers Anonymous. They directed me to your post, and I appreciate it greatly. I’m a homeschooling mom and a feminist, raising homeschooled feminist girls. Dr. Markos – we exist!