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What We Can Learn From Feminism’s Victorian Revival


Accusing modern and especially online feminism of Victorian tendencies is not novel. References to fainting couches abound, as well as even more overt comparisons. These all have a snickering quality to them, because, well, we all know how backwards the Victorians were. Don’t we? Certainly we all know the Victorians were ideologically anathema to feminists.

As someone who takes feminist arguments seriously, and someone who believes the Victorians have been unfairly maligned by their descendants, I’d like to suggest that we do have a lot to learn from them. The Victorians had two things we lack and should seriously consider bringing back: stricter standards of engagement—and higher personal standards in general—and a sensitivity about anything that might stain one’s good name.

We moderns detest artifice. We demand authenticity; anything that falls short is “phony,” as “Catcher in the Rye’s” Holden Caulfield puts it. Who could be phonier than the Victorians? Everything was self-conscious and contrived, from how they dressed to how they talked, and especially how men and women outside of the context of family and marriage talked to one another. They talked a big game about virtue and character, but men sought the service of prostitutes in unprecedented numbers, for instance, and proved themselves hypocrites in countless cases. And there is nothing phonier than a hypocrite.

Authenticity Can Be Artificial

The reach for authenticity shows itself in a hostility against “mere” rhetoric as opposed to substance. But we are not computers trading pure information that you have or don’t; all human communication requires interpretation. Rhetoric is just the craft of taking seriously how you will be interpreted. All anti-rhetorics have a rhetoric of their own; witness the “objective” style of journalism meant to imply authoritativeness, which would likely seem less credible if explicitly asserted.

There is an asymmetry in who is hurt when we allow ourselves to become slobs.

Similarly, I have to think of the people who spend hours every morning attempting to make their hair look like they just rolled out of bed. When I was in high school, a friend once commented, “Some people try very hard to look like they just rolled out of bed, but you actually just do it.” I was very authentic—a smelly, disheveled, ungroomed, authentic slob. But at least I wasn’t a phony, right?

It seems to me that in the reaction against Victorian tendencies we are so afraid to be perceived as uptight that we would rather become slobs. Often, we men also become brutes. I am no expert on feminist arguments, but from those I have seen, and what I have witnessed in my life and the lives of my friends and loved ones, I have concluded this: there is an asymmetry in who is hurt when we allow ourselves to become slobs. When a woman is told not to be so uptight because she calls out a rape joke as inappropriate in a work environment (or any environment), we have allowed our fear of being Victorian to cloud our judgment. Better uptight than a brute.

At Least Victorians Had Standards

Victorians had a strict set of protocols for how men were to conduct themselves around women. This does not mean that they had the right set of protocols. But the existence of protocols itself is a great virtue. Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower emphasizes that it can be built, but also that willpower is most effectively used when economized through useful habits and planning in advance as much as possible, rather than on the spot. Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson have emphasized how willpower is mostly “extended,” in the sense that we rely on external tools and our environment—including our social environment—to help use, economize on, and build it.

Our unreasonable standards of authenticity make us the more likely hypocrites.

Victorian decorum and propriety were part of people’s extended wills. Since the rules of engagement were fairly set, there was less to be decided on the spot. It helped stave off decision fatigue to a much greater extent than our current looser standards. It also set minimal standards of decent behavior. Whatever the other (many) shortcomings Victorians had, they didn’t go around casually making rape jokes.

What gave these protocols their bite was the almost obsessive importance that Victorians placed on preserving their good name. The mere appearance of impropriety could be devastating in Victorian social circles. They took their reputation seriously in a way that we have not for some time.

I’m not saying that people don’t care about their reputations, of course—there’s a litany of articles pointing out instances of self-conscious engagement with social media, and public relations is everyone’s favorite pariah. But that’s just it. We heap ridicule and scorn on such behavior, even though we all have to engage in it to some extent. In most cases, Victorians’ higher standards made them more likely to be hypocrites than we are. In this case, our unreasonable standards of authenticity make us the more likely hypocrites.

Are Hypocrites Worse than Brutes?

You can, of course, avoid hypocrisy by becoming as authentic as my high school self, a slob who didn’t much care about his reputation. If you’re too lazy to think about how your reputation can impact your long-term prospects, and to think through ways of economizing your willpower, you can embody the great virtuous authenticity of saying whatever you think whenever you think it, regardless of whether it is appropriate, whether you’re risking your good name for absolutely no gain, and whether you’ve unnecessarily made someone else feel uncomfortable.

Having high standards you fail to meet is not phony.

Having high standards you fail to meet is not phony. Being thoughtful about how you present yourself and your ideas to the world, and how you behave towards other people, should be encouraged, rather than mocked. A hypocrite who is really trying is infinitely better than a slob and a brute. I am not saying that we need the same standards or to be thoughtful in the same way as the Victorians. I’m saying that a serious response to what feminists call rape culture is not mockery or dismissal, but a call for stricter standards and better behavior by all.

If you are a conservative rather than a feminist, or at least if you are tradition-respecting, then the call for learning from the Victorians should hold an even deeper appeal. Calls for higher standards in general and on gender questions in particular are common on the Right. See, for instance, Ross Douthat on the impact of the sexual revolution on the poor.

Too often conservatives let their visceral dislike of feminists, who often make conservative thinkers the objects of their criticism, cloud the potential common ground here. Too frequently it is conservatives who mock feminists for being excessively Victorian. I should think if anyone was positioned to see the wisdom we can learn from the Victorians, it would be conservatives. Let’s all start taking seriously the need for stricter protocols and higher standards.