“A Woman’s Honor”


“A Woman’s Honor”

In Europe in the 1920’s, when everybody suddenly discovered they were “modern,” my mother was importuned by a young man to be “modern” in the way of most interest to him.  When her answer was negative, he protested, “You put such a price on yourself!”

“You have the price you put on yourself,” she rejoined.

Things haven’t changed that much.  The influential minds today still don’t encourage women to price their favors high.  (I am referring to all the kinds of surrender, including mental surrender – not just the sexual kind.)

(1) We’ve been assured, by certain anthropologists, that in the prelapsarian South Sea islands, in Samoa, to name one island, virginity is not a pricey item at all.  Not valued, and yet the Samoans are, or were, less uptight and neurotic than we seem to be.

(2) We’ve been assured by Dr. Sigmund Freud of the correlation between mental disorders and sexual repression.

(3) We’ve been urged by the sociobiologists to acknowledge respectfully the male instinct to share DNA with as many females as possible.

(4) We’ve been warned by the existentialists against the “bad faith” of trying to ornament the body’s naked urges with the trappings of courtship.  Courtship is so yesterday!

(5) We’ve been encouraged by the post-moderns to adopt stratagems that will be “transgressive” with regard to the established norms, which, they tell us, cloak the transfer of power from the unconscious oppressed to their cunningly conscious oppressors.

Is there anything questionable in all these recommendations from the best and the brightest?

Re Samoa: Anthropologist Derek Freeman has revisited Samoa.  Margaret Mead was misinformed.  Samoans place an excruciatingly high value on virginity.  Not Mead’s fault.  The young girls who were her informants were practicing a local custom we can call “putting on the anthropologist.”

Re Freud:  As James Baldwin once noted, reacting to Norman Mailer’s cult of the Breakthrough Orgasm: “Where I came from, people had orgasms all the time and they still cut each other up on a Saturday night.”

Re the sociobiologists: any man who wants to take you to bed on account of his species needs, doesn’t need you.

Re the existentialists: the woman who – for the sake of avoiding phoniness or acquiring instant “authenticity” – allows an applicant for her favors to dispense with the courtship preliminaries, has given that applicant permission to dodge any and all tests of character or intentions.  Hey, existentialists: I was born in the dark but it wasn’t last night.  Not recommended.

Re the post-moderns: this seems mostly an academic category, but of course it has spillover into the culture more generally.  The “ transgressive” move fails to shock; there’s been too much of it.  It seems parasitic on the norms it would violate (if anyone still remembers what those were).  To that extent, it’s got to be derivative, which means relatively shallow.  Question for the post-moderns: Are all the great works of human designing just distractions from power relations?  To suppose that is to drain oneself of one’s own power to do some great works oneself one day.

What do theoretical moves 1 through 5 have in common?  They claim to know you and me better than we know ourselves.  They hurry us.  They crowd us.  And they all offer smooth opening lines for predators.

Mom was right.  “You have the price you put on yourself.”  Sooner or later (nowadays it’s generally later) we learn that, and we raise the price.

Honor in a woman must depend on her finding her own footing in life, exercising her own best judgment, basing it increasingly on what — by trial and error, by comparing experiences, reading and reflection — she has learned and made her own.

To do this, women must not be crowded and rushed.  There needs to be a certain distance between our own selves and the selves of others, so that we can figure out what is real and valuable and what isn’t.

There must be space and time, for the honor we pay ourselves to have play.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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6 Responses to “A Woman’s Honor”

  1. My daughter and myself says:

    Dear Abigail, We are very happy to have found your non-advice column. (It’s brilliant!) As I am preparing my daughter for what the world will ask from her and she continues on her way to personhood, creating her own path; your words have paved the way for several wonderful conversations and now it is becoming a regular “tea time” and conduit to opening the door for some deep discussions on life and womanhood and the many way that society will try to write on her page. I was very happy to hear how enlightened she is on these matter and I have every confidence that she will succeed in her endeavoring; bringing a tear of awe and joy to my heart as she begins to leave her mark upon the world.

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Nancy,

      Your comment descends on me like a ray of sunshine. I could not ask for anything more welcome than your report that these columns have prompted serious talks between a conscientious mother and her thoughtful daughter on the subject of what a woman’s path in life is all about. What interesting conversations those must be!

      The culture gives us so many false doors and misleading pronouncements to contend with! Self-appointed experts make gross what is subtle, crass what is delicate and indubitable what is quite doubtful. The maps are wrong.

      Real life is loaded with meaning but not easy to get. We are not being shown the clues, we are not being shown the challenges, we are not being encouraged to notice the meanings.

      Thank you for your comment and for taking life as seriously as you do.

  2. Mary Bittner Wiseman says:

    Dear Abbie,
    Your postings, beautifully written, intricately reasoned, wittily and aptly illustrated, are, as I read them, an homage to your mother. They are love letters to her.

    I have not replied to any before and have only basked in them, but I reply now because I think you have been too hard on post-modernism. “Transgressing” beliefs that have not been thought through as Socrates did and those easily subject to doubt as Descartes did is what philosophers do. They call into question accepted beliefs and the theories or world views that underlie and purport to justify them. They try to make things and thoughts clear by clearing away the brush so they can see a clear path, as Hume said he was doing, and awakening us from our dogmatic slumbers, as Kant claimed to do, in order to work through the impasses that thought can get itself into, as he held rationalism and empriricism had.

    In the course of history there are reason aplenty for looking anew at what is accepted. You are right that the Marxist claim that the beliefs and values in place at a time reflect the interest of those who have power to influence ideas–universities, editors, and the press as well as capitalists and kings–contributed to the upheavals in thought in Europe in the 1960s, when post-modernism was born. The Marxist claim was not, however, the driving force behind contemporary upheavals in the United States. The story of post-modernism is the story of the 1960s, which included the view that the modern belief that contradictions that arose in the thought of the past, inextricably involved as it was with contemporary institutions, had been either refined through thought’s revolution or evolution, or synthesized or simply left behind as one paradigm replaced another was wrong. The view, that is, that progress was inevitable and the modern was always better was wrong. The conceit of the modern gave way to an effort to rethink what had been taken to go without saying.

    Weren’t the skeptical questionings of Socrates and Descartes “parasitic” on what they were questioning? What was not derivative was the way they did it. That was new, and we still do what they did. The most charitable reading of post-modernism is to see it as a way of rethinking our relation to the past and trying to recover the presuppositions implicit in what we laud as modern.

    In this spirit, women have been asking wherein woman-ness and the feminine lie. A woman’s earnestly trying to realize and to appreciate what being a woman is and not simply seeing herslef in terms of the stereotypes that abound is, I would say, putting a very high price on herself.

    Sent to you in love,

    • Abigail says:

      Mary, Marele, dear friend and colleague! We two have weathered so many big storms that became less harsh because we could share them! We are to be mutually congratulated for having known how to value each other and a friendship that began as colleagueship but has stretched far beyond the usual “term limits” of that.

      Although we’ve frequently consulted about our respective works-in-progress, the last time we came up against each other on opposing sides (that I remember) was when the student Philosophy Society at Brooklyn College organized a Hegel versus Nietzsche debate, with you standing in for Nietzsche and me for Hegel. Unusually for philosophic debate, ours ended with the adversaries leaning across the lecture table to exchange a kiss. I think the students pronounced it a tie! But now let me respond to your timely comment.

      First, thank you for the reminder that a qualification is due: Of course I don’t and cannot mean to say that no significant or creative work has emerged out of the five positions I listed. To cite just one example of many, the whole of modern feminism emerged out of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Its philosophical premises were those of Sartrean existentialism: There is no such thing as human nature; the human being is utterly free and self-invented from moment to moment. I do not think that is true, but I do see why that postulate freed de Beauvoir to rethink the feminine situation in a relatively unfettered way. When I take up this list of five, what specifically concerns me is what they may cash for in the concrete (largely extra-academic) experience of women.

      In “A Woman’s Honor,” I am surveying them, with a quick sketch for each, just insofar as they furnish reasons to subvert established norms. It’s true, as you point out, that Socratic dialectic and Cartesian doubt also questioned peoples’ assumptions. But they did that with a view to finding the truth or finding certainty.

      By contrast, it seems to me that there is a gnostic impetus running through the five attitudes that concern me. For gnosticism, ancient or modern, the world and its creator are bad; the adherent’s job is gnosis — to see through the world. Hans Jonas, in his authoritative work on that subject, includes a variant he calls “libertine gnosticism.” It aimed to subvert the world, not just abstractly by inverting its principles, but actively by breaking its rules.

      What has struck me is that subverting the rules in the abstract has little effect on people whose real lives are still disciplined by common sense and the classical virtues. However, it is otherwise for those who take the subversions literally.

      An illustration from life may show what I mean. Years ago, I dated a young man who was a Vietnam Veteran Against the War and had a circle of counter-culture friends. They orbited around a charismatic young woman named (let’s say) Phoebe, who was anti-monogamous, ambi-sextrous, and anti- everything she deemed “bourgeois.” Since I hoped to convert my combat veteran into a steady beau and felt that her magnetic influence confused the romance, I finally broke off my connection with her. That clarified things a bit but the romance was ill-starred and I finally lost my brief connection with the counter-culture.

      A few years later, I happened to bump into a young poet who had been in Phoebe’s entourage. We had coffee and he filled me in on what had happened since. He had fallen in love and was now married. In the run-up to the wedding, when he and his bride-to-be were still in Phoebe’s circle (and possibly needed her cooperation in some way), they maintained the fiction that they were doing something so “bourgeois” as marrying just in order for the bride to get a green card. They hid the romantic truth till they were safely married and could move out of the orbit of Phoebe’s influence!

      The poet told me one other story about Phoebe. She had finally succeeded in becoming the lover of my ex-beau. Their relationship did not last and, in the poet’s words, “he really dumped her.” In other words, it didn’t end as if life was an endless dance through which one could glide with a light and graceful indifference. It ended with the deliberately punishing gesture of man-to-woman rejection, as if to prove that all the airy talk about noncommitment (with which she’d managed to bedazzle and confuse other couples) had been hot air.

      My sense about the gnostic adventure is that it can be interesting and even potentially illuminating to entertain it as a thought experiment, but that it’s dangerous to live it.

  3. Maple green Beans says:

    Abigail. Such a poignant story. “You have the price you put on yourself.” In today’s society women are bombarded with images of what they are “supposed to be” from the bedroom to the boardroom with very little room for propriety. We only have to look at the fashion ads, or television or movies to notice that we have been downgraded! We see examples of how Margaret Mead left her influence; saying one thing by touting the importance of self and at the same time being a eugenics supporter. Does anyone else see a disconnect there? What she did bring was the lead in to abortion. Confusing the importance of self with woman’s own self importance, so woman now believe they are fighting for their rights as woman; to kill our ability to create life and destroy the next generation as well. Sex has gone from women being repressed in Freud’s time to the hookups that Snookie shared with her” Guidos” (her words not mine) on Jersey Shore…she is making a valiant effort to spin a newer cleaner image, living down the party life and opting for the more settled, Nicole Polizzi, with headlines now reading, “I miss my own name”…way to give yourself voice as well as live down your public party persona for your new motherhood. But this is progress, because she was rushed, hurried and bought in to the message that sexual freedom meant you could open them wide and not have to be ridiculed…man, was she wrong. The spreading of seed was given to the strongest, the most intelligent the fastest, because that is how it was in nature, so what have the socio-biologists gotten with their message…TV’s: Sixteen and pregnant, thanks! (perhaps the fastest of the species- but certainly not the brightest!) because it comes back to the Mother of these girls and teaching their daughters, what? Not to hurry, loving support, to place value on themselves as women. Then you got your 3rd date rule, your one night stand, he’s just not that into you, pity sex and even makeup sex…all lowering the value a woman places on herself. Throw in examples like Liz Taylor and other “serial monogamists” who make a mockery of marriage and leave a wake of impressionable followers who do not value the institution of marriage either, another way to destroy a woman’s worth…Liz and Zsa Zsa could afford it! Then you have the likes of Neitzsche, God is dead, so now you take the soul and all its worth and what have you got left…A lot of unlearning and a long conversation with the mixed and very bad messages with your teen aged daughters. Thank you Abigail for this article for opening the window and being a breath of fresh air! Blessings!
    Maple Green Beans

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Maple green Beans,

      Thank you. Your comment is heartening to me. I am so glad you found this column supportive! It’s striking that a column apparently focused on a list of abstract theses has drawn immediate responses from women with very down-to-earth mother/daughter concerns.

      Thinking about that, my mind went back to an incident that made the newspapers a few years ago. A young woman, admitted to Yale, asked permission to live off campus. Living in a co-ed dorm was inconsistent with the value she placed on modesty, as a Modern Orthodox Jew. The university denied her request, even fought it in court and won!

      Is “modesty” a realistic concern? I remember a graduate of a university, a young T.A. at Brooklyn College, speaking of how demoralizing it was to wake up to her roommate having sexual relations in the next bed. While students are having these experiences, faculty and administrators have Women’s Rooms and Men’s Rooms to which they may repair in privacy. When administrators and faculty go to conventions, they are not required to use uni-sex bedrooms or bathrooms at the convention hotels. Nor does anything like that get required of the public at large. There must be some extraordinary principle that is governing university officials in this kind of case, making arbitrary exercises of power over vulnerable young people seem right in their own eyes.

      My question is, what is going on here? The Yale case, and others like it, cannot be understood as instances of women’s “liberation.” Rather, administrators of a major institution of higher education were coercing a young woman into living in a way that violated her conscience. If she resisted their coercion, she would lose the right to attend the college of her choice. In no way did the dictates of her conscience interfere with the learning process — hers or anybody else’s. Since this violation of personal privacy and liberty is large and obvious, one wants to know, what is driving it? What has turned ordinary academic functionaries into usurpers of a student’s harmless and obviously legitimate rights and powers?

      I think it can only be the power of ideas like the ones I have listed in “A Woman’s Honor.” That’s why motherly women immediately saw the point. These are ideas that make young people intellectually unable to protect their own privacy and dignity, lest they be deemed sexually repressed or puritanic — unlike the (imaginary!) girls in Samoa. According to one mother of a college student I know, the same ideas make the young beg their parents not to interfere, lest the stigma of having puritanic parents rub off on them. Yet these ideas — about sexual repression and non-repression — are highly speculative. To my knowledge there are no statistically significant data backing them. They belong to a particular cultural mood, as expressed by certain talented writers who caught the mood of the day. And yet, in our culture at the present time, they transmute into rulings that carry crude coercive power and are allowed to stand without appeal.

      This is not to say that the whole meaning of the views mentioned was captured in my five dismissive thumbnail sketches. My purpose is more narrowly focused. I am simply asking what ideas like these cash for, where women are concerned. How much support do they give women who want thoughtfully to determine the course of their own lives? Let’s not only answer on our own behalf, but also look around us.

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