You know those moments where you step back from something and you’re not even sure what you just read? I’m having one of those moments, because I just stumbled upon Louis Markos’ article, “Why Homeschooled Girls Are Feminism’s Worst Nightmare.” Speaking as a homeschooled girl and a feminist, let’s see what Louis has to say, shall we?
I have become famous (or infamous) at my university for my ability to spot immediately a homeschooled girl, at least the kind of homeschooled girl who majors in the Humanities (English, Writing, History, Philosophy, Christianity, Art, Music) or who joins an Honors college devoted to a classical Christian curriculum. What is my method for spotting such literary homeschooled girls? If when I speak to a freshman girl I feel that I am speaking (literally) to a character out of a Jane Austen novel, then I know that she was homeschooled. (To date, my success rate is about 85%).
I . . . feel . . . objectified? I am no one’s specimen.
I’m also slightly disturbed by his equation of “homeschool girl” with “Christian homeschool girl,” and not just that but “super conservative Christian homeschool girl.” I’ve met secular homeschool girls who were complete tomboys. Actually, strike that, I’ve met spades of super conservative Christian homeschool girls who were tomboys—and then were taught, over the years, to repress it. But for many of us—most of us, probably—it didn’t work. I never fit the perfect feminine ideal, and I knew it. I was always too loud, or too clumsy, or too forward. Actually, I’m feeling more erased than objectified at the moment. Or maybe both.
Speaking of years, why is Louis calling these college students “girls”? I get that to a professor undergraduates can look increasingly young, but this isn’t an article about children, it’s an article about women. When I hear the term “homeschool girl,” I don’t think of a grown woman, I think of a twelve year old in braids. Perhaps Louis thinks young adult female homeschool alumni—which is what he’s really talking about—need to be forever infantilized as “homeschool girls.” But why he would infantalize individuals he is claiming are a threat to feminism—unless he thinks the real threat to feminism is for women to never grow up—is beyond me.
On the surface, the link between the homeschooled girl and Elizabeth Bennet is part educational and part linguistic. Most homeschooled girls—henceforth, I will be focusing on the literary type—spend a great deal of their time reading great books, especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. They therefore possess a much higher level of diction and understand the finer rules of etiquette. They value good conversation and are able to participate in it without succumbing to arrogance or false modesty.
First off, do you know why we spend so much time reading great books? It’s often because our math and science education is given comparatively less time and emphasis—and because we don’t have a lot of time with friends. Second, we learn these “finer rules of etiquette” because we are quite literally taught them (Charm Course anyone?), as though our parents have a grand plan for sending us back in time two centuries. These things are not coincidental.
But the link goes far deeper than that. The Jane Austen connection only rests partly on the homeschooler’s ability to speak with eloquence and wit and to conduct herself with grace and charm. She resembles Elizabeth Bennet because she shares with all of Austen’s heroines a firm and rooted sense of herself as a female member of the human race.
Sigh. It is true that as a “homeschool girl” I learned to tie my identity closely in with my femaleness—and the fact that I was destined first and foremost to be a wife and mother. But honestly? All of this eloquence and wit and grace and charm is way over the top. Louis may be describing some ideal he has, but he is not describing the homeschool girls I grew up with. Although, to be honest, he’s doing a pretty good job of describing someone I’ve met as an adult—and she was a Christian school graduate, not a “homeschool girl.” We most of us were simply normal—though we did wish we could be what Louis describes, for that was the ideal constantly held out to us.
What I have found in my homeschooled students is what one used to find frequently in Catholic girls who attended parochial school. Such girls do not consider their femininity a limitation to be overcome or a weakness to be hidden, but something special and unique that must be nurtured and developed. The properly Catholic-educated girl of the past, like the homeschooled girl of today, is less likely than her peers to engage in pre-marital sex: not because she thinks sex is dirty or men are pigs, but because she views her own sexuality as a gift to be treasured by her and by her future husband.
You know, I actually think Louis is making a mistake in assuming that all feminists everywhere flee their “femininity.” I don’t think this is true. While many feminists are queer or prefer an androgynous look and affect or just don’t like gender boxes, plenty enjoy being feminine. But then, I think the problem here may be one of definitions. Louis seems to think that the true essence of being female is exhibiting innocence, being shy, demure, and untainted by the world. He seems unaware that femaleness can be something very different entirely, that it can also be fierce, and independent, and worldly. The fact that we do not exhibit our femaleness in the way that Louis wants us to does not mean that we do not have a firm and rooted sense of ourselves as female members of the human race, as he suggests in the end of his previous paragraph.
And as for the bit about premarital sex—I am pretty sure Louis has never been inside of the head of a woman raised in the purity culture that pervades conservative Christian homeschooling, so I don’t know how he could possibly insist that these “homeschool girls” he knows are truly at such peace with their sexuality.
Louis then turns to “other admirable qualities” of homeschool girls, offering a bullet point list that includes such gems as these:
They know what they believe and 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.
See actually, I and the other homeschool girls I knew spent scads of time engaging in forensic debates over minor theological points. What could be so fascinating as trying to bring out the nuance of a Greek word! (That is actually not sarcasm.) But in a world where so much was off limits, this was a way we could exercise our minds within the safety of our subculture.
Like the aristocratic ladies of the Old South, they are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing, and most play instruments and draw.
I can’t sing, I hated to play my instrument, and I couldn’t draw a stick figure. But I wished I could do all of those and well, because I knew feminine accomplishments were important if I wanted to attract a godly suitor.
They proudly identify themselves as daughters, sisters, and granddaughters, and aspire to be identified as wives, mothers, and grandmothers—a self-identification that enhances, rather than diminishes, their sense of themselves.
They desire to be helpmeets in the full biblical sense and to have their husbands trust in them and call them blessed; they desire as well to be mothers who will raise up godly children.
And this would be because this is all they know, and all they have been allowed to know. I know, I’ve been there. When you’ve never been allowed to dream other dreams, it can be surprising how universal your and your friends dreams all seem. How coincidental!
Though not all of them plan to be stay-at-home moms, they all make it clear that if they have children, they will put them first.
You know, I don’t think I have ever met a mom who doesn’t make it clear that she puts her children first. And it’s not just children—it’s family. Most people value family, whether the family the were born to or the family they create. Including feminists. Shocker, I know!
The glorious and unashamed femininity that radiates from my homeschooled students is a beautiful thing that at times brings me close to tears. These young women will give all they have to nurture the children God puts in their care and to make their home a humane and creative place where faith, hope, and love can thrive and bear fruit. And they desire to do this, not because they do not think they can contribute to the business world, but because they consider motherhood a high and noble calling.
Oh good grief.
Try to imagine, for a moment, that you are told from early childhood that your role in life is to be a wife and mother, and that women who are so selfish as to have careers—or even want them—will live lives of pain and sorrow in rebellion against God’s plan for their lives.
Try to imagine, for a moment, that you are taught form early childhood that wives must submit to husbands, and daughters to fathers, that women are to always be under male headship and authority—and that the woman who steps out from under her male head has stepped into danger and will likely come to untimely end.
Try to imagine, for a moment, that you live in a world where finding a godly husband to support and care for you and your future children overshadows every other thought from age twelve on, and where you are told that you must attract a husband through your feminine skills—your cooking, your sewing, your sweet voice, your delicate beauty.
Try to imagine, for a moment, a world where any male characteristics or attributes you may exhibit are fretted over by your mother and the other mothers, where you are put in ballet and put through etiquette classes, where you are told to mind your posture, lower your voice, and not be so rowdy, or who will want to marry you?
Try to imagine, for a moment, a world where your virginity is your most precious asset, where losing it risk utter ruin, where even a stray dalliance that comes to no more than talk can sully your reputation, where bringing your virginity to your wedding day is the most important thing you can do for your husband.
That, gentle readers, is what it is like to grow up female in the super conservative Christian circles of the homeschool world. And do you know what I just realized? That is also what it was like to grow up in the world of Louis’s beloved Jane Austen. And now I’m not sure what to think.
I read Jane Austen’s books as a girl because they were some of the most steamy love stories available to me that were also approved reading. I read the scenes where Darcy proposes over and over. I reveled in Elizabeth’s wit—a wit that pushed the boundaries, but was careful not to digress so much as to bring censure. I wanted to be a character in one of Austen’s books—but then, I really didn’t. That was the ideal were were taught to aspire to, but even then I could see that women got a raw deal. You see, I read Austen’s other books as well—Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey—and I knew that on some level these were tragedies in the dress of romantic comedy. Perhaps, in some sense, it was Jane Austen who set me on my first step toward feminism.
I’m not going to finish going through Louis’s article. You can read the rest yourself, if you like. I want to finish, I think, on a slightly more somber note. Louis is wrong in his monolithizing of homeschool girls—and he seems unaware that many of us “homeschool girls” join the dark side and proudly take up the title “feminist”—but he is right that this is the ideal so many homeschooled girls are raised to embrace. It is the ideal I wanted—and yet somehow internally resisted. It was an ideal I was unable to obtain, and for years, that tortured me. But no longer.
Being a feminist is not about rejecting family, or rejecting compassion for others. In fact, I would argue that feminism is very often a fulfillment of both. For me, feminism is the revealing of my inner self, a self that is fierce and somehow calm—a self I tried to hide for so long as a girl. For me, feminism is about unhindered compassion, global interconnectedness, and created community. It is about righting wrongs and asking questions. It is about separating who I am as a woman from the toxic messages of passivity and submission. It is about releasing myself to the wind, and finding myself again. It is about being loud, and being deathly quiet. It is about building new families and forming new relationships—families built on undemanding love and relationships built on honest trust. It is about a storm, and a calm. And it is beautiful—more beautiful than that “homeschool girl” ideal I strove for so unsuccessfully for so many years.