Homeschool Girls and Elizabeth Bennet’s Subtle Acts of Resistance

Homeschool Girls and Elizabeth Bennet’s Subtle Acts of Resistance October 3, 2019

A while back, I posted about an article in Christianity Today that glossed over (and even outright lied about) Doug Wilson’s white supremacist beliefs and connections. After I wrote that post, a friend contacted me. Something about the author’s name—Louis Markos—had felt familiar to her, and she’d figured out why.

Louis Markos is also the author of a 2013 article titled Why Homeschooled Girls Are Feminism’s Worst Nightmare. I wrote about this article five years ago. I wasn’t impressed then, and I’m not impressed now.

See, I was homeschooled. Not only that, I was homeschooled in the sort of environment Markos writes about—in a conservative evangelical home where “femininity” was valued and women were expected to be demure, gentle homemakers who support their menfolk and never put themselves forward. If you’re wondering how that turned out, have a look at what I named my blog. This homeschooled girl’s a feminist.

It’s been five years since I’ve had a gander at Markos’ article. I reread his piece and it turns out I have more to say.

Markos begins his piece ass follows:

My dual role as a professor of English and of honors at a Christian university has afforded me the great and greatly-cherished opportunity to teach and mentor scores of homeschooled girls. The thirty years I have spent in the halls of aca- demia have forced me, often against my will, to be exposed to the theories, writings, and agendas of feminism. After many years of reflection, I have come to believe that the former poses the greatest single threat to and antidote for the latter.

Before I explain why, let me define what I mean by feminism. Though many today think that feminism means nothing more than “equal pay for equal work,” the feminism that is taught in our schools and universities has little to do with the rules of fair play in the workplace. Academic feminism rests on the fiercely-held belief that there are no essential differences between the sexes.

You’d think someone who ostensibly knows so much about feminism would know that feminist theory isn’t a monolith. In fact, there are some feminists who believe in the essential, life-giving power of the feminine. Even beyond such differences, though, Markos’ description is simplistic and reductionist.

I mean, check this bit out:

Sexism insists that men and women are different, but then treats femi- ninity as a lesser and less important thing than mas- culinity. Feminism says that men and women are the same, but then systematically privileges masculine initiative, reason, logic, analysis, compartmentalization, and competition over feminine response, emotion, intuition, synthesis, holism, and nurture.

There is actually an entire feminist discourse critical of the privileging of masculine-coded traits over feminine-coded traits. Of course, there are treatments like Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In that seem to do the opposite. But that was rather my point when I stated above that feminism is not a monolith.

These issues aside, what’s going on here is pretty simple. Markos is an evangelical Christian who embraces complementarianism, the idea that men and women are fundamentally and unalterably different, and that the two have different roles in society. His argument is that homeschooled girls embrace that difference—embrace their femininity and their separate role—in a way that makes them the enemy of feminism.

See, though, here’s the thing: to the extent that the homeschooled girls Markos is writing about actually do that, they do that because they were raised to do that. They were taught since they were very small that they are girls, that that means they are different from boys, that they should follow certain rules regarding their conduct, and that their role in life is to be wives and mothers, submitting to their husbands and staying out of the workforce. I know this because I experienced it. This is how I was raised.

That some girls raised this way hold onto these beliefs—at least into their first years attending a very conservative Christian college—is completely unsurprising. Indeed, it’s kind of the point of homeschooling. Homeschooling allows these parents to ensure that their daughters do not encounter ideas about female empowerment—and prevent them from having friends who might have such ideas.

Brava! Isolating children and exposing them to only one set of ideas results in them holding those ideas when they leave the home for a similarly sheltered environment! So impressive.

And by that I mean that I am not impressed. 

Do you have any idea how many former homeschool girls I know who are now feminists? Scads and scads. It turns out that people don’t stay frozen at 18. Being a college professor, of course, 18 is when Markos sees people. And when he sees homeschooled girls, he makes the mistake our parents make. He assumes that what he sees is the result of informed intentionality on our part, and not the result of simple inertia.

I have become famous (or infamous) at my university for my ability to spot immediately a home- schooled 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%).

What does that even mean? Jane Austin’s books are full of a wide variety of characters. There is a huge difference between Lydia Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet, between Eleanor and Marianne, or between Emma and Harriet. I’m fairly sure Markos doesn’t mean homeschooled girls remind him of Lydia Bennet.

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.

Homeschooled girls are not a monolith. 

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.

Or maybe for a different reason.

The glorious and unashamed femininity that radiates from my homeschooled students is a beautiful thing that at times brings me close to tears.

I feel like I need a shower.

If you read the whole piece—and you should—it becomes clear that what drives Markos’ Elizabeth Bennet comparison is the “wit” he ascribes to homeschooled girls.

• 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 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.

And then there’s this one:

• They respect their professors, but they speak to them on a level of equality; indeed, they will often gently set their male professors straight, not the way that a dean sets a faculty member straight, but the way a savvy wife sets her husband straight if he is starting to sound bombastic.

Markos provides a spot-on description of me at 18. I think I know what is going on. Two things, actually.

Earlier in the piece Markos said he has an 85% success rate identifying freshman students as homeschooled if they make him think of Elizabeth Bennet. But he doesn’t attempt to make this guess at all if she doesn’t remind him of her. While Markos’ description fits me and some of my homeschooled childhood friends, those it does not fit won’t disprove his thesis because he’ll never even guess they were homeschooled, since they don’t fit his stereotype about what a homeschooled girl is supposed to be in the first place. 

But I said his description fit me at 18, right? Why is that? Let’s consider Elizabeth Bennet for a moment. (I am not a Jane Austen Scholar, so I’m going out on a bit of a limb here.)

Elizabeth Bennet is forced to function within a very circumscribed set of choices and expectations. But she’s also not one to just go where directed. She has opinions and ideas and strong feelings. It’s just that she has to find ways to express and act on these ideas and feelings within the highly gendered constraints that govern her life. Opinionated homeschooled girls in conservative evangelical homes are subject to similar constraints. We have opinions and ideas—but we have to learn chow to properly express them, or face consequences.

There’s another similarity, of course. Like Elizabeth Bennet, homeschooled girls are expected to set about catching a man. In conservative Christian circles, catching a man requires both having a certain sparkle—what Markos calls “charm”—and being extremely careful about how we interact with the opposite sex. That may mean taking a step back and letting the boys talk theology (even when we know as much as they do), or it may mean ensuring that when we set a male authority figure straight, we do so “the way a savvy wife sets her husband straight if he is starting to sound bombastic.” It generally means not challenging men directly.

It’s not easy, being a homeschooled girl with an opinion. Some of us find ourselves reaching for Austen-like tools in our attempts to carve out spaces for ourselves to have a voice, in a male-dominated subculture. Austen wasn’t what Markos thinks she was. In many ways her books are profoundly feminists. They’re about women who are stuck within a culture that constrains them, but look for ways to break out nonetheless.

What Markos wants is something very different. He doesn’t want women who stay at home and submit to their husbands because they have to. Markos wants young women who could leave it all behind if they wanted—who could go off and have jobs, and engage with men as equals—but who instead choose to stay and live their lives within the constraints his subculture places on them. That is his ideal.

Feminism would have us believe that the stay-at-home mom is a timid doormat lacking in will and self-esteem, and that the conservative female student who champions femininity does so because she has been cowed into submission by male chauvinists. Homeschooled girls give the lie to these stereotypes.

Does Markos really think Elizabeth Bennet would have expended so much time on the search for a husband if she had had the option to go off to law school or set herself up in business? Because I don’t. Elizabeth Bennet didn’t play the game the way she was supposed to. She talked back to the men in her life to such an extent that her mother (and others around her) despaired of her ever being married.

Let’s be very clear about what’ going on here. Markos wants young women to voluntarily opt into the sexist conventions and norms that Elizabeth Bennet spent so much time using her wit to push back against. And then, somehow, he has the gall and nerve to praise them for being like Elizabeth Bennet, without realizing that the women he praises are like Elizabeth in their subtle acts of resistance and self-assertion.

Did I mention that Markos is an English professor?

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