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Is there such a thing as the female conscience?
November 19, 2012 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Jean Bethke Elshtain asks, 'Is there such a thing as the female conscience?'
"...in reality, there is no bright line between the male and female conscience, nor can we say that there is no distinction whatsoever. What we find is a fluid world in which male and female are the same yet different. Just how different is open-ended."
"On the ground, men and women are not moral strangers to one another, despite all the talk about Mars and Venus and the like. Our differences are individual; our similarities are, quite simply, human."
via Arts & Letters Daily
posted by talitha_kumi (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy crap was I surprised to see a woman wrote this. This sounds so much like it'd be something a stuffy guy who thinks he's just had this groundbreaking epiphany would write.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Men are from Mars, Women are also from Mars.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:28 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


The jury is still out on Jean Bethke Elshtain. Does she want to be political philosophy's Peggy Noonan? Or its Phyllis Schlafly?

In either case, her full-throated support for the second Iraq war and George W. Bush's bellicose idiocy ought to have robbed her of a place at the moralizing table. Alas, her social capital and the torpor of the academy will prevent that from ever happening. In a better world, Elshtain and Judith Butler would be locked in a room together with only a copy of Plato's Republic and Burroughs's The Soft Machine to keep them occupied.

Then the rest of us could get on with the business of fashioning a decent society.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:29 AM on November 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is there such a person as Jean Bethke Elshtain? Yes.
posted by Damienmce at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2012


I feel kind of out of the loop here. I consider myself fairly well-read, but I have never heard of "the female conscience." I don't appear to be the only one, however; the entire first page of results for a google search for "female conscience" seems to be from the same "female conscience" themed issue of a magazine called VQR.

So I guess the answer is "no." There is no such thing, nor has anyone ever thought there was, nor has anybody ever talked about it. VQR appears to have invented the phrase.

I look forward to being proven wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 10:33 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


What a tortured idiotic essay...
posted by sfts2 at 10:33 AM on November 19, 2012


I liked the part where, after setting her essay up as a vaguely chronological overview of figures and cultures that are esteemed by the American freshman-year-survey-course cannon, she used the phrase "Arab women" as a placeholder for "Muslim women" as a placeholder for "oppressed women."

I also liked the part where she asked herself some questions, responded with more questions, said she couldn't possibly know, and then went back to sweeping citations.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


The weakening of the moral center, the crises in our basic formative institutions (family, school, church) taken singly or together, afford a picture of a society losing its moral bearings.

In the past few decades society has gone from keeping homosexuals in the closet, to wary toleration and now to increasingly widespread acceptance on the basis of equality. Multiculturalism has become deeply entrenched. This looks to me like society is gaining its moral bearings.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


Damn, that essay read as if it had been beamed in from 1956.
posted by jokeefe at 10:42 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Damn, that essay read as if it had been beamed in from 1956.

And with the "unnecessary verbiage" and "convoluted syntax" filters turned on. I felt vaguely oppressed just trying to push through that net of words....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:50 AM on November 19, 2012


I took a class by Elshtain, and was displeased by the stated requirement that essays use jargon like "reify" and "valorize" as much as possible. We were penalized for failing to use jargon whenever possible.

Not kidding. Long story short, this essay does not surprise me in the least, neither stylistically nor politically/philosophically.
posted by aramaic at 10:52 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Readers Digest probably wasn't moving the slush pile this week.
posted by mule98J at 11:01 AM on November 19, 2012


Woman!
Whoaaaa man!
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 11:09 AM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


The weakening of the moral center, the crises in our basic formative institutions (family, school, church) taken singly or together, afford a picture of a society losing its moral bearings. I recall my mother stating more than once: “There’s too much ‘me, myself, and I’ nowadays.”

Right, okay. This does not belong in an essay purporting to explore any kind of serious philosophical or moral questions.

Also, the "better angels of our nature" is from Shakespeare, not Lincoln.
posted by jokeefe at 11:15 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


1. I think this essay is taking the long way around to respond to the "ethics of care" strand in feminist philosophy.

I think.

2. I was vaguely amused to see that there was no reference to Mary Wollstonecraft anywhere in here, even though she anticipates a lot of J. S. Mill (and, er, Harriet Taylor).

3. We are in a decline now, yet Elshtain cites...her own mother's opinion about the decline and fall of US civilization as we know it? And Elshtain would be how old, exactly?

4. (Also, as someone who writes about nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism: integrating Catholics into US culture was considered a sign of moral degeneracy by an awful lot of people. You know, the sort of collapse Elshtain is complaining about now. The rose-colored presentist glasses, please remove them.)
posted by thomas j wise at 11:16 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the best you can say about this piece is that she's trying to contextualize, or link together, a certain strain of gender essentialism that showed up in 1970s/1980s feminism with a previous tradition of "exalted" femininity. Unfortunately, this is very well trodden ground, and that particular argument was dismissed decades ago. To write as if she's suddenly discovered this would seem to imply that she hasn't paid attention to any political or feminist theory for the last forty years.
posted by jokeefe at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if it's a matter of debate anymore what exactly constitutes an "ethics department," or why they even exist, at least in terms of their distinction from "the philosophy department," but if this is the type of shit that passes as "an ethics paper" from a highly regarded university then I'm afraid we're in deep shit.
posted by phaedon at 11:38 AM on November 19, 2012


Holy crap was I surprised to see a woman wrote this. This sounds so much like it'd be something a stuffy guy who thinks he's just had this groundbreaking epiphany would write.


Hey, thanks! Yeah, I know, we're the worst.

...
posted by kbanas at 12:05 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


if this is the type of shit that passes as "an ethics paper" from a highly regarded university then I'm afraid we're in deep shit.

Speaking as an ethicist and an Aristotelian, this is not a good paper. Philosophy is about arguments. This reads more like a drive-by list of opinions famous people have had.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:21 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Meh. It's certainly not philosophy, but philosophical, more of a literary essay, as befits the magazine. An implicit argument is that the central debates around gender are not altogether new. I think she's right on that; and overall I find it a well crafted essay, if light. The conclusion is certainly unsatisfying, and I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have thought.

Certainly she could have made a stronger argument about why family, school and church is better than one replaced by a commercial society - one whose main prophet is Ayn Rand. I don't think she'd want to go there: that would include a critique of capital, and its reduction of traditional societies to societies worth exploiting for labor and materials.
posted by john wilkins at 12:57 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Moral bearings are the parts required for tank wheels to turn.
posted by srboisvert at 1:08 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I took a class by Elshtain, and was displeased by the stated requirement that essays use jargon like "reify" and "valorize" as much as possible. We were penalized for failing to use jargon whenever possible.

I'm willing to believe it, mostly because my wife had some of her MA papers downgraded for the offense of being too clear. So, yeah. Farewell to Academia.
posted by BWA at 1:35 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey, thanks! Yeah, I know, we're the worst.

You're a stuffy guy who thinks you've just had a groundbreaking epiphany?
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:42 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


You pretty much just described college for me.
posted by phaedon at 1:56 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man I thought Gertrude Himmelfarb was dead.

Now I find out she's writing under an assumed name. I am depress.
posted by winna at 2:41 PM on November 19, 2012


I took a break half way through reading the essay to come here and read the comments. And having read the comments, I think I will just stop. Phew.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:23 PM on November 19, 2012


Well that's an ... interesting ... language choice in her leading paragraph. Most modern discussions of Huckleberry Finn manage to talk about Jim without using the n-word. But I can't say I'm surprised: her other work that I've read was a book, "Democracy on Trial", wherein she made the specious (and typically late 80s/early 90s conservative backlash) argument that the political system in the US was a democracy that had in previous decades worked just fine, but was now (at her time of writing) not working because of too many "special interests" - which, for her, meant large demographic groups such as women, blacks, and latinos - were holding up the works by bringing up all their issues rather than playing along and helping out with actual governing stuff when they got their representatives into Congress. It was pretty regressive (and I did not exactly find it encouraging and welcoming that someone at the college I was about to start at had chosen it as the "class book" that all entering first year students were supposed to read over the summer and discuss some time during our first-year orientation); and yeah, nothing new that hadn't already been deconstructed and debated many times over many decades previously.
posted by eviemath at 11:29 PM on November 19, 2012


I guess the new thing that she added was claiming to be a concerned liberal while parroting all that reactionary drivel? At least, she was (in retrospect) the first concern troll that I personally came across in the academic or pseudo-academic realm. Though doubtless she didn't invent that either.
posted by eviemath at 11:32 PM on November 19, 2012


Huh. This is interesting — I didn't take the essay to be at all laudatory of the mistaken presumptions of the past, but rather this as a brief history of them. I thought she was trying to be critical and then just petered out; I didn't realize she had a reactionary past.

"Yeah, the best you can say about this piece is that she's trying to contextualize, or link together, a certain strain of gender essentialism that showed up in 1970s/1980s feminism with a previous tradition of "exalted" femininity. Unfortunately, this is very well trodden ground, and that particular argument was dismissed decades ago. To write as if she's suddenly discovered this would seem to imply that she hasn't paid attention to any political or feminist theory for the last forty years."

My girlfriend asked me what this essay was about as I was reading it, and I told her that it was an interesting set of literary and historical descriptions of female/feminine ethics, but that it didn't seem to have a thesis or anything, so saying it was "about" something was a bit misleading.

"I guess," I said, "it's about how tying female ethics to the domestic sphere used to be done a lot but it's wrong."

"Oh, so nothing new, huh?" she said.
posted by klangklangston at 12:10 AM on November 20, 2012


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