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The Art of Womanliness

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The Art of Manliness is a blog dedicated to “uncovering the lost art of being a man.” It’s one of my favorite blogs because through posts of how to grow a great mustache and why men ought to be more like Teddy Roosevelt it presents a philosophically consistent presentation of mature masculinity.

The Art of Manliness suggests that there is a crisis of manhood, that men need to return to a definition of manliness that is “rooted in a firm and immovable foundation.” The authors look back to Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, the greatest book ever written about virtue which comes, after all, from the Latin for man. The idea behind the blog is that, if men look hard enough at history, philosophy, and literature, they can recover the lost art of being a man.

It sounds like a noble goal. Men and women have both lost a grounded idea of what makes them unique and special as sexes. But if both masculinity and femininity are in crisis, why isn’t there an Art of Womanliness?

The problem is that there is no clear, written tradition we can recover. There is no Nicomachean Ethics for women. (Aristotle, by the way, thought women were women because of something they lack!) Most great women go down in history for overcoming their sex as great seductresses like Cleopatra or almost neutered figures like Queen Elizabeth I.

For many centuries longer than men, women couldn’t read or write. They had very little political power or means to influence history. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to recover the art of womanliness.

 The knowledge of what it is to be a woman didn’t go down in history books or tomes of philosophy. It was passed from woman to woman in families and communities. Women taught each other to clothe and feed their families’ bodies. And they taught each other to clothe and feed their families’ souls.

I want to rediscover those things, that lost “art of womanliness.” I want to learn to do the things my grandmother could do, the secrets to a happy life that we just don’t remember anymore. And that’s what Experimental Wifery is all about. It’s a sometimes fun, sometimes serious quest to uncover what it is to be a woman. And a great one at that.

So, I want to open it up to you. If there is an “art of womanliness,” what sorts of things does it include? What sorts of things make you feel like a better woman? What would you love to learn to feel a little bit smarter, more sensitive, or skilled? Let us know in the comments.

16 responses »

  1. To be completely honest, I have a problem with the premise behind this post. First of all, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that English virtue = Latin man. The word virtus can translate to manliness, courage, excellence, character, worth, etc. Second, I do not understand the importance of focusing on this written tradition. Now, I do have a caveat here in that I disagree with the claim that there is no clear, recoverable, written tradition. I think you simply have to look at some of the Saints such as St. Monica, St. Hildegard, and St. Terese of Lisieux to find it. Sure, you may not find anything as well known or as popular as Nicomachean Ethics. Heck, many times you may find writings by a man on the subject, but I don’t think either one necessarily invalidates the information. However, I will refer you to “The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece” found on Amazon through a simple Google search. But as I was saying, why focus on written tradition? AoM certainly doesn’t. In fact, the vast majority of their posts have nothing to do literature and more to do with inspiring and exposing others to new manly things, history, and hobbies. I mean you say there is no tradition, then clearly indicate that you are only considering a narrow swath of history. Perhaps if you broadened your horizon a bit more you’d find this tradition you seek.

    Manliness and womanliness are in crisis simply because the family is in crisis. Each can be summed up quite simply:
    Manliness = sacrifice, service, and fatherhood
    Womanliness = sacrifice, service, and motherhood

    I think a big part of your difficulty is that you are building this under the shadow of AoM instead of striking out on your own and finding your own niche. You might do well to distance yourself from it some and try to find your own thing some more.

    Reply
    • I think you’ve missed the point of the post. Yes, there are some written ideas out there, but you’re right: the post asks, “Why focus on the written tradition?” I’m trying to recover an unwritten tradition, which does involve looking at things like history and hobbies, which I’ve already considered. (See my post on rock climbing, for example.) Thanks for the encouragement. I’m only two months or so in to a new blog and I’m still trying to find my own thing!

      Reply
    • I think you and Alison are working with different definitions of womanliness. She is defining it as it relates to and compares with manliness and going to the general historic definitions as in being a good wife and mother. Being a good wife and/or mother are great themes for advertisers since wives and mothers do the bulk of family purchases, but in general, neither role has a striking, big role model – a name that everybody knows. Yes you could drum up a few saints, a few queens, etc, but you have to do a google search to find them. Whereas every man, woman, and child in the US has probably come across the name ‘Aristotle’ at least once in reading. Maybe the Virgin Mary qualifies as a big name, role model of a wife and mother? Again in comparison, that is one name vs. Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, William James, etc, etc, who espouse virtues for men to live by – in addition to all of the other big name men, that most people have heard of, who act as role models of virtue or success.

      If you define womanliness as something distinguishable and independent of men entirely (which is difficult since 95% of women before the 1960’s were the property of some man), then you have your (Chris) definition of womanliness with a written history of model women – various saints, ladies, etc.

      The AoM blog does need a sister site.

      Reply
  2. Huh, it seems my reply didn’t take.

    Anyway, in that case I think paragraphs 2-5 are not only factually incorrect but distract and detract from the main point and motivation for the blog.

    Reply
  3. If we agree that femininity is in crisis, I think that the beginning of this post points out one of the main reasons why. Men can look to inspiring examples of other men in the same line of work: statesmen, doctors, scholars, warriors, merchants, etc. So even though the virtues of manliness may not have been passed down from every father to every son, men can immitate a wide array of examples.

    The minute details of female life that lead to the virtues of a married woman weren’t often celebrated in books. So when a mother does not pass them along to a daughter—when the oral transmission of tricks about how to raise a baby, how to feed your husband, how to stretch a budget to provide for a family—don’t get passed on, they can be lost and harder to recover.

    Now look at the crisis in femininity today and the rise of a certain form of feminism that denies any gender differences. Ultimately, this idea comes from women who don’t see strong examples of womanhood and want to follow the examples of these statesman, warriors, etc. They look at the examples of virgin saints, see that that isn’t the life they are called to, and don’t know where else to look. How many women feel “unfulfilled” as wives and mothers, and work not just because they choose to, but because they aren’t even aware that there is a skill, and a talent, and a reward for the virtues of femininity?

    Alison wants to highlight the historical examples that exist, and bring back to light the many fun and difficult aspects of doing a good job as wife and mother, and I’m very proud of her hard work doing that.

    Reply
  4. Ok, so I’m going to break this apart and reply to individual bits.

    “If we agree that femininity is in crisis, I think that the beginning of this post points out one of the main reasons why. Men can look to inspiring examples of other men in the same line of work: statesmen, doctors, scholars, warriors, merchants, etc. So even though the virtues of manliness may not have been passed down from every father to every son, men can immitate a wide array of examples.”

    All I will say here is that the same is true of women as I alluded to in previous comments.

    “The minute details of female life that lead to the virtues of a married woman weren’t often celebrated in books. So when a mother does not pass them along to a daughter—when the oral transmission of tricks about how to raise a baby, how to feed your husband, how to stretch a budget to provide for a family—don’t get passed on, they can be lost and harder to recover.”

    Again, why focus on books and mother-daughter transmission? There are other ways to transmit information. There are other family members. There’s history. There’s Church Teaching. Also, there is a difference between “weren’t often celebrated” and “no clear, written tradition.” I could be convinced that the virtues of manliness have been discussed with a greater frequency in the literature than the virtues of womanliness. It is however a logical leap to then claim the absence of a written tradition. As a counterpoint, I will put forward The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405 by Christine de Pizan, a well celebrated and popular female writer and lecturer in her time. In the book she discusses the virtues of wives and womanliness.

    Another fallacy of your argument is that your analogy is set with different scales. For men you look at all of history and all of the different sources a young man could find inspiration toward becoming a good man. For women, you restrict and narrow your search to exclusively to her mother and throw up your hands in despair, should this one, vital link be broken. There have in fact been countless virtuous women throughout history, which a young woman could look to for inspiration.

    Additionally, I would argue that the claim that failed oral transmission makes the information harder to recover is untenable in this day and age. Many of the things you mentioned can quite easily and reliably be learned via simple google searches. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that one of the major causes of the decline of oral transmission is the rise of academic experts who claim to know better and supplant traditional knowledge and instinct.

    “Now look at the crisis in femininity today and the rise of a certain form of feminism that denies any gender differences. Ultimately, this idea comes from women who don’t see strong examples of womanhood and want to follow the examples of these statesman, warriors, etc.”

    It’s an oversimplification to state that feminism arose because of one thing.

    “They look at the examples of virgin saints, see that that isn’t the life they are called to, and don’t know where else to look. How many women feel “unfulfilled” as wives and mothers, and work not just because they choose to, but because they aren’t even aware that there is a skill, and a talent, and a reward for the virtues of femininity?”

    What about the non-virgin saints? I mentioned some previously. The saints aren’t all a bunch of holier-than-thou, pie-in-the-sky, inaccessible mystics. Many of them seem inaccessible, due in part to a bias of hagiographers, but if you actually do some research into them and their lives, the majority are real, down-to-earth, accessible individuals. Many were married. Many had children. I would argue that just about any need for a role model or personal inspiration can be found in the saints, albeit with a little bit of digging. The rest of this statement contains the most obvious example of where you’ve confounded two problems. There is the problem of lost or nonexistent information and there is the problem of recently poorly transmitted information. The former is what Alison articulated in the post, and you are blurring it into the latter. Just because some women were taught poorly does not mean the information is nonexistent or unavailable.

    This is in fact, probably the most succinct way to state my point. The first problem is false, which you then admit by contradicting yourself here:

    “Alison wants to highlight the historical examples that exist, and bring back to light the many fun and difficult aspects of doing a good job as wife and mother, and I’m very proud of her hard work doing that.”

    So wait, they do exist, just like I said. I too am proud of her hard work, but that really isn’t the point, now is it? This post sets up the purpose and reason for her project, which forms its foundation and objectives. In light of what I’ve described, I simply think it ought to be reformulated to provide a clearer purpose and direction, not to mention a clearer and more accurate picture of the current state of affairs.

    Reply
  5. As a man, I really felt that I shouldn’t even be commenting on this. Anything I might say comes from the perspective of an outsider looking in. But after reading some of these comments, which I wont dignify with responses, I really couldn’t help myself. As both my wife and I are fans of the AoM and your blog, I have to say that you’re doing a great job and I believe your endeavor is a noble one. There are many great women throughout history, and their role is often overlooked. Philosophy, mathematics, politics, theology….these all fields that had great women who were overlooked. We think you’re doing a great job exploring the arguably lost tradition of womanliness. A tradition which seems to range all the way from Eleanor Roosevelt to my Grandmother.

    As for what we’d like to see it’s probably exactly that, 1 part strong woman, 1 part grandma’s secrets, and a healthy dose of modern independence.

    Reply
  6. As a AoM reader myself my Fiance and I were discussing the other day why there isn’t a site dedicated to the art and skill that comes from being a good wife, and a good woman. I think behind every great man lies the story of an even greater woman. I hope you continue to post on your blog and we look forward to seeing more on this topic.

    Reply
  7. If your looking you’re looking for historical writings of a “true” woman I believe you can find them in proverbs 31. The proverbs 31 women; provides for her family, builds up and loves her husband, works hard, and enjoys life.

    Reply
    • Proverbs 31 is one great source for ideas about true womanhood. Even though women don’t usually select wool and flax or provide food for their servants anymore, it certainly reminds us of exactly what you say: a great woman provides for her family, builds up and loves her husband, works hard, and enjoys life.

      Reply
  8. The title “Experimental Wifery” is interesting in itself — especially in contrast to The Art of Manliness. One can aspire to be a fantastic woman without being a wife. Without getting into any great philosophical discussion, it cannot be denied that what makes one a great man often makes one a great human being — and therefore works for men or for women. Perhaps the problem is that too many young women and men don’t have goals to aspire to.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Vivian.

      My husband and I struggled long and hard to find the right title. Experimental Wifery isn’t supposed to be exactly parallel to AoM, but even if it were, “womanliness,” “womanhood,” and “femininity” all have different–and not all positive–connotations. We chose “Experimental Wifery” because the blog is targeted at married and marriage-minded women. I completely agree that men and women need goals to aspire to. Our blog is for women who aspire to be good women and wives.

      Of course there are different ways to be a good woman and a good person. But, since marriage and motherhood are my vocation, I don’t really have much to offer women with different goals.

      Reply
  9. Motherlessdaughter

    As a motherless daughter since the age of five, that has this natural longing to understand how to be a woman, a mother, a wife and a home maker, I can tell you it’s not as easy as researching or doing a simple Google search. My entire life has been a search, mostly what I find is a divide among women, a bitterness. If you go left you have a group screaming you are wrong you should go right, and vice versa. I am not privileged with any womanly traditions passed down from a mother, grandmother or aunt. Nor do I even have an underlining intelligence of names or things to search. When you have nothing, you can’t really build on (research) anything.

    The most recent thing I can find on this blog is a comment from jan 2014; I do hope you update soon, and find your momentum again. Thus far I have enjoyed reading your older post. You may have started as a journey to become a better woman for yourself, but just like the AofM as been a HUGE gap filling site for my fatherless husband, I think your blog has the chance to be equally important in motherless, grandmotherless, and auntless women.

    Best~

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your positive feedback. You inspired me to write a post I’ve been mulling over for a while. Maybe I will find my momentum again. Do you have any suggestions of topics you’d like to hear about?

      Reply
    • Dear Motherlessdaughter, At first blush, I felt so sorry for you, without having the mother-to-daughter information, love, and spirituality handed down to you. However, upon thinking back on my life, with very rare moments of love and all too often reprimands such as “Appearances do matter,” I find myself envying you. You are forced to break the chain of repression, both from men and women of our society, and can mold your life as you see fit without any guilt and utter confidence that you are truly doing the best that you can. Your sister-in-spirit, Claire

      Reply

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