“There are two rocks,” said F. W. Robertson, “in this world of ours, on which the soul must either anchor or be wrecked—the one is God, and the other is the sex opposite.” Alarmingly, a recent study (“When Marriage Disappears” by Bradford Wilcox) notes we are witnessing “the inexorable unwinding of the American family.” For many decades media, schools, and laws have successfully chipped away at society’s most vital cornerstone: marriage. What’s most precious has been ridiculed and subverted. In response to this deterioration, resolutely defending marriage has become a singularly Christian task, as is evident in the work of the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, one of the pre-eminent equity feminists of her generation. While teaching history at Emory University, she was the founding director of the Institute for Women’s Studies and launched the first doctoral program in Women’s Studies in the U.S. (In time she would be excluded from the program by women more committed to ideology than scholarly inquiry). In 2003 President George W. Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal for “illuminating women’s history and bravely exploring the culture of America’s past and present.” For many years she shared with her husband Eugene a deeply Marxist ideology before undergoing a remarkable conversion to the Catholic faith in 1995. Accompanying her spiritual transformation came a fresh commitment to the traditional understanding of marriage expressed in a collection of essays entitled Marriage: The Dream that Refuses to Die (Washington, ISI Books, c. 2008).
In the Introduction to this treatise, Shiela O’Connor-Ambrose says Fox-Genovese was particularly alarmed by the successes enjoyed by advocates of abortion and same-sex marriage. “Grasping the parallels between the movements for abortion and same-sex marriage in their clever use of rhetoric to obscure their shared goal of reducing or erasing communal claims upon the individual, Betsey strongly felt the urgent need to convince Americans—especially ordinary Americans—that behind the appealing rhetoric of same-sex marriage proponents lay a frightening new world in which all relations are ‘contracts or realizations of desire’ Such a theoretical unpinning renders human relations by definition ‘temporary and volitional,’ and serves, ultimately, to liberate the ‘individual from all binding engagements’” (p. xiii).
Male and female God made us to multiply and replenish the earth—so both the Bible and Fox-Genovese affirm. After taking a brief historical tour to illustrate the inescapable importance of marriage as an institution, she concludes: “We have no justification for seeking sexual symmetry in some mythic golden age and then blaming some putative rise of patriarchy for the imprisonment and brutalization of women within marriage. . . . . One culture and religion after another, notwithstanding differences on countless matters, have adopted the same foundational premises. First, the human species divides into males and females who are at once mutually attracted and sufficiently different to be mutually antagonistic, but whose cooperation is necessary to the perpetuation of the human race. Marriage binds them together into what Willa Cather brilliantly called a state of mortal enmity as well as into the bonds of sacramental love. Second, and more importantly, from the perspective of civilization and the species, marriage proposes a reconciliation of the most fundamental natural difference among human beings—sex. For to flee from engaging that difference is ultimately to flee from all the others” (pp. 20-21). In short: “history teaches that civilization has always been accompanied by—indeed grounded in—an ideal of marriage and the family that attempts to join the biological difference of men and women in the common project of responsibility for the next generation” (p. 127). There’s more to marriage than two people deciding to share life together—there’s a much broader social aspect: the good of society’s at stake.
Great numbers of us, products of the 20th century, celebrate “companionate marriage,” the result of more than a century’s effusion of novels, how-to manuals, sermons and songs. Romance became the be-all and end-all of marriage. Neither parents nor pastors nor theology now play formative roles in selecting one’s spouse. Fox-Genovese is notably perplexed by the fact that Americans—and American women in particular—are highly religious without incorporating their faith into their marital decisions. However much may be said in church, in this area folks just go their own way. “A mere third of the women who value religion and attend church believe that their church has decisively influenced their view of abortion, less than a quarter credit religion with an important influence on their understanding of marriage, and only 13 percent credit it with influencing their understanding of gender equality” (p. 74). “What are we to make,” she wonders, “of women who believe that their church offers them moral and ethical standards but who are not influenced by its teaching on abortion, marriage, or gender equality”” (p. 74). What we must think of course is this: individualistic Americans cede little authority to the church.
Only feelings matter in our courting and marrying—or contracepting and divorcing. Finding one’s “soul-mate,” enjoying ecstatic affection, living forever within the caresses of one’s beloved, are imagined. Marry for love and only for love. All this came about in the revolutionary era, particularly as the 18th century flowed into the 19th. As Romanticism and its celebration of individual freedom seized the public imagination so too companionate marriage became the ideal. Consequently many conditions for women improved during the 19th century, during which “campaigns were underway to permit married women to control their own property, to liberalize divorce, and to permit mothers to retain their children should divorce occur. Other campaigns focused upon women’s access to higher education and the right to vote” (p. 37). But in the process of making women equal with men, challenging “men’s authority within marriage,” the focus shifted from the marital union to the individuals composing it. The law of unintended consequences set in, ultimately weakening marriage itself, for by seeking leverage in that relationship women turned increasingly to the “draconian authority of the state” (p. 41). “Ironically, the very emphasis upon love and mutuality between husband and wife and among parents and children that fostered the best features of this [companionate] family also opened the way to its erosion” (p. 124).
What we now realize, Fox-Genovese argues, is that though Christians failed to perfectly balance the “equal but different” tensions within marriage the “secular theorists and activists, who are increasingly liberated from any limitations on the freedom and rights of the individual, have done much worse” (p. 42). So today marriage itself is on trial, something without precedent in human history. “The notion of marriage as the union of one woman and one man has been dissolved in a flood of options, reduced to the status of one ‘choice’ among many” (p. 45). Court decisions, following the liberationist reasoning of “privacy” in Roe v. Wade, now validate same-sex marriages, insisting “that the weightiest questions about the value of human lie are matters of purely personal concern” (p. 45). Less men and women marry and more children are born to single women. The 60s mantra of doing “your own thing” has become the norm. Individuals’ feelings and desires—not the good of spouses and children—have become ultimate. Whereas children in traditional cultures are cherished they have been significantly betrayed in ours, where they “are increasingly being turned over to others or left to their own devices” (p. 78).
Acerbating this disinterest in children is the mounting toll exacted by abortion, one of the main reasons Fox-Genovese has turned increasingly critical of secular feminism. Rooted in the recently unearthed legal rationale for personal “privacy” and proclaimed as an ultimate “right,” abortion on demand “has remained a sacred tenet of feminists, who regard it as the cornerstone of women’s sexual freedom and who oppose any restrictions on it” (p. 84). Elevating personal privacy above familial well being “represents a significant departure from the legal norms of Western European nations. Symbolically, the reduction of privacy to the privacy of the solitary individual effectively sounds the death knell of the family as an organic unit with claims on its members” (p. 85). Now is the time, she says, to reverse this process.
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I first heard of Eugene Genovese when I was in graduate school, studying history in the mid-60s. He was somewhat notorious for his overtly Marxist approach in writing distinguished studies such as Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. (He notes, wryly, that he was “the only professor in America whom Richard Nixon personally and publicly campaigned to get fired.”) Years later, attending a small session at a convention of the National Association of Scholars, I listened to him and his wife recount their struggles with the young leftists now ascendant in many American universities. Their honest insights impressed me, as has his recent biography of his late wife: Miss Betsey: A Memoir of a Marriage (Wilmington DE: ISI Books, n.d.). As he begins this book he cites a remarkable letter from Benjamin H. Hill (a Georgia politician witnessing William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through his state in 1864) to his wife: “‘You are so much better than I that I often feel humbled. In qualities that elevate and dignify; in virtues that are pure, sincere, and steadfast, I never saw the equal of my wife. . . . I have at least the very comforting reflection that is has ever been my business to serve you, my delight to please you, and my ambition to be like you. . . . If to appreciate one’s companion be the virtue of domestic life, then this is my slight merit, for whether I have a country or not, even a home or not, I expect to die as I have lived—my wife’s worshiper’” (pp. 3-4).
Genovese met Betsey on a blind date when he was 38, she 27. He was a noted historian, she a graduate student. He’d had two failed marriages, she’d had none. In that first encounter the “extraordinary breadth and depth of her reading and culture took me aback” (p. 8). He was initially impressed—and grew ever more impressed thereafter. From her perspective, Betsey resolved to marry Gene after their first date! So their romance developed quickly, despite her parents’ objections. They persevered and were married in a civil ceremony in 1969. Accepting his proposal, however, “she made clear that she wanted a large family. Soon to turn forty, I gulped: ‘Uh, how many children do you want?’ ‘A lot—about ten,’” she replied! Unfortunately they were unable to have the kids she longed for, but she adjusted beautifully to this loss—as she would to many more. Refusing the make the domestic hearth a combat zone, refusing to make her husband a work in process, “she never nagged, harped or harangued” (p. 28).
What they did work at was their academic careers, culminating in appointments to positions at Emory University. Together they taught courses, wrote books, and addressed professional meetings. Domestically, as Princeton’s Robert George noted in his obituary for Betsey: “‘Gene was the head of the family. Betsey managed everything.’ And so she did” (p. 51). From Betsey’s perspective: “With me in mind she liked to paraphrase Frances Butler Leigh, who ran a plantation in Georgia during post-slavery Reconstruction; ‘If you want a husband to do something, first tell him what to do, then show him how to do it, and, finally, do it yourself’” (pp. 56-57). They further shared a spiritual journey culminating with their entrance into the Catholic Church. He had abandoned his cradle Catholicism when (aged 15) he embraced Communism. She was reared by atheistic parents and lacked any belief in “God, but she never felt at peace with her unbelief” (p. 65). While sympathizing with her husband’s Marxism, “she found the American Left intellectually shoddy and, worse, devoid of moral and ethical criteria. She and I agreed on the intellectual shoddiness and discussed the moral problem many times, always returning to Dostoyevsky’s haunting statement: ‘If God does not exist, then all is lawful’” (p. 66). Highly ethical herself—instinctively anti-abortion for instance—she needed a higher Source for her moral certainties. So in 1994 she embraced the Christian faith; the next year Gene followed her, entering the Catholic Church of his childhood.
Long before this, however, they had found themselves defending a traditional Catholicism then under assault from “liberation theology and other irrationalities” (p. 71). Though Marxists open to assistance from all sides, they “considered an ideological blending of materialistic Marxism and Christianity an absurdity. . . . . In the end, we were driven to defend Catholic theology against ‘dissident Catholics’ who had no time for the fundamentals of Catholic theology, Church doctrine, and the teachings of the Vatican. So there we were nonbelievers and committed Marxists, fervently defending the doctrines of original sin and human depravity against professed Catholics who replaced the ostensibly dated teachings of St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Karl Marx” (p. 71). When they entered the Church they wanted and found the real thing—the truth—historically evident since the time of Christ. For Betsey, who admired both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “‘Liberal’ and ‘progressive’ religion held no attractions” (p. 83).
Genovese’s celebration of his wife ends painfully. Betsey struggled, throughout her life, with a variety of physical infirmities. Her final years found her battling allergies and rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, moving from cane to walker to wheelchair. But she remained quite active until her final few months. “Betsey had an extraordinary ability to endure pain” (p. 123), ever smiling and upbeat. Reflecting on her impact upon him, he simply says: “Our life together brought us inexpressible joy” (p. 134). Would that each of us who have lost the love of our life could write so eloquent a testimony to the joyous blessings brought us by a wonderful wife!
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Alice von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, c. 2010) insists there is “a divine invention” manifest in God’s decision to “make man in our image.” Consequently: “male and female created he them.” Embedded in our very nature is the primordial union of two sexes—a union regained in godly marriage. “The plenitude of human nature,” says von Hildebrand, ‘is found only in the unity of male and female. Homo (man) is not to be found only in the male (vir), nor is it to be found only in the female (mulier). It is in both, together. They are two beings of equal dignity, but complementary; therefore, they are mutually necessary for enriching one another” (pp. 1-2). Given the enormity and pervasiveness of original sin, we are estranged from both God and each other, so any perfect union eludes us, but the fundamental reality endures: male and female belong together. Single males easily turn brutish; single females easily become seductresses. To become what we’re designed to be we need each other.
Denying this mutual need are secular feminists who are committed, she believes, to the “destruction of marriage, the family, the Church, and society” (p. 19). Feminists disdain femininity, disliking, as G.K. Chesterton noted, “the chief feminine characteristics.” Von Hildebrand shares, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the sense that in their endeavor to masculinize women feminists reject reality—their very nature. “‘It does destroy the feminine,” said Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward, “and in so doing it also destroys humankind. It disassembles the female side of humankind and the male side also suffers’” (p. 24). Until women recognize that their primary vocation is to be a wife and mother rather than careerists they will find mounting dissatisfaction with their estate. For there is, she insists, a distinctive “feminine genius” eminently evident in motherhood. At the moment of conception “God ‘touches’ the female body to create a child’s soul. In this creation, neither father nor mother have any part, but because the baby’s soul is infused within the woman’s body, there is a closeness between the mother and her Creator that has no duplicate in fatherhood. Her body, touched by God Himself, becomes a sacred ground” (p. 42). Taking Mary as their exemplar, godly women joyously obey their Lord—“be it done to me according to your word.” Rather than living for themselves, or for their husbands, they find ultimate satisfaction in conformity to God’s will. Fundamentally, “the mission—the role—of women is essentially religious. Their mission is intimately related to eternity. This is why, when all the works of men will be destroyed by fire, the children that women have conceived, having an immortal soul, will live forever. Only those willfully blind can fail to perceive that the devil has achieved his greatest triumph since the victory in the Garden of Eden by convincing women of their inferiority and waging war on maternity” (pp. 91-92).
Commending this treatise, Thomas Howard declares: “It is scarcely an overstatement to say that if this book were read, and heeded, by this epoch, the Gadarene Slide on which modern culture finds itself would be halted. In this slender volume we find the authentic vision of what womanhood is. Dr. von Hildebrand takes us to the very substance of the ineffable mystery of gender.”
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In Becoming Your Husband’s Best Friend (Eugene OR: Harvest House Publishers, c. 2010) Lisa and David Frisbie provide us with another (of now nearly a dozen) helpful treatise on building a healthy marriage. They craft case studies with literary dexterity—attention to details, dialogue, character development—and cull insights worth pondering. This publication, as the title indicates, targets women who long for improvements in their marriage but realize their husbands are disinterested in actively coming alongside to help. (Would that they would!) Women are generally more concerned with the quality of the relationship than their husbands (who often blissfully assume that all is, in fact, quite well!).
Various women are portrayed, illustrating problems of unspoken expectations, unconscious pride, unrelenting criticism, unhelpful gossip, and unresolved bitterness. Carrie expected her husband to duplicate her father’s romantic and helpful qualities—but never told her husband about it! Maria pitied herself as a victim, heroically carrying out family obligations without her husband’s assistance or concern. Darlene deluged her husband with relentless accusations and searing censures. Melody surprised her husband while he was watching sexually explicit material on TV and shared her outrage with family and friends, leading to such toxic gossip that the couple had to move to another city. Sharon angrily endured a lazy, unwashed beer-guzzling slouch who watched TV while she earned a living.
All of these women have legitimate complaints. All of them also realize, following counsel with the Frisbies, that they will have to try to initiate changes to improve things. And they do, primarily by deliberately changing their own behaviour. Once Carrie’s husband learns what she deeply desires he actually tries to act differently—he was simply clueless amidst his wife’s silent expectations. Maria allowed God to deal with her hubris and discovered her husband slowly becoming the man she longed for. Darlene began to bite her critical tongue and found her husband ever more open to a better relationship. Melody learned, acknowledging her own less-than-perfect self, to forgive her husband and resolve to share confidential details regarding him only with appropriate persons. Sharon joined a vibrant church, embraced the Christian faith, and found herself to begin living graciously, foregoing the bitterness that had soured her life. Rather quickly her husband cleaned up, found a job, and joined her in the great adventure of married life.
So the stories in Becoming Your Husband’s Best Friend all have a happy ending. That’s not to say there are guarantees, sure-fire recipes for success. But as Lisa and David Frisbie insist, when a woman deals rightly with her marital distress there’s real hope she can restore it.