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Mariann S. Regan
- Published on Amazon.com
Suspect Citizens: Women, Virtue, and Vice in Backlash Politics, by Dr. Jocelyn Boryzcka, explores the intersection of morality and politics, as it relates to women. The author uses a powerful conceptual framework to ask new questions. Today we see women through a dualistic lens of virtue and vice, both of which "often seem to be uncontested concepts inherited from tradition as opposed to deriving from ongoing political contestation" (17). Dr. Boryzcka contests these concepts. In her conceptual history of the dualistic application of virtue and vice to women, she offers "a feminist response to communitarians and social conservatives who dominate the political discourse on virtue" (16). Our current thoughts about women are still imprisoned by longstanding historical concepts, but we can move past these ideas to find more effective ways of exploring how morality relates to politics. Then we can more freely promote women as responsible citizens and leaders in our democracy.
From antiquity to the present, the traditional qualities of a virtuous woman have been essentially the same. Dr. Boryczka unpacks "women's long association with virtue in the private sphere and the use of vice to keep them there" (15). A woman of dependable "virtue" is nurturing, modest, pious, self-contained, humble, a guardian in the private sphere of husband and children, loyal, self-effacing, and honest--in a sense, ethically pure. Our underlying beliefs persuade us that any woman who appears to transgress these implicit rules has crossed a bright line--she has entered the area of "vice" for women and is therefore unfit for political office. And since all women might cross this line, all women are suspect citizens.
We may be surprised to learn that this old virtue/vice duality for women has endured to the present day--the language may vary, but the virtue/vice dualism is the same. Dr. Boryczka's first three chapters highlight this continuum. Ancient thought aligns women with emotions as opposed to reason, while the Medieval thought of Machiavelli and Aquinas sees women's seductive nature as a threat to public order. Wollstonecraft believes that women need a full education to rise to their "true virtue" as wives and mothers of future citizens. Tocqueville envisions virtuous women as moral guardians of society, but only from the private sphere of husbands and children. And even in the private sphere, women have a precarious position as moral guardians. Those who fail in their role as private moral guardians, or reach beyond it, are instantly suspected of infecting the state with "vice."
Early America was also captive to this either/or pattern of thought for women. As daughters of Eve, women were feared for their power not only to destroy the City on the Hill but also to damn mankind for eternity. The state and the soul are hostage to women's control of their sexuality. If they cross that bright line of maintaining their piety, humility, and virtue, women can corrupt all humanity, both in this world and the next. Daly's modern feminist rewriting of "virtue" does challenge these patriarchal theories, yet it leaves a patriarchal virtue/vice dualism in place. Humanity's future teeters on the line between women's virtue and women's vice.
These old issues are alive today in our debates about family values and the "back to virtue" movement. The fabric of the nation, many argue, can be torn apart by the sexual promiscuity of its women, but it can also be knit firmly together by women's sexual purity. Women are suspect in society because so much is seen to depend upon their sexual behavior. In our debates on sex education, "standing moral assumptions deeply embedded in the American political script cast political engagement and political solutions as suspect" ( 87). The same old virtue/vice duality seems to freeze people's thinking and trump political discussion, so that the only remaining question is how much suspicion of women should be built into our nation's policies. One has only to look at recent national disputes about abortion and contraception to see how penetrating Dr. Boryzcka's analysis is, and how wise.
In Chapters 4 through 6, Dr. Boryzcka embraces recent history and current feminist theory. The labor disputes of the Lowell mill girls split into straight ("virtuous") and gay ("vice-ridden") camps, a conceptual standoff. The "Ozzie and Harriet morality" of the 50s revisits Tocqueville's "separate spheres" preference for males and females, a construction that still underlies some current scholarship. The proponents of "feminist care ethics," despite their efforts to get past that virtue/vice duality, end by reinforcing the old patriarchal and parochial views of women's "virtue" that serve to prevent "fluid social roles or deliberative processes" (155), and that also preclude a frank discussion of our attitudes towards female sexuality.
In her conclusion, Dr. Boryzcka meditates upon ways that we can extract ourselves, as people and as a society, from this "dominant moral dualism" (161) that makes women into suspect citizens and limits them to the private sphere. She urges that we move toward a sense of collective responsibility and a global understanding of politics, beyond the trap of the virtue/vice duality for women.
In this brief description, I have not been able to do justice to the nuances of Dr. Borycza's thought. This is an important book, and it should be carefully read. She brings theory and history to bear upon a central problem of our time. Old definitions of "virtue" and "vice" for women hinder our society and all societies from moving forward into the global community. Suspect Citizens is an important book for all those who care about morality, politics, and women's roles in a democracy.