The War On Women – What Are You Wearing?

The Values Voters Summit is in our rear view mirror, but for me, the memory of one of its peripheral participants lingers. Perhaps you heard about this too. The summit organizers granted table space to a group called “Modesty Matters,” so they could distribute a pamphlet which asked women to wear more burquas.

I could have that burqua part wrong. But not by a lot.

What I am not wrong about is that the Modesty Matters pamphlet has a decidedly Victorian attitude. It declares, “All women, whether married or single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.” Wait! There’s also comedy. This is my favorite part: “My men’s bible study group talks frequently about controlling our lust, thoughts, and eyes. Yes the problem and responsibility are ours, but is it really reasonable for the women of the church to make it THIS difficult for us?”

My first reaction was excitement! I thought the most logical explanation was that someone from the past has successfully traveled to 2012. I was hopeful I had discovered evidence of a time machine, or the portal to the 1950s that I have always suspected is hidden under the Mormon Cathedral in Salt Lake City. (That would explain both Mitt and Ann, and why they don’t allow non-members inside.) Curiosity nagged at me until I determined to find out who is behind Modesty Matters, and more importantly, why they want women to take a Grover Norquist-style pledge to cover up our most excellent curvy curves, which, correct me if I have this wrong, they believe are a gift from God.

Daily Kos linked their article on Modesty Matters to a small company that makes dress patterns and sells sewing lesson CDs for people who want to make their own Little House on the Prairie clothing. The  company was started by two entrepreneurial homeschooling families whose lifestyles led them to find a niche and fill it with calico. Their website says: “Modesty Matters, LLC does NOT try to define modesty for you. We simply provide product options for modest-minded individuals.” If it had been the owners of this small business who had taken a table at the Values Voters Summit, I was ready to give them high marks for an innovative marketing plan – though I would have advised them to work on a better product brochure. But Daily Kos got it wrong. It wasn’t the Little House clothing company that was the Modesty Matters at the Values Voters Summit.

Googling “Modesty Matters” gave me a jolt of deja vu. Could I be closing in on that Salt Lake City time tunnel? “Modesty Matters” has long been a term used to designate a much discussed “value” of the Mormon Church. As Ann Romney still has a (long) shot at becoming our First Lady, I thought I’d check out what the Mormons were up to, modesty-wise. Did you know they hold modesty fashion shows? I also found a Mormon version of the word game Taboo, in which adolescent girls compete to get their team members to guess “values” words. (This concerned me because one of the game’s “values” words is “white”.) But my favorite find is a play aimed at the elementary school set, reforming those slutty Disney princesses. For instance, Snow White is told by the bishop to move out of the house with the seven dwarves and into a house with seven dwrafettes. (I had no idea she was even gay!) And when the wicked witch tempts her with a strapless gown instead of a poison apple, she outfoxes her by covering her shoulders with a jacket! What a hero! (Yes, I am aware of the gender inconsistency but I refuse to use the feminine form of hero as long as it is the same word we use for an addicting life-ruining drug.)

But it wasn’t the Mormons at the Values Voter Summit. The “group” behind the Modesty Matters pamphlet turned out to be (drum roll) J.H. Woolwine, a retired pharmacist from Roanoke, Virginia. Besides giving strangers unsolicited fashion advice,  Mr. Woolwine’s main claim to fame is writing a letter to the editor in support of the Giles County School Board, when they decided to allow the ten commandments to be displayed.Stephanie Mencimer from Mother Jones talked to Mr. Woolwine himself, as he handed out his brochures  and collected donations that will allow him to continue his clothing crusade.

To me, the most interesting thing about Mr. Woolwine is not that he showed up at the Summit, but that he told Mother Jones that Modesty Matters was a “back porch” operation run by himself and his wife. In fact, I found several articles in which “J.H. Woolwine and his wife” were mentioned, but never once did Mr. Woolwine think to offer her name. That oversight seems to be a prefect metaphor for the whole “Modesty Matters” goal: to put women back in the shadow of men.

We often think about the War on Women as being solely about a woman’s reproductive rights, but the threat to a woman’s “right to choose” is but one battle in the larger war. There are a great many people who wish to see the role of modern women downgraded to helpmate, and they are actively working toward that goal. The True Woman Pledge Mr. Woolwine would like you to take, which also reflects the fundamentalist Mormon, Muslim, Catholic and Christian view of womanhood, includes the following planks:

  • We glorify God and experience His blessing when we accept and joyfully embrace His created design, function, and order for our lives 
  •  We are called as women to affirm and encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity, and to honor and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and in the church.
  • When we respond humbly to male leadership in our homes and churches, we demonstrate a noble submission to authority that reflects Christ’s submission to God His Father. 
  • Men and women are both created in the image of God and are equal in value and dignity, but they have distinct roles and functions in the home and in the church.

By the way, I don’t think you will be surprised to discover the True Woman Pledge has something to say about abortion and marriage equality:

  • Human life is precious to God and is to be valued and protected, from the point of conception until rightful death. 
  • Marriage, created by God, is a sacred, binding, lifelong covenant between one man and one woman.  
  • Selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant, and laid down His life for us.

My biggest surprise was really not the discovery “Modesty Matters” is in reality, one anachronistic man who wants the world to know the reason he can’t keep his attention on the Sunday sermon is because the fidgety pubescent teenager in the pew in front of him isn’t wearing a bra. The surprise came from discovering the large number of groups whose goal it is to return women to a subservient status by convincing them that’s how God wants it. I know how much the comparison irritates these Christian groups, but is very hard not to think about the Taliban or the Saudis. It has been my experience that they will demand indignantly “Do we keep our daughters illiterate? Do we stone women who cheat?” To which I would like to reply, “No, you don’t do those. You do other things. But your goal is the same: to make men superior to women.”

The War on Women is not limited to taking away a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The War On Women is also an attempt to take away a woman’s right to choose what her role in the world will be. It is evident from the Pledge Modesty Matters encourages women to sign, that controlling what women wear is but the opening gambit in the eventual “taming of the shrew,” until it will again be a woman’s duty to defer to her husband,  – and even worse than that, to obey “religious” men who claim to speak for God. As for Mr. Woolwine, I suspect he is feeling nostalgic for a past that never really existed. June Cleaver may have seemed the perfect wife and mother, but Barbara Billingsly who played her part was a divorced single mom. Liberace was gay. The Romper Room teacher had an abortion. Hugh Hefner’s nudie magazine made him a very rich man. People are always going to be people. In the end, the only one we can really control is ourselves. Maybe the best solution would be to ask Mr. Woolwine to sign a pledge that he will close his eyes and think of what’s-her-name whenever he is distracted by a tanned and toned fellow churchgoer who has chosen to wear a little white satin slip dress on a hot summer’s day – be they man or woman. (Oh! Eureka moment! I bet that’s why “white” is a clue in the modesty game.)

So I suppose it all comes down to this many faceted question: What are you wearing?

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