Thursday, November 13, 2014

Girls as "Guardians of Virtue": We Need to Eliminate That Phrase and Mentality from Our Vocabulary and Culture

I have heard the following concept expressed multiple times over the decades I have been involved in the Church, and I can't express forcefully enough how much I loathe it - and how badly I wish we could remove it completely from our discourse:

Girls should be guardians of virtue for boys.  

This is something about which I feel passionately, largely because I have two sons and four daughters - and I believe deeply that such a concept is insidious and dangerous, both for girls and for boys.  It is wrong on multiple levels, but I want to highlight in this post three reasons I abhor it so strongly:

1) It completely misrepresents virtue and what it is meant to and can be. 

Virtue is not another word for chastity.  Virtue, in its archaic form, meant " an effective, active, or inherent power or force; the quality or practice of moral excellence or righteousness" (from It actually derives from the Old French word for "maleness" and is found in words that begin with "vir" - like "virility".  Thus, "a virtuous woman" is not always a virgin; she is a strong, effective, active, powerful, moral, righteous woman.  A virgin simply is one manifestation of a virtuous woman, and not being a virgin does not negate virtue.  For example, rape does not diminish or rob a woman of her virtue, and equating virginity with virtue distorts virtue and causes emotional damage to further complicate an already traumatic event. 

Proverbs 31:10 ("Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.") is quoted often with regard to the worth of a virtuous woman, but the next 20 verses generally are ignored - and those verses explain what verse 10 means. I highly recommend reading them.  Due solely to length concerns, I will not include the entire passage, but I will summarize them and what they say about a virtuous woman - bolding the things that might surprise some people and setting the description in quotes to stress the highlighting.  (I also want to stress that I believe a virtuous woman doesn't have to do everything in the following list - that these things are examples of what a virtuous woman does.

A virtuous woman is trustworthy, treats her husband (if married) well, works with her hands, rises early, feeds her household, purchases land, plants food, becomes physically strong, serves the poor, makes clothing and other materials, sells merchandise, is strong (again) and honorable, speaks wisely and kindly, is active, is praised, fears the Lord, is blessed.  

A virtuous woman is a strong, active, independent, honored person - not a virgin who simply must guard her virginity for the benefit of men.  Women no longer are considered the property of men, and we need to eliminate any hint of that former structure from our vocabulary, even if we generally are unaware of the connotations.  We need to educate our girls and boys about this ancient foundation and teach them to let go of the "guardian of virtue for men" idea once and for all. 

2) Virtue is not "guarded"; it is "exercised"and "developed" and "strengthened".  

That is important, and being merely a guardian of virginity robs girls of developing into the strong, active, independent, honored women they are meant to be.  

3) Both virtue and chastity should be the responsibility of the individuals who possess them.  

Boys and girls together, mutually, should protect their own chastity and exercise / develop / strengthen their own virtue (and help others do the same) - so that, ultimately, virtuous women can marry virtuous men and raise virtuous children to become virtuous adults, in a never-ending cycle of eternal virtue and progression.  Telling girls to guard virtue for boys does more than rob those girls; it also robs those boys in a very real and powerful way. 


Papa D said...

Someone posted the following comment at another forum where I posted this link. I want to share it here and then share my response, as well:

"I don't mind girls being guardians of their OWN virtue. And boys as well."

My response:

"I don't mind people guarding their own virginity, if that simply means developing personal strength and self-control - but that too often morphs into victim blaming and shaming when virginity is lost through no personal fault. Virtue, however, is FAR more expansive than virginity - and I see a huge difference between guarding (protecting, locking away, and all other words that describe a common view of guarding) and exercising, developing and strengthening. Guarding connotes keeping something safe in its current condition, even if that means placing in solitary confinement; virtue isn't meant to be preserved in its current condition. Virtue is meant to grow - and in Mormon theology that growth is described as eternal. Virtue can continue to grow even when virginity is gone (no matter how that occurs), and it is the equating of virtue with virginity that I loathe.

It's like how we conflate modesty with a dress standard. How we dress is only one manifestation of modesty - but we lave lost, largely, the broader meaning of modesty in our obsession with dress standards. Thus, we generally ignore lots of cases of immodesty in our culture - like overly large houses, expensive clothing, gluttony in what we eat, etc. - simply because we have stopped talking about them as examples of immodesty. Modesty has become something, in practical terms, that only (or, at least, disproportionately) applies to women and girls - and that is disappointing and a real shame.

What I'm saying is that we should talk about virtue in the same terms as Proverbs 31 does - not merely in terms of virginity. Proverbs 31 doesn't talk about guarding anything; it describes women who are strong, proactive, progressive and even aggressive in all kinds of ways, even in areas that are seen traditionally as the realm of men. Virtue is not confined to issues of sex, and it ought to be taught in the exact same way to male and female members - in all of its expansive glory."

Becci said...

The servant who "guarded" his talent was the one whose talent was taken away from him...

Guarding--hiding--something doesn't keep it safely in our keeping.

Anonymous said...

I think you're parsing too much with regard to "guarded." I don't mind parsing (as you well know!) but that needs to be clear in the initial declaration.

The most common definition of guardian is "defender, protector, or keeper." There is nothing morally or intellectually problematic with ANY of those things with regard to one's one virtue and none of them preclude developing or strengthening virtue. It's not an either/or proposition. Protecting and defending one's virtue is not remotely the same as hiding it.

Papa D said...

I am parsing this closely specifically because I think it is vitally important in this case to do so. Your comment actually illustrates why I believe that. You used "defender, protector, or keeper" as synonyms for "guardian" - and, as I said in my last comments, those all connote maintaining a current condition. I am totally fine with that if the discussion is about guarding virginity or chastity - but the wording to which I object is NOT virginity or chastity. Rather, it is "virtue" - and virtue, by definition, is something that is supposed to be grown, expanded, developed, strengthened, exercised, employed, etc. Virtue is not supposed to be maintained at its current condition, and it is not supposed to be limited to virginity and chastity; what is described in Proverbs 31 is an all-encompassing power that is manifested in every possible aspect of a productive life. We kill that expansive understanding of virtue when we limit it to nothing more than the protection of virginity or chastity.

Please, nobody get me wrong. Virginity and chastity are important, in their place. I'm not diminishing either by saying anything I've said; I merely am trying to say we need to teach virtue in its glorious breadth and not demean or even dismiss it by mutating it into nothing more than avoiding improper sexual activity - which we have done and continue to do FAR too often.

Anonymous said...

I used defender, protector, or keeper because those comprise the first definition in my dictionary. I suggest that your insistence that "guard" necessitates lack of growth is incorrect.

The second definition in my dictionary is: a person who looks after and is legally responsible for someone who is unable to manage their own affairs.

I just don't see the connection you are making.

Protecting my home from intruders doesn't mean I'm not painting inside. As I said, they aren't remotely mutually exclusive. So, no, I have NO problem with women protecting, defending, or keeping their virtue. I never LIMITED the interaction with virtue to MERELY defending it.

You said, "We Need to Eliminate that Phrase and Mentality from Our Vocabulary and Culture." I just disagree. I WANT my girls (and boys) to guard their virtue. It's kind of hard to strengthen and expand virtue that wasn't first guarded — just like it's kind of hard to paint a house that has been overrun by thugs.

FTR, I think you are the only one who has so much as USED the words virginity and chastity in this discussion. I'm not conflating the two nor limiting virtue to those. I'm not even talking about them.

Papa D said...

"a person who looks after and is legally responsible for someone who is unable to manage their own affairs."

Sincere question: How does that relate in any way, other than to prove my point, to talking about virtue? I am talking about virginity and chastity because that is the focus of the LARGE majority of lessons that deal with "guarding virtue". I'm talking about how we often use the phrase and saying we shouldn't do that. I'm talking about discussing virtue in terms of Proverbs 31, not like we too often do.

Papa D said...

My point is that we ought to discuss virtue as comprehensively as possible - as something that is supposed to be grown, expanded, developed, strengthened, exercised, employed, etc. not merely guarded. My point is that church lessons for young women actually DO, often, talk about women (young and old) being responsible for protecting the chastity (note, NOT virtue in its fulness) of men (young and old). I want virtue taught for what it is supposed to be, not just as another word for virginity and/or chastity - and that conflation absolutely is part of our common culture, unfortunately.

Given how the phrase is used, almost exclusively, in real life, in our religious culture, I want us to stop using it - or, at least, use it ONLY in context of a deeper, fuller understanding of what virtue really is.