Beyond Individualism: The New Puritanism, Feminism and Women

By Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth | Salmagundi, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Beyond Individualism: The New Puritanism, Feminism and Women


Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, Salmagundi


A new Puritanism may well be stirring among us, but the visible evidence leaves room for doubt. For whatever else this Puritanism may entail, it has done little to banish the display of flesh and sexuality from the public consciousness. Looking at the pages of the spring's fashion magazines, at television and films, or at young people out for a good time, the substance of Puritanism seems more than a little elusive. Once again, skirts are getting shorter, midriffs are being bared, and, if we are to credit the established fashion press, clothing for spring and summer will explicitly resemble diaphanous, sexy underwear. There is little here that Cotton or Increase Mather would recognize, much less claim as anything they intended. There are days I even wonder how many people still know what the word adultery means. The tendency that Christopher Lasch precociously identified as the culture of narcissism, has, in the years since he published his book, flowered in ways that even he might not have foreseen.1

Our age is becoming one in which the qualifiers of sex are rapidly disappearing. Premarital and extramarital sex are still recognized categories, but even they are less and less frequently evoked, yielding ground to the encompassing category of sex, which recognizes fewer and fewer social markers. This is a world in which the use of the term "unwed mother" has become politically suspect on the grounds that any reference to weddings implies an inappropriate value judgment. Mothers are not married or unmarried, they are single or partnered, or better yet simply mothers. In a world in which Murphy Brown has made it into the pages of textbooks as an example of the impermanence of marriage, the image of Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet A and struggling to raise her daughter Pearl has devolved from quaint to irrelevant.2 What place is there for Hester in a world in which married women are encouraged to revel in the delightful freedom of taking a younger man or perhaps a woman as a lover on the grounds that such lovers permit them to enjoy the new delights of sex freed of the encumbrances, economic dependence, or emotional obligations of marriage?3

No, Puritanism seems a very strange quality to ascribe to a society in which it would be easier to find people who would admit to being shocked by the notion that twenty year-old women are virgins than that fifteen and even thirteen year-old girls are having sex and babies. The apparently unending sexual revolution of the past thirty years has flooded American society with graphic images of sexuality, uprooting sexual taboos the way the swollen Mississippi uproots trees. From record jackets to sex magazines to pornography, the visual images of sexuality defiantly proclaim a fierce determination to exorcise the lingering ghosts of Puritanism and Victorianism-usually lumped under the sneering label of hypocritical bourgeois morality. Puritanical restrictions upon behavior and representation provoke the contemptuous anger that restrictions upon the unlimited freedom of individual self-expression are automatically taken to merit.

At the core of this defiantly exhibitionist anti-Puritanism lies the determination to sever any persisting links between sex and morality, or, to put it differently, to validate the sexual desires of individuals as inherently good. The problem with Puritanism from this perspective is that it made people feel bad about themselves by forcing them to repress the instincts and inclinations the realization of which would presumably have made them happy. In this sense, Lasch was doubtless right to link the commitment to instant and complete gratification to a narcissistic personality type that from another angle might best be described as an unending adolescence. Puritanism becomes one with Freudianism, notwithstanding their radically different views in other respects, by confronting individuals with the necessity to relinquish or repress some of their desires in return for membership in society or civilization. …

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