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There was a time when virtue summoned manly images like that of The Iliad’s Prince Hector soothing his wife and infant son before venturing out into battle. But these days, as Alexandra Carmeny points out in a recent essay for Ethika Politika, the term is more often associated with pinkness and petticoats, to the point that online discussion often tends to frame any form of perceived moral conservatism as stuffily feminine.

Take, for example, the feminist blog staple “pearl-clutching,” an accusation aimed at an individual one means to cast as caught up in near-hysterical outrage. As Slate’s Torie Bosch explains in her brief history of the term,

The phrase pearl clutching, which means being shocked by something once-salacious that should now be seen as commonplace, like sex, is ubiquitous on blog posts, especially in media geared towards women.

Bosch notes the phrase has popped up in venues from Salon to Jezebel to the Washington Post, and each time it’s used it’s deployed to connote a particular brand of un-modish moralism festooned in matronly accessories. While pearl-clutching is a unisex smear, it’s never used to indicate outrage deemed morally progressive; offense over sexually graphic slurs against the Virgin Mary is pearl-clutching, offense at the idea of girls being shamed for sexting is decidedly not. The feminine framing imputed onto those accused of clutching their pearls is unmistakable, intended, it seems, to summon to mind a distinctly ladylike moralist somewhere between a Stepford Wife and nosey grandmother. And it’s not the only phrase of its kind.

Think of the children!” is another a shrieky blog standard, a phrase made famous by The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, a gossiping reverend’s wife in a permanent state of moral agitation. With its Tipper Goreish maternalism and panicky air, it does more or less the same work as pearl clutching, and appears in similar contexts and venues. An image of Helen Lovejoy mid-exhortation was recently used by Jezebel to impugn a mother who was distressed by a hospital’s false claim that medical staff required five minutes alone with minors; NBC’s refusal to run a film trailer referencing abortion was also chalked disparagingly up to think-of-the-children-ism.

That accusations of “pearl clutching” and “think of the children”-style moralizing seem always to arise around questions of sexuality is likely no coincidence. The provincializing of virtue to sexual matters goes hand-in-hand with the feminization of morality itself. This represents a subtle use of sexism. There is a broad, unfortunate tendency to denigrate or dismiss things perceived as feminine—professions, home tasks, etc. The feminization of moral conservatism and virtue itself represents an attempt to trivialize them.

One immediate ill effect of the technique of argument-by-feminization is the natural chill it instills in woman writers with heterodox opinions in the fraught arenas of sexuality, abortion, contraception, etc. Because women forwarding morally conservative opinions better fit the pearl-clutchy, child-thinking stereotype, the effect of the jabs is more keenly felt. While they may be intended to embarrass male proponents of the same thoughts, they threaten to hit the women at a dead bullseye—a strange strategy considering the seemingly pro-woman outfits that tend to make use of the terms.

There’s another strange dimension to the suggestion that virtue and moral prudence are the sole province of women. It implies that lasciviousness and indiscretion belong naturally to the boys. For a pair of zings intended to cast their targets as hopelessly old-fashioned, the very femininity of both pearl clutching and think of the children contains a rather antiquated sense of the gender of virtue, namely the nineteenth century notion that women are by nature angels and men animals.

Both the ancient view of virtue as principally masculine and the modern view of it as principally feminine leave much to be desired. Imagining proponents of conservative positions in moral discourse as squawky church ladies must be tempting insofar as it’s a quick way to diminish and humiliate, but only insofar as femininity is still thought of as generally frivolous. Such a tactic should be especially off-putting to those advocating some form of progressivism. As long as feminization is relied upon as a strategy for dismissal, it’s hard to imagine women in the public eye making much progress in discourse regardless of their positions.

Virtue is, after all, for everyone: The sharp division into virtuous exemplars and resigned riffraff is ultimately a recipe for disorder, whether delineated along gender lines or otherwise. Those who dismiss clutchers of pearls and thinkers of children should engage the moral position they disagree with rather than aim at the credibility of its proponents. But that’s usually the kind of discourse that’s enlightening rather than entertaining—virtuous, if you will. 

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a Marshall Scholar studying Christian ethics at the University of Cambridge.

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