When She Chooses the Scarlet Letter
Oft overlooked, at the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is Hester Prynne’s resistance to calls for her to become a sort of feminist messiah. Having turned toward prudence, she suggests that the archetypal woman will not conquer through deviancy, but through fulfillment of her feminine character. A recent letter from Don Rittman of East Greenwich arguably touches on the theme from the other side of a poorly chosen history:
A society cannot destroy all the premises, both good and bad, that support a fundamental social norm and expect that norm to remain healthy. Responsible fatherhood had basically become such a norm. We still believe in it; we just don’t believe in the things that made it possible. Neither, frankly, does Froma Harrop, not from what one sees in most of her “social-issue” writings, which are fraught with wishful thinking.
A recurring theme, in the story of mankind, is our, well, infelicity when making cultural decisions. When we presume to make calculations and radically alter policy in the name of expediency, we let our prized cattle out with the rats. By contrast, when we allow freedom to emerge as an outgrowth of intrinsic tradition, with its millennia of embedded experience, our society advances in all ways.
In the case of freeing women from the oppressive conditions into which they’d fallen as an overcompensation in humanity’s learning curve, making them equal in the law and stopping there would have allowed the culture to work through the significance of the change. Instead, lunging forces within the culture pushed for too much, too quickly. Beyond freedom from a particular man or even a broader patriarchy, progressives sought to procure freedom — essentially — from being a woman.
And as happens when we dive to push tradition out the window in contravention of human nature, the consequence tends to be the opposite of what’s intended. As Richard Stith writes in “Her Choice, Her Problem“:
Throughout human history, children have been the consequence of natural sexual relations between men and women. Both sexes knew they were equally responsible for their children, and society had somehow to facilitate their upbringing. Even the advent of birth control did not fundamentally change this dynamic, for all forms of contraception are fallible.
Elective abortion changes everything. Abortion absolutely prevents the birth of a child. A woman’s choice for or against abortion breaks the causal link between conception and birth. It matters little what or who caused conception or whether the male insisted on having unprotected intercourse. It is she alone who finally decides whether the child comes into the world. She is the responsible one. For the first time in history, the father and the doctor and the health-insurance actuary can point a finger at her as the person who allowed an inconvenient human being to come into the world.
Predictably, the counter action will be more laws, infringing on more freedoms, and with more unimaginable, yet foreseeable, consequences.