Militant Virtue

A common problem that we all have when thinking or talking about female virtues is that of speaking in negatives as though female virtues were a sort of empty space. We think a gentle and quiet spirit is another way of saying vacant. We think modesty is simply the absence of inappropriate dressing. We think that chastity is the absence of promiscuity. We think that faithfulness at home is the absence of going out and doing other things. But scripture does not define virtues in terms of empty space; it is defined in terms of fruit.

Matthew 7:16 says quite simply “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

Painfully straight forward I know, but do you notice how it does not say anything about knowing it is a grape vine by the absence of thistles? It’s the grapes that really tell the story. In the Fairie Queene there is a female knight named Belphoebe, who represents chastity. What a wonderful image! Chastity is a militant virtue. It requires an active defense.

Now the reason that I bring all this up is that many young ladies simply have no defense, especially when it comes to the young men. I know I usually write more to mothers, but can you believe that there was a time when I also was in high school and college? It wasn’t even so long ago that I have forgotten about it. Of course much of this is still applicable to married women, because faithfulness to your husband is not the absence of wandering – it is the presence of a defense.

Forgive the possible tackiness of this metaphor, but if you have ever watched a nature film, or seen a dog on a walk, or really paid attention to life at all, you will have noticed a certain tendency among the male of the species. They mark their territory. They make a claim. They fight over the girl water buffaloes. Men do exactly the same thing, starting somewhere around the sixth grade. They like to impose on women around them in a way that builds their territory, or their prestige, or their ego. Let me hasten to say that I am not here talking about what you should teach your sons about controlling this kind of behavior, I am talking about being the women in a world where this will happen.

One of the great skills of the female life is learning to be on the defense in these situations. It is about not letting men who are simply passing by you leave a mark. It is about not being a victim, not being vulnerable, and not being willing to be imposed upon. I need to hasten to add one other qualification – when boys or men do this, it is not necessarily springing from any deep nefarious desires. Sometimes, it is just an accident. Sometimes it is a bad habit, or a different culture. Sometimes they aren’t actually paying attention when they impose. So don’t take this post as an accusation towards the men who impose on, or attempt to impose on you. These are all excellent opportunities for you to practice virtue.

Often times in Christian circles these impositions are super subtle, and seemingly completely innocent. Sitting down next to you on a bench which provides a suddenly private conversation. Patting your back and lingering for a little moment too many. Taking a sip out of your drink without asking. Asking for a ride that you might rather not give. Telling a joke that is based on subject matter you didn’t need to share with them. Texting you in the middle of the night. Referring casually to your hormonal situation. Being just a little over the line, a little too casual, a little too friendly, a little too near, or just a little too everything.

The important thing that I wanted to communicate in this is that a response is required. It is absolutely necessary to female virtue. When some young man (or older, whatever) is imposing on you, you must not be imposed on. You do not just let these things happen. Smiling, laughing nervously, giving the ride, staying on the bench, or simply not resisting is how you let a mark be made.

It is also absolutely critical that you maintain a good sense of humor, not being self-serious, while somehow remaining entirely immoveable. Young women have a great deal of trouble with the fear of being shrill, and if that doesn’t scare them they probably are shrill. I can clearly remember the feeling of not wanting to overreact to something that I was pretty sure was not seriously intended.  So the secret here is to not overreact, but to be perfectly firm and cheerful. Someone unwelcome joins you on a bench? Unjoin him. Stand up. Walk away.

I know another problem for the unmarried women is that they might think that the young man, or young men, are all interested in them seriously. They feel like these things would not be happening in Christian circles if the men involved had no intentions. They would not be getting rides with me, walking me to my car, making a show of having inside jokes with me, or otherwise giving me attention if they were not actually interested in me.

But here is the deal: there is a way to be the girl who is the fire hydrant on the corner. Nervous laughter, eager attention whenever he starts to tell you something, always being there for a conversation, lots of interested eye contact. These things do not make you a serious intention, they make you an easy target. And honestly, the whole fire hydrant situation never was about the fire hydrant. It was about how conveniently located it was to show the other dogs you have been there. When young men do this kind of thing, it is often not even about you. It is about them, and about the other guys.

And, lest my comparing young men to the neighborhood dogs inspire in you feelings of great contempt towards them, just keep it in perspective. It might be out of line for them, but it is in the same category as a girl who doesn’t pay attention when she bends over. Immodesty from women is distributed in exactly the same way. Maybe she wanted one particular guy to notice her, but she certainly didn’t have serious intentions toward every single man she walked by in that ensemble.

So if you are a young woman in this kind of situation, practice cheerful resistance. If the world of interaction between the sexes was a billiard table, be a bumper, not a pocket. Cheerfully, firmly, rudely  enforce your standards. You don’t owe him an explanation. Don’t get caught up in reasons you can’t give him a ride. Just say no. If he insists, pushes, tries harder, say, “Have a nice walk!”

Do not be afraid that this kind of defense will keep anyone from ever seriously being interested in you. If it is the right kind of man, this sort of behavior will bless him deeply. Would you be blessed by a man averting his eyes from an immodest woman? Or would you prefer him to have lingered there, worried that it would be rude to walk away? Worried that she might think he was being unfriendly? Worried that she might actually want to marry him, and he was missing his chance? Return the favor now, and guard yourself.

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48 thoughts on “Militant Virtue

  1. SPECTACULAR! I hope many young women read this. Your metaphors may be bordering on the crass (albeit amusingly), but it’s a pretty crass world out there.

  2. Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Thank you for your insight.

    I wonder if I could get some clarification on this, since I come, obviously, from a different ‘side of the fence’ so to speak.

    I have spent almost 20 years trying to inculcate in my son the habits of opening doors, carrying packages, walking to cars. Not because he’s ‘marking the territory,’ but because because he’s supposed to cherish and honor all women. You do these things because it is how it’s done.

    I’ve gone so far as to tell him to not bother bringing home a young lady who won’t let him open her door. I find that somehow at odds with the above in a subtextual kind of way. The no I can open that door/carry that package/whatever myself and the behavior of the (I maintain) well-trained young man run counter.

    I understand that wisdom is called for on both sides of this, and I wonder if you could synthesize this a little bit.


    Christ’s blessings on you.

  3. Goodness, I wish I had heard this when I was younger! Now that I’m the momma, my husband and I are beginning think about what we want to teach our daughters (age 4 and one on the way). I love this and want pure relationships with men for my daughters. Something I did not have, so I feel like I’m at a loss at times trying to figure out how to develop that in my own children. Thank you for this and please, keep writing on this subject!

  4. Your title caught my attention. I’ve been realizing more and more how the biblical picture of womanhood is less like a damsal in distress and more like a heroine whose strength and courage comes from rightly relating to God. Thanks for the encouragement to pursue and fight for virtue.

  5. Hi Rachel! I enjoyed this article – as a young newly married woman, I found it poignant in my circumstances. I work in a primarily male office, so my defenses stay up. One question though: do you really consider “cheerful resistance” a fruit? You started off by saying that most virtue is spoken of in terms of negatives, but that fruit is evident in and of itself. But isn’t “resistance” a negative? You’re pushing away something that is not welcome, creating negative space. I’m just saying I was hoping you would say more about what you think actually should fill that space, what it looks like & sounds like, and what we should attain for as women of virtue..

    Thank you for your article!

  6. Very good post, Rachel. One of your best! Thank you for also making women think about what the man’s intention might or might NOT be–and not to run away with their own assumptions…..and emotions…..

    I was thinking about T.Brainard’s response and, not at all answering for you, of course, would say the key to most of these problems is the good cheer. One who hates men might let the young man know that carrying her package or opening the door would, in fact, offend and infuriate her. Poor guy. If a woman would prefer not to be served in one way or another, a simple, smiling “No, thank you,” would do–and wouldn’t make that young man feel he’d been mislead by his godly father all these years. Attitude is so important–and I think you made that clear.

  7. I’ll just start by admitting that I was fully prepared to sigh dramatically and roll my eyes at yet another over-the-top call to the unmarried woman to “protect her heart” by refusing the company, friendship, gaze, near proximity, etc., of anyone in possession of a Y chromosome.

    Now, knowing that those defenses were up, imagine my delight at reading sensible counsel that doesn’t assume that all men are hormone-crazed lunatic perverts ready to pounce at the slightest provocation, nor that a woman is too stupid to be able to tell the difference between a man who is trying to be a gentleman and one who is trying to insinuate himself inappropriately into her life! Any effort to outline my agreement this excellent post would quickly turn into a summary of the entire thing, so I’ll just say thank you and go back to the top of the page for a re-read.

  8. *WITH this excellent post.

    I knew there would be at least one typo. My kingdom for an edit button!

  9. Absolutely phenomenal. I will be printing this for future discussions with my preteen daughter! I wish I had known this when I was dating. I would have saved myself from many a misconception, heartache, and wrong decisions. And I will be passing this on to others as well…THANK YOU!!!

  10. Amen and amen! I wish more young women understood the concept of not settling b/c they are afraid of never actually landing a husband. Sometimes, without really meaning to, you allow yourself to get marked and then ensnared. I have been married twice. The first time I settled, and ended up divorcing a rather unfaithful man. I learned my lesson, presented the Lord with my desires (He already knew them anyway!), held my ground, and have been blessed to be married to a phenomenal man for the past 7 years. I remember being told that the man I was looking for probably didn’t exist in today’s world (I wanted to be pursued not to fall into a “mutual agreement”) but he did and he has been worth every bit of the journey that brought me to him. No regrets for my high standards!

  11. To Tom Brainerd’s thoughts, as a mama of boys it’s super-important to me that we teach them to honor women. I think that will help them fight the temptation to *use* women, which I think is what Lizzie’s dog-and-the-hydrant metaphor is getting at, if I’m reading it right. I could be wrong, but I would imagine that a woman could tell the difference between being served (with thought given to *her* and her feelings) and being imposed upon (with thought only given to the male or his pals). maybe?

  12. I do wish I had had someone when I was a young girl to tell me these things.

    This is a great article and not just for young ladies. I feel quite strongly that women need to know and appreciate their value, and that THEY set the tone of relationships between men and women. And, ladies, if you have young boys to bring up, please make sure that they honour women.

  13. The Femina blog: taking the ninny out of femininity since 2007.

    (Five years and two days, to be exact.)

    Tom — How ’bout this for a litmus test: Is his behavior service he would (and does) offer to any woman, including his mother, his sister, and the least attractive girl in the class, or is it self-serving to draw the attention of the chosen few for his own glory?

  14. I love love loved this article–its so true, and I wish I had known it when I was single, since there were quite a few times where things like sitting-at-the-park-bench happened and it wasn’t necessarily inappropriate but it was on the verge, that delicate line where you can’t exactly go and slap them on the face but you do feel Uncomfortable. I am going to teach my daughter Militant Virtue! And that I’d be ok with it if she does decide to slap them on the face 😉

  15. Valerie,

    In my household the young man understands that opening his mother’s door is a privilege I have ceded to him. he treats it that way and when, for some reason he misses it, he knows that it is opportunity lost. And there are young men in my congregation I have talked to about failure to do so for their mother.

  16. Responding to Tom Brainerd – I think what Rachel wrote in the last paragraph could be directed at men as well – “If it is the right kind of man(woman), this sort of behavior will bless him(her) deeply.”

    You are correct that if a woman is militant in her feminism, then she would not be the woman for a man of virtue. But many a woman has found a peace being guarded by the man – I did. At first I was defensive to his desire to walk on the street side of the sidewalk, opening the doors, and other protective measures, but he won me over when I saw that it was not controlling, it was care.

    I have learned more and more that it always boils down to the heart and relationship. Are we treating each other as Christ? That is the ultimate litmus test…

  17. Thanks for this article–appreciate the call to strength rather than passivity.

    But to further the discussion just a bit, how do we help young women from becoming paranoid? From thinking that every attention from a guy is motivated by some sexual interest. I think we can give young women an overinflated sense of themselves if we liken young men to animals that simply can’t control themselves. And then girls walk around highly self-aware and on edge.

    Still I agree that defensive modesty is definitely necessary (and I’ve found even more so AFTER I was married–somehow the challenge of a married women is more interesting for a guy on the prowl); I just think that ultimately we need to teach women to relate to men as brothers–because we all know, you’d never kiss your brother.

  18. Tom,

    As a matter of fact, I can open that door and carry that package. As a teen I lived in a house without a man. I loved the Lord and guarded my heart. I considered it a gift and a kindness to be remembered if someone, anyone, opened a door or offered to carry something for me. There were times I wanted to open my door and carry my own package. I consider it respectful for someone to LISTEN to me about what makes me comfortable instead of imposing on me how they think things should be done.

    Respect is not found in law of actions. It is found in the intent of the heart. Be careful what you teach them.

  19. …”Smiling, laughing nervously, giving the ride, staying on the bench, or simply not resisting is how you let a mark be made.” — So true. Staying put when you’re uncomfortable, only lets a young man believe it’s okay, and he can take another step.

  20. “But here is the deal: there is a way to be the girl who is the fire hydrant on the corner.”

    Even if the rest of the post was stinky, that would have made it worth it. 🙂

  21. “It is also absolutely critical that you maintain a good sense of humor, not being self-serious, while somehow remaining entirely unmoveable.”

    Great post. And “amen” to the statement above. Militant virtue with joy and humor = the Proverbs 31 woman, who can laugh at the days to come.

    Militant virtue without joy or humor =

  22. WOW. YES. As someone who has been hurt before by thinking a guy who wants to sit so close we’re pressed against each other, give flowers, and ask constantly for my opinion on things meant something serious, I wish I had read this when I was 19. Thank you so much for this post–I see girls being hurt by this kind of thing all the time.

  23. THANK YOU! I am single and work with both men and women at my jobs, and have been struggling with this “it’s a man’s world out there” issue. Even my Christian (?) co-workers think a little flirtation is normal and fine. It really encourages me to be told again that cheerful, godly rudeness is acceptable and right. I will be even more on my guard, and practice making my chastity proactive!

  24. Sure did need all of this wisdom 50 years ago…without it many marks were left on me, and I was oblivious to all of the subtle moments when I could have “stood up…walked away.”
    To all you single women and girls: This is serious stuff.
    Take heed!

  25. Having a run on sons, I see two things for me here — the inclination in Adam’s sons to own the fruit of all trees, whether God has given them or not. Patience, my sons, patience. There is a fruit that is not forbidden and it is sweet and brings life. Also, as has been alluded to, there are women who also mark their territory, though admittedly the metaphor of the hydrant doesn’t work. Yes, every distressed damsel is not truly in distress. The wedding of humility and wisdom in Proverbs should serve them well.

  26. Debbie…

    Grace to you and peace from God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    At the end of the day, there are very few situations where someone can’t carry the package or open the door. Or put the package down and open the door…or whatever. And I guess that the number of circumstances where you have been asked if you would like one or both done for you, you said “no,” and it has been done anyway are few.

    So I guess I am bemused by the comment “I consider it respectful for someone to LISTEN to me about what makes me comfortable instead of imposing on me how they think things should be done.” I may just be thick or slow. But I am not really sure what you are trying to say to me. I note, by the way, that the author of the above essay is trying to tell you what you should be comfortable with, is she not?

    Also, “Respect is not found in law of actions. It is found in the intent of the heart. Be careful what you teach them.”…Respect may not be found in the law of actions, but it, like love, most assuredly exhibits in actions. The actions of respect are taught and learned. If they do not exhibit, then respect is not in place.

    Christ’s blessings on you.

  27. Hi Mr. Brainerd – I’m just popping in to say that I think you may be missing the point of what Lizzie is saying. (Unless of course you are teaching your son to snuggle up next to girls on benches, put his arm around them in an unwelcome and forward way, text them in the middle of the night, take sips of their drinks, tell them off-color jokes, and put them on the spot by asking them for rides . . . which I assume you are not!) When she tells girls not to allow themselves to be imposed upon by rude or thoughtless guys, that’s hardly the same thing as her being disdainful of men who are actually being polite. And if it was me, I would add one little addendum to the advice you give to your son regarding not bringing home a girl who refuses to let him open her door. I would also tell him to not bother bringing home a girl who can’t (or won’t) stand up to a man who is giving her inappropriate attention, or who allows herself to be imposed upon by every flirty guy who comes past.

  28. Fabulous! Wish I had had someone put it to me that way when I was in high school/college! God was good, as always, and mercifully worked out all the kinks, but it still would have made those years much less blush-worthy. Thank you for yet another wonderful metaphor to use with my daughter as she grows up! 🙂

  29. Rebekah,

    Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    That’s why I asked for ‘synthesis’ in my first comment.

    That may be ‘the point,’ but there aren’t really any markers in the essay that allow for the wisdom of discernment betwixt ‘jerkness’ and courtesy. You can’t say anything when you try to say everything, but surely the issue does not need to be oompletely flattened.

    Past that, I think I’ve just been responding to offers of synthesis from the spectators.


    Christ’s blessings on you.

  30. Thanks, and as already mentioned above, I will be tucking this article away for future use with my daughters. Thank you for taking the time to share!

  31. Angie B, that made me laugh so hard! I love that photo.

    Debbie, I agree that men should be respectful and not pushy or self-aggrandizing in the chivalry and gentlemanliness they offer, but if a young man offered to hold a door or carry a package for one of my female students and she refused on the grounds that she could do it herself, I would be having a word with her about her ungracious attitude toward that young man. Of course I have the muscle ability and coordination to hold a door or carry a box; that’s beside the point. The point is allowing young men to cultivate the habit of selfless care for their sisters and encouraging young women to cultivate the virtue of allowing themselves to be cared for. Just as a woman is perfectly capable of leading in a waltz but allows her partner to lead because he is a man, so a woman who is perfectly capable of holding her own door allows a man to do so because he is a gentleman.

  32. Lizzie, I think this is an excellent post–I couldn’t agree more with what you are saying. The hard thing for many young women, i think, is how to do this graciously. I was definitely a “bumper” in my younger years, but didn’t possess the social polish to avoid being shrill. Still, I’d rather be shrill than wrongly encouraging.

  33. Be prepared – that is what is necessary to recognize and respond appropriately to these situations.

    The other week my 18 year old daughter was buying coffee near the university when a male stranger came right up beside her and said very close to her ear, “I like your hair.” It took her off guard, as she has never had anyone be so forward, so she didn’t quite know what to say except “thank you”. I told her that she could respond with, “Thank you. And I like my personal space.”

    This young man was probably just “playing the game” of flirting but maybe had not ever really thought about how rude and un-gentlemanly he was being.

    If we know that we or our daughters might be imposed upon, it is good to think of responses to use if the situation arises.

    (It can be very dangerous to brush off men – or even leave them feeling encouraged by you – now a days, for fear that they might harm you. So much wisdom needed for each situation.)

  34. Valerie, Hysterical!! “..taking the nini out of Femininity…” I can’t wait to meet you someday!

    Great article Rachel. I have always loved your ability to be, well, don’t take this the wrong way, and I don’t think you will, but curt. It is a great quality in a women who is not looking for approval from everyone, but wants to be approved instead by God.

    Christians are way too nice…a often quite stupid. Girls and boys alike. We all need many lessons in how to live together honorably, with much better boundaries.


  35. This was very encouraging to me, I have been struggling with this a bit and this gave me a lot of answers! Thank you!!!

  36. Tom Brainerd,

    I just want you to know that I appreciate your posts, and appreciate the way you are training your son. I have two boys (15 and 12), and a daughter (3). I am always trying to instill a godly respect for the women (young and old, alike) in their lives. I have taught them that women, as the Bible states, are the weaker vessel, and should be treated as such. Not that they are frail flowers, but that they should be honored, and respected, and given special courtesy.

    Please, keep up the good work. I know that, if you are training him in the ways of the Lord, he will show a woman the respect she deserves (even if that means letting her carry her own bags, etc., as per her requests).

    God bless…

  37. Thank you for these wise words. Interestingly I have found this article to be more beneficial to me, as a very young married woman than I would have as a single young lady. When I was single I found that most men are acutely aware of your single status and are careful to not be seen or create awkward situations of familiarity if they were not genuine. Similarly I found I was able to keep undesirable attention at a distance because young people are so self aware. These situations of unwanted intimacy have occurred far more often now I am married often by older men in the congregation. Thank you for your tips to guard against this.

  38. It’s interesting..but I find young Christian women quite willing to engage in “super subtle”and “seemly innocent” impositions with my teen boys…the late night texting, the grabbing and wearing a baseball cap at youth group, casually asking about boy’s music/movie interests which magically become their “favorites”, that hand placed on the shoulder during a group photo.
    And the funny thing is, these are the same girls who will fuss about “other girls” dressing “immodestly” to attract attention, etc. I guess they don’t see what they do is the female equivalent of pissing on the fire hydrant.

  39. Love this! As a young woman who is still single in her thirties, I have seen and experienced much in the world of Christian young people. I have also had a father who has taught me and demonstrated what a good man is. But it’s still easy for my female brain to wonder if maybe a guy is seriously interested and that’s why he seems to, say, always make sure he has a one-on-one conversation with me at every Bible study. While I don’t think these young men were intentional in leading me on, they certainly weren’t putting my interests above their own. As flattering as it is for a man to enjoy talking to me on a regular basis, it’s not good for my thought life or my emotions.

    In response to Tom Brainerd: As a young woman, I deeply appreciate your purposeful training of your sons. I can’t speak for the author of this post, but I can share my perspective…
    It can send a young lady into a minor tizzy when a young man goes out of his way to be helpful (carrying packages, opening doors). The sillier she is (the less she has disciplined her mind), the longer it will take her to recover. That being said, when a young man goes out of his way to be courteous to ALL women, young and old, girls quickly realize there was nothing special about their case. And trust me, we women watch closely to see if a man is treating us, or our sister, or our friend–but mostly us–any more special than he treats the rest of the eligible women. Also, a young man can be a gentleman and still manage to avoid those subtle “invasions” mentioned (private conversations, casual and unnecessary physical contact). I guarantee you, girls recognize the difference, even if we don’t realize it. Our silliness should not deter a man from treating women with care and respect. As long as he makes sure he treats us all the same until he’s ready to treat one of us differently for a very good reason.

  40. This is a wonderful article and I will be sharing this with my daughters (13 and 15). I would like to add that the paragraph beginning with, “Often times in Christian circles these impositions are super subtle, and seemingly completely innocent”, could also be directed at married men and women within the church. I have seen both men and women behave in inappropriate touch, speech, and body language and it is wrong. We are in a culture where there are women behaving in this ‘marking of territory’ quite the same as men and this is another issue to blame on feminism finding its way into the hearts of Christians and the church.

  41. I worry for a church culture where this needs to be said. I agree that it must, but maybe instead of worrying over the intentions of a boy, we should be worrying about the broader church culture that allows, encourages, and occasionally requires men and boys to think of women as “less-than.” This sort of male behavior should be completely foreign to a community committed to biblical principles of love, justice, and equality.

    As for the comments about feminism: feminism is simply the belief that men and women are equal, no matter what. Equal in their capacity for immoral/irresponsible behavior, equal in their capacity for leadership, equal in deserving to be treated with respect. The problems cited in this article are actually caused by a LACK of feminism within the church. Where do boys/men get the idea that it’s a-ok to treat women with disrespect? That if you ask for a ride and she says no, it’s ok to pressure her? That it’s ok to tell jokes that make her uncomfortable? That is ok touch her without her consent? I wish I could say that these ideas only come from the “worldly” culture. Certainly they are very secular ideas, but ones that are widely accepted within the church, as well.

    Feminism is doing its part to try to stand up to these sorts of inappropriate behaviors from men (google “rape culture” for lots of commentary on the subject) and the church would be wise to ally with feminists rather than with the men who refuse to change their creeper behavior.

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