Maryann White: The Challenges of Being a 21st Century Catholic Mom

Remember the Notre Dame leggings controversy last month? If you missed it, I wrote about it here. Well, it turns out the mother of that editorial, Maryann White, wrote a response to the incredibly brutal and childish backlash she received and asked Notre Dame to publish it, and they wouldn’t. So she contacted me, and I told her I’d post her response. Here it is:

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Imagine you came back to your room one day and found a note on your door from your neighbor. “I’m really sorry, but your music disturbs me. Could you consider the possibility of turning it down?”

Would your reaction be to crank up the volume? To go next door, berate and insult your neighbor for having challenged your right to play music (which their note didn’t do)? My leggings note in the Observer was received in such a spirit.

Aren’t we different here? I thought Notre Dame girls might care about the challenges of being a Catholic mother in the modern world. In the blink of an eye, it may be you trying to raise sons. Maybe you’ll be okay with the world swallowing whole your sons, Tinder-izing them, marinating them in alcohol, desensitizing them to objectified women and sex.

I’ve been trying to raise four sons into the kind of men you seek to marry. Like their father and grandfathers before them, they’ll be faithful not only after marriage but before they even meet their future wives. They’ll keep their promises, stick with you through thick and thin, be equal partners in parenting and heartwarmingly great dads.

These are the four young men the media recently insulted.

The kaleidoscopically disingenuous media response to my letter reads like a list of fallacies in a logic course, from ad hominem attacks on me and my sons to ad absurdum claims (that I called for a leggings ban). At worst, some deliberately mischaracterized my letter in order to serve the needs of their own clickbaitery. At best, they hadn’t even read it—they simply took up the claxon from the shrieker on the previous hill. The belligerently irrational tone of even once prominent media outlets was disappointing. So was the response of many Notre Dame girls.

Christians are willing to consider the needs of others, even putting those needs before their own. If you’re unable to lighten the burden of your neighbor, you let them know it with respect and regret, by simply continuing to do as you’ve always done. You may not turn down the music, but you don’t thumb your nose at your neighbor by turning it up.

The “leggings parade” as men referred to the Notre Dame “protest,” was a nose thumbing or bird flipping. In fact, it was worse. Had I in fact called for a ban, a protest might have been reasonable. But my letter was not a demand or a rant—it was a mild request.

I didn’t challenge your right to wear leggings. In fact, I said specifically that you have every right to wear them.  So the protest seemed to be about my right to challenge—my right to an unpopular opinion. You wanted to drown that out, or the media did, by labeling my letter with a blatantly false portrayal.

A defense of rape culture? Did I say my sons leaned forward and pinched the blackly naked rear ends and that I said, “Go for it guys; they asked for it!” For Pete’s sake. What I said was that I observed my sons NOT ogling the nakedness on display. What I should have said is how proud I am of them and of their respect for all women.

To claim your words can dissociate you from your sexuality is simply fatuous. You can’t just say, “I wear leggings because they’re comfortable, not because I look sexy. Keep your eyes off me.” Looking can be controlled. Seeing cannot. When one’s eyes rise from the hymnal to the altar, one may not look at the legging-ed rear ends en route, but one can’t help seeing.

Your words say, “You shouldn’t be looking,” but your leggings say “Check THIS out.”

Naturally you have the right to be sexual. I didn’t expect girls to simply stop wearing leggings after reading my letter, but I thought a few women might be open to exploring a gestalt shift. Such perception shifts are painful as you come to grips with a new face, a new reality. Yes, you have the right to leggings. But there’s a world of difference between your rights and What’s Right.

“The media have asked for my son’s response to all this. They agreed with me, although they didn’t expect my letter to change things. I hadn’t expected much myself—but I wanted to try to hold up a mirror, hoping to plant a seed that could, over time, encourage change.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne Venker is an author, columnist and radio host known as The Feminist Fixer. She helps free women from feminism so they can find lasting love with men. Suzanne's newest book, WOMEN WHO WIN at Love: How to Build a Relationship That Lasts, will be published October 2019.

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  1. The mass media is a bunch of yapping dogs. One starts yapping, and the others all yap. A product that needs hard sell advertising is usually very inferior. Let your sons know that. A woman who has had 20+ lovers is a woman who cannot form a pair bond. A woman who wears leggings is taking revenge against men. Let your sons see the leggings for what they are- a warning to avoid them.

    • I like and agree on everything you said, especially “Let your sons see the leggings for what they are- a warning to avoid them.”

      And please avoid them like the plague.

  2. When I was young, I had problems dealing with people. We would now call them autism. Back then it was being wierd, and the standard therapy was fierce peer harassment. I learned to strike back, secretly. But it wasn’t fun. The satisfaction was small and fleeting. I had to overcompensate, to be better than others, in school. When I was in college, I worked a midnight shift, in a hospital, in Indiana. I was extremely depressed. People weren’t nice. So I just continued. There was a woman, on the midnight shift, an admitting clerk. She was taking a break from getting a social work degree. She was kind to me, which I’d known little of. Nothing would happen, of course. I knew that. But she “friendzoned” me. Which I appreciated. She was 6 years older than I was. She allowed me to make the mistakes most boys make in their early teens. I learned how to deal with women. Life got better. I brought some cookies on her last day of work in the hospital, for her and her friend. I was able to write to her, for a short time. I got married, we had a daughter. She came to see my daughter. I was touched. I have no idea where she is now. But she did me a major service. She was and I suppose still is Catholic. I am not. I do not pass up opportunities to be kind, to others, for that is the only way I can thank her. Touching story, I’m sure. I’m also a veteran, and I was an instructor at the SERE course. I have four languages. My SERE students always thanked me, because the mind games I played were exactly what they came to learn to deal with, and I was far better than some others. I could take them to the brink, the abyss, like the Grand Canyon, let them look over it, and gently bring them back, at the edge of insanity. That woman did not wear leggings. She dressed conservatively. And she was kind. There were feminists also, in that college. Some dressed very provocatively. I always saw this as a baited trap. Everyone walks their own path. I don’t want to cross the path of people brimming with resentment. I’ve been subject to much pain in my life, and I don’t inflict pain on others without a very good reason. Lin Yutang quoted a French philosopher, that women’s clothing reflects the conflict between the desire to be covered, and the desire to be uncovered.

  3. I agree that society should be such that women could safely run around naked.
    But could. Not should. When there’s no mystery, there is no mystery. How interesting is a novel, when you already know the ending?

  4. The book Sangoma describes how an American became a traditional shamanic healer, in an African country. Interesting book. He said something that struck me. He said that, in that country, at least in the summer, women go around without covering their breasts. He said they simply weren’t sexualized. They were seen every day, there was no mystery about them. This is true also for Australian aborigines, and the !Kung people of South Africa, at least historically.

    I’m sure women get a big charge out of this exhibitionism. And men see this stuff so often, they get desensitized. Women devalue themselves. Slutwalks are even better. They seem to go out of their way to make themselves revoltingly unattractive. True rates of rape on campus are much lower than what feminists say. Any rate above 0 is bad. But lying about it doesn’t help.

    Women curse like sailors, they get more tattoos than any sailor used to have, they seem to go out of their way to be disgusting. I’m not sure why. I shave my face, daily. I dress fairly well. I am polite. These are basics.

    Bob Hope said the following, in 1948.
    If the skirts keep getting shorter
    and the wild winds rave
    there’ll be two new cheeks to powder
    and another place to shave.

    There are women who walk streets with their clothing painted on. This was prophetic.

  5. Dr. Richard Schulze asked a very important question, one that haunts me today. He was referring to eating a healthy diet, etc, however it applies to this. He said:
    How would you prefer to pass on to the next world? Would you prefer to be alone, in a hospital room, with needles in, in pajamas, hearing the flatline of the monitor?
    Or would you prefer to be at home, with family around you, in your own bed, seeing your children, and grandchildren, and others?

    This question makes no sense to young people. I was present to see both my father, and my mother, pass on. I have known both for my entire life. One minute they were alive. The next minute, they took their last breath, and they were gone. The shell remained, but it was empty.

    I have dreams, of my parents. I speak to my grandparents in my dreams. I have no idea if this is real. Hawaiian people, and many others in primitive societies, don’t really have a major barrier between the living and the passed. They will greet the shade of great grandma. They may see a night march, of Hawaiians, who aren’t there in the flesh, and they recognize family members. They may meet Madame Pele, herself, as a hitchhiker. It’s all part of life. The Hawaiian word Ohana means family, but it has far, far more meaning, than “family” does in English. Hawaiians may even “adopt” an adult haole, that is, a foreigner. The American concept of nuclear families is pathological, from the viewpoint of most traditional societies. And even this is breaking down. Kids need a certain number of healthy exchanges, or transactions, with adults, to grow up to be responsible adults. More and more kids aren’t getting that, any more.

    Society is the sum total of the individual choices made by individuals. Our society is decaying.

  6. Courtesy is forgotten among these barbarians. The solution is to reach deep, inside, for the truth. And then live that truth, no matter what others say. These women parading their bodies will get theirs. habits either free someone, or they imprison someone. Your sons have the wisdom you have shared with them. They will know to avoid these women, and others like them. They can be thankful that these women clearly delineate who they are. Would your sons go out with, and marry strippers? No disrespect intended for strippers. These women are no different from strippers. Do your sons go to stripper clubs? no. They are smart enough to avoid these women. They will have other temptations. And they will be the stronger for walking away from them.

  7. Slutwalks are a great idea. Look at a video of one. What better way to solve the (far smaller problem than advertised) rape issue, than to make men want to vomit, when they look at women?

  8. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Consider this legislation. About 1463, the English crown felt the need to intervene, in part because of the lascivious connotations that the increasingly extended toe-tips carried. “People thought the longer the toe, the more masculine the wearer, But some people weren’t keen on that connotation.” Parliament equated wearing the shoes to public indecency, and stepped forward to put limits on a variety of racy fashions: “No person under the estate of lord, including knights, esquires, and gentlemen, to wear any gown, jacket, or coat which does not cover the genitals and buttocks. Also not to wear any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches. No tailor to make such a short garment, or stuffed doublet, and no shoemaker to make such pikes,” the 1463 law reads.

  9. Let’s discuss medieval underwear.

    Men wore shirts and braies (medieval underpants resembling modern-day shorts), and women a smock or chemise and no pants. That’s all we have known about medieval underwear, but now, because of archaeological finds in East Tyrol, Austria, we have a better idea of what some women wore underneath their dresses. Lengberg Castle, first documented in 1190, was rebuilt into a representative palais in the 15th century by adding a second floor. During extensive reconstruction in July 2008, a vault filled with waste was found beneath the floorboards of a room on the second storey of the castle, where it was dumped during the 15th-century reconstruction.

    Due to dry conditions in the vault the organic waste, mainly consisting of worked wood, leather (shoes) and textiles had been extremely well preserved, and four of the linen fragments resemble modern bras. The criterion is the presence of distinct cut cups – in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands, simple strips of cloth or leather wound around the breasts and designed to flatten rather than enhance.

    There are some written medieval sources on possible female breast support, but they are rather vague on the topic. Henri de Mondeville, surgeon to Philip the Fair of France and his successor Louis X, wrote in his Cyrurgia in 1312–20: “Some women… insert two bags in their dresses, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and fasten them when possible with a matching band.”

    These ‘bags’ served the same purpose as antique breast bands – that is to contain two large breasts. However, the “shirts with bags in which they put their breasts” that Konrad Stolle complained about in his chronicle of Thuringia and Erfurt in 1480 seem to have obtained the opposite effect, as he concludes his description with the words “all indecent”. An unknown 15th-century author of southern Germany was definitely referring to breast-enhancement in his satirical poem as he wrote: “Many [a woman] makes two breastbags [bags for the breasts], with them she roams the streets, so that all the young men that look at her, can see her beautiful breasts; But whose breasts are too large, makes tight pouches, so there is no gossip in the city about her big breasts.” As we can see, medieval bras worked both ways.

    Two of the ‘bras’ from Lengberg Castle seem to be ‘shirts with bags’. Unfortunately they are fragmented with only one cup preserved each but appear to have had additional cloth above the cups to cover the cleavage, thus being a combination of a short shirt, ending right below the breasts, and a bra.
    The third ‘bra’ looks a lot more like a modern bra and is possibly what the unknown German author called “tuttenseck” or “breastbags”. It has two broad shoulder straps and the partially torn edges at the cups indicate a back strap. This ‘bra’ is elaborately decorated with needle-lace on the shoulder straps. All ‘bags’ are decorated at the lower end with finger-loop-braided laces and needle-lace.

    The fourth ‘bra’ can best be described with the modern term ‘longline bra’, a type of bra popular in the 1950s but still fashioned today. The cups are each made from two pieces of linen sewn together and the surrounding fabric extends down to the bottom of the ribcage with a row of six eyelets on the side of the body for fastening with a lace. There are narrow shoulder straps, and needle-lace decorates the cleavage. Two of the bras have been radiocarbon-dated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the dates ranging from the end of the 14th to the second half of the 15th century.

    We don’t know if all women in the Middle Ages wore ‘breastbags’ – but some definitely did. But while it might have been socially acceptable to do so in order to flatten the bosom, the complaints and satirical comments on breast-enhancement suggest that it was not generally approved of. It is believed that women did not wear underpants or drawers until as late as the very end of the 18th century. The find of a pair of completely preserved linen underpants in Lengberg arouses anew the question: male or female?

    The underpants from Lengberg are of a type that developed during the late 14th and 15th century, when men started to wear joined (full) hose or trousers instead of single legged (split) hose. Then long-legged braies were no longer needed to fill the gap between the two trouser legs. Spread out, the underpants have a slightly hourglass-shaped cut with narrow straps at the corners. They were repaired three times with linen patches, now overlaying one another. Paintings, woodcuts and book illustrations both of sacral and secular themes show only men wearing this type of underpants: a small piece of cloth covering buttocks and pubic area fastened with narrow straps tied in a bow at the hips. When women are shown wearing pants it’s always in the context of ‘a world turned upside down’. Trousers and underpants were considered a symbol of male power and women wearing them were pugnacious wives trying to usurp the authority of their husbands, or women of low morality.

    The same thing can be said of underpants as bras: just because it was thought women should not wear them, doesn’t mean they didn’t – especially as they come in handy during certain days of the month. So what did women do during their menstruation?

    According to some stories, told mostly by men, they did nothing, evoking disgusting images of women leaving behind a trail of blood-drops wherever they go. Yet two translations of the Bible, the Douay–Rheims Bible from 1609–10 and the King James Bible from 1611, mention “rags of a menstruous woman” (Isaiah 64/6) and “menstruous cloth” (Isaiah 30/22). To have it translated that way means the translator must have known about the possible use of a strip of cloth for this purpose – and underpants would have kept those ‘rags’ in place.

    In the 16th century some Italian women wore drawers. Eleanor of Toledo (1522–62) owned a pair in 1561, and 50 years later many pairs were made for Maria de Medici (1573–1642), the new Queen of France. But women wearing drawers was still frowned upon by some. In his Costumes of Different Nations of 1594 Pietro Bertelli only shows the Venetian courtesan wearing drawers.

    On the other hand the Englishman Fynes Moryson, who travelled continental Europe between 1591 and 1595, wrote about the Italian ladies “The city virgins, and especially gentlewomen… in many places wear silk or linen breeches under their gowns”. But he also writes “I have seen courtesans… apparelled like men, in carnation or light coloured doublets and breeches.” And it seems that some women in the Netherlands also wore drawers because Moryson tells us “some of the chief women not able to abide the extreme cold… do use to wear breeches of linen or silk”.

    What about women in England? Did Elizabeth I wear drawers? Her funeral effigy, made in 1603, wears a corset and drawers. While some claim that the narrow drawers nailed on to it have only been added as late as 1760, the ‘Accounts of the Great Wardrobe’ (1558–1603) note that John Colte was paid £10 to provide “the Image representing her late Majestie… with one paire of straite bodies, a paire of drawers”.

    In addition there is a reference as to her having owned “six pairs of double linen hose of fine hollande cloth” made in 1587. Are these drawers or rather stockings? But why would the Queen of England not have claimed for herself the same right to wear drawers as did the Queen of France? And who would have dared question her choice of underwear?

    Of course this does not mean all women in the Middle Ages or early modern times owned bras or drawers, but some did. Considering the Lengberg ‘breastbags’ were found in a castle, they were likely most common among members of the upper class or women who were, for whatever reason, not overly concerned with social standards.

  10. What you describe is not the first time this has been an issue.

    In a recent piece for T magazine, Suzy Menkes heralds the end of what she calls a “decade of slut style,” and a return to modesty on the runways. if history is any indication, provocative fashion is nothing new and not going anywhere anytime soon.

    1200-1800s: Décolletage Up until the late 1800s, it was actually quite fashionable to show off your cleavage. Stylish and sophisticated women, including Agnès Sorel in the 1400s and Queen Mary II in the 1600s, wore low-cut dresses that often showed their breasts. Puritanical types eschewed these styles, and by the Victorian era, it was deemed inappropriate for women to flaunt their bosoms.

    1890s: Ankles The Victorians may have raised necklines, but they were also adamantly against flaunting a bit of leg. Women wore stockings and very long skirts year-round to prevent even a sliver of ankle from peeking out. The legs of wooden tables were even covered because they too closely resembled a female’s appendages. Victorians were an odd lot, though. The walled gardens popular then were used for sex, for example.

    1920s: Flappers While not every woman gave up her corset in the 1920s, those who did opted for drop-waist dresses that are still synonymous with Twenties fashion. Back then, the style was also synonymous with promiscuity. (The word “flapper” was interchangeable with “girl prostitute” in the 1890s, but like many derogatory terms it eventually softened up to mean a spirited, flirty teenager.) Modern codes have made flapper fashion almost quaint, since there’s no emphasis on the woman’s waist.

    1960s: Mini Skirts Designer Mary Quant changed the way women dress forever by trumpeting the mini skirt, an abbreviated version the A-line styles mod girls were already wearing in the 1960s. Half a century later miniskirts often graze the wearer’s rear end, resulting in even more (arguably) unwarranted criticism. One YouTube video, titled “How Not to Look ‘Slutty’ in a Mini Skirt,” has received nearly half-a-million pageviews.

    1960s: Braless Bra-burning became of symbol of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s, and even though very few bras were actually burned, many women did stop wearing them for a while. However, as more women entered the workforce, bras were once again all-but-required. Along with the “power suits” of the 1980s, bras served as workplace armor against chauvinists.

    1970s: YSL’s Hommage aux Années 40 “Slut” clothes don’t have to be revealing. When Yves Saint Laurent debuted his 1940s-inspired collection in 1971, French socialites were outraged. Many of the clothes—a giant green-colored fur coat, dresses tightly fitted at the hips—were inspired by the styles worn by prostitutes during 1940s, others drew from the ostentatious wartime wardrobes of the very socialites now admonishing them. Regardless, Saint Laurent spurred a 1940s-inspired movement in fashion that lasted nearly a decade.

    1980s: Crop Tops The Eighties were about legs, they were about breasts, but they were mostly about tight tummies. It was the decade that aerobic workout gear hit the streets, which meant lots of cropped tees worn with high-waisted jeans. For many years after, the look was considered gauche—especially when Britney Spears bared her belly at the end of the ’90s—but it’s cool again to show a sliver of stomach. This time around, like many revealing trends, the crop top is more demure—women are wearing ’50s-inspired bra tops with high waisted pants and full skirts (though that Pretty Women dress could be making a comeback too).

    1990s: Slip Dresses The Nineties were about reinterpreting sexy staples as something a bit tough or tomboyish, and nothing represented this idea more than the slip dress. Grunge icon Courtney Love wore hers tattered and torn. But most women chose to take the Bridget Fonda-route, mimicking the actress’ Singles character by wearing her floral slip dress over a tank top, or under a leather jacket.

    2000s: Thongs By the early 2000s, most women were wearing thongs, and most women were wearing low-rise jeans. Which means most women let their thongs peek out of those jeans at one point or another. Sisqo’s 2000 single “Thong Song” cemented the garment’s place in popular culture. Eventually, teens and preteens began showing off their thongs, and high schools began banning the garment, or at least voicing disapproval. In 2002, it was widely reported that a female vice principal in California physically checked about 100 female students coming into a high school dance to see if they were wearing thongs.

    The Past Decade: Pop ‘Sluts’ Despite the headways women have made over the past 100 years, we still dress pretty conservatively day-to-day (even given the thongs and the crop tops and the mini skirts). What has changed is flamboyancy on the red carpet. Stars like Madonna and Cher paved the way for Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim to wear revealing clothes onstage and off. And yes, many people still consider those looks “slutty” rather than avant-garde or just women expressing themselves.

    Women’s clothing can be a form of advertisement. Will Rogers once said that if companies put as much trouble into improving their products, as they did in advertising, that the products wouldn’t need to be advertised. High quality sells, however it is packages.

  11. As a feminist, I don’t like seeing revealing clothing. Women wearing adequate clothing is a big part of the solution to sexism. Why? Women wearing less clothing give misogynists exactly what they want,  consequence-free access to female bodies, just like hookup culture. If getting naked were really the answer to gender relation problems, men would be doing it too. They aren’t. Women wear less and less clothing while men continue wearing the same amount of clothes as ever.

    I get it. When I go out, I feel the same pressure to be the sexiest bitch at the bar that every other woman there does. My eyes rake over the most attractive women in public, measuring myself against them. They didn’t start doing this until I started competing for male attention. And we have to ask ourselves: Where does this lead? Women walking around in bikinis and fishnet while men are still wearing their suits? Is that the equality we dreamed of?

    I’m not suggesting we all start dressing like Amish women. I’m suggesting we dress like men do, with attractive shirts and jeans, or dresses and skirts which flatter our forms without giving away the surprise. This is what men do. They pick form fitting t shirts, flattering jeans, and some nice shoes.
    School-age girls sent home from school for inappropriate dress is not the same. If they were adults, then they are free. Girls are children, and children are not adults and do not have the same agency as adults. I don’t think it’s an impingement on their freedom for their clothes to be controlled.

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