Domestic, but Tranquil?

Caveat lector: Domestic Tranquility is anything but a tranquil book. F. Carolyn Graglia may celebrate the virtues, satisfactions, and substantial rewards of women’s domestic roles as wife and mother, but her brief for the softer, gentler female persona is fueled by an impressively sharp lawyer’s mind that makes no concessions to the traditional womanly qualities that she celebrates. Graglia has indeed drafted a lawyer’s brief, and she defends her client, the traditional wife and mother, with the fierce determination of one who intends to win.

At the outset, Graglia offers her readers a bit of autobiography: Growing up in comparative poverty in a family headed by a divorced mother, Graglia decided during her junior year in high school to become a lawyer. By virtue of native intelligence, hard work, and the encouragement of professors and friends, she completed her entire college (Cornell) and law school (Columbia) education on the support of scholarships, and upon graduation worked for the Justice Department. Later, she clerked for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, then a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. Finally, she practiced with the prestigious Washington, D.C., firm Covington & Burling until she married and retired from practice to bear and raise three daughters.

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Graglia offers this personal history to counter feminist denunciations of the oppression suffered by the women of the 1950s. On her telling, she encountered nothing but encouragement and received nothing but her just desserts: editor of the law review, but not first in her law school class. Her account offers a refreshing alternative to the self-pitying narratives of feminist leaders who apparently faced a continuing barrage of demeaning, dismissive assaults upon their ambition and self-respect. But, like the main arguments of the book, it may strain even some sympathetic readers’ credulity. In this respect, Graglia comes a bit too close to the assumption that no one who carries herself correctly and avoids dangerous situations will ever get raped. Some women who do everything right will be raped, and during the 1950s some talented women encountered intimidating, if not necessarily insurmountable, obstacles to their intellectual and professional ambitions. Graglia is an exceptional woman who earned her career successes, but it is also hard not to believe that some things broke her way.

Throughout Domestic Tranquility, Graglia argues that feminists have campaigned—with astounding success—to dissuade women from pursuing their true vocation and from meeting their most important responsibilities. Her pages detail the depressing evidence of the disintegration of contemporary society and culture: the trivialization of sex; the destruction of marriage; the proliferation of divorce, single parents, and illegitimacy; the rise in sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, and infertility; the neglect and abuse of children; the declining birth rate; the tragedy of African American men; and more. Few of the facts will be new to those who follow the literature on contemporary social pathology, but Graglia presents them in an arresting new light. Her analysis lays responsibility for contemporary social and moral collapse preeminently, if not entirely, on the shoulders of feminists. The feminists have instructed women that they must enjoy the same sexual freedom as men, that they must pursue the same careers at the same rate as men, that they must be as free of domestic encumbrances, notably children, as men. And to ensure the triumph of their ideological commitments, they have provoked the sexual revolution; secured the legalization of abortion; instituted arbitrary and inappropriate standards of accomplishment and conduct in the military as throughout society; and shaped public policy, including the tax code, to favor women who participate in the labor force and disadvantage those who dedicate themselves to promoting the well-being of their husbands and children.

Two of the most original and engaging aspects of Graglia’s book lie in her forthright discussion of the great joys and satisfactions of this domestic work and of female sexuality and sensuality, and she skillfully intertwines the two discussions to bathe the work of changing diapers, chauffeuring kids, and preparing dinners in the glow of sexual fulfillment. At her best, she is not merely convincing but moving in her impassioned brief for the delight women find in sexual surrender, her defense of their need to combine emotional and sexual intimacy, and her insistence upon the greater significance of vaginal orgasm than the clitoral orgasms so widely touted by feminists. (For those who have been spared this particular feminist nostrum, Graglia recounts their argument that clitoral orgasms free women for the “higher pleasures” of masturbation and lesbian sex.) She even has the temerity to suggest “that when a woman lives too much in her mind, she finds it increasingly difficult to live through her body.” Neither Sigmund Freud nor Helene Deutsch could have said it better.

In many respects, Graglia’s ideal of womanhood resembles that of the Holy Father, although she makes her case in strictly secular terms. If anything, she appears somewhat more sanguine than he about the treatment women have received throughout history and the obstacles that continue to thwart many women throughout the world today. And although she does not use the phrase “culture of death,” she unflinchingly depicts the modern world as bent upon self-destruction. Even her discussion of abortion, which she does not explicitly advocate banning, has, notwithstanding a difference in emphasis, much in common with the spirit of Catholic teaching:

By issuing a blanket authorization to women to choose life or death for their babies, society delivers a pernicious message that the child who is permitted to live has few further claims upon the mother. Society’s declaration that a woman has no duty to permit her baby to live undermines any claims upon her time and interest that might be made by the child once born—he is, in a very real sense, quite lucky just to be alive.

This pro-abortion argument rejects any fetal right by positing that society can properly declare the fetus not entitled to demand of the mother that she make some sacrifice, endure some amount of pain or some loss of freedom—no matter how small—in order to let him live, the condition antecedent to all lesser claims.

Domestic Tranquility will predictably delight some readers and enrage others, as Graglia clearly intends it to. It will also intermittently dismay those who delight in many of its arguments. Graglia does minimize several constraints, including outright violence, that have hedged women in. She virtually ignores the current plight of less affluent women, notably married mothers who may have to work. She decisively exaggerates feminism’s unique responsibility for the sexual revolution, and she does not mention the tide of economic revolution that has carried both feminism and sexual liberation to victory. She displays an uncharacteristic lapse from analytic rigor in her facile discussion of traditional marriage and family, ignoring the significance of historical change. And she manifests no understanding or compassion for women who wish to sustain some aspect of their intellectual or professional lives, even if on a minimal basis, while their children are growing up. Above all, she cavalierly assumes that all families can afford to have the mother forgo paid work for an extended period of time.

But once all the appropriate caveats have been filed, Domestic Tranquility stands as a smart, provocative, and welcome book. Not least, it tartly reminds us that feminism is no innocent defense of truth and justice but a political ideology actively promoted by an economic and cultural elite that has reaped many benefits from it. More important, it reminds us that there are no shortcuts in the work of rearing children, which is irreplaceable, time-consuming, and necessary. Finally, Graglia, through her example even more than through her pronouncements, offers heartwarming evidence of how much a strong, loving marriage may contribute to the resilience, well-being, and, yes, independence of a woman who is blessed with one. Sadly, not all women, even among the worthy, are so blessed, which suggests that the kind of marriage Graglia celebrates depends at least as much upon God’s grace as upon enlightened social policy.


  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University and author of several books, including Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. She passed away on January 2, 2007.

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