In Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice, there is a revealing dialogue between Elizabeth Bennet and her rather indolent father, where Elizabeth, as a guardian of female virtue, tells her father:
“Excuse me, for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself or her family ridiculous; a flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and, from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite.” (p.116)
To which her father replied:
“We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go, then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.” (p.117-118)
Of course, within the novel itself things did not work out that way, and Lydia’s lack of self-restraint and virtue, the education of which was the responsibility of her parents, led to extreme stress and humiliation for her family, which only authorial mercy in the person of Mr. Darcy brought to a mostly successful conclusion. Whether Jane Austen was being intentional about it, this particular conversation bears a strong resemblance to a passage of scripture that wrestles rather plainly with the problem of feminine virtue, and although this passage speaks from the point of view of men, the message is the same coming from them as it did coming from the pen of Jane Austen almost three thousand years later, in Song of Solomon 8:8-9: “We have a little sister, and she has no breasts. What shall we do for our sister in the day when she is spoken for? If she is a wall, we will build upon a her a battlement of silver; and if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.”
Although Jane Austen speaks with in the language of coquetry and flirtation and Song of Solomon speaks in a symbolic language, the point of these two passages is the same. Both of them are speaking about young women who are at the age where they have begun to draw the notice of men, and in both cases their family members are looking to see whether the young woman in question will have self-restraint or whether it will be necessary for the young woman to be restrained to protect herself, her reputation, and that of her family from disaster. In the case of the young woman of Song of Solomon, she was a virtuous woman, and was honored for it. In the case of Lydia, she was not only a determined and shameless flirt, but the lack of restraint that she had brought her and her family into immense difficulties because those who behave immensely foolishly bring guilt and shame on others by association.
The problem of masculine and feminine virtue is often treated separately but it would be best to treat them together, as there are complementary roles and responsibilities for both young men and young women when it comes to the area of virtue. As I have written rather extensively upon many of the complicated elements of this matter , let us at least try to point out the most obvious connections between virtue for men and women, and the power which both may seek to abuse against the other in situations where this virtue is lacking, so that we may avoid any double standards and that we may be just to both men and women as it relates to their shared responsibility in defending and practicing moral behavior.
Traditionally, it has been women who have borne a heavy responsibility in defending virtue. It has been common for women, especially those who consider themselves to be feminists, to complain about the double standard that leaves men to be praised for their sexual ‘conquests’ and women to be maligned and shamed for their side of the immoral conduct. Their complaint is just. Men do not deserve commendation for action that brings shame and dishonor upon a young woman. Likewise, anyone who abuses or takes advantage of others to gratify their own lusts deserves shame and contempt. That said, just as there are men who will take advantage of young women, to the point of using sex as a weapon against them , there are also plenty of women who will use the power of their sexuality as a weapon against men as well, even if it is a weapon that often spectacularly backfires on them. All too often the failure of men to police themselves and rule over their own desires has brought women into shame and dishonor and difficulty, and the failure of women to regulate their own sexuality has often brought them under the unwanted power of men who exploit them rather than giving them the love and affirmation and power that they sought. This too is a curse. Sadly, in our day and age, instead of strenuously desiring to defend moral standards for both men and women that are fair and equitable and just, to protect the sanctity of marriage as well as a proper restraint in avoiding the exploitation of the young and vulnerable, all too often our society has sought to gratify and indulge in whatever lusts we wish, to the detriment of all.
Yet, when this system works correctly, there are complimentary roles that both men and women play in looking out for the best interests of the other. The active policing of men and women with each other helps hold everyone accountable. If men want women to be virtuous, one of the easiest ways to do this is to avoid treating sexuality as a realm of conquest of either willing or unwilling partners, where leaders set an example of moral rectitude rather than taking advantage of power as a way to gratify their lusts, seeking honorable marriage rather than casual fornication or adultery, avoiding the lures of pornography or prostitution, thus protecting the virtue of the wives and sisters and daughters of other men. Likewise, if women celebrate the virtue of other women, and hold themselves responsible for the conduct of women with regards to men, then virtuous behavior can be encouraged and immoral behavior can be shamed. Women, too, should be praised for practicing behavior that serves to protect them and their own daughters and sisters, and set a good example of restraint and rectitude in their own conduct. All too often in our present age we celebrate both men and women who show no respect or regard for their own moral conduct or that of others. And then we wonder why our children at increasingly younger ages copy our bad example.
Likewise, women and men can do a lot for each other in promoting and defending virtue as well. Those virtues that are rewarded are copied, after all. If men want women of virtue in their own family, or for their spouses, they need to show appreciation and affection for those virtues where they may be found. The best moral preaching, and the most difficult, is in our example. A woman who finds herself both appreciated for her efforts to take care of herself and respected and well-regarded for a noble spirit, a tender heart, and an intelligent mind is a woman who is not going to focus her efforts solely on using her sexuality to exploit others, because such behavior would be counterproductive to the influence she seeks. Likewise, if women lament the lack of understanding and compassionate men, the best way (in the long run) to rectify that situation is to reward those men with interest and affection, and the gratification of their goals. Success, after all, breeds imitation. Those behaviors that are rewarded tend to be repeated, since few people will be stubborn enough to persist in open evil if that evil is unrewarded, and equally few stubborn souls will persist in virtue that is consistently and spectacularly unrewarded.
Rather than viewing the virtue of men and women as separate spheres, as is often done by those who are both proponents of virtue as well as those who wish to undermine it in some fashion, it is best to view them as different sides of the same coin. That which we honor is that which we will see more of in our society, and that which we dishonor and attack will become more rare. It is not always an easy thing to recognize our own role in the larger aspect of society, or to recognize the consequences and repercussions of our behavior, but we are all part of an immensely complicated system, living our drama-filled lives under the scrutiny of other eyes, sometimes having to be enclosed with boards of cedar to protect us from our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, as frustrating as that may be.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: