"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above." Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.
The members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) who spent last Saturday agonizing over the Promise Keepers’ "Stand in the Gap" Sacred Assembly, would have done better to stay home and rent an old movie. The African Queen to be exact.
In the movie, Katherine Hepburn plays the part of a spinster missionary at the outbreak of World War I, who must escape the jungles of Africa and an impending German invasion. In order to accomplish this mission, Hepburn enlists the services of one Charles Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). Mr. Allnut is a riverboat captain and a man of the world. More than that, he is a man’s man, good-hearted but unpolished and, to Hepburn’s dismay, a bit of a heathen. Still, Hepburn sees some good in Allnut. He is a competent mechanic and he is familiar with the river. These are two traits she can put to good use—and boy, does she ever!
After spending one evening investigating the pleasures of beverage alcohol, Mr. Allnut wakes up to the great vexation of witnessing the untimely disposal of his gin supply by Hepburn. Enraged, he calls her a "skinny old maid" and goes to "sleep it off." In the morning, however, his usual breakfast is not waiting. Also missing is the engaging conversation that normally accompanies his meal. Hepburn, who is reading her Bible, sits proud and silent. Pouting, Mr. Allnut whines that "it’s only natural" for a guy to want to take a few belts. Hepburn responds, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above." In other words, our natural, God-given purpose (or higher nature) is to rise above our base, natural instincts.
By reconciling himself to this truth and, thereby, to Miss Hepburn, Mr. Allnut is able—with her—to build a torpedo and sink the largest German ship in the area. That is, by rising above the lower side of his own nature (his instincts) he serves the higher side of Nature, her purposes and God’s. By serving what is right and sacrificing what is merely pleasant, he wins an even greater pleasure, the hand of Katherine Hepburn. More importantly, he strikes a blow against tyranny. Leadership through service. Sound familiar?
The crux of the dispute between NOW and the Promise Keepers is the Promise Keepers’ call to its members to become spiritual leaders within their households. NOW officials insist that this is nothing but a veiled attempt to push an agenda of male domination. "The Promise Keepers come to their rally and check their wives and daughters at the door like coats," NOW President Patricia Ireland has said. But the Promise Keepers argue that they are only calling on men to do something they have lately neglected: to serve their wives and families. They are calling on men to serve what is right rather than what is merely pleasant.
Before the ascendancy of NOW and their minions, most people understood and agreed with this concept. It is illustrated above by the example of Mr. Allnut. Katherine Hepburn gives up nothing of her dignity or liberty by allowing Mr. Allnut to take the lead in the construction of the torpedo. Indeed, she (quite rightly) sees it as a great moral and political victory when she persuades him to take this lead. For she knows that as he will lead her, so too has she led him. She knows that Mr. Allnut would never have devised a similar plan without her influence, and she is proud to tame his spirited nature by putting it to work on a better object than drinking.
Feminists like the members of NOW spend too much time worrying about the dignity and liberty of women who—like the wives of the Promise Keepers—are doing just fine without their concern. These women understand that true freedom and true dignity come from serving their own higher nature. How is it that NOW expects women to take them seriously? From promoting polygamy as a serious alternative for over-burdened working women to bashing the Promise Keepers, NOW has proven time and again to be an enemy of the things that truly liberate women.
For the Promise Keepers, their wives, and others of us who long for this older understanding, it is difficult—if not impossible—to see a way out of the intellectual chaos promoted by NOW and their minions. But we should take heart. Real life is not determined by historical trends or intellectual fads. No matter how much feminists wish to ignore nature—and I mean nature in the higher, Godly, sense—it will always reassert itself. If the Promise Keepers are any indication, that reassertion is already beginning.
Julie Ann Kessler is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.