Thaddeus Russell is an interesting guy, an historian more or less evicted from the academic establishment for contradicting the prevailing progressive agenda. He’s started an alternative “university,” which is interesting in itself as a similar project has been mooted by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, who was also sidelined by an ideologically strait-jacketed academia.
But I want to focus narrowly here on the example from Russell’s “revisionist” views that he gives in the linked video, which put him at odds with the modern feminist movement.
Before I give it, I need to say that Russell’s background is of being raised in a socialist and activist family in Berkeley, no less – the centre of radicalism in the sixties. So he ought to be ideologically “on message,” but unfortunately seems to have inherited more concern for answering questions truthfully than complying with received theory.
And so, when studying feminism, he came to the awkward conclusion that many of the freedoms enjoyed by women today came from the activities of nineteenth century American prostitutes. They were the only women who, at that time, walked the streets unchaperoned, wore make-up, smoked and drinked in public and wore provocative clothing. Russell’s research shows that many female brothel-keepers exercised a great deal of influence in local politics and commerce, and that amongst their principal opponents were the respectable suffragists who, naturally enough, did not see prostitution as a good expression of the female ideal.
I assume that in his work Russell traces the actual path between these nineteenth century “brazen hussies” (which seems historically a perennial role, to judge by Proverbs ch 7, for example) and modern feminism. But the conclusion that offended his feminist peers was that the freedoms they enjoy stem largely from this disreputable source, which is not so much a stain on feminism’s moral authority (there are, after all, some feminists who seem unaccountably to equate sex-work with female power), as an implict claim that feminism came off the back of, and in co-operation with, male patriarchal exploitation.
I’d be interested to see his historical case for the direct connection. I suspect one might trace it in all kinds of interesting ways through popular culture. Hollywood, for example, provided the first mass-media presentation of glamorous womanhood (and was, as it is even now in these days of Harvey Weinstein, notoriously exploitative of women). That model was one of sexual allure and loose-living: my mother used to tell me that she travelled as a teenager to London to see one of the great Hollywood movie-stars largely because she’d never seen a divorced woman before! Hollywood became the background of the whole cultural framework of jazz, then rock and roll, and television, all of which lauded the independent vampish woman, and so influenced tastes in clothing, hairstyles and make-up.
I may have mentioned in a previous post how the father of PR and propaganda, Edward Bernays, was hired by tobacco companies in the 1920s to sell the link between cigarettes and independence to women, who had never smoked before (except perhaps for prostitutes?). And it worked, creating a brand new cause of illness and economic disadvantage for women that, even now, results in between 13% and 37% of female deaths in the UK. “Cor Baby, that’s really free,” to quote the great feminist philosopher John Otway.
Although the brainchild of French intellectuals, the modern phase of feminism arose within 60s radical culture, although many women now point out how the “hippie” sexual revolution was great for men, but less so for women. It’s not really clear how being the quickly-discarded groupie of a rock guitarist was a step towards true fulfilment.
My point is that Russell’s acceptance of the very value of the “freedoms” constituting modern feminism miss the possibility that their meretricious origins may have created something that is actually a mere pretence at liberation. He is still assuming too much value in his radical upbringing, I suggest.
Just to give one example: there was a time when one could see male sailors exercise their “freedom” on shore leave by becoming legless and fighting until they were dragged off to dry out in a cell. Now we’re more likely to see footage of drunken blondes in short skirts (mostly female, I judge!) fighting in the gutters of cities on a Saturday night. If lucky they’re picked up by the police or street pastors – if not they may wake up pregnant next day.
Alcohol-related death rates amongst women are at record levels, half those of men and rising. Making many women slaves to alcohol, as many men were already, is a step backwards. Not least because those women will be the mothers and role-models of the next generation, single-parenthood also being regarded, in some circles, as a freedom from men’s power.
The rape-culture alleged to exist in our universities, or our nations as a whole, is largely unsubstantiated by evidence, and appears to be mainly a victimhood power game. But it only has traction at all because the myth of “a healthy sex life” has made uncommitted relationships the norm for both sexes, and such relationships may easily be abusive, or just as easily represented to be so by those with no personal loyalty and an ideological axe to grind. If “No” were still assumed from the start, as it was amongst non-prostitutes in the nineteenth century, then doubts about consent would be far less common in the “Me Too” society.
Jordan Peterson got into trouble by asking awkward questions of those who complained of a culture of sexual harrassment in the workplace. If the office is not a sexualised environment, he asked, then for whose benefit is power-dressing and make-up there? What rules are being laid down? These are particularly hard question to answer if Russell is right in saying that the origins of both are in the practices of Victorian prostitutes touting for a trick!
Civil rights for women, despite some of the modern rhetoric, have not been a steady transition from being the chattel slaves of men to equal rights (some of the rhetoric would suggest that chattel slavery is still the universal norm even now). Back in the so-called “dark ages” women like Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, exerted great authority over the all-female institution she herself founded, and yet her wisdom was sought out by kings too. Dante’s muse Beatrice Portinari shows that this positive influence was still strong in the fourteenth century.
Mediaeval property rights for English women appear to have been greater than they were in subsequent centuries, and I even heard on BBC radio, just as I began writing the last paragraph, that women’s financial dealings on their own behalf were much greater in the nineteenth century than has been supposed.
Non-conformists back in the seventeenth century accorded significant power to women – my own church records show the influence of some of them on decision making, and in one case the culpable abuse of that influence. The same religious motivation for human dignity led, despite the exclusion of non-conformists from mainstream institutions, to the English female literacy rate rising to around 25% by 1715, and 40% by the middle of the century.
There were undoubtedly injustices that needed addressing for women, just as there were for men, for slaves, for children, for immigrants, for city-dwellers, for agricultural workers, and many other groups in the nineteenth century. Some of these may have been of long standing, but many were local issues such as arise in every society. Painted prostitutes walking the streets, for example, may have been a social problem of large US cities and the tough frontier towns – but maybe not so much in English villages and market towns.
At the same time, one has only to see the long-term continuities, outlasting fashion trends, in male and female costume before the twentieth century, to realise that there was a core difference in the way that men and women saw themselves. This was not fundamentally subjugation, but complementarity, even given the propensity for its abuse that goes back to Eden. Given the suffragist movement, a democratic and dignified attempt to right wrongs (and very different either from the boldness of brothel-keepers or the radical politics of the suffragettes), it is quite possible that feminism could have taken a very different turn: one that evolved from, rather than revolted against, the character and self-perception of women that had developed along with Christianity from classical culture.
It’s interesting to ask whether women might in that case have been genuinely free now, without generating the tensions between the sexes, between career and family, or between natural modesty and unbridled sexuality that we see now. Perhaps if the self-awareness of men had been healthier in the nineteenth century and beyond, they would have been less eager to see prostitutes, rather than real women, as ideals. I just wonder if it’s even possible that internet pornography and sex-trafficking from Asia and Africa might have collapsed for lack of interest, if civil rights had taken a more philosophical and less carnal direction.