Alternative feminism

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Alternative feminism

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Your right about there being problems here. I see feminism as a actual evil movement because its real purpose is to interfere with men by denying mens rights. its only a tiny percentage of women. The bible says women were created for men to be wives. otherwise they would just be other men. Only men were to be accomplished and wives help us for eternity as a couple. As long as this priority THEN women could do what they want. of coarse this was before the fall and almost means nothing but the bible still teaches a direction.
    We live now in a contract to allow each sex what we do. i don’t accept women in the army/police etc however.
    there is actually a greater issue of rights here.
    only men have rights to our nations AS MEN. women were never granted such rights becuse men created everything and it was historic everywhere that nations belong to men. AFTER that women are granted rights only as individual citizens like other immigrants. There are only mens right. in fact men can not grant womens rights unless clearly first admitting there were none save as souls. they don’t say that. they say either both sexes have equal rights or sexual identity is irrelevant to rights.
    It really does come down to what WE REALLY have a RIGHT to.
    god and man forever denied women had same/equal rights because they had no such right.
    We need to start at the start like John Locke.

    • Avatar photo Stuart Kaye says:

      Hello Jon,
      Robert Byers should not be allowed to post on this site. He writes illiterate hate speech which comes close to being actionable. I, for one, will no longer read his contributions and do not understand why he is being given space to write such drivel. It contaminates the rest of your blog.
      Sincerely and with great respect,

      • Robert Byers says:

        What? thats censorship and I won’t accuse your motives and character.
        Actionable? NO! its not illiterate or you wouldn’t know what you hate?
        i believe in what I said and don’t see why you are better then me or my judge. Just make a case against my position(s). Good grief your just saying CENSORSHIP and yOUR the censor! mot me which I would not be moral or legal to do. thats actionable by historic natural rights by the way.
        my conclusions are not hatefful even if wrong. you just hate them and, well I won’t accuse.
        If you disagree then say why and persuade me. why touched your nerve!
        No your demanding obedience to your conclusions just like the whole left wing movement.
        I only have the defence of truth, my own character and motives being pure9as i judge myself0 and freedom of speech from God and anglo American civilization.
        Why are people given the free speech to say others don’t have free speech and are to be stopped? BECAUSE we have free speech BUT it means you can’t deny others.
        In short thats your opinion and Men/women/Gods plan and about ME!
        your accusations and characterizations are false and unintelligent or malicious.
        Pleae stop and engage in conversation and lets persuade each other.
        censoring does not persuade people like me or settle it!!
        why do you think it does? I ust left my car hearing the great song by the WHO called WHO ARE YOU!
        We are equal and please, please, don’t condemn me but lets talk in 2020. Like they should do in the middle east problem but thats PROBLEM!
        Truly sincerely and truly with respect to truth and the better way.
        RoBert Byers Canada. WHO FAN.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        It’s ALL about freedom of speech, Stuart, which has become a very significant issue in all levels of society. As the man said, “I disagree with (much of) what Robert says, but I defend to the death his right to say it.”

        I’m rather proud to say that I’ve only had to ban a handful of people in the nine years of the blog (about three or four of them being the same person under different aliases), and always for the intimidation of other posters on the site. I have also privately encouraged a couple of others to leave for trying to turn the site into something it isn’t.

        Realistically, can we imagine a gunman doing a mass shooting at a Women’s Institute meeting, and writing in his manifesto that he’s been encouraged by random mysogynistic comments by a lone punter on a minor science-faith blog? And if one did, who would take him seriously?

        The best critique against poor arguments is for them to be visible, whether or not they’re worthy of reply.

        • Robert Byers says:

          AMEN. Thanks. You have talked of censorship. I know its hard to defend our freedoms when you welcome all sides. i respect that and get it.
          I said nothing evil and stuff i think is true.
          Any point by anyone i’m willing to talk about and persuade each other.
          I only said what the bible says or historic mankind or natural and legal rights philosophy from the great thinkers in the English speaking world.
          Why not have a conversation?
          Why not? I am confident in my heart i’m morally and intellectually right. Unless I’m wrong!NAW! i’m Canadian eh!
          Anyways I meant only justice and good. I can defend my motives and character against all accusers who anyways don’t make a line by line case.

  2. Ben says:

    This article will probably interest you Jon:
    The basic premise is that historically civilisation correlates to (but lags) restrictions on female sexuality.

    Rather uncomfortable reading for someone bathed in today’s zeitgeist, but interesting all the same, especially when it comes to ideas about potential causality.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for the link, Ben.

      Though I have some questions regarding Unwin’s basic categories (very 1930s – I’ll have to read him, and I see there’s a pdf link under Kirk’s article) the basic thesis makes a lot of sense. Without having read the book, there are questions in my mind as to whether his sampling of societies, even 80+ of them – is biased. That only two cultures have reached his “top” category makes it look as if he may be making a generalisation from the very specific and contingent culture of faith and reason that arose uniquely in Christian Europe/America. I’ll find out in due time, I guess, once I get reading.

      I was pleased to see how Durston questioned Unwin’s causation (which appears to me straight Freudian “sublimation” theory) in the light of Eberstadt’s thinking, which I agree makes more sense.

      The one thing which makes me more pessimistic that Durston (doom and gloom by the end of this century) is that, if my argument in this OP is right, the process of decline started at the beginning of the 1900s, rather than in the 1930s. That would make Unwin a keen-eyed observer of trends (like C S Lewis around the same time) rather than a complete prophet. But it would place Doomsday a third of a century earlier than Durston says. Look out, Guys.

      The other unpredictable change in pattern from Unwin’s time is the onset of global culture: if Rome collapsed there were vigorous Goths close to hand. All we seem to have as an existing alternative to world postmodernism is the ISIS Caliphate, God forbid!

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