Resting Easy With Social Progress Stops Progress Dead, Research Time, 28/08/2014

One of the great dogmas I came across when I studied the popular culture of the 19th century West was the belief in the inevitability of progress, that we would be better, healthier, and more free simply because of the inevitable march of time. Reading Emma Goldman is an ice bucket over the head of this idea, for two reasons.

Even rich and famous women in 2014 are
demonized and critiqued in ostensibly
feminist circles for refusing to conform how
they express their sexualities to purity norms.
The most direct reason is that so much of what she yells about cover exactly the same issues and concerns in the current era that troubled the women of 1910. She writes in one essay denouncing the criminalization of prostitution about how women face a double standard because of a morality of purity in American society. Men have licence to act out their (hetero) sexual desires, which is either put down to playfulness or the healthy expression of male sexuality. Women, on the other hand, face hideous discrimination because most displays of female sexuality are interpreted in our wider culture as an inherently impure promiscuity. A young woman who expresses herself sexually is all too often seen as corrupt and vile, and she deserves any violence and material harm or dejection that comes to her as men react to this behaviour.

It was at this point that I felt like I had to check the original publication date to be sure that I was reading a book that was written in 1910. So I was. The occasional references to Theodore Roosevelt* helped clarify the time frame too.

* Her reference to the McKinley and Roosevelt presidencies could have similarly been lifted from the modern left: the Republican party, in Goldman’s words, “stands for vested rights, for imperialism, for graft, for the annihilation of every semblance of liberty. Its ideal is the oily, creepy respectability of a McKinley, and the brutal arrogance of a Roosevelt.” Substitute Romney for McKinley, and Bush or Gingrich for Roosevelt, and it could be 2012.

But Goldman’s writing offers a more philosophically intriguing argument against that necessitarian definition of progress. In another essay, this one on universal suffrage, Goldman comes out against it, but on the grounds that giving women the right to vote is laughably insufficient for genuine liberation and equality among the genders.

Much of her reasoning has to do with social practices. Merely giving women the vote will not overcome all the material economic inequalities between men and women. Women were shut out of many high-paying professions and positions of business leadership, either through authoritative prohibition or cultural taboo. Women were still disproportionately employed in low-paying industries, and additionally saddled with all the burdens of child-rearing as well as paying work. Where they did achieve equal title and responsibility with men’s positions in a workplace, they rarely received equal pay.

Are you getting confused again too? What’s the year again? Oh yes, I’m typing this on a computer.

There was a profound moral dimension to why suffrage was inadequate to genuine social progress. Apparently, many of the campaigners for universal suffrage in Goldman’s era advocated it on the grounds that the more virtuous perspective of women would result in a more just society once women had the power to participate in the political process as equals. This idea is laughable precisely because so many American women themselves had such uptight Puritanical moralities that they were just as socially conservative as the patriarchal men that dominated the country’s political class. The American Temperance Movement, a political movement that turned out to be socially disastrous in almost all its effects, was driven by middle and upper class women newly empowered by the vote.

Freedom doesn’t come with merely being able to vote in an election, as many of us have had to learn again in the first two decades of this century. If you are still trapped in a material situation that constrains you so much that you can do nothing but work and scrape by for your living, you aren’t free. But even deeper than that, you can’t be free if you still hold yourself to a morality of pettiness, resentment, and purity ideals.

Without the vote, you’re enslaved within your state. Without economic and social power, you’re materially enslaved. Without overcoming a petty, reactive morality, you’ve enslaved yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Always glad to see such intelligent discourse responding to my sarcastic tweets.

    The photo caption also contains a link to an article that describes how the wider conversation surrounding Minaj's public image illustrates my larger point about the hypocrisy women face in the expression of their sexualities.