Thursday, September 15, 2022

Sex Insanity Amongst Early Feminists - Janice Fiamengo

Dissident British feminist Wilma Meikle published a book in 1917 to warn against aspects of the contemporary feminist movement that she hoped would not become dominant in the years after the First World War. Although she was proved wrong in her hopes, her book provides a fascinating window onto the roots of feminist sex delirium.

Wilma Meikle is today an extremely obscure writer about whom almost nothing is known. If you search for her name in Google, nearly the only information to be found is a book with the intriguing title Towards a Sane Feminism, published by the Robert M. McBride publisher in 1917, and now reprinted by the Leopold Classic Library, which is dedicated to getting out-of-print books back into circulation. The book is a treasure-trove of historical insights. 

Published during the First World War at a time when most feminists had suspended their agitation for the vote, the book clearly suggested in its title that at least some elements of pre-war feminism were not sane, with the author offering her prescription for the movement’s improved health. Alas, the irrational aspects of the movement that Meikle hoped would wither away once women became more integrated into public life eventually came to control and direct it almost entirely. 

Meikle wrote as a committed feminist, and her assumptions, like those of nearly all feminists, included the axiom that women were oppressed in a system that favored men. For example, she stated, without evidence, that under capitalism, women were “oppressed […] far more severely than [male] workers were oppressed” (p. 27). She didn’t try to defend this claim, and even cursory research shows that despite workers’ unions being majority male, the working hours and conditions of women were regulated for women’s protection far sooner than were those of men. 

Still, as we’ll see, Meikle didn’t particularly blame individual men for present conditions, and she definitely didn’t believe that feminism should devote itself to ever-angrier denunciations of male privilege; in fact, she explicitly criticized the leaders of the militant suffragettes, Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, for their “bitter injustice to men” and their “uncontrolled emotionalism” (p. 18).

As Meikle stated in the conclusion to her book, the objective of a sane feminism was to disappear as a movement over time, absorbed into what she called the “common cause of humanity” (168). Militancy, she said outright, had been “ridiculous and useless” (p. 19), a “prodigious crop of feminine wild oats” (p. 14) that she hoped would not be revived at the war’s end. Her descriptions of feminist sex hysteria and anti-male revulsion are well worth reading as a window onto the early 20th century women’s movement, compelling evidence that hatred of men and obsession with sex as a form of oppression did not originate in a later, radical form of feminism—the 1980s era of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, for example—but were present amongst its earliest adherents. 

In general, Meikle believed that the agitation for the vote and for access to higher education had been misguided, rooted in the fact that the leaders of nineteenth-century feminism had been mostly elite, wealthy women, often financially independent, who wanted to compete with men intellectually. “Feminism in its beginnings was the desire of a handful of ambitious, intellectual women for a status equal to that of the men of their own class” (p. 71). 

But political and intellectual equality with upper-class men, Meikle argued, were not nearly so important as economic power and self-sufficiency, which was what the vast bulk of women needed. Meikle wanted to see women as “skilled mechanics or prosperous shopkeepers or highly salaried engineers and factory managers,” workers and owners whose “commercial importance” would compel respect (p. 29); and she hoped that women’s war work would be “an invaluable preparation” for their future participation in the workforce. When women had genuine earning power and industrial skills to contribute to the economic base of their societies, marriage would be placed on a better footing, because women would no longer be dependent on their husbands, and political equality would follow as a matter of course. 

Meikle’s strongest hopes for the feminism of the future were that it would encourage women to become skilled workers who would join together in trade unions to uphold their interests and that entrepreneurial women would start their own businesses. 

Here, like many feminists, Meikle had more faith in women’s self-reliant nature than the future justified, believing as she did that few women would choose economic dependency and that women would set about developing a wide variety of skills as soon as they were able. Capable and ambitious herself, she imagined that most women were. Unfortunately, as 1960s feminists like Betty Friedan admitted, later generations of women, though perfectly free to develop skilled trades or to open their own businesses, in the main chose not to do so, by far preferring part-time, state-funded, and helping professions, or continuing access to their husbands’ salaries. 

What is most relevant for our purposes is Meikle’s unsparing analysis of two sides of the contemporary feminist movement as it pertained to the question of sex. Long repressed and spoken of only in whispers, the feminist sensibility had what Meikle considered a right-wing and a left-wing, both of them unbalanced and unhealthy. On the right wing were those feminists who rejected sex as a form of “degradation” (p. 88); on the left wing were those who saw promiscuity as an act of liberation to be promoted and celebrated. In our day, both wings persist, often within the same feminist argument. As Meikle saw it, neither side offered a productive way forward. 

Meikle described feminists who spoke with horror of the shameful thing men forced on women in marriage, insisting on life-long celibacy or the right of married women to drastically reduce the frequency of sexual relations with their husbands. “These were women who pierced their veil of gentility with a disquieting hint, women who flung it aside to display a lamentable and astounding picture of their married life” (p. 84). Describing the tales of suffering and indignity such women told, as well as the defiant refusal of some portion of women to marry, she summed up that “All of them—both the wives with a grievance and the complaisant spinsters—believed very sincerely that marriage must always be a sexual sacrifice for women” (p. 86). And she went on to say that “These were the women who regarded the majority of men as conscious and wilful oppressors” (p. 84).

Opposed to these “extremists of the right wing,” as Meikle called them, were the “wild spirits of the extreme left” (p. 89), feminists who embraced free love and made that the central fact of their politics, feverishly pursuing an elusive ideal of sexual emancipation. Such women scorned marriage and seemed to hold “that only temporary and unlegalized unions” were morally justifiable (p. 89). Such women met together, testifying about their sexual “insurgency” with the born-again fervor more often found at a “Salvation Army Meeting” (p. 90), seeking converts to their cause. Meikle found them to be desperate, rudderless, “obsessed by passion”; and off-putting in the “moral collapse, the promiscuous, loveless passions, [and] the general messiness of [their] lives” (p. 95). 

It is a fascinating diagnosis of the two sides of feminist sex radicalism. 

More than one hundred years after Meikle wrote, we are all still all-too familiar with both of these strands of feminism, now often united in the same woman and the same advocacy. To choose one example out of the many we see all around us, we might read the gender editor at the once august New York Times, Jessica Bennett, who wrote a classic op/ed in 2017 called “When Saying Yes is Easier Than Saying No.” The article is about what Bennett called the many “grey zones” of sex, where consent shades into coercion. 

Bennett gave a deliberately unromantic itemization of the many different types of sex experienced by most modern women—apparently she and her friends know them well: there is the sex that is begrudgingly consensual, because the woman can’t be bothered to say no, there is lukewarm sex, because it just was, there is outright bad sex, which one regrets later but thought would be good, and so on. It seems that there are a lot of women having sex they’re not really into because they didn’t figure out early enough that it wasn’t what they wanted and because the trouble of saying No was more effort than these women wanted to put in. 

But this is the same woman who agonizes, in the very same article, about the difficulty of defining consent, that sacred concept for the wilting flowers of victimhood feminist ideology. After detailing the manner in which modern women tumble somewhat unhappily but consensually into beds with a seemingly endless series of men they don’t know very well and weren’t that into, Bennett goes on to worry in typical feminist fashion about the difficulty for women of giving a 100% yes, allegedly because so many women and girls are taught that their bodies are not really their own, that they “exist for male sexual pleasure.” 

This claim, offered in defiance of hundreds of everyday slogans and popular culture scenarios, leads Bennett to wonder, “What about the woman who doesn’t feel that she can speak up because of cultural expectations? Should that woman be considered unable to consent?” It’s not at all clear what Bennett is saying here: is she advocating that such women, who can’t really consent, should be forced into chastity belts for their own protection? Anyone suggesting that such women might be better off getting to know the men they have sex with will of course be shouted down for slut-shaming. In a dazzling act of having it both ways, Bennett presents us with woman as insouciant slut, assessing her 50 shades of sexual pleasure or lack thereof, and at the same time woman as passive victim of a male-dominated sexual culture, unable to let her yes be yes. 

Wilma Meikle would have found it a dizzyingly confused argument. But she would have recognized in her own comrades the elements that produced it—the disgust with male sexuality on the one hand, the insistence on female sexual rebellion on the other.

In 1917, Meikle was confident that a new generation of feminist women was coming into existence, those who held no hostility towards men and sought reasonable solutions to the old sex problems. “They regarded men as fellow-discoverers, equally blundering, equally uninstructed, equally suffering […] The old theory of an Eve punished by God and an Adam abetted by the law found them incredulous. Their observations convinced them that Nature had established an exquisite balance between the joys and sorrows and consolations of male and female” (p. 91-92). In the final sentences of her book, Meikle expressed her confidence that feminism as a movement would eventually die out when it had achieved its aims, when women had full rights and freedoms, at which point women and men would join together to work for the best society possible. “When a further stage of civilization gives women the same liberties as men,” she predicted, “the sexes may reasonably be expected to work together in civic and industrial life without the interruption of sex bickerings” (p. 168).

Little did Meikle know that feminists would not stop with gaining the same liberties as men, or perhaps that they never would admit that such liberties had been gained. There would always be some perceived inequality, some claimed male privilege or entitlement, some demand that more must be done for women, to justify plenty more bickering, often involving the very sex problems that Meikle had thought close to resolution. Far from being resolved in the freedom and frankness of a new sexual era, anti-male hysteria and complaint has increased ten-thousandfold. It is useful to realize that these are not a new creation, an offshoot of the Second or Third or Fourth Wave, but were born with feminism itself; and will only die when feminism dies. Alas, Wilma, there is no sane feminism.  

               Janice Fiamengo

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