October 31, 2018


#ThemToo: Earlier women's crusades tell us much about the one currently shaking up American life. (Kay S. Hymowitz, Autumn 2018, City Journal)

Sociopolitical movements like #MeToo have taken root in many parts of the world, but no soil has been quite as fertile for them as that of the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by this peculiarity of American life during his canonical visit in 1831. "Not only do [Americans] have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part," he wrote, "but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small." The Frenchman had a theory about the origin of this early form of community organizing: in a democracy, he suggested, where, unlike aristocracies, power was diffuse, individuals had to join together in groups to wield any influence over their social arrangements. Associations--particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest--were a civic by-product of America's brand of equality, freed from feudal, hierarchical memory.

If the 26-year-old wunderkind noticed the role that women were playing in these democratic associations, he didn't mention it. Yet women were the majority, as well as the most energized, of converts during the Second Great Awakening, and they brought their enthusiasm to great moral causes of the era, beginning with a battle against prostitution, a fact of collective life in those days. Ladies of the night were ubiquitous in ports where sailors and other male transients congregated; according to historian Stephen Mintz, as many as 10 percent of women in antebellum cities at least occasionally walked the streets. In an economy that had yet to create jobs for textile "mill girls" and telephone operators, the world's oldest profession was one of the few available to single women without means. It was a more lucrative choice than the even more prevalent domestic service, though it was not unknown for servants themselves to freelance during free hours. During the Great Awakening, evangelical ministers denounced the practice, but it was their female congregants who turned the cause into a Tocquevillian movement: in 1834, they founded the Female Moral Reform Society in New York. Within a few years, the society had 400 chapters, mostly in northeastern and midwestern states.

A march on Washington would have been logistically impossible at a time when no one had heard of frequent-flier miles, and strategically useless when all politics was truly local. Instead, the reformers marched on nearby brothels, where they passed out pamphlets and held prayer sessions. In the past, the working girls had suffered most of the blame for illicit sex, but reformers, some also active in abolition groups, tried to change public sentiment by recasting their "wayward" sisters as "white slaves," held captive by "destroyers."

They faced a bigger task than they realized, since their real enemy was more formidable than the brothel: male lust. The reformers proselytized against a double standard of sexual morality--not, as modern feminists have, with the goal of liberating women from sexual constraints, but rather to insist on "abstinence" for men as well as women. They wanted to protect "our daughters, sisters, and female acquaintances from the delusive arts of corrupt and unprincipled men," as one contemporary pamphlet put it. Some chapters threatened to publish the names of brothel visitors, though they apparently never did. They did petition state legislatures to criminalize seduction and prostitution; for them, incarceration was the proper punishment not just for pimps but also for ordinary johns--or "seducers"--themselves.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the key battleground in the war against "corrupt and unprincipled men" moved from the brothel to the nearby (sometimes as close as upstairs) saloon. The newly opened western lands in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kentucky helped make grain widely available. The ease of transporting wheat and rye and the relatively simple distillery process created a whiskey craze that lubricated communities across the young nation. Americans became world-renowned drinkers; foreign visitors often wrote in wonderment about their hosts' indifference to water but exceptional thirst for whiskey. In Last Call, his masterful history of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent cites estimates that annual per-capita alcohol consumption among the drinking-age population (15 and older) ranged from 6.6 to 7.1 gallons by the early decades of the century, three times the typical intake of our own hardly abstemious citizenry.

The pattern became a familiar one in our social history: American know-how leads to technical innovation, leading in turn to cheap pleasure-enhancing products (Internet pornography and opioids, for example), and then to excess. The temperance movement became an essential counter to early American vices and a crucial mechanism for the spread of bourgeois self-control. A citizen moral police force was probably the only way to regulate the habits of people in nineteenth-century towns and urban neighborhoods where government had limited reach and where reliable shared norms had yet to take root. As evangelical and Quaker leaders weighed in against the plague of drunkenness, women once again took up arms.

It's a Puritan nation.

Posted by at October 31, 2018 4:05 AM


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