Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mary and the Slutwalk

Slutwalk Chicago, because none of
the London  photos have reached
Wikicommons as of the time of writing.
London held its first Slutwalk yesterday, and in its run-up, I was asked what Mary Wollstonecraft would have made of it. I quoted some of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and heard no more from those correspondents.Evidently her pronouncements were not to their taste. Let's see what she has to say on related subjects.

Background: Slutwalks are a resurgence of street feminism, featuring home-made banners and a lot of energy and anger. They sprang from the ill-judged comments of a Toronto policeman to a group of law students. "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." Cue massive international outrage, and organised visible resistance to the notion that victims of sexual assault are asking for it. One of the few repeated placard slogans runs: "Yes means yes, no means no, however I dress, wherever I go." The London website carries the strapline "The radical notion that nobody deserves to be raped." 

Sketch by Isaac Cruikshank, ca. 1790,
via WikiCommons.
So: what would Mary do? It isn't as if sexual assault is a new concept. There was plenty of it in Georgian London; marital rape, for example, was entirely legal, and remained so until 1991. (Lyndall Gordon hypothesises that "invisible abuse", possibly including "marital sex that verges on rape", was one factor that caused Mary's younger sister Bess Bishop to flee her husband.) There is a difference of presentation between now and then: female clothing of all classes was more concealing than today, with the partial exception of some aristocratic bosoms. Skirts were ankle-length; sleeves went to the elbow, if not wrist. Western women didn't really begin to uncover themselves until after World War I. So Mary would not have expressed her radicalism,or her distaste for male abuse of power, by showing some skin.

She expected high standards from men, and from women too. Modesty was one part of this, and she wrote at some length about it. Indeed, she devoted a whole chapter of her magnum opus to the concept, so it is worth exploring what she meant by the term. She begins with poetic effusiveness:
MODESTY! Sacred offspring of sensibility and reason!—true delicacy of mind!—may I unblamed presume to investigate thy nature, and trace to its covert the mild charm, that mellowing each harsh feature of a character, renders what would otherwise only inspire cold admiration—lovely!—Thou that smoothest the wrinkles of wisdom, and softenest the tone of the sublimest virtues till they all melt into humanity;—thou that spreadest the ethereal cloud that surrounding love heightens every beauty, it half shades, breathing those coy sweets that steal into the heart, and charm the senses—modulate for me the language of persuasive reason, till I rouse my sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away!
So what is all that supposed to mean, aside from modesty being A Good Thing?  She goes on to make clear that she does not equate modesty with bashfulness, or "the instinctive timidity of ignorance". It is not a milkmaid's downcast eyes and cowed silence that makes modesty (moo!). Modesty is a virtue she defines first in male terms and with male examples.
Modesty [is] that soberness of mind which teaches a man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think, and should be distinguished from humility, because humility is a kind of self-abasement....A modest man is steady, an humble man timid, and a vain one presumptuous:—this is the judgment, which the observation of many characters, has led me to form. Jesus Christ was modest, Moses was humble, and Peter vain.

The politics of sexual display were familiar to Mary Wollstonecraft. Young women sought the attention of men, for a good marriage was what they pinned their life hopes on.  The difference is that then the rules were stricter: "good girls" never said yes before marriage, so men had no wiggle room for claiming a misunderstanding. This was true, at least, of the middle classes, where Mary pitched her tent. Even “making love” -- in the now entirely obsolete sense of talking explicitly about love, professing one’s devotion -- was considered in bad taste. If a man thus took advantage of being alone with a woman, his statement of intent might well, unless reciprocated, lead to real distress on her part. It could be taken as an insult.

Much of her writings were aimed at elevating women, and to do so, she often cast them down, depicting their current existence as shallow, trivial, unworthy. However, there are occasions when she takes the men to task as well. Here she addresses men's poor behaviour, particularly their assertion of sexual ownership of public space, something that taps into the Slutwalk ethos:
What can be more disgusting than that impudent dross of gallantry, thought so manly, which makes many men stare insultingly at every female they meet? Is this respect for the sex? This loose behaviour shews such habitual depravity, such weakness of mind, that it is vain to expect much public or private virtue, till both men and women grow more modest—till men, curbing a sensual fondness for the sex, or an affectation of manly assurance, more properly speaking, impudence, treat each other with respect—unless appetite or passion give the tone, peculiar to it, to their behaviour. I mean even personal respect—the modest respect of humanity, and fellow-feeling—not the the libidinous mockery of gallantry, nor the insolent condescension of protectorship.
More on modesty another time tomorrow.

[Medieval philosopher Christine de Pizan had some views on rape and dress and Slutwalks, according to actual real life philosopher Sandrine.]


  1. I participated in Slutwalk here in Boston.

    Very interesting post... I really wouldn't be surprised by what MW said, because we have to look at it in the context of its time.

    However, correct me if I am wrong, why did MW put so much emphasis on 'modesty' if such way of living was defined by men?

  2. Hi, good to have you back and commenting, Vertigo! I was writing this entry and it just got too long (something I have been told is off-putting) so I split it into two. The next section gives some depth on modesty. It might be more productive to discuss the concept after that post. So for now I'll just say two things: modesty was for MW a way of focussing on the important things in life; and a lot of her work (education and writing) was about raising women to the level of men -- of the best, most thoughtful, most moral men. That's not the whole story --she certainly valued what Lyndall Gordon calls "domestic affections" -- but it is a good start.