Chapter 7 (pages 78-92): “The Liberation of Women”
The ongoing transition in sexual mores primarily derives from the invention of contraceptives and the emancipation of women. Freedom for women is part of the movement towards democracy, and can be traced from the French Revolution through Mary Wollstonecraft to John Stuart Mill. [So Russell has gotten around to bringing up, here, Mill’s Subjection of Women.] Russell tells a personal anecdote: his parents were disciples of Mill and committed to the emancipation of women. Russell’s birth was overseen (through his mother’s choice) by “the first woman doctor [p. 79],” who was not allowed to be fully certified. The feminist movement of his parents’ generation did not get very far with the right to vote, but they succeeded in passing the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which allowed married women (and not their husbands) to control their own property. The rapid acquisition of political rights by women in advanced countries is unprecedented, though it is paralleled by the abolition of slavery: “but after all slavery did not exist in European countries in modern times, and did not concern anything so intimate as the relations of men and women [p. 80].”
The rapid advance of women can be traced to the near impossibility of reconciling democracy with their subjection, and to the increased numbers of women (particularly during the war [WWI -- RBR]) earning money outside the home. Prior to the war, an argument aimed at keeping women from voting was that they would tend to be pacifists, but their contributions to the war cause (“their share in the bloody work [p. 81]”) put the lie to this. Those who hoped that securing the right to vote for women would improve the moral tone of political life had their hopes dashed: “it seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals [p. 81].” But the real case for women’s right to vote had nothing to do with any “peculiar merits” of women in the first place.
But here, Russell says, he is concerned with the social emancipation of women, not their political emancipation. Previously (and still in the East), women’s virtue was secured via seclusion. In the West, alternatively, they have been propagandized from childhood to abhor non-marital sex. The mental barriers were thought to substitute for physical ones. “The women of the Victorian age were, and a great many women still are, in a mental prison [p. 83].” But recently there has been a “reappearance in consciousness of instinctive desires which had been buried beneath mountains of prudery [p. 83].” Most champions of women’s rights were themselves “rigid moralists,” who sought to impose upon men the controls heretofore placed only upon women.
Things have changed since about 1914. “The motives of female virtue in the past were chiefly the fear of hell-fire and the fear of pregnancy; the one was removed by the decay of theological orthodoxy, the other by contraceptives [p. 84].” Now feminists seek equality with men in moral freedom, not (by restraining male ‘vices’) in moral slavery.
The young have this new morality, and most of the old are unaware of it. This situation is unstable. In some places, the old will successfully suppress the changes, and in others, the young will get the upper hand as they succeed to the positions of power, thereby cementing the changed morality.
Men have always been allowed, as a practical matter, to engage in non-marital sex, and this cannot change, no matter what the moralists say. So the moralists must either permit young unmarried men to have sex with prostitutes, or with unmarried women of their own class. But the latter is anathema to moralists, who are (again, in practice) committed to the double standard whereby sex by males outside of marriage is no big deal but terribly bad for women. So moralists, in effect, support male sex with prostitutes. “Moralists, of course, do not think out the consequences of advocating a morality which they know will not be obeyed; they think that so long as they do not advocate prostitution they are not responsible for the fact that prostitution is the inevitable outcome of their teaching [p.87].” Russell goes on to say that this reasoning is more evidence that professional moralists are a bit dim.
Equality between the sexes therefore requires tolerance of non-marital sex, and indeed, in places with more adult women than men, it also is required to prevent some women from being “wholly debarred from sexual experience [p. 88].”
But without female chastity and wifely faithfulness, how to safeguard the family or perhaps, instead, to “acquiesce in the breakup of the family?” One solution is that procreative sex could be limited to being within marriages, with husbands tolerating their wives’ non-procreative affairs. “The difficulty of such a scheme as yet is that it requires us to place more reliance on the efficacy of contraceptives and the truthfulness of wives than seems rational; this difficulty may, however, be diminished before long [p. 89; Russell anticipates DNA testing and the pill! -- RBR].” Alternatively, the institution of fatherhood could decay, and the state could step partly into the role. All kids would be like illegitimate kids are now, but the government would see to their upbringing more attentively.
But what if the goal is to re-establish the old morality? Then girls must be kept uneducated, superstitious, and stupid, as occurs in schools controlled by churches, and sex information must be censored. But these alone will not suffice without secluding girls. For instance, they can’t be allowed to work outside the home or to own a car. Perhaps the virginity of unmarried women can be checked monthly by “police doctors [p. 91]”, and further heavy-handed measures, conducted for a century, might “do something to stem the rising tide of immorality [p. 91].” But probably even this won’t suffice, and the moralists should require that all non-clergy males be castrated. (Russell suggests in a footnote that he might remove the exception for the clergy now that he has read Elmer Gantry.)
Either restoring the old morality, or allowing the new morality to grow without restraint, poses severe problems. So “we shall need a genuinely new morality [p. 92],” and the remainder of the book hopes to contribute to pointing the way.