Monday, October 29, 2007

Culturist Historical Re-Write

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Culturism works!!! That was the message I took from Clare Lyons' Sex Among the Rablle - An intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730 - 1830. The intended take away message from this work is that pre-revolutionary Philadelphia's "pleasure culture" was shut down by patriarchy and quashed female liberation. But, inadvertently, from a culturist perspective it provided a very different set of lessons.

Bastardy or out-of-wedlock births, Lyons argues, were accepted in pre-revolutionary America's culture. She demonstrates this by showing that no punishment was attached to single mothers in poor houses as the organizers searched for the "fathers" and wrest support from them. Bastardy and prostitution being allowed gave women options and so made them more free from patriarchal restraint. Alas, she tells us, when levels soared to 6.6 percent, Quaker organizations such as "The Association of the District of Southwark for the suppression of Vice and Immorality" and the "Magdalen Society" were formed to combat women's freedom.

The punitive organization to suppress vice and immorality did not meet with success. But the Magdalen Society provided shelter for prostitutes who would reform and had many takers. The Guardians of the Poor, the group that sheltered pregnant single women, started taking a more punitive outlook. Men had to be identified for support, housing was limited, children could be made servants in other's homes to pay for the upkeep, and care was given in an alms house. In the meantime, public prostitution was driven indoors, the ideal of virtuous women was pushed, and print was somehow cleaned up. This combination of helpful, moral and punitive measures lovered the rate of out of wedlock children from 1 in 101 to 1 in 149 between 1814 and 1822!

Lyons paints this effort as punitive and mean. But it is hard to see why single motherhood is liberating. Prostitution was an additional choice for women. But would you see the wide proliferation of whorehouses as good for women? If they were in your neighborhood, and you had kids, wouldn't you move out or fight them? Lyons' documentation of the widespread venereal disease did not sound too pleasant or liberating. Single mothererhood and childhood poverty go hand in hand. Lyons' focusing on personal pleasure and ignoring of the needs of children and society are symptomatic of the pervasive individualism that necessitates culturism.

If we were to lower the out of wedlock rate by 50% it would help our society and children. But Lyons is right, it would be at the expense of lessening public support for the "pleasure culture." Reducing out-of-wedlock births would require affirming that we consider it an undesirable practice and applying modern versions of our culturist traditions. The question is if we still have the will, legal right, desire and spine to be at all culturist or if individual rights and pleasure now trump any social considerations and assertions. Despite herself, Lyons shows that the Founding Fathers created a system of self-governance, not of anarchy; she showed that we have a long culturist tradition and it works!
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