History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” We don’t know for sure whether it was Mark Twain who came up with that bon mot, but it has proved useful enough to deserve a creator of that stature. It comes in particularly handy in times like these, when many seemingly unprecedented events turn out to have familiar echoes from the past.
Such is the case with the #MeToo movement. Extraordinary as this post–Harvey Weinstein moment may seem, it’s not the first time that American women have risen up to protest male misbehavior. During the nineteenth century, women were in the vanguard of reform movements dedicated to fighting licentiousness, most of it male, and much of it sexual. If you squint hard enough to blot out the Victorian archaisms, these #MeToo prototypes can yield considerable insight into today’s reckoning.
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.
The women’s temperance movement had its own excesses, some comical to modern ears. The most colorful of the activists was six-foot-tall Carrie Nation, who, Bible in one hand, hatchet in the other, slashed a “filthy” painting of Cleopatra at Her Bath before waving her weapons at the astonished customers in a Wichita hotel bar. (During other raves, Nation’s armamentarium included rocks, hammers, bricks, and iron rods.) In later protests that became known as the Women’s Crusade, more genteel Ohio activists knelt in front of local saloons, praying and singing, sometimes from dusk until sunrise. Some wore white ribbons tied in bows to signify “purity,” the logo for the largest women’s temperance group, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
The temperance era’s Victorian evangelicalism has made it something of an embarrassment for modern feminists and progressives, but it has more in common with #MeToo’s rebellion against male license than these antique details suggest. In a rough-hewn frontier nation struggling toward bourgeois stability, the temperance ladies weren’t being prigs in viewing whiskey obsession as a threat. Women were not immune to demon drink, but drunkenness primarily followed evenings in dark, rowdy, male-only saloons. Drunkenness really did make life miserable for many nineteenth-century women. Every town and urban working-class neighborhood whispered rumors about sodden husbands who beat their children, raped their wives, and impoverished their households.
Moreover, sobriety, like thrift, powered the growth of America’s middle class. Men who whiled away the hours at the saloon were not only unreliable (or worse) husbands; they were unproductive workers, ill equipped to adapt to the industrial economy. Tocqueville at first condescended to temperance groups’ version of the “spirit of association,” calling it “amusing.” But he had a change of heart, concluding that they had reason to hate firewater: “frightened by the progress that drunkenness was making around them, [they] wanted to provide their patronage to sobriety.”
Evangelical Christianity was the moral framework for understanding and advancing the temperance mission. Meetings began with prayers. Their language—“vice,” “abstinence,” “purity”—may sound archaic to modern ears, but in a culture where the Bible was still The Book, its meaning was clear to everyone. Women were the moral guardians of the home, the “angel in the house.” Later feminists came to despise this idealization of wives and mothers, but it lent temperance activists great moral power. (Not that they were drunk, as it were, on their own virtue; they were only the “less tainted half of the race,” as Frances Willard, long-term president of the WCTU, modestly put it.) Paradoxical as it may seem to a generation at ease with celebrity mixologists and marijuana gummy bears, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call the temperance movement the most significant organized challenge to male authority since, well, Lysistrata.
Indeed, the temperance movement created a crucial training ground for First Wave feminists. When male-run temperance groups refused to allow female volunteers to speak at meetings, evangelical women created their own organizations, where they spoke, wrote petitions and pamphlets, lectured, and strategized. By 1855, 13 states were already “dry,” and more states were debating the issue. This politicization of alcohol highlighted the absurdity of women’s status. They dominated public discussion of a crucial public issue, yet they were not permitted to vote on how to resolve it. The godmothers of First Wave feminism, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, first met at a temperance meeting in 1851. (Anthony had grown up in a Quaker, teetotaling home.) The two went on to found the New York State Women’s Temperance Society and petition the legislature for a law to limit the sale of liquor. After that august body refused to consider the document because most of the 28,000 signatures were from the second sex, Anthony and Stanton turned their energies toward women’s rights. It’s more than coincidence that the temperance movement’s Pyrrhic victory, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment (instituting Prohibition) and the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the vote), arrived in the same year—1920, half a century later.
So what should a #MeToo nation make of its rhyming antecedent? First, a human, especially a male, tendency toward libertinism is an old, even universal, social challenge. Every society has had to figure out ways to contain it. Liberal societies have a smaller toolbox that—happily—doesn’t include approaches like purdah or arranged marriages for nine-year-olds, favored by some ancient cultures. For many on the left, one of the hardest lessons of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk is that on its own terms, liberalism is no cure for the problem of unmoored male lust.
Second, contra the feminist belief that dictates of modesty are the noxious product of a woman-hating patriarchy, American women—who, like their sisters worldwide, have more conservative attitudes toward sex than men do—have been eager guardians of sexual morality. America’s penchant for civic organizing gave nineteenth-century women a powerful vehicle for advancing what were genuinely their preferences. That activism continues today in the Women’s March and similar groups: #TimesUp and “Hands Off, Pants On,” a campaign by Chicago hotel workers, for instance. “Run for Something,” which recruits young progressives to run for office, was founded (primarily) by women who presumably will advance antiharassment agendas.
Third, American women are champion organizers. It’s safe to say that, with the demise of Rotary Clubs and other fraternal organizations, women now dominate civic life. Thirty percent of American women join civic organizations regularly; only 20 percent of men do. (This is aside from the large network of professional organizations that women have built up since entering the workforce in large numbers.) For better and worse, social media have increased the reach and volume of these old-style civic groups.
The temperance movement also raises some questions about the viability of #MeToo, despite its Internet microphone. Nineteenth-century women weren’t just wagging their fingers and shouting prayers at wayward neighbors; they were speaking in a common dialect embedded in Protestant morality and an American vision of individual rights. With those sources of wisdom weakened, #MeToo is hamstrung by a central paradox: it is a moral-reform movement without an intelligible morality. The sexual revolution, Second Wave feminism, and a general loosening of manners in the second half of the twentieth century disabled most of the familiar language and customs for regulating sexual relations.
Since the scandals started, commentators have pressed hoary terms like “inappropriate” and “misconduct” into service, but the meaning of these words is elusive in a post-sexual-revolution culture. Words like these imply a shared understanding of propriety and conduct, even though, outside of patently illegal acts like rape, violent assault, and workplace quid pro quo sex, no such understanding survived the social upheavals of the mid- and late twentieth century.
No less than the middle-class temperance crusaders, #MeToo activists are searching for a new etiquette for a vulgar and, in the present case, uncensored culture. Their efforts to ban certain forms of R-rated speech can seem arbitrary and wildly out of step with contemporary tastes. In an incident reminiscent of Carrie Nation, female customers in Philadelphia asked a restaurant to remove Ruth Orkin’s famous photo An American Girl in Italy. The photo has hung above diners’ heads in Italian restaurants since the 1960s, but its depiction of a grimy street full of men gawking at a pretty young woman in a summer dress now reads to some as demeaning to women. (Interestingly, the subject in the 1951 picture has said that she “loved” the male attention.) Women’s groups have demanded that the music-streaming company Spotify take the “misogynistic”—a different era would use terms like “immoral”—songs by Eminem and others off their playlists. Likewise, jokes with any sexual innuendo are now verboten in the office; enter an elevator with colleagues, lightheartedly ask for the floor for “ladies’ lingerie,” and expect your decades-long, award-winning career to hang by a nylon thread.
Another lesson from the nineteenth-century women’s crusades is even more challenging to a modern progressive sensibility: mores vary by class and culture. The temperance women, almost all Anglo-Saxon Protestants and middle class, openly espoused the class biases of their group. They scorned German and Irish immigrants, who had brought with them a love of beer drinking and a genius for brewing; Frances Willard referred to them as “the scum of the Old World.” In a witty riposte to this bigotry, saloon owners pinned posters to the walls of their establishments with a text announcing: “All Nations Welcome but Carrie,” next to a drawing of a hatchet.
No one could credibly accuse #MeToo activists of nativism. On the contrary, their leadership is visibly diverse. They have established legal funds for low-paid female service workers, many of them immigrants. Still, class haunts today’s moral-reform movement, just as it did that of the nineteenth century. Popular terms like “power imbalance,” “structural inequality,” “objectification,” and “intersectionality” convey the privileged status of the activists as much as the framed college diplomas on their desks. Authority for defining what’s inappropriate—a word vague enough to stump an Eagle Scout but powerful enough to ruin careers and families—has fallen to H.R. managers, lawyers, and activists. These are not people who drive pickup trucks or buy their coffee at McDonald’s. They are people who may well be unimpressed by accusations that they are “objectifying” women.
This point is easy to forget amid headline #MeToo stories about “privileged white men,” the well-to-do machers who can make or break women’s careers. But the rougher, déclassé habits of working- and lower-income-class men have also been in reformers’ sights. An early object of young feminist anger was “manspreading,” the tendency of some men to take up more than their share of space by sitting with their legs far apart on crowded subway cars. Manspreading critics viewed the habit as an example of white male entitlement, though, as a veteran subway passenger, I’ve found it to be far more common among men (of all colors) in work boots and sneakers than those wearing wingtips.
Young women intuitively know about this class divide from everyday experience. If they’re walking past a construction site, they gird themselves for the loud whistles from the hard-hats. When they pass a group of guys in suits lounging outside an office building, they know that they will, at most, be subject to a whispered comment. (What might happen at a closed-door meeting with the boss is another matter.)
Deeply entrenched class differences in public behavior, especially men’s behavior around women, have already shaken up American politics. Democrats, especially educated women, were incensed by Donald Trump’s vulgarity and sexual bravado, while Trump’s formerly Democratic working-class voters, more at ease with his construction-site coarseness, remained more blasé. Middle-class anger against the brazenly macho Trump is helping to fuel a new round of political activism among women, once again reminiscent of the temperance era. A record number of women are running for Senate, the House, and for governor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Social scientists Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol have found that the electoral energy is taking root inside the contemporary counterpart of the parlors of the small-town or urban middle class: the living rooms of college-educated, suburban women.
There’s one other cautionary lesson from the nineteenth century—an especially important one, if, as seems likely, #MeToo culminates in more political power for women: the danger of revolutionary excess. Reformers of all stripes have a stake in amplifying the evil that they are combating and a penchant for promoting maximal solutions. At first, temperance supporters simply urged men to be more moderate in their drinking habits. But by the 1870s, temperance had come to mean full-fledged abstinence, paving the way for what Herbert Hoover called the “noble experiment,” better known to us today as Prohibition.
Americans are not likely to pass a constitutional amendment that would outlaw catcalling. But #MeToo activists are helping to create an impression of pervasive “toxic masculinity” in a “rape culture” implacably hostile to women, even as rape and assault numbers have declined markedly. They are all too frequently blurring the line between punishable abuse and ordinary jerk behavior. “Me Too covers a huge spectrum of behaviors as problematic and as specifically misogynist,” a woman who accused the writer Junot Díaz of a “verbal sexual assault” observed proudly, after he perhaps too heatedly pointed out a serious lapse in the logic of a question she asked him at a conference.
That “huge spectrum” should give any fair-minded person pause. Rhyming history suggests that exaggerations and ill-defined crimes encompassed in that definition can be truly dangerous. They lead to heavy-handed and often counterproductive policies, harsh laws, arbitrary punishments, and innocent lives ruined. They lead to potentially extreme backlash. From temperance to abstinence to prohibition: it happened before, and it happened in large measure because women with genuine moral grievances went too far.
Top Photo: Bible in one hand, hatchet in the other, six-foot-tall Carrie Nation was an imposing figure in the temperance movement. (Philipp Kester/Ulstein Bild/The Image Works)