Killjoys, Wowsers And The P-rn Wars

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Eva Cox tries to portray feminists who have concerns about what she characterises as "tasteless porn" as simply being in the grip of "current anxieties about the dominance of markets", and as linked to "puritanical" strains in the history of feminism. In the process, Cox has rewritten that history to police the boundaries of feminism so that it does not include women who have a concern with the power of images and words in pornography.

Cox also slips in a characterisation of some of the Suffragettes who campaigned for the vote as wowsers and killjoys. She laments, "Women members of the Christian Temperance Union fought for women to get the vote in the hope that women would vote to ban alcohol". In fact, those women and others knew only too well the dangers that alcoholism posed to women’s safety and equality when it was linked to male entitlement.

The Suffragettes more broadly are often portrayed along Cox’s lines as delicate creatures asking for protection from "evil masculinity". But when Christabel Pankhurst coined the slogan "Votes for Women … and Chastity for Men", it was a call for an end to sexual subordination and damage of women often caused by the spread of VD through the prostitution of women. It was not a sexually puritanical claim. There is no evidence that Suffragettes, or in fact feminists, appreciated intimacy, love or beauty any less than anyone else.

There is also no evidence that these supposed killjoys were meek creatures begging for protection from the master or the state. Take Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed on the racetrack at Epsom in a collision with the King’s horse Anmer. By that time in her brief life, Emily had amassed an impressive charge-sheet of assault, property destruction (rock throwing mostly), threats, arson, bombing attempts and so on.

Reading accounts of women like Emily Davison today, the word "terrorism" comes to mind. The women who planted bombs, etched acid into golf courses, set fire to postboxes and cut the telegraph line from London to Glasgow, called themselves that. Laura Wilson, a weaver from Halifax, told a reporter: "I went to jail a rebel, but I have come out a regular terror".

And people like Wilson were treated like terrorists. In fact, some intriguing research indicates that modern surveillance probably began in efforts to control the Suffragettes, with long-lens photography, for example, being used as a way of keeping track of them, so that they could be identified prior to their giving trouble. (I guess they liked to pose as ladies, with their enormous hats, in order that no one would see terrorists coming.) The Suffragettes of course knew what the police were up to in taking their photos, and took precautions not to be captured on film. They would move, look down, or in other ways spoil the photo. Long-lens photography was designed to circumvent such measures.

Suffragettes were not only hostile to themselves being captured as an image. In 1913, some took to damaging great works of art. They had done damage to valuable property before this time, of course, including exhibits and mummy cases in the British Museum, and attacks on stained glass windows — as well as "collateral damage" to artworks from arson attacks on private homes and other buildings.

The new phase of tactics began rather spectacularly when Mary Richardson slashed the painting known as the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery on 10 March 1913. Throughout 1913, Suffragettes attacked paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery, the Royal Academy, the National Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy. Later, other paintings were damaged in the Doré Gallery, the Birmingham City Art Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, with the attacks only ceasing in July 1914 along with other forms of Suffragette "terror". A cartoon from the time shows ranks of policemen lined up in front of gallery paintings, making it very difficult for art lovers to see them.

It is not absolutely clear why these attacks were made. Mary Richardson said that she had damaged the Rokeby Venus as a protest against the treatment of the recently arrested Emmeline Pankhurst, whom Richardson called "the most beautiful character in modern history". Richardson added, "Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas." When asked about her action 40 years later, Richardson said that she had lost her temper with men gawping at the nude in the painting all day long. Mary Wood attacked a portrait of Henry James at the Royal Academy, and said, "I have tried to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given political freedom." Mary Ansell attacked a portrait of the Duke of Wellington at the Royal Academy on 12 May, claiming that she was protesting against the sexual abuse of women and girls.

These women were of course criticised on various grounds for their actions, very familiar again today. They were criticised for being vulgar, and unaware or careless of aesthetic merit and beauty, as well as for sexual prudery and wowserism. Emmeline Pankhurst however said that the damage in fact improved the Rokeby Venus, arguing that the damaged picture would be for ever "a sign and a memorial of women’s determination to be free".

These courageous women knew very well the power of images, knew how images and speech do things. It is by no means self-evident that sound aesthetic judgment should exclude justice from the relevant qualities of appreciation. Our case today against pornography, like the campaign of the Suffragettes, is not tied to its offensiveness or a distaste for the human body. It is a question about the evil of subordination, not the evil of men (as Cox seems to believe).

In order to police the name of feminism, Eva Cox prattles on about the insignificance of "tasteless porn and crappy T-shirts", and whether opponents meet what she calls "basic feminist criteria", or what Leslie Cannold has pompously called "credentials". But the imaginativeness and the daring of the Suffragettes and their tactics continue to inspire me, and ain’t I a feminist?

On one occasion when Emily Davison was sent to prison, the lawyers noted, "it was substantially admitted that the plaintiff went into prison with the avowed intention of breaking every rule of that institution, and she did in fact do so from the time she went. She did so in a way that gave the most trouble and anxiety to those who had to deal with her." I like to honour when feminists gave trouble and anxiety to all who had to deal with them, not the safe version of feminism stamped and approved by Eva Cox.

This piece draws on a longer talk presented to an evening discussion at the House of Lords sponsored by Baroness Gould of Potternewton and WWAFE and OBJECT on 15 June 2011, on "The Politics of Sexualisation: Women, Girls & Activism".

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