Voltairine de Cleyre, “Are they Fallen?” (1902)

Are They Fallen?

I am not sure that the wisest policy for me, having said my say on the subject of fallen women, would not be to display a “masterly inactivity.” I have little taste for controversy, and generally feel that when one has made a strong statement of a case (at least as strong as the writer’s ability permits) the best thing to do is to let others do the arguing. However, as I feel that the point that I am urging in this discussion is, though the curious bias which the continuously negating attitude gives to the human mind, entirely missed by L. H. Earle, and not altogether dealt fairly with by C. L. James, I shall try once more to make myself clear.

Kate Austin in the article which Miss Earle approves without having any very distinct notion of, had said that the only way to treat fallen women was to refuse to recognize that they were fallen. Now this is to me the ne plus ultra of folly; it is the same as saying, Refuse to acknowledge that a lunatic is insane, refuse to acknowledge that a small-pox patient is ill, refuse to acknowledge that—that C. L. James is a sage, a master of the pen, or that Laura Earle is equally masterful in evoking the power of a concert piano! It is the same as saying, Refuse to acknowledge a fact. I wrote that I did simply to protest against the topsy-turvying of facts by those who, having gotten a protest in their heads proceed to cry “no” in advance to every conservative proposition concerning social uses.

A question had been raised by Dr. Clymer as to a practical means of ameliorating the lives of fallen women. Kate Austin objected to the word and the treatment, as I have said. Now I believe, if a sick person is to be treated at all, the first thing is to recognize that he is sick. I am aware that there is a class of metaphysicians, including some very good, clever and interesting persons, who hold that Kate Austin’s method is the correct one; they would say, “The patient is not ill; it is merely an erroneous condition of mind; illness has no real existence; let us declare health instead of recognizing illness.” But I am positive that C. L. James would resent being put in their company, and a little more than inclined to believe that Kate Austin and Laura Earle would do the same. When it is once admitted that the patient is sick, the special symptoms and the causes must be sought, if the case is to be treated. That is another matter, and one with which it was not, and is not, my purpose to deal otherwise than by the slight allusion at the close. I mentioned the causes of prostitution in my article as evil material conditions and bad heredity, and I blame the double victim no more than I blame the sneak-thief or the rapist, who is, nevertheless, a very unwholesome and revolting character. I maintain that it is not necessary to confuse all distinctions between clean and unclean conduct in order to preserve one’s character as radical, nor to confound the recognition of such distinctions with the idea of blame.

But blame is not now the point. The point is, are women who drown themselves in the slime of every species of bestiality fallen or not? Let us see how my opponents deal with it. it is with a shade of regret that I, a woman writing in the journal which has ever put forth the highest claims for the equality of feminine powers, observe that the criticism of the woman, Laura Earle, is scarcely equal either in matter or in temper to that of the man, C. L. James; there is that in it which gives me the uneasy sensation I used to feel when our lamented friend Susan Patton arose “to speak in meeting,”—a something which the orthodox used to attribute to the woman suffragists as “shrieking,” but which is probably better qualified by Shakespeare as “over-earnestness.”

Miss Earle’s reply to the question “Are they fallen?” is, “Prostitution is a trade.” Sequential! “Is this water in the glass bad?”—“The furnishing of this water is a trade!”

“Will Miss de Cleyre class herself with society in—” certain condemnations? Well to paraphrase a witty saying of Frank Stephens, I go with society just as far as society goes with me; and if it shall happen that society condemns anything which my conscience doesn’t approve, I shall not be scared from my position by being told that society is not on my side.1 However, in the particular condemnation in question,—that of “all women who from whatever motive have illicit relations with man” well—it depends on the motive. If the motive is money, then I do; if the motive is mere lechery, then I do. The ideal of independent, clean, strong, womanhood is too dear to me to enjoy having it mixed up with money-getting or bestiality. Though mark, I believe every woman should have the freedom to be as mean and low as she likes; only I’m not going to be forced into commending or condoning her for it. (Please keep separate the idea of disapprobation of the action or the character, and blame of the individual for doing what he does or being what he is.)

But as to other motives—love, sympathy, fellowship, normal sex-life, without the unclean lips or hands of Church and State being called into witness—I have stood for these things too many years to think it necessary for me to answer the question. Miss Earle knows it.

And at this point I perceive that the criticisms of Earle and James overlap each other, so to speak. I have said that C. L. James is a sage; and no doubt all our readers have observed that his is likewise a modest man. It gives me pleasure to say it, for I have owed Comrade James a compliment these several years and shall be glad to be out of debt. He will recall that some time since he congratulated me in Lucifer on having become less dogmatic than formerly. I would have wished to say as much of him, but dared not; though I would not say “dogmatic” either, but rather “strong,” as one of his learning and literary ability has a right to be without losing his claim to genuine modesty. Yet (if he will pardon me) it may be that there are times when it is as well to forego the unlimited exercise of our rights.

Nevertheless, modest as he is, he is a man; and being a man, he could not forbear that confession which few men of proper parts could ever forbear to make,—modestly but with de realization—that he has a very wide acquaintance with “women of this kind.” I have often wondered at this singular manifestation of masculine pride which makes the most unassuming gentleman wish to present himself in this particular matter as “a bold, bad man.” For we are precluded from supposing, as we might have done, that Comrade James cultivated this extensive acquaintance as a severe study in degeneracy, etc., by the suggestive clause “if such knowledge is rarely acquired without some experiences which may excite regret, the remedy is to make a good use of it at last.” We, at least, have no cause to complain, who without moral contamination to ourselves get the purified results of Comrade James’ regrettable experience; and I think he should consider himself absolved.

The conclusion from the observations made during these considerable excursions into the realms of the demi-monde is, that the majority of prostitutes belong to the “Born Criminals” or to the “Criminaloids;” from which I infer that they are not fallen because they were never anywhere to fall from. This is emphasizing the case of “bad heredity.” Comrade James is of the opinion that some of them may be raised, provided the moral derrick is perpetually in action! Well, there may be some persons in the world (and for all I know Dr. Clymer may be one), who find their true sphere of activity in furnishing such continuous leverage to those who, left to themselves, naturally gravitate toward the bottom. It may be a very useful service; but so far as my observation of strong people furnishing moral force to weak ones goes, it is generally a miserable failure. The strong one wastes his life in a futile attempt to impart character to those who would feel a great deal more comfortable if left to their own fluttering devices. The “dwarfish moral ‘organs,’” upheld by external force, maintain a hesitant and halting struggle against “the enormous sensual and emotional” ones, and in the secrets of the little fluctuating brain there is dislike ripening into rankling hatred of that strong soul which plays the moral Czar over it. History records that the Empress Theodora, who had been a prostitute but who was nothing if not strong, built a home for her old companions and thither transported five hundred prostitutes. They were fed, housed, dressed, and attended, but no men were permitted in the place. The result was that the majority committed suicide, and the rest soon moped to death. No doubt these women hated Theodora well for her service.

And now Comrade James, apparently to establish that not all prostitutes are necessarily degraded, works on of his controversial miracles. I have often admired the way in which he, in dealing with any flightily inclined or ill-informed opponent, seizes him by the feet and nails him down with thousand pound facts, which stand there stiff and rigid and immovable as—well as “good facts should.” But when these facts are to be used to assist Mr. James’ side of the argument, lo! they become as agile as fairy-tales, as nimble as quicksilver, and they leap about and about, here, there, everywhere, to prove what a wizard can do with them. For instance, Mr. James has a theory that illegitimate children are more brilliant than those born in wedlock; and I remember catching my breath in reading an article of his on the subject some time back, in which Moses, Jesus, and Shelley, were lumped together in with a number of other notable and real characters who would likely have been shocked to read such information in print, as specimens of proof. Moses, of whom the very sympathetic historian Renan writes: “What are we to think of the man who has come to stand out as a colossus among the great mythical figures of humanity? …. Moses is completely buried by the legends which have grown up over him, and though he very probably existed, it is impossible to speak of him as we do of other deified or transformed men.” (Italics mine). Yet Comrade James, when it suits his purpose, uses this mythical personal and one of the most widely diffused birth legends which has attached itself to his name in common with so many others, as if he and it were indisputable facts.

And Jesus!

And now, mixed up with Aspasia, Agnes Sorel, et al., Magdalene! Around whom floats the legendary light reflected from 2000 years of Christian myth-making!

Even Fantine, one of the most unreal of all the unreal creations of the sublime romanticist, becomes a controversial weapon, pointed with a sarcasm which is assumed to fit! I am supposed to be very sympathetic with “Borioboola Gha—because it costs nothing,” and very flint-hearted towards the broken reeds of Philadelphia. It must e that the disposition which led Comrade James to dignify Luccheni as the reincarnation of the Monster Slayer while Czolgosz was labeled “a crank,” creates this distance theory of sympathy of his, which he, feeling, naturally attributes to others. Fantine is an idealism, an exaggeration, like all Hugo’s characters; she is good medicine for those who need to learn that prostitution has other causes than innate total depravity; she has a softening influence on the “unco guid” who have to be overdosed in order to feel at all; but she is a poor reply to a fact.

As to the really historic figures catalogued together with Magdalene, Aspasia, Phryne, Agnes Sorel, Lady Hamilton, and the multiple spelled “Afra, Aphra, Aphara, Ayfara” Behn,—does Comrade James, in company with Miss Earle, really insist on savoring the prostitute class by flinging them in too? Dr. Sanger says that Agnes Sorel lived with Charles VII eighteen years, that she was a kind, good woman, and otherwise of irreproachable character. It is a little difficult to imagine a good woman in love with a king, still it is not altogether impossible; and eighteen years is, from the king’s side, pretty good evidence that there was a higher feeling that kings usually experience towards their mistresses. I think it was a case of honest, unbought affection.

Lady Hamilton and Lord Nielson loved each other; the fact that they were lord and lady is, of course, somewhat against them; still lords and ladies do, occasionally, have some overwhelming attachments which make them cast conventions aside; the woman did not sell, the man did not buy; as far as I can learn it was a case of remarkably pure and beautiful love.

As to the sprightly “Afra,” she appears to have been one of those singular border-line characters who was somewhat of a prostitute some of the time, but who was most of the time a piece of strong independent womanhood, varietist by inclination, but not selling herself.

For Aspasia and Phryne, they belong to an organization of society so different from our own as to require judging by a different standard, a society in which the respectable woman was so hedged about restrictions that it was precisely women with acute intellects and strong characters who became hetaerae;—these were by no means prostitutes in the ordinary sense; rather were they the free women of Athens—at least the nearest approach to the type of free womanhood with the race had attain in that age.

And now, let us once for all “put things in the proper boxes.” Let us recognize that there is a difference between those who disregard law, convention, and religion, because they understand them, and live above them, and those who, while recognizing their authority weakly live below them. Let us distinguish too between those who, even while recognizing the law as in general justified, yet for peculiar reason which overweigh the balance, choose to set them aside in a particular instance, and those who habitually lapse from their own standards of right. Else we shall soon be shaking up the names of Heloise and George Eliot together with those of Mr. James’ considerable acquaintances. Had I been for using his argument I think that genuine prostitute, Lily Langtry, would have served my purpose better. But who wants her mixed with the gracious Heloise?

A little parallelism. Says Comrade James: “Miss de Cleyre’s idea that there is a point at which prostitution becomes incorrigible…. is a mistake just like the temperance lecturer’s dogma that a drunkard is merely a moderate drinker come to maturity.”

“Degeneracy, measured by its physical stigmata, does not keep pace with the assumed heinousness of the crime but with its inveteracy. It is more pronounced among pilferers, tramps, prostitutes, …. than among murders.” … It appears to me this latter paragraph is an admission that inveteracy has just the effect I claimed it had, namely to degenerate the victim below the possibility of moral reform, and that, notwithstanding an occasional John B. Gough, the temperance lecturer is right.

While Miss Earle and Mr. James are at one in the matter of confusing real prostitutes with convention-breakers, they are quite opposed in their method of considering them after all. Miss Earle recognizes the class and the “sacred taboo;” Mr. James will [have] none of the class, he will have the individual only.

Without adopting the suggestion that I enlarge my acquaintance with prostitutes, I think I may, upon the strength of present observations, “venture to predict” that on any occasion those who refuse to recognize the fallenness of the prostitute may have to put their theories in practise, they will find there is another person who has something to say, and she may say it in a way to necessitate a revision of their previous intentions. She has a very direct idea of the adaptation of means to ends herself, and makes all who come in contact with her feel its force. Treat them as other people? Certainly: as other people without whom you have no wish to pursue an acquaintance—unless you desire to have, like Comrade James, a number of regrettable experiences to acknowledge.

Voltairine de Cleyre.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “Are they Fallen?,” Lucifer the Light-Bearer, Third Series, 6 no. 29 (July 31, E. M. 302 (C. E. 1902): 224-226.

[1]

  1. VDC later clarified that she had written that she had written: “I shall not be scared from my position by being told that society is on my side.”
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