Guest Post: Moaning Men of the Victorian Age, or Help! Help! I’m Being Oppressed!

The following post was written by Dana Hunter and originally published at En Tequila Es Verdad. It has been reprinted here with express permission. 

Some people never change. Take the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM). It’s full of men who panic as they realize they’re not actually the Kings of Creation. Women pry a tiny bit of privilege from their sweaty, grasping hands, and they shriek like toddlers being forced to share the crayons. Unlike toddlers, they never learn to share. They just howl persecution and lie a lot in a pathetic effort to get all the power back.

They haven’t changed a bit. Our modern Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) would find themselves perfectly at home amidst the mightily offended males of the Victorian Era. Paul Elam and Dean Esmay have their counterparts in the whining jackasses sniveling every time 19th century women won a crumb of consideration. And Mr. Austin Williams, Victorian MRA, would be perfectly cozy amongst the moaning males at A Voice For Men.

In this series, we will poke hatpins in Mr. Austin’s myriad complaints. It will be instructive, not only because history repeats, but because it’s good to see how ridiculous all their fury is, and how self-defeating the poor pathetic MRAs of yesteryear were. Seeing how their fears panned out puts everything in perspective. By the end, I think several things will be clear:

  1. MRAs are and always have been clueless tools who lie like bad carpets.
  2. Many of their complaints aren’t due to women, but patriarchy.
  3. Moaning men should really get over themselves and work with us on this equality thing if they really want a better world.
  4. Women’s rights are here to stay, despite their determination to linger in the denial and anger phases.
  5. We’ve not nearly come far enough in our quest for equal rights.

Right. Let’s fisk a Victorian MRA, then, shall we?

If you recall, we ran across Mr. William Austin in a newspaper article from 1898. Women had been struggling for most of the century to gain more rights, and hadmanaged to win a few concessions from the men in power. Those crumbs from the master’s table were too much of a feast for the manly-men of the Victorian era, some of whom joined together to form a “League for Men’s Rights.” Mr. Austin sat down with a fairly unimpressed reporter to explain his position. The reporter sums him up for us thusly:

Mr. William Austin, who resides at Blackheath, and is in a large way of business in the city, is the founder, and he has received letters of sympathy and assurances of co-operation from, among others, two noblemen whose names during the past few years have been several times prominently before the public in cases that have attracted wide attention. Mr. Austin’s personal appearance is not in the least indicative of his deep-seated misogyny. Indeed, he looks much more like a man who would run after a pretty girl, at a pinch, rather than away from one. However, the mover in an effort to secure protection from a sex which it has been the tendency of modern legislation to assist in every possible way ought to have some intelligible reasons to support his side of the case.

One gets the feeling the reporter’s tongue is stuck so firmly in their cheek that it’s cramping. Let’s see what Mr. Austin does with this unparalleled opportunity to explain his position.

“I cannot pretend,” said Mr. Austin, “to find a remedy for all the injustices on the statute books; but where there are flagrant violations of the very principle of justice I am convinced that it is well to get together a body of intelligent people and try what may be done to find some way out of the difficulty. I have looked carefully into the legal aspect of the matter, and find that a woman has a much greater advantage when it comes to litigation about almost any matter over any man, rich or poor, than a rich man has over a poor man. I find that in an extraordinary number of cases the law discriminates in the sharpest possible manner between men and women, both in civil and criminal law proceedings.

I wonder if Mr. Austin is from an alternate universe. It’s that, or he’s terribly ignorant. (Spoiler alert: it’s the latter.)

Women were basically property in the Victorian era. They were considered weak, child-like, and were treated terribly. Men may have put [idealized] women on pedestals, but the difference between chivalry and respect is enormous. When women were under 21, they were infants in the eyes of the law. Like our people under 18 today, they couldn’t control their own property, enter into contracts, or do other adult things.

Lucky women who didn’t marry would have a degree of legal autonomy on reaching the age of majority, but they were still handicapped in ways their male peers weren’t. This is the reality Mr. Austin cannot face: the women he thinks have so many advantages had none. They couldn’t vote. They weren’t allowed to enter public life (with a few restricted and local exceptions). They were limited to very few professions, none of which paid well. They were shut out of prestigious jobs: they couldn’t become doctors, lawyers, or members of Parliament. A few really exceptional women broke the mold, but for the vast majority of women, their only hope at economic and social stability was to marry.

Once women married, though, they virtually ceased to exist as far as the law was concerned. At the beginning of the Victorian era, they couldn’t gain custody of their own children, no matter how vicious the father was. They couldn’t own their own property: their inheritance, earnings, and every other scrap of property was completely controlled by their husbands. They couldn’t divorce their husbands for adultery alone, no matter how many mistresses were involved, while their husbands could easily divorce them for a single indiscretion. The courts barely took notice of the abuse their husbands subjected them to, and did little to effectively protect them. A man could rape his wife to his heart’s content, and apply to the courts to have her returned to his custody if she fled from him.

By the time of Mr. Austin’s whine, women and a few male allies had fought hard for many decades, and won a few scraps. But they were still unable to vote, most professions were still firmly closed to them, they had little legal existence outside of their husbands, and men could still rape their wives at will. If a woman tried to get legal redress for sexual assault committed by her spouse, she’d be laughed out of court. There were very few circumstances in which a woman in court would win the sympathy of the judge and jury. And in those cases, it was the patronizing attitude men had toward (young, pretty, delicate and perfectly chaste) women that led them to respond with the outsized sympathy he complains of.

I will not consider the advantage a woman almost invariable [sic] has for the reason of her sex the very moment she goes into court, or even makes a complaint against a man, nor will I more than refer to the bias of the press and public opinion the moment a woman makes her appearance in a case at law.

Allow me to point meaningfully at this solution to his perceived problem:

Equality!

*meaningfulthroatclearing*

Ahem.

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