In the middle of the fourth century BC, an ancient Greek woman named Phryne cast off her clothes and walked naked into the sea at the Festival of Poseidon. While it earned her a job as nude model for one of Greece’s top artists, it also landed her in court on the charge of impiety, for which the punishment was death.
Today Greece plays host to many a scantily clad holidaymaker, and with the sexual revolution behind us, many would like to think that women are free to do whatever they like with their own bodies.
Almost ten years ago, when I began stripping off myself – first for artists and then in the form of naked protest – I presumed that there were no puritans left to object. As the criticisms began to fly and controversy ensued, I realised how wrong I was.
My eyes were opened to the forces bubbling away under the surface. Puritanism was – and is – making a comeback and, as I show in my new book, Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty, it is almost on cue. The pendulum of female modesty has swung back and forth across the ages.
For centuries women’s uncovered and “promiscuous” bodies have been seen as the originator of sin – the cause of anything from earthquakes to wars.
In early hunter-gatherer communities, women’s bodily modesty was hardly a priority, and rather difficult to police. But as human beings settled down in one place, taking private ownership of land and resources, immodest women came to be seen as a threat to fatherhood and to inheritance.
As the world population grew and people waged war with one another, immodesty became even more of a threat. “Promiscuous” women were seen as harming food security, group identity and even potentially fraternising with the enemy.
Virginity became an obsession, enabling reproduction – and property – to be closely controlled. To signal their bodily modesty, women were expected to cover up.
Dawn of modesty
By the second millennium BC, a veil of modesty had descended across the Mediterranean and the West Asia. For the ancient Greeks, nothing was more emblematic of civilisation than a chaste – and veiled – woman.
The Romans were somewhat more liberal, so much so that according to some Victorian writers, it was the subsequent “deterioration in female morals” that brought about the downfall of the entire Roman Empire.
Of course, once the Romans stopped persecuting them, Christians were at the ready to restore modesty to women’s lives. Nude statues were torn down and the veil made a comeback. Even sex within marriage was discouraged, as – according to Saint Augustine – the sexual act served to pass on “original sin” to the next generation.
By late medieval times, the pendulum was swinging in the other direction. Even the most modest woman of all – the Virgin Mary – had by now become seen as promiscuous.
Her virgin claim was ridiculed and mocked by writers, while the most faithful followers of Christ – pilgrims – collected souvenir badges that depicted female genitalia alongside walking phalluses with wagging tails.
In a battle to save souls, the puritans rolled out a new, no-nonsense strand of Christianity in the 17th century. By 1630, single mothers were being whipped and abortion had been made punishable by death.
As the sex-negative turn descended, women who failed to conform were being declared witches and hunted and murdered in their thousands.
Eventually, modesty momentum ran out of steam. In England, the puritans were booted out in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy (with some seeking refuge in the Americas) and soon, the Georgians were ushering in a new era.
Pendulum swings again
In the 18th century, the bouncing bosom was attracting attention, to the point that the Lady’s Magazine declared the uncovered chest a health hazard. But, with their eyebrows raised, puritanism soon returned in Victorian disguise. Even the suffragettes prided themselves on their “bodily purity”, as symbolised by the white stripe within their tricolour branding.
By the 1960s, a sexual revolution was – once again – underway. But, as Victorian repression has increasingly become a dim and distant memory, puritanism is now making a comeback. And, just as in the Victorian age, it is not only religious zealots that are fanning the flames.
Within feminism itself, “immodest women”, from scantily clad celebrities to strippers, are, once again, presented as a threat: to themselves, to other women and to wider society. As one self-proclaimed feminist wrote to me: “Why do you think women are not taken seriously or listened to and thought as sex objects? Because of silly tarts like you.”
Rather than being one long march towards bodily freedom for women, history consists of an almost constant battle to keep the puritans at bay. Having swung in the more liberal direction in the 20th century, the pendulum is now swinging back towards modesty. And that’s why – with body and brain – I’m fighting back.
Victoria Bateman is Fellow in Economic History, University of Cambridge.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.