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Sexuality (1880–1928)

Department of English, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

Abstract

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was vibrant debate among feminists about the way in which male and female sexual behaviour was judged, understood and experienced. Feminist individuals and organisations were concerned with the question of how sexuality could be regulated or reformed in public and private. Female sexuality within and outside of marriage, motherhood and reproduction were topics of heightened interest. Such discussions were frequently linked to the figure of the New Woman, which began to emerge in the 1880s. Feminists also considered the political implications of non-reproductive forms of female sexuality. Scholarship has demonstrated the centrality of these negotiations of sexual behaviour and morality to early feminism. It has also drawn increasing attention to the complexity and contradictions inherent in feminist articulations of male and female sexuality in this historical period.

Introduction

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminist movements were deeply concerned with sexual behaviour and morality. Much feminist criticism focused on the double standard of morality: feminists challenged the culturally entrenched notion that men were ‘naturally’ lustful and should therefore be forgiven for a lack of chastity, whereas allegedly immoral sexual behaviour was deemed inexcusable when displayed by women. They also drew attention to instances of male sexual violence and abuse, highlighting the exploitation of women and children within and outside of the family unit, in public and private. As such, sexuality was politicised and placed at the heart of complex and often contentious and contradictory feminist agendas at the turn of the twentieth century. Through their wide-ranging critical discussions of sexual behaviour and morality, feminists worked towards opening up new sexual possibilities for both men and women and played a significant role in shaping modern understandings of sexuality.

Acknowledging how important questions about sexual behaviour and morality were to early feminism, scholarship has shown that women’s right to vote was not the only goal of the women’s movement. Instead, foundational studies on the history of feminism in Britain, published in the 1980s and 1990s, argued that feminists were, despite their considerable differences, united in the battle against the double moral standard; they wanted to ensure that men’s and women’s sexuality was judged by equal standards, fought for women’s sexual autonomy and aimed to change male sexual behaviour (Bland, 2002; Jackson, 1994; Kent, 1987; Levine, 1990). Literary scholars have examined the crucial role literary and journalistic writings played in shaping feminist ideas about gender and sexuality in this historical period. Much work has explored the rise of the figure of the New Woman in the 1880s and 1890s, which came to embody a form of emancipated, modern and unconventional femininity (Ardis, 1989; Heilmann, 1988; Ledger, 1997; Richardson and Willis, 2011). The feminist struggle to carve out new gendered and sexual possibilities beyond heterosexual, marital and reproductive femininity has also been read in relation to the more general instability of gender and sexual roles at the fin-de-siècle (Heilmann, 2000; Showalter, 1990; Smith-Rosenberg, 1985).

Fighting the Double Standard: Social Purity and Sexual Reform

While feminists agreed that there was an urgent need to challenge sexual inequalities, there was no easy consensus as to what would constitute an equal moral standard or how it should be achieved. In the 1880s and 1890s, anxieties about male lust and the sexual dangers facing women and children proliferated (Jackson, 2000; Walkowitz, 1992). In this climate, groups of mainly middle-class feminists increasingly promoted the social and legal repression of unwanted forms of sexual behaviour among men and women. This interventionist approach led to alliances between feminist groups, such as the Moral Reform Union, and social purity organisations, such as the National Vigilance Association and the Public Morality Council (Bland, 1992; Bristow, 1977).

Social purity feminists highlighted the dangers of sex and sought to enforce moral objectives. They demanded chastity and self-control of both men and women in the hope of reorganising people’s public and private lives and achieving a ‘purer’ and more ‘civilised’ society. One core ambition was the fight against prostitution and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which had been introduced in the 1860s (see Jane Jordan’s essay on Prostitution and the CDAs). Other aims included the ‘protection’ and ‘rehabilitation’ of girls and women endangered by male lust (Ehrlich, 2015; Nead, 1988; Walkowitz, 1980); the prohibition of alcohol consumption, which was seen to foster male violence and abuse (Levine, 1990; Tyrrell, 1991); and the banning of ‘obscene’ forms of entertainment and literature (Bland, 2002; Marshik, 2006).

Some scholars have underlined the radical dimensions of social purity feminism and reclaimed it as a central component of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women’s movement (Jackson, 1994; Jeffreys, 1997). Others have challenged the classist assumptions held by many social purity feminists, who policed the behaviour of working-class women and imposed their own middle-class attitudes (Bland, 2002; Mort, 1987; Walkowitz, 1980). At the same time, scholarship has shown that social purity feminism was not unified in aim or practice. Feminist campaigner Josephine Butler, for instance, was a leading figure within social purity feminism, but also deeply ambivalent about attempts to repress and punish unwanted sexual behaviours (Jordan and Sharp, 2003). New woman novelist Sarah Grand held equally complicated views about social purity and sexuality (Heilmann and Forward, 2000).

Social purity feminism was not coterminous with feminism: many feminist individuals and groups, while sharing the central concerns of the social purity feminists, rejected vehemently the moral policing and repression of sexual behaviour. They insisted on the individual right to sexual freedom and autonomy, and favoured sexual reform and free thought instead of chastity and self-control. While some scholars have viewed social purity feminism and sexual reform or free thought feminism as distinct, historians and literary scholars have also shown that these movements often intersected and were not mutually exclusive (Bland, 2002; Hall, 2004; Heilmann, 2000). Moreover, class prejudices were not specific to social purity feminism, but affected feminist views on gender and sexuality more broadly, as did biases linked to constructions of the nation, race and imperialism (Burton, 1994; Chrisman, 1995; Jusová, 2005; Levine, 1994).

Rethinking Marriage, Motherhood and Reproduction

Feminists were well aware that male lust did not only find expression in the exploitation of prostitutes, the seduction of working-class women and the trafficking of young girls, but also affected married women of all classes within the family unit (Dyhouse, 1989). Feminist voices drew attention to the oppressive dimensions of marriage, which were underpinned by legal and economic inequalities. Motherhood and reproduction were also seen as elements of women’s lives that needed to be transformed.

Altering the legal regulation of marriage was one of the central aims of the feminist movement. Early feminist campaigns had been successful in bringing about legislative change, for instance, through the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, and the Matrimonial Causes Acts of 1878. At the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, feminists continued to fight for equal divorce laws and for women’s ability to maintain the right over their own person and body in marriage (Doggett, 1993; Shanley, 1989). In addition to changing the law, feminists also targeted the moral and emotional dimensions of marital life. Presenting marriage as a system of exploitation similar to slavery and prostitution, feminist campaigners and writers argued that marital relationships had to be based on freedom, equality, friendship and love (Heilmann, 1996; Forward, 1999; MacDonald, 2015). In the first decades of the twentieth century, feminist individuals, groups and journals, such as The Freewoman, continued to debate heterosexual relations within marriage (Bland, 1995; Hall, 1998).

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, there was a growing sense that women’s experiences of marriage and motherhood needed to be improved through sex education (Nelson, 1997): a lack of sexual knowledge was seen to prevent young women from choosing an appropriate partner and taking control of marital sexuality. Sexual ignorance was also understood to leave women and their children vulnerable not only to sexual abuse within marriage, but also to venereal diseases transmitted by unfaithful husbands (Bland, 2002; Heilmann, 2000; Showalter, 1996). While feminist individuals and groups argued about who should be taught what and when, they agreed that sexual ignorance was a serious problem and that girls and women needed to have access to all forms of education, including sex education.

Sexual knowledge was also meant to give women greater control over their fertility and increase their understanding of the responsibilities of motherhood. As such, the push for sex education was part of wider feminist attempts to rethink the meaning and experience of maternity (Nelson and Holmes, 1997). While many feminists were deeply ambivalent about essentialist ideas according to which women’s role in the family and society was defined by their reproductive functions, they also sought to appropriate ideas about motherhood to empower women. For instance, the capacity to produce new life was linked to women’s moral and spiritual superiority over men, and many feminist writers drew on eugenic rhetoric to highlight the unique contributions women could make to the future of the nation and race (Richardson, 2003). While this investment in the ideal of motherhood meant that feminists often continued to understand sexuality as exclusively heterosexual, it could also involve opening up utopian visions of reproduction without men. New Woman writer George Egerton, for instance, began to separate maternal and heterosexual desire, thus opening up visions of reproduction outside of a heterosexual framework (Fluhr, 2001).

Beyond Marital and Reproductive Heterosexuality

Whereas many feminists sought to reorganise and reform marriage and motherhood, others felt that it was necessary for women to explore alternative sexual possibilities beyond marital and reproductive heterosexuality. Among these were pre-marital and extra-marital relationships between men and women. In the 1880s and 1890s, free-thought and sex radical groups like the Men and Women’s Club and the Legitimation League, which included many feminist members, began to debate and, in some cases, endorse free love in journals like The Adult (Anderson, 1993; Jones, 2016; Passet, 2003). Feminist campaigners and writers, including Annie Besant, Egerton, Edith Lanchester and Olive Schreiner, were in favour of long-term monogamous relationships that were not legally sanctioned (Bland, 2002). They hoped that such unions might allow both partners to maintain the right over their own bodies and enjoy personal freedom. Edith Lees Ellis went so far as to articulate tentative calls for the acceptance of pre-marital and extra-marital sex (Wallace, 2008). At the same time, many feminists opposed the idea of free love and promoted marriage reform instead. They cautioned that free unions would encourage immoral behaviour and deprive women and children of their social status and the vital legal protection granted by marriage.

The impact of unwanted pregnancies on women within marriage and the problems faced by unmarried mothers and illegitimate children fed into discussions about contraception and birth control (Cook, 2005; McLaren, 1977). Feminists campaigners like Besant and New Woman writer Lady Florence Dixie considered artificial forms of contraception, including sponges, diaphragms and douches, as crucial means of protecting women (Bland, 2002). While such debates sometimes focused on female sexual pleasure, they were also implicated in eugenic thought and often aimed at regulating working-class fertility. In fact, some feminists cooperated with or were part of organisations like the Malthusian League and the Eugenics Education Society (Klausen and Bashford, 2010). Other feminists rejected contraceptive technologies and suggested that these would encourage sexual promiscuity and increase pressure on women to have sex. Even social purity feminists, however, embraced natural means of contraception, such as withdrawal or celibacy, and were in favour of women’s right to control their own fertility (Gordon, 1976). In the interwar years, birth control advocates like Stella Browne, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes continued to separate female heterosexuality and reproduction, putting greater emphasis on women’s sexual enjoyment. Although very different in their political outlooks and aims, their work continued to be shaped by eugenic ideology and, at least in the case of Stopes, centred on marital heterosexual relationships (Burke, 2003; Franks, 2005; Hall, 1993; Hall, 2011).

Despite attempts to open up new perspectives on marriage, heterosexuality and motherhood, many feminist voices argued that any sexual relationship with a man would endanger a woman’s freedom. Some sought to move beyond heterosexual relationships altogether and tried to carve out alternative life choices for women. New Woman writers, in particular, drew attention to the dangers of both marriage and free love and envisioned other sexual possibilities that might enable women to live autonomous and self-determined lives (Heilmann, 2000). Among these were celibacy and spinsterhood, which have been reappraised by scholars as radical feminist alternatives to marriage and maternity (Doan, 1991; Jeffreys, 1997; Kahan, 2013; Vicinus, 1985). Same-sex bonds between women, including intimate friendships and sexual relationships, were also presented by some feminists as viable options, and much scholarship has explored the shifting ways in which such relationships were labelled and understood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Doan, 2001; Doan and Garrity, 2006; Faderman, 1998; Marcus, 2007; Smith-Rosenberg, 1985; Vicinus, 2004). Scholars have also begun to explore the connection between suffragette activism and lesbianism, as in the case of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst (Winslow, 1996).

One particular area of interest in this context has been the question of how feminist constructions of sexuality were influenced by sexology or sexual science, the self-consciously scientific study of sexuality, which began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century (Bland and Doan, 1998). Sexology has frequently been seen as an anti-feminist discourse: male sexologists like German-Austrian Richard von Krafft-Ebing and British Havelock Ellis have been blamed for solidifying essentialist notions of gender and sexuality, depriving feminists of their authority to address sexual matters, and pathologising women who were unmarried or lesbian (Kent, 1987; Mort, 1987; Russett, 1989). Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that sexology led to the demise of radical feminism in the interwar period, as feminists began to incorporate sexological language and thought in the 1920s (Jackson, 1994; Jeffreys, 1997; Smith-Rosenberg, 1985). Other studies have begun to develop less antagonistic understandings of the relation between sexology and feminism. Such work has suggested, for instance, that sexologists and feminists shared the desire to question conventional sexual mores and gender roles and to articulate a broader range of sexual possibilities beyond reproductive heterosexuality (Bland, 2002; Bauer, 2009; Hall, 1998; Hall, 2004; Newton, 1984).

Conclusion

Scholarship on the history of feminism has shown that debates about sexual behaviour and sexual morality were at the heart of feminist thought and practice. Feminists politicised sexual conduct, challenged the sexual status quo and opened up new understandings of male and female sexuality. Feminist sexual politics were complex and contradictory, often combining social purity and sexual reform agendas and resisting neat categorisation. This point is reflected in anthologies bringing together source materials that reveal the diversity of feminist views on gender and sexuality (Bauer, 2006; Hall, 1969; Heilmann and Forward, 2000; Jordan and Sharp, 2003). Work on transatlantic feminism and the development of feminist movements beyond Britain and America offers an even more nuanced understanding of the different ways in which feminists engaged with questions about sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Anagol, 2005; Delap, 2009; Gerodetti, 2004; Newton, 1995).

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