Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Re-Presenting Women : 2

Representing sexuality

The view that women and men naturally have distinctive and separate characteristics is today treated with justifiable scepticism[1]. This was not the case in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Christian position was clear. God created Adam first and then, in what James Simpson[2] the pioneer of chloroform saw as the first case of anaesthesia “caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and while he slept took one of his ribs and…made [it] into a woman…”[3] Women were subject to the rule of man. This view was reinforced in the New Testament where St Paul stated, “as the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands”[4]. This view dominated medieval and early-modern thinking. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these theological arguments were gradually undermined by the development of medical science though both remained important well into the nineteenth century[5]. Early-modern medicine, still grounded in the notion of the four ‘humours’ maintained that men were more perfectly and physically formed because they were hotter and drier than women. They were active, intelligent and superior. Women by contrast had weaker brains than men because their lack of body heat reduced the amount of blood sent to the brain. They were governed by their lower organs especially the uterus where they had an excess of blood[6]. This led to lust, hysteria and irrational behaviour. Sexual differences were not based on anatomy – men and women were regarded as identical apart from the fact that female genitalia had failed to emerge externally because of their lower body temperature. Thomas Laqueur termed this a ‘one-sex’ model of sexual difference. He argues that during the eighteenth century a ‘two-sex’ model to explain sexual differences replaced it. The focus moved from differences in body temperature to differences in the structure of nerves. Women had finer nerves and this made them more sensitive than men to external emotions and, contemporaries argued made them prone to mental disorders and hysteria. Maudsley argued, “their nerve-centres being in a state of greater instability, by reason of the development of their reproductive functions, they will be more easily and more seriously deranged.” The reasoning may have changed but the subordinate realities for women remain unaltered. Popular medical texts, conduct books[7], popular literature, novels and periodicals promoted the culture of female domesticity with vigour and considerable popularity. Influential though these concepts are in gender studies, it is questionable how significant Laqueur’s ‘one-sex’ theory was in practice. Medical books may have seen women’s bodies as variants on maleness – women as inverted men – rather than as uniquely female, but doctors were a minority in early modern society and we should not assume that their theories were accepted by the wider world.

The distinction between men and women was at its starkest in contemporary attitudes to sexuality and sexual behaviour. Female sexuality is the one of the most problematic and sensitive issue historians have to face. Its history has undergone an extensive and fundamental revision in recent years. The French social theorist Michel Foucault argued that[8] “The central issue is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions the viewpoints from which they speak.” Sexuality and desire were not universal, a-historical conditions but part of the discourse of gender that allows the development of political control of the body. Changing attitudes to sexuality in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are, however, difficult to chart with any precision[9]. There are studies of middle class attitudes, notably by Peter Gay, Jeffrey Weeks and more recently, Michael Mason, but we still do not know a great deal about working class sexuality. This has led to historians taking different positions on the issue. Lawrence Stone, for example, argues that sexual permissiveness grew in the eighteenth century, a process reversed in the nineteenth century[10]. Others, by contrast, see the eighteenth century as one of increasing sexual repression. The critical issue is how far attitudes to sexuality changed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, if so, when that change occurred. Foucault saw an explosion of sexual discourses during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries corresponding to revolutionary changes in economic, demographic and social structures. Laqueur[11] argues that changes in attitudes to sex were part of the Industrial Revolution:[12] “Desire, whether for sexual gratification or for consumer goods, lies at the heart of theories of capitalism.” The market economy is based on openness of exchange in stark contrast to a society based on ranks and order in which convention and sumptuary laws were designed to keep desire under control. Freedom of exchange and of labour was economically desirable, but sexual freedom was not. Consuming goods was acceptable, with observers in the 1790s noting that the rural poor was ‘panting to imitate London fashions’, consuming sex was not. However, recent research on the early modern period suggests that the Foucauldian notion of multiple expressions of sexuality should be pushed back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries[13]. Barry Reay’s study of Kent in the nineteenth and early twentieth century supports the view that there was considerable continuity of attitudes to sexuality especially in rural Britain across the early-modern-modern divide[14].

Nineteenth century writings emphasise the preoccupation of Victorian doctors and moralists in defining ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ or deviant female sexuality. However, their pronouncements were overwhelmingly middle class. There were two broadly opposed discourses of female sexuality in nineteenth century Britain. Some authors, like William Acton, argued that women were only capable of a limited or negligible sexual response: “the best mothers, wives and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgence. Love of children, home and domestic duties are the only passions they feel”. Mary Scharlieb, in 1915, favoured self-control by men and women as a solution to a common problem. The suffragettes went one step further and advocated 'votes for women and chastity for men'. How did the idea that women were passionless develop? Until the 1720s, many believed that women’s lust was unquenchable but that they could become spiritual and less carnal through God’s grace. This view was reversed and in the nineteenth century, women were increasingly seen as less lustful than men. Middle class society effectively denied women’s sexuality yet ironically sharpened the awareness of women as reproductive and sexual individuals. Women were viewed as ‘the Sex’, not simply defined by their reproductive systems but controlled by them as well. However, many contemporaries maintained a more positive view of female sexuality. Dr. George Drysdale believed that sexual pleasure was natural and beneficial to both sexes. Priscilla Barker argued in 1888 that the passion of lust was stronger in the female sex, an interpretation redolent of Adam and Eve. James Walvin[15] rightly maintains, “It is hard to think of any aspect of Victorian life that has been more comprehensively misunderstood and misrepresented than sexuality”. I intend to consider three areas of sexuality as a means of testing the dominant middle class discourse.


[1] I have drawn heavily on Shoemaker Gender in English Society 1650-1850, pages 15-44, an invaluable summary of this complex subject.

[2] Simpson used this argument against those in the Church who believed that the pain of childbirth was punishment for Eve’s responsibility for the Fall. See Mary Poovey Uneven Developments. The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, London, 1989, pages 24-50 for the anaesthesia debate.

[3] Genesis 2: 18-22.

[4] Letters to the Ephesians 4: 24.

[5] Thomas Laqueur Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass., 1990 provides an invaluable overview on this issue. More specific studies are: Christine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (eds.) The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1987, Ludmilla Jordanova Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London, 1990 and Tim Hitchcock English Sexualities 1700-1800, London, 1997. Barry Reay Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750, London, 1998, pages 4-35 provides an excellent overview of current thinking.

[6] It was believed that menstruation was necessary because women had insufficient body heat to purify their blood.

[7] Conduct books were designed for moral instruction and included examination of the purposes of marriage and domestic relationships. Two – Richard Allestree The Whole Duty of Man and an anonymous author’s New Whole Duty of Man: Containing the Faith as well as Practice of a Christian – were widely read. The former went through sixty-four editions between 1659 and 1842; the latter thirty-seven editions between 1744 and 1850.

[8] Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, volume 1, London, 1978, page 11.

[9] J. Weeks Sex, Politics and Society: the regulation of sexuality since 1800, London 2nd. ed., 1989 is the best introduction to changing notions of sexuality. Peter Gay The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses, London, 1984 and Michael Mason The Making of Victorian Sexuality, and The Making of Victorian Sexual Identity, Oxford, 1994 debunks the myth of Victorian ‘repression’.

[10] Lawrence Stone The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, London, 1977.

[11] Thomas Laqueur ‘Sex and Desire in the Industrial Revolution’, in Patrick O’Brien and Roland Quinault (eds.) The Industrial Revolution and British Society, Cambridge, 1993, pages 100-123.

[12] Laqueur ‘Sex and desire in the Industrial Revolution’, page 114.

[13] Reay Popular Cultures in England, pages 33-5.

[14] Barry Reay Microhistories. Demography, society and culture in rural England, 1800-1930, Cambridge, 1996, pages 179-212.

[15] James Walvin Victorian Values, London, 1987, page 120.

No comments: