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Wednesday 23 February 2011

But Stella was putting this idea forward in 1915

This is an interesting article The varied nature of women's sexuality: Unresolved issues and a theoretical approach: how can one not be predisposed towards a serious scientific piece on female sexuality which talks about 
the lack of consideration of the marked variability in the non-problematic sexuality of women
and continues

It will be difficult to establish a clinically useful conceptualization of women's sexual problems, and how they should best be treated, until we have a better understanding of the non-problematic variability of women's sexuality
It's a long piece with lots of reference to the literature on the subject and the various theories that have been advanced.

One pioneering piece of literature that is not cited, however, is Browne (1917) - Stella Browne's pamphlet (first given as a lecture to the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1915), The Sexual Variety and Variability of Women and Their Bearing Upon Social Re-construction.
The sexual emotion in women is not, taking it broadly, weaker than in men. But it has an enormously wider range of variation; and much greater diffusion, both in desire and pleasure, all through women's organisms....
The variability of the sexual emotion in women is absolutely basic and primary. It can never be expressed or satisfied by either patriarchal marriage or prostitution. It is found in the same woman as between different times, and in different individuals.

Stella on the air at greater length

The recorded interview I did last week following the technical disaster that curtailed my live interview went out yesterday and is available for listening again on the Woman's Hour website.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

On the impossibility of conference reports

At least, the impossibility of doing conference reports if one is actually participating, what with the having to be in the moment during the actual speaking/reacting to questions bit, the anticipation beforehand (this can involve very selective listening to earlier pieces in case there's something one could usefully allude to), the afterthoughts ('Did I really say that? - cringe'/'I totally forgot to mention X'), etc.

Besides, it's all rather fading now. I was too exhausted on Friday and over the weekend to summon up the energy to post about either Sexuality and the Archive or the Population Investigation Committee: its history and influence over the last 75 Years.

Somewhat unusually, at both of these I was speaking from my 'archivist position', however much that's informed by also being a historian. Roughly speaking, the 'archivist position' is that no historian (or other academic) is a hero to the archivists, however notable they may be. While my sense is that archivists put in quite a bit of time and effort to open up their collections to a range of potential users, very few potential users have much idea about key archival issues such as provenance, diplomatic, and the sheer contingency of the creation of the record. Or, I sometimes think, the value of perusing the catalogue.

On an analogy with Peter Bailey's wonderful paper title, 'Did Foucault or Althusser ever play the London Palladium', my reaction to people who get way theoretical about the archive is 'have these people ever been i/c a searchroom full of family historians, school children doing projects, a jamming microfilm reader and a photocopier needing constant replenishment, while trying to, you know, actually try and catalogue some archives?' or 'Seen the papers in the coal cellar in which they had been stashed, the other batch in the corner of the attic under the loose tile where the rain/pigeons got in, managed the transfer, done the initial sort and weed, the arrangement, the packaging and cataloguing, and finally publicised the available collection?'

Having said which, both these symposia have left me with a number of useful points theoretical and factual.

Friday 18 February 2011

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Broadcasting debacle

Just before my interview with Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour this morning, as the previous item was winding up, the system lost connection and they had to go straight to the current drama (The Far Pavilions) while they desperately tried to fix matters (first time this has ever happened in JM's memory going back decades).

I ended up doing a brief teaser, and then pre-recording a fuller interview, date of its broadcasting To Be Announced.

However, I did get to meet Marianne Faithfull!  - I didn't manage to work this into our brief conversation, but there is a slightly tenuous Stella Browne connection - her grandfather, Major Theodore Faithfull, who ran an experimental school between the wars, had some involvement with the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (and the wilder shores of sex reform of the period more generally), and Stella was also very active in that body for several years.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Deborah Cohler, Citizen, Invert, Queer: Lesbianism and War in the Early Twentieth Century Britain (2010)

I am perhaps going to be predisposed towards a study in which the author discloses that she discovered Edith Ellis through the extracts in Outspoken Women and rushed out to obtain The New Horizon in Love and Life to find out more (bless).

But I rather liked this: I didn't agree with everything but there were lots of useful insights, and the whole thing makes a useful contribution to the work by Laura Doan, Alison Oram, etc, complicating the idea that sexological constructions of lesbianism became culturally hegemonic during the first few decades of the C20th. Cohler has a particularly valuable analysis of the disjuncture between female gender noncomformity in the direction considered 'masculine' and ideas of female 'sexual perversity' i.e. same-sex desire - these were not seen as necessarily mapping.

What she doesn't have is any consideration of the 'morbid emotions' discourse which is about an unhealthy pathologised femininity - which is actually a bit of a relief given that this is what I'm looking at in my paper for the Berks and may offer at other forthcoming conferences

Monday 14 February 2011

Sunday 13 February 2011

Yet another forthcoming appearance

A Wellcome Library 'Insights' session, for which they have got my title slightly wrong on the website - what I told them was 'Women, health and healing':   what they have put is Women, Healing and Health (I have no idea why, all they had to do was cut and paste the title from my email, though it doesn't, I suppose, make any significant difference to the sense).* Anyway, this is happening on 10 March 2011, 15.00 - 16.00. The event is free but numbers are limited. It consists of an illustrated talk and the opportunity to get up close and personal with a selection of relevant archives, manuscripts, and other Library materials.

It will be reprised on 14th April at 18.00-19.00 hours

*Word is (15/2) that this will be changing next time the site publishes

Thursday 10 February 2011

And yet another appearance

Let's Talk About Sex - After Hours event at the Natural History Museum, part of the programming around their new Sexual Nature exhibition (subject of an article in today's Guardian: The bizarre world of animal sex):

25 Feb 2011 at 19.00 hrs

From kissing and foreplay through to the act of sex, join us as we discuss the history and psychology behind the different stages of lovemaking and how our sexual technique compares to other creatures in the animal kingdom.

This frank and open discussion will encompass a number of questions you might be to afraid to ask... Do some people enjoy sex more than others? Why do we orgasm? What did the Victorians get up to after dark? What role does fantasy and fetish play in sex? Can we learn anything about our own sexual pleasure from other creatures like the adventurous bonobo apes? Plus many more.

Our panel of experts will be on hand to discuss the burning issues, answer your probing questions and broaden your horizons.

There will also be a chance to have your questions answered in our anonymous 'sex surgery' and we'll have a display of objects that will test your imagination!

Speakers include:
Dr Petra Boynton, University College London (UCL)
Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library
Geoff Boxshall, Natural History Museum

Tickets £8, £7.20 members (advance booking recommended)

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Conference notice

This is a biennial conference I like a lot, its first visit to the UK - I've been to it when it was in Amsterdam (several times), the Hague, Berlin and Ghent (missed it the year it was in Lisbon). I mostly participate in the History of Sexuality network  (of which I am no longer, to my great relief, co-chair as I was for at least two iterations of the conference). But there are many other fascinating networks - by having these strands by theme and common interests, which are focused and quite intense, it combines the virtues of a small focused conference with the benefits of scale of a large one. It's also a very good place to connect with colleagues from all over Europe.

European Social Science History Conference

The ESSHC 2012 will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, UK
From Wednesday 11 April up to and including Saturday 14 April 2012.

The call for papers and information on registration can be found here.
The conference
ESSHC logo The ESSHC aims at bringing together scholars interested in explaining historical phenomena using the methods of the social sciences. The conference is characterized by a lively exchange in many small groups, rather than by formal plenary sessions. The conference is organized in a large number of networks which cover a variety of topics. It welcomes papers and sessions on any topic and any historical period.
Read more about the ESSHC and past conferences. Go to ESSHC 2010 for more information on the 2010 conference that took place in April in Ghent, Belgium.
The European Social Science History Conference is organized by the International Institute of Social History (IISH), an institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences. Information on the IISH is available from its website at
At the IISH Els Hiemstra is responsible for the ESSHC.
ESSHC Conference Secretariat
c/o International Institute of Social History
Cruquiusweg 31
P.O. Box 2169
1000 CD Amsterdam
the Netherlands
tel: + 31 20 66 858 66
fax: + 31 20 66 541 81

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Morris B Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love and Scandal in Wilde Times (2005)

There is no complete overlap between the several studies of nineteenth century homosexuality that have appeared over c. last 10 years. While usual suspects occur from one to another, they all have something specific and valuable to offer (other works I'm thinking of here are the ones by Harry Cocks, Matt Cook and Sean Brady, and also Charles Upchurch's recent book, though it deals with a slightly earlier period).

Kaplan's book is a good read: a very detailed account of the Boulton and Park case and the Cleveland Street affair as well as the Wilde trials. What may be considered something of a USP, is its depiction of the complex homosocial/erotic/romantic and somewhat indefinable relationships around 'Regy' Brett, later Lord Esher, his circle, William Johnson/Cory the Eton master, etc, etc as recorded and memorialised archivally by Esher. This is full of intriguing insights, and Kaplan makes a good point that there was little or nothing subversive of the established order in these ties between elite men.

I was also intrigued and given to think by the suggestions of the degree of toleration towards the young Post Office  messenger boys who were being paid to sleep with gentlemen in Cleveland Street - seen as to a great extent motivated by mercenary considerations, even though there was evidence of preceding sexual interaction between the 'boys' themselves. I found this thought-provoking given the representation of women of around the same age-group and similar class as dangerous harpies offering temptation to the sons of the upper classes and probably resorting to blackmail as well, during the debates over the raising of the age of consent in the 1880s.

It's very much a view from the upper classes, including their working class partners, and the occasional voice of the professional male prostitute. Boulton and Park, Kaplan suggests, were able to draw on a significant degree of social privilege in their own defence.

I'm not entirely sure about the contention on p 219 about 'a Victorian tendency to see flagrant sexuality as its a feminine characteristic' - maybe flagrant sexuality itself was disruptive of gender norms, e.g. a case could possibly be made about certain forms of sexual excess in women being associated with a masculine tendency (but this would need more work).

I like the analysis of the letters to Reynolds Newspaper giving a certain amount of vox pop on 'West End Scandals'.

No Ives, Carpenter only as recipient of a letter from J A Symonds, and no Bolton Whitmanites. However, what it does, it does very well.

Monday 7 February 2011

A great idea, but do I have time to get involved?

WikiProject Women’s History - the actual Wikipedia Project Proposal Page is here.

This is further to recent concerns apropos of the under-representation of women both in Wikipedia articles and in the editorial process.

Given that Wikipedia is often the entry point into a topic for many online searchers, it would indeed be desirable to have more there on women's history, individual women, etc, with, one profoundly hopes, links to the perhaps less immediately obvious material that's out there.

However, do I, personally, at the moment, have time to get involved in this? The next month or so is particularly hairy, but when that flurry dies down, I really need to focus a) on getting my paper for the Berks from the idea to the actuality b) moving forward with the new edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change.

Saturday 5 February 2011

More Stella Browne promotional activity

I did a post for the Wellcome Library blog on discovering Stella Browne among the archives held there, given that it was where there were some significant sources. I also felt it was a useful exercise in that researchers often think of the obvious archive where they're going to look for a particular topic or individual, but don't necessarily think of other places where there might be traces.

Having said which, some of what I found in the Wellcome holdings was by purest serendipity - that connection with the Society for Sex Education and Guidance was something I came across while doing the research for an entirely different project on the history of sex education. Also, completely randomly while actually cataloguing the papers of Lady Rhys-Williams among the National Birth Trust Fund archives, found an annotation on her notes as a member of the Birkett Committee on Abortion, 1937: 'Unexpected appearance of Miss Browne'.

Friday 4 February 2011

Another addition to Victorian Sex Factoids

'One "dud" in every box': a myth about contraceptives.

This one is not so much one held today or of recent years about the Victorians and their whacky, whacky sex-lives, it's a canard that was very pervasive throughout society in the early decades of the twentieth century, and can probably be dated back a little further (though of course the great upsurge in the great and the good angsting over the population, its quantity and quality, which probably has some bearing on assumptions about official requirements in this matter, was really during the Edwardian era).

Thursday 3 February 2011

Women going global

There's a new blog WIG Women, Internationalisms, and Gender 1848 to the Present dedicated to the study of women's transnational activism. Not many posts yet, since it's only just gone live, but a couple of them draw attention to the exciting documentation project, Women and Social Movements, International
a landmark collection of primary materials drawn from more than 300 repositories. Assembled and cross-searchable for the first time, these resources illuminate vast areas of modern history. Through the writings of women activists, their personal letters and diaries, and the proceedings of conferences at which pivotal decisions were made, Women and Social Movements, International lets you see how women’s social movements shaped much of the events and attitudes that have defined modern life. To the present, women’s international organizations have focused on issues related to peace, poverty, child labor, literacy, disease prevention, and global inequality.
The first release of Women and Social Movements, International is online and freely available for the month of February, at  30,000 pages of the eventual 150,000. This post on WIG suggests that this blog might serve as a useful clearing-house for tips for searching this immense amount of valuable historical documentation.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Regulating Sex

I managed to get to this event at the British Academy, organised by the Onscenity Research Network, yesterday afternoon. It was a terrific session full of informative stuff and thought-provoking insights that I'm still mulling over.

There were several places where I felt that there were points that could be historicised and generalised - e.g. Laura Agustin's problematising of 'state feminism' in Sweden. This resonated with me on the one hand with some of the rather dubious alliances of the late C19th-early C20th British social purity movement with institutions of the state or 'governmentality', and the problems of feminism in engaging with any state/other institution which has long traditions and practices which are the reverse of feminist, but may see circumstantial benefits in making apparent concessions (dangers of co-optation of agenda). On the other, I was also reminded of my readings appertaining to venereal disease control and the regulation of prostitution in Sweden and my sense that for a very long time it has been highly invested in state regulation of matters which in other countries were managed in rather different ways, from laissez-faire to delegation to other authorities (medical, police, etc). I was additionally reminded of Stella Browne's acerbic comments about certain feminists of her own day and their 'mania for prohibition': in terms of internal differences within feminism, that trend still seems to be depressingly healthy.

Re questions about censorship and prostitution, there seemed to be a couple of issues similar to those I've found around sex education. Not just the whole 'we've got to protect the kiddies' thing which has been pretty much central to the development of the law on censorship in the UK and has been so pernicious a mindset around sex-ed since the 1880s, but also the fact that, even if the bulk of the public takes a relatively liberal line and can be demonstrated by surveys to do so (e.g. Isobel Allen's stats on parents' desire for children to receive sex education in schools) it only takes one person drumming up a disingenuous moral panic in the press to derail liberalising initiatives, get questions asked in parliament, a following of at least a handful of equally vociferous objecters, etc.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Very pleased with this link

Stella Browne – feminist, free spirit and pro-choice godmother
at Abortion Rights - formed  in 2003 by the merger of the Abortion Law Reform Association (of which Stella Browne was one of the founders in 1936, and, I'd argue, a major influence on the subject being taken seriously by a group of fellow reproductive-choice activists) and the National Abortion Campaign set up in 1975