My Website

Thursday 20 December 2012

More cross-postery

Sex, religion and royalty: also dairy farming: post on the Wellcome Library blog about Lord Dawson's papers and his involvement in the moral panic of 1932 about condom vending machines. With pictures! 


A Different Kind of Nurse: Wellcome Library blog post about a notebook of lecture notes kept by a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, some time around World War I


And this isn't one of mine, but I wish it was: one of my colleagues connects Library holdings of the Krafft-Ebing papers and Sacher-Masoch's correspondence to The Velvet Underground: Shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather, managing to get sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll into a single post. Hats off!


I haven't yet managed to write up as a blog post my impressions of a newly catalogued manuscript recipe book from the early C19th century that could have belonged to the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, but this may yet appear.


 On a rather different note, my annual round-up of reading highlights and other cultural pleasures of the year appeared on Ambling Along the Aqueduct. 


Wednesday 5 December 2012


My article 'Articulating abortion in interwar Britain' is now out in Women's History Magazine, Issue 70, Autumn 2012: deploying material that has spent the best part of a decade going round conferences and seminars in various mutated versions, now published.

A post on the Wellcome Library blog Strangulation, sex and death, about the most recent additions to our holdings of the papers of the forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Publication day!

Palgrave have released Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (Mark II). I was already impressed at the speed with which they turned this around, and this is actually ahead of the scheduled date.

Monday 12 November 2012

Conference report and other cross-posts

I wrote up my report on the 'Women and Science' conference of the Women's History Network Midlands Region for the Wellcome Library blog.

Alice Copping of the Lister Institute, and friend
Other posts that I don't think I've previously flagged up here: There may be troubles ahead... on surprising connections between dance and reproductive health in the 1930s.

And one that seems quite out-dated, or least past its sell-by date now, now, on Sir Ludwig Guttmann of Paralympics fame.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Sampling Sex Gender and Social Change (the remix)

The revised and expanded 2nd edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 is well on schedule to come out late next month.

downloadable pdf of the contents, introduction, and index is available on the Palgrave website.

Saturday 13 October 2012

A couple of things I am doing within the next fortnight

I'm giving a guest lecture ('The sons of Belial: the contaminated/contaminating Victorian male body') at the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies, Trinity College Dublin next Wednesday, 17 Oct, and I shall be participating in the 'Eat Your Heart Out' event at Barts Pathological Museum with a presentation on 'Sex and the City', or, as I prefer to think of it, 'The STDs of olde London', on the afternoon of Friday 26 Oct.

Monday 8 October 2012

Some forthcoming conferences

Love, Desire and Melancholy: Inspired by the Writings of Constance Maynard
Centre for the History of the Emotions Symposium
Queen Mary, University of London

Date: 6th November 2012

The Centre for the History of the Emotions and Queen Mary, University of London Archives invite you to a symposium to explore love, desire, melancholy and religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These themes are inspired by the personal experiences described in the autobiographical writings of Constance Maynard (1849-1935), which were recently digitised.

Constance Maynard was a pioneer in higher education for women. She was also a prolific writer, whose personal writings cover over 40 years of her life and touch on topics such as her role in Westfield College, her devout Christian faith, her close friendships with other women and her attempts to understand her emotions.

Key Note Speakers
Professor Seth Koven, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University, The Match Girl and the Heiress: Christian Revolution and Languages of Love Between Women in the London Slums.

Professor Pauline Phipps, University of Windsor, Constance Maynard’s Atonement: The Passions of an English Educational Pioneer (1849-1935).

Other Speakers

Professor Laura Doan, The University of Manchester, Constance Maynard and the Historiography of Sexuality.

Angharad Eyre, Queen Mary, University of London, PhD candidate, Militant love and friendship: Constance Maynard and the female missionary tradition.

Professor Carol Mavor, The University of Manchester, An open secret, lit by something lightly incestuous: Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of Paul and Virginia (1864).

Professor Sue Morgan, University of Chichester, Sex and Common-Sense: Maude Royden, Religion and Modern Sexuality.

Helena Whitbread, Author, Anne Lister 1791-1840 ‘I was not born to live alone. I must have the object with me & in loving & being loved I could be happy.’ (Anne Lister - 21st April 1823).
Including, Dr Thomas Dixon, Queen Mary, University of London, Professor Elisabeth Jay, Oxford Brookes University, Professor Amanda Vickery, Queen Mary, University of London.

A reception and exhibition by the Archives on the works of Constance Maynard is concluding the symposium.

Location and Registration
Directions to Queen Mary, University of London, in Arts Two Building, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, can be found here:
To book a place visit For more information email

Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Constance Maynard
Constance Maynard’s experience of love, desire, melancholy, and religion are recorded in her personal writings, which are the inspiration for the themes explored in the symposium.

Constance Maynard’s personal writings include her ‘Green Book’ diaries written between 1866 and 1834, in which she describes her ‘inner life’, and an unpublished autobiography, written in her latter years in the style of a reflective diary.

This symposium is a celebration of the digitisation of the ‘Green Book’ diaries and autobiography, published by Queen Mary, University of London Archives in April 2012:

More information about the Archives can be found here:

Gender and Justice in South Asia since 1757

Thursday 12-Friday 13 September 2013
Wolfson College, University of Oxford
Recent popular campaigns in South Asia designed to highlight and root out corruption at both the local and national level show that the subject of `justice´, fairness and equitable treatment, remain a pressing issue. South Asian women´s social, cultural, religious and economic position has also repeatedly been identified since the eighteenth century as an area particularly deserving of attention.  This has led to a thriving women´s movement, as well as problematic colonial notions of `eternally oppressed South Asian women´ that are still used as a symbol to justify a plethora of conservative viewpoints in the West.

This international and multidisciplinary conference will explore the manifold ways in which the ideas of gender and justice have been approached in South Asia and in the South Asian Diaspora since 1757. Its aim is to foster dialogue between scholars from different fields and to provide an historical dimension to contemporary issues and debates around the broad themes of gender, sexuality and justice. Papers which have a transnational and/or
comparative focus between countries in South Asia and elsewhere in the world are particularly welcome.

Keynote Address: Dr Joanna de Groot (University of York)

Provisionally confirmed speakers include:
*Professor Clare Anderson (University of Leicester) *Professor Uma Chakravarti (Miranda House) *Dr Esme Cleall (University of Sheffield)*Dr Stephen Legg (University of Nottingham) *Dr Andrea Major (University of Leeds) *Dr Anshu Malhotra (University of Delhi) *Professor Clare Midgley (Sheffield Hallam University) *Dr Kaveri Qureshi(University of Oxford) *Professor Janaki Nair (Jawaharlal Nehru University) *Professor Shirin Rai (University of Warwick)

It is envisaged that the conference will result in one or more publications.

Please send an abstract of no more than 500 words and a one-page CV to by 31 December 2012. Notification of acceptance will be given before 31 January 2013.

History & Philosophy of Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society
Annual Conference 2013
Monday 25th - Wednesday 27th March, 2013 University of Surrey, Guildford
DSM: The History, Theory, and Politics of Diagnosis
Keynote Speaker: Professor Ian Parker
2013 marks the 40-year anniversary of the vote by the members of the American Psychiatric Association to remove ‘homosexuality’ from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). 2013 is also the publication date of the fifth edition of the DSM.
To mark this anniversary and this event, the History and Philosophy Section have themed the 2013 conference 'DSM: The History, Theory, and Politics of Diagnosis.'
For further information, expressions of interest, etc. please email

Thursday 4 October 2012

The good news... the bad news

The good news is that the London School of Economics will be giving a home to the Women's Library although this is not necessarily the ideal solution, since it means giving up the purpose-built premises in Whitechapel and its independent existence, and some campaigners feel that the fight to keep it in its present home should continue.

However, it is not good news in any shape or form to learn of the terrible things that are happening to the Ruskin College Oxford archive, as described here by Hilda Kean on the History Workshop blog: Whose Archive? Whose History? destruction of Archives at Ruskin College, Oxford.

A petition to Stop further archive destruction at Ruskin College, Oxford

Wednesday 3 October 2012

I'd almost forgotten doing this!

Just came across an interview I did some months ago for MyDaily: Sometimes Mr Teddy Has To Watch - Ten Fascinating Things MyDaily Learnt About Sex Toys:
1. Until recently the only sex toy that had a name was the dildo...
Previously there were lots of euphemisms and “devices” and “objects” and “things”. The only one there was a term for was dildo. Which I think reflects the extremely phallocentric assumptions of what sex is about. Obviously we don’t know how they were used – men could have been using them for their own gratification – a spot of prostate massage.
 (I wonder whether this will get as many hits as Sir Henry Wellcome's sexual objects, so far, the most popular post I've made)

Monday 24 September 2012

Normal service will, I hope, be resumed

I am currently in the midst of transferring Lesley Hall's Web Pages to a new hosting service. There may be a few hiccups but I hope these will soon be smoothed out.

Please ensure that any links you may have to any pages on the site are pointing towards my registered  domain rather than the old URLs, as Primex, after giving me sterling service for many years, are going out of business.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Harder to kill than Dracula?

Impending advent of the movie Hysteria has led to yet another resurgence of uncritical mentions of the Victorian doctors/vibrators factoid. Why historians find this popular assumption problematic. Though possibly the question to be asked is why this caught on so quickly and just keeps on spreading: probably to do with constructions of the Victorians as the epitome of sexual weirdness (concatenating ignorance, repression, and kinkiness), as discussed in my chapter in forthcoming volume edited by Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands, Sex, Knowledge and Receptions of the Past (Oxford University Press) .

As Kenneth Williams declaims in what is probably a more amusing faux-historical film 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy'.

Sunday 9 September 2012

And more about Stella Browne continues to drift in

Learnt from Gill Fildes while at the Women's History Network Annual Conference this weekend (report may follow, or not, as I have the Society for the Social History of Medicine Annual Conference happening from tomorrow), that according to entry in Winifred Holtby's diary, she was visiting her near neighbour in Chelsea,  Cicely Hamilton, and Stella also happened to be there.

This not only confirms my sense that the contacts which existed, but for which evidence is fragmentary, between Stella and Winifred, were probably face to face rather than epistolary, but also brings in further confirmation about her relationship with Cicely Hamilton, for which there is already evidence.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Alas, I don't think I'll be able to get to this

Women in science: Wikipedia workshop Friday 19 October 2012, 14.30-20.00, The Royal Society, London

Group 'Edit-a-thon' to improve Wikipedia articles about women in science, held at the Royal Society's library.*

The event is open to people who are new to Wikipedia and experienced Wikipedia editors. Female editors are particularly encouraged to attend.

At the workshop representatives from Wikimedia UK will explain how Wikipedia works and be on hand to answer questions about editing and improving Wikipedia articles.

The Society's library holds a rich collection of printed works about women in science, including biographies and works authored by scientists. At the event the Society's librarians will explain more about the collections and provide guidance on finding sources.

Before the event the Society will select Wikipedia articles relating to women in science which need improving. Attendees will be encouraged to work together to edit those articles, using the library's resources.

For more information and to register for a place please go to:
Dorothy Hodgkin FRS, Nobel Laureate,
portrait by Maggie Hambling

*I suppose this begins to make some reparation for not admitting women, however distinguished, as Fellows until after World War II...

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Interdisciplinary colloquium, Havelock Ellis and Co

This very enjoyable event took place yesterday, brought together and efficiently organised by Jana Funke. It was an intense experience, covering a range of fields to which the neglected figure* of Havelock Ellis contributed.

Interdisciplinarity was at the heart of Ellis's work, although perhaps what became clear in the course of the day was his lack of interest in conventional boundaries and indeed (resonantly) the theme of fluidity (not only in connection with his particular erotic interest). Maybe the reason for the neglect of Ellis was his insidious omnipresence and refusal to be easily contained?

Eleven papers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds made for a full, but very stimulating day, covering the various sources and influences for Ellis's own intellectual enterprises in criminology and sexology, his relations with and influence upon various individuals in his circles of friendship, his impact on contemporary writers on sexual matters, his relationship to modernism (through friendship with modernists, in his work as a literary critic emphasising the 'New Spirit' in literature, and in his impact upon modernist writers), his vision of transformed relationships and ways of being. Besides the papers and the lively discussion, conversations continued over coffee, lunch, tea and at the post-conference dinner.

There are moves afoot to consolidate the beginnings of yesterday's event in rescuing Ellis from the condescension of history and assumptions that he is of merely antiquarian interest, a curiosity marooned in historical byways, and recuperating him as a figure of significance the extent of which is only just beginning to be recognised.

*Just looking up Wikipedia links I discovered some significant errors in mentions of Ellis - he was never President of the Eugenics Society (I'm not sure he was even a member, not being a great joiner of associations) and he was certainly aware of his urination fetish well before the age of 60!

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Forthcoming Conference: Infertility in History, Science and Culture

The infertile woman is a familiar figure in popular culture. Soap operas dramatise the tragedy of infertility, right-wing tabloids threaten career women with the horrors of involuntary childlessness, and the news media greets each new breakthrough in reproductive technology with a strange combination of celebration and dread at the potential Brave New World we are sleep-walking towards. This portrayal of a realm where science fiction threatens to spill over into fact adds to our sense of infertility as a peculiarly modern condition. Yet there is a longer history of involuntary childlessness – a history which stretches back to the Book of Genesis and beyond – as well as many different potential experiences of infertility according to nation, class, gender, and race.

This symposium will explore the history of infertility, and the place of infertility in science and culture. Our primary focus is historical, but we welcome contributions from scholars in different disciplines and employing a range of approaches – social scientific, literary, feminist, psychological, and legal. We aim to bring together researchers working on this fascinating and under-explored field in order to better understand historical and contemporary representations and experiences of infertility across different cultures and from different perspectives. Potential topics for papers include, but are not limited to:

-          the role of gender, class and race in shaping experiences and representations of infertility;
-          individual, familial, and social contexts of infertility;
-          infertility as a bodily and/or psychological experience;
-          heterosexuality, homosexuality, and involuntary childlessness;
-          reproductive science and access to reproductive technologies;
-          the interplay of medical, scientific, and cultural understandings of infertility;
-          the role of politics, law, and religion in shaping experiences of and attitudes towards infertility;
-          changing experiences of infertility across time and space, including comparative histories;
-          the relation of perceptions of infertility to beliefs about fertility control, the constitution and social role of the family, and sexuality;
-          different disciplinary approaches to infertility.

An edited collection based on the presented papers is planned.

The symposium is co-convened by Gayle Davis (University of Edinburgh) and Tracey Loughran (Cardiff University). It will be held at the University of Edinburgh on 4-5 July 2013. Abstracts of 250 words, for papers of 20-30 minutes, should be sent to by 25th January 2013.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Miscellaneous update

I have sadly neglected this blog of late, what with the copy-editing, proofs, and index for the new edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, writing a paper for a workshop on Havelock Ellis, being embroiled in a move of offices at work etc distracting my mind.

Other publishing news: my 2007 short study of Naomi Mitchison is being issued in ebook format by Aqueduct Press and there is news of a reissue of the Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (including ebook version) (presumably, ahem, stimulated by the '50 Shades' phenomenon), which includes my short story, 'Harmonising Polarities'.

Among my posts on the Wellcome Library blog over the last several months:
Norway in archives and manuscripts
'I can think of nothing lovelier than owning cattle'
'If not duffers won't drown'
and one not by me, but posted by me on behalf of the project archivist:
National Abortion Campaign archives now available

Added to my forthcoming appearances: I shall be keynoting at the Women’s History Network, Midlands Region, Conference, 'Women and Science', University of Worcester, 10th November 2012

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Interesting forthcoming conference

Non-Reproduction: Politics, Ethics, Aesthetics
1 February 2013
Birkbeck College, University of London

Cultural anxieties concerning biological reproduction often pivot around the notion of the non-reproductive body, in which intersecting fears about class, race, sexuality, gender and disability are encoded. Media discussions of abortion rates, teenage use of contraception, and gay marriage all register the perceived threat of sex without procreation. In a broader sense, the imperative to safeguard the future by ‘thinking of the children’ is powerful ideological currency, animating activists on both the left and the right.

A number of writers have responded to this tendency by considering the aesthetics and ethics of the non-reproductive. Recent work in cultural studies has emphasised the radical potential of the subject that refuses reproduction. In Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993), Peggy Phelan locates the radicalism of feminist performance art in its status as ‘representation without reproduction’. More recently, Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) argues that resisting heternormativity entails refusing to participate in ‘the cult of the child’. According to Judith Halberstam (2008), Edelman’s work is part of an ‘anti-social turn’ in queer studies which ‘always lines up against women, domesticity and reproduction’.

Inspired by Halberstam’s intervention, this one-day interdisciplinary humanities symposium invites critical perspectives on the idea of non-reproduction. How is the assumption that the non-reproductive necessarily resists the dominant order undermined by right-wing strategies that seek to limit reproduction, such as forced sterilisation, 'population bomb' rhetoric, discriminatory welfare policies or the stigmatisation of single parents. Is it helpful to draw a conceptual opposition between the reproductive and the non-reproductive? Are there alternatives to this framework? What are the implications of ‘non-reproduction’ and anti-futurity for approaches to the archive and the preservation of cultural and social documents?

Contributions are welcome from graduate students and early career researchers across the arts and humanities, as well as thinkers, activists, writers and artists working outside academia.

Topics could include, but are not limited to:

• pro-choice politics versus reproductive justice
• global warming and population discourse
• Refusing parenthood in art and literature
• Infertility and IVF
• Contraception and abortion politics
• Queer theory and the family
• Gay marriage in the media
• Feminism and maternity
• Museums and heritage
• Textual repetition and reproduction
• Discourses about the child (e.g. the child as commodity)
• The disabled child and controversial sterilization procedures (eg. The Ashley Treatment)
• The politics of non-reproduction in an age of accumulation
• copyright law
• Gustav Metzger and destruction in art
• Derrida on the archive
• Performance theory

Abstracts of 250-300 words for 20-minute papers should be sent to by Monday 1 October.

Organizing Committee:

Fran Bigman, PhD Researcher, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

Harriet Cooper, PhD Researcher, Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London

Sophie Jones, PhD Researcher, Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Wonderful for access, for posterity, not so much

This is an account of a very exciting project to digitise the AIDS Quilt. However, while this demonstrates the exciting possibilities for access and research opened up through digitisation, there is a very problematic statement by a graduate student studying art conservation about its value for long-term preservation for posterity:
One hundred years from now, when the textiles break down, you can still have the digital effort
Textiles are a great deal more robust than digital media. While we may hope that the necessary steps are taken (and the resources made available) to migrate the digitised records through changes in hardware and software over time, digital records are very ephemeral and may become unreadable within a very short period after creation. The Bayeux Tapestry is still in existence after nearly 1000 years, unlike many computer-generated records of far more recent date.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Coming in November, pre-order now!

Just spotted on Amazon: the new revised, updated and expanded second edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (Palgrave Macmillan, Gender and History series)

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Podcasting Stella

The latest LSE Review of Books podcast - Gender and Feminism - includes an interview I did for them on Stella Browne, feminism, and reproductive rights (though I'm a bit sorry that length considerations have led to my discussion of her relations with the Communist Party being edited out).

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Return of a classic foundational work

I observe that a new, expanded edition of Jeff Week's pioneering Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulations of Sexuality Since 1800  is due out at the end of this month. This is very exciting news. Weeks has always been an inspiration to me and historians in the field owe him an enormous debt, though one that is perhaps unacknowledged for the reasons Doris Lessing suggested in Walking in the Shade:
Very often do we see this: people acknowledging every source of their inspiration but the most important one. I think the reason for this is not a reluctance to give acknowledgements where they are due, as much as that the originating impression is so strong it becomes a part of the inspired one.
While I have a similar overview coming out later this year, I think that this demonstrates the extent to which the history of sexuality has developed since the first edition of Sex, Politics and Society in 1981, and I am sure that there will be enough in the way of differences of emphasis and interpretation between our two perspectives to stimulate productive debate and further research.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Bateman exhibition at the Cartoon Museum

Last Friday I participated in an evening event at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury in connection with their current exhibition on the work of H M Bateman. Bateman is probably best known for his series of tableaux of social shame, 'The Man Who...' embarrassingly committed some solecism or faux pas but his long career included numerous other contributions to the cartoonist's art. (His vivid evocations of shame and humiliation resonate with Nash and Kilday's suggestion that shame continued as a compelling cultural force well beyond the period conventionally assigned to the rise of a guilt culture.)

I was asked to speak on women in the Edwardian period - Bateman has a number of rather conventionally hostile cartoons of suffragettes, but he often depicted women as terrifying and/or grotesque, and one feels that pillars of the anti-suffrage forces would not have gained any very flattering treatment either. Conversely, there are some more sympathetic portrayals of women, for example the Woman with Flat Iron and several of music hall performers. I didn't see any works illustrating 'khaki fever' in the early months of the Great War but one is rather surprised that he didn't make something of this.

It occurred to me, in my consideration of the wider changes in women's lives and their increasing move into public spaces for both work and leisure purposes, whether some of the hostility towards the suffrage movement, and the often very nasty ways in which they were portrayed, was because they were in some sense an epitome of, or a scapegoat for, disturbing changes more generally in the relations of the sexes at the period.

Friday 11 May 2012

Forthcoming appearances

18th May giving a brief talk on the diversity of women's lives in the early C20th in the context of the 'Edwardian Evening' event in connection with the HM Bateman exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, Bloomsbury

22nd June keynote speaker at 'Health and Welfare in the Archives': A Symposium at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast

12th July Exploring the History of Sexualities at the Wellcome Library (event organised as one of the Raphael Samuel History Centre Archive Days, currently focusing on LGBT sources)

7th -9th September Women's History Network 21st  Annual Conference Women, State and Nation: Creating Gendered Identities  (presenting a new piece of work ' Between the Waves: feminism's forgotten decade?' on the 1930s)

10th-12th September Emotions, Health and Wellbeing – Society for the Social History of Medicine Summer Conference (presenting my paper '“Sentimental follies” or ‘instruments of tremendous uplift”? contrasting views of women’s same-sex relationships in interwar Britain')

13th November giving a seminar in the 'Public and Private Traditions of Eugenics' series at Oxford Brookes University, ‘“Send in the Clones”? Naomi Mitchison (née Haldane)’s Musing on Reproduction, Breeding, Feminism, Socialism and Eugenics from the 1920s to the 1970s’

Friday 4 May 2012

Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011)

I read this book several months ago and in something of a rush, in order to be able to include some of its important insights into the final round of revisions to the new edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, and have been meaning to do a somewhat more extended consideration of it ever since, a project significantly stymied by the arrival of various other commitments and deadlines demanding my time and energy.

This is certainly an extremely useful study. While some of the material in the earlier chapters was fairly familiar from previous work on the birth control and abortion law reform movements, Brooke brings some useful new analyses of the material by placing sexual politics in their long and often conflicted relationship to the more conventional political sphere (a nuanced and detailed working out of some of the issues I briefly delineated in my article in Socialist History, Vol 36, 2010, 'No Sex, Please, We're Socialists': The Labour Party prefers to close its eyes and think of the electorate') . Sexual Politics also provides a particularly valuable account of the rather less explored area of the various shifts taking place in political and social cultures around reproductive control, women, motherhood, and the family from the advent of the NHS to the C21st. Brooke makes some thought-provoking interventions into questions about periodisation and the place of continuities and co-existence of differing paradigms rather than abrupt hiatus and definite changes. The narrative also demonstrates shifts within political culture in response both to activism around sexual issues and to wider social change and new concepts of citizenship and what came to be included within the sphere of political activity.

Sexual Politics additionally constitutes a useful reminder of the tensions and conflicts and different levels of activity over these issues within the Labour Party itself. Although the title invokes 'the Left', the book focuses on the Labour Party, with a nod or two to the Communists, largely at the national level, though with an awareness of the significance of local groups and special interest campaigns. Brooke inscribes the importance of class in both the increasing acceptance of family planning as a licit concern of the left, culminating in the non-controversial permissive National Health Service Amendment (Family Planning) Act of 1967, and in the long reluctance, in spite of such pioneering socialist icons as Edward Carpenter, to consider homosexual law reform. This came about, arguably, more as one element within a smorgasbrod of liberalising reforms which the party, or at least, certain leading powerful figures (Brooke places Roy Jenkins as pivotal), saw as part of its agenda in the 1960s. Although most of these measures originated as private members' bills, governmental allocation of time for debate and help with drafting played an essential role in getting them through.

It would have been interesting (though this book already covers a great deal of territory) to have incorporated more about those causes described at the World League for Sexual Reform Congress in London in 1929 as the 'planks' in its 'platform': these included marriage reforms such as improved facilities for divorce as well as education for marriage, sex education of the young, and the abolition of censorship. Some of these aims were indeed achieved during the 'liberal moment' of the 1960s. But some were not. Sex education, for example, remains a contested and controversial issue. Some attention to these topics, the penumbra of sexual reform issues, might also have overcome the slight cynical feeling that occasionally arises that homosexuality could possibly have been included to extend the potential audience for the book by broadening its appeal beyond those concerned with reproductive politics (Brooke himself points out in the text that much of the territory of gay politics/left politics and their intersections since the 1967 Act has been ably mapped by Lucy Robinson in Gay Men and the Left). These were also issues which for which there is a narrative trajectory, rather than endless reiterations with little to show. There are indeed useful points of comparison and contrast illuminating the differing interests and agendas within Labour to be gained by taking these particular issues, and the choice undoubtedly pays off as the narrative is taken on to the initiatives of the 2000s.

(Many of the questions and points raised above are dealt with in much fuller detail and with greater nuance in the revised and expanded second edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, now in press.)

Monday 16 April 2012

European Social Science History Conference 2012, Glasgow

As always, this was an intense four days of conference activity: 2-hour sessions, four a day, starting at 8.30 am and finishing at 6.30 pm. It's a huge conference, but the breakdown into thematic strands makes it relatively manageable, and the two hour panels do allow for (preferably) 3-4 presentations and adequate discussion time (though some sessions had more than that, which either cuts down on the time allotted to present, or for discussion, neither of which seems ideal).

At least this year I didn't feel obliged to go to every session, which I did a couple of years, when I was History of Sexuality strand chair and we had panels in all available slots. (Don't know how I'd have managed if there had been parallel sessions in the strand.)

My own paper went well, and the panel I chaired was particularly good in terms of the papers all having a good deal of resonance: 'Sexual transgression, transnational travel, and abortion'. This raised a number of intriguing and in the present situation highly relevant issues: that technical legality of abortion doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy to access; that the role of often quite local sexual/social cultures can be quite critical; that it's noticeable the way that certain nations or regions or authorities keep their hands clean by not doing or allowing abortions themselves but with the knowledge that the women they turn down will seek facilities elsewhere beyond their boundaries.

The 'Bodies and Biology' panel (on historical intersex/trans* cases) raised a thought in my mind about the criteria medics were using to establish 'real' sex (preference for sports or needlework, as it might be) - not only deeply gender essentialist but also anachronistic - failing to register temporal changes in ideas of the gender appropriate, e.g. the rise of female athletics - and I wondered if this fits in to a wider generational phenomenon of the older generation thinking that the younger are not doing gender properly, i.e. as they used to.

Papers I was particularly engaged by included Gayle Davies's look at medical attitudes to women seeking conception via artificial insemination in Scotland in the 1950s - they were pathologised as being overly yearning for motherhood and seeking this icky mode of achieving - this seemed to me to fit with the 1950s pathologisation of unmarried mothers and a wider sense of the need for control and to avoid excessiveness at the period (needs more thinking out). 

I really enjoyed Julie Gammon's very lively paper on the prosecution and conviction (and rapid subsequent pardoning) of Colonel Charteris for raping his maidservant (at a time when upper class men could usually get away with this with impunity) and the highly specific reasons why this could even happen when it did.

David Johnson's fascinating piece on gay book clubs in the 1950s and 60s made me think that there is still a lot of work to be done on pre-internet 'virtual communities' around magazines, mailing lists, etc.

Glasgow - at least the area around the University, where the conference was taking place, was far more beautiful than I had expected (the very fine clear weather probably helped) and there were several excellent fish restaurants in Argyle Street.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Transforming Pregnancy since 1900, Cambridge 29-30 Mar 2012

I posted about this conference when it was still forthcoming and attended it last week. It was an excellent event, if rather intense - I think by the end everyone just wanted to go away and reflect on all the issues that had come up over the course of the two days. As with the Communicating Reproduction conference at the same venue that I attended in December, it was based on precirculated papers, but this time, each session was introduced by a discussant speaking for 5-10 minutes, with a brief response by the author of the paper in question, and then open discussion for around 45 minutes. This worked very well, though it probably only works with numbers below a certain level and attendees with the commitment to read the papers.

There are apparently plans on hand to publish the papers, possibly as a journal special edition. They were all very good and quite diverse in their approach and methodology, but a significant number of common themes appeared:
  • The medicalisation of pregnancy and its move into hospitals
  • The increasing separation of concern over the foetus from concern with the mother
  • The amount of medical technology that was originally devised for fairly extreme cases but has become much more widely used
  • The role of commercial interests 
  • The notion of the perfect baby as achievable
  • The notion that pregnancy and childbirth are now entirely safe
  • The ambiguity of the rise of all the various high-tech developments
  • The impact of the 'pro-life' movement (I should like to see, some time, a discussion of the way in which this and its rhetorics arose as a response to legalisation of abortion, rather than being timeless concerns)
  • Conceptualisation of the mother as feeling rather than thinking or doing rational decision-making
  • The idea that it is possible to make a definite binary yes/no to 'is she pregnant?' (E.g. early positive pregnancy test may in fact turn into an early miscarriage)
Lots of exciting and productive questions and matters for further thought.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Yet more depressing news about the disposition of valuable research resources

I already mentioned the bad news about the uncertain fate of The Women's Library and the TUC Collections (and I do exhort people to go and sign the petition to save TWL.

I've also been distressed at the news that the Birmingham Medical Institute is selling off its historical collections of books and manuscripts and that the Wedgewood Collection continues to be threatened with dispersal.

And now I hear that the New York Public Library at 42nd Street is proposing, if not to get rid of its research materials, to outhouse them so that they will no longer be readily available to the researcher. I once made a flying visit from Boston to consult rare periodicals which could be found nowhere else, and was able to accomplish this within a day, a not inconsiderable advantage given the constraints on my research time and budget.

This is all very distressing and seems like a wide downgrading of the importance of actual primary research materials in a world in which it is (wrongly) assumed that everything is digitally accessible.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Shocking news

The Women’s Library is seeking a new home

On Wednesday 14 March, London Metropolitan University’s Board of Governors announced that they will be seeking a new home, custodian or sponsor of The Women’s Library’s collections.

If a new home is not found by the end of December 2012, the Library will move to opening hours of one day per week for a period of three years, with a further review at the end of that period. We will keep you informed of further developments, and we are in the process of contacting key stakeholders.

If you have any suggestions of potential custodians, or any queries, please email us:
and London Met are also looking for a new home for the Trades Union Congress Library Collections (statement by Unison London Met Uni Branch.)

Thursday 15 March 2012

A question of shame

I was recently very excited by the ideas put forward in David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday's recent book Cultures of Shames: Exploring Crime and Morality in Britain 1600-1900 (Palgrave 2010), which came to my attention frustratingly late in the day for the purposes of revising Sex Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880.

I found their critique of a prevalent assumption that a modern 'guilt' culture (in which internal constraints influence behaviour)  prevailed over an older 'shame' culture (in which community rituals of shaming enforced social norms) very illuminating. When one thinks about it, of course shame is an enduring human emotion and not just about traditional practices within small communities such as preaching over unmarried mothers or raising 'rough music' against transgressors against community standards. Within a given context, a raised eyebrow might induce tremendous social shame.

 Their argument that
Shame... could borrow from old established ideas and idioms while still using the most modern forms of communication technology and social networks with astonishing effectiveness. We would further argue that any definition of shame must clearly appreciate the importance of dynamic interactions between people, institutions and ideas within its influence.
seems compelling to me. Their recuperation of the importance of shame could engage in productive dialogue with Anna Clarke's very useful concept of 'twilight moments' in sexual behaviours (for surely a lot of that is about shame), and also cries out for further consideration of the role of the media in creating shaming narratives.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Chelsea neighbours

I have just noticed that a blue plaque to commemorate the novelist Jean Rhys is being put on Paulton's House, Paulton's Square, Chelsea, where Rhys lived 1936-38. This was the Chelsea square where Stella Browne was living with her sister Sylvia from 1936 to some time after 1941 (the sisters moved to Liverpool some time during World War II).

One wonders if these two women ever met in the 'fine tree-y garden' of the Square.

Jean Rhys was somewhat younger than Stella but pretty much of the same generation, born well before 1900, but it's hard to imagine the two women having much in common: apart that is from their common experiences of having had abortions at a time when this was illegal. Rhys used her own ordeal (which nearly killed her) in her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934). Stella, who had had three abortions, famously testified to the Birkett Committee that these had neither killed her nor damaged her health, as part of her argument that abortion should be legalised.

The number of allusions I have found in various literary and biographical sources suggests that, while the campaign for legalisation quite rightly focussed on the immense problem of backstreet abortion among working-class women, the spectre of needing to access this operation haunted women writers, bohemians and intellectuals of the interwar period. Few, however, unlike Rhys or Browne, even felt able to make public mentions at that time.

Friday 24 February 2012

Sir Henry Wellcome's sexual objects

On Wednesday I went to the Classical Archaeology Seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies in London at which Jennifer Grove (Univeristy of Exeter) was speaking on 'Henry Wellcome's Classical Erotica: sexually related antiquities collected for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the early C20th'.

This was a very interesting seminar on collecting, museums and the display of objects with sexual connotations. There is something of a perception that Wellcome was a rather undiscriminating collector and that he also acquired a good deal of material of non-medical interest through buying up job lots which dealers had carefully salted with one or two medical items. In fact it turned out that he was specifically acquiring in the area of classical sexually-themed objects and the collection (before it was dispersed) had nearly 1000 of these.

At least in the case of the sexual objects of European Classical Antiquity, it appears that he saw these as falling within wider paradigms of medicine and the maintenance of life and health, in particular the (mostly phallic, but some vulval) amulets and votive objects. These were displayed alongside other amulets within the museum context, at a time, intriguingly, when most museums were still segegrating any material of a sexual nature into secret cabinets and closed collections, rather than displaying it alongside related materials of a non-sexual nature with which it might originally have been associated.

This was presumably possible for Wellcome's museum as he very much positioned it as a place of research and study rather than a public show of entertaining curiosities: although it did receive large numbers of visitors, including school-groups, one wonders whether these were carefully escorted and guided around the galleries rather than running around freely with check-sheets like contemporary school groups in museums.

I was also struck, given that Wellcome's intended audience was the medical profession and scholarly disciplines such as anthropology, by the similarity to the ways in which works of sexology were being published during the same period, with titlepage provisos that they were for the medical/legal professions and serious scholars only (which it is clear a number of booksellers took as guidance). There also seems an intriguing shift from erotic/sexual materials being seen as the province of the gentleman connoisseur (who could bribe his way or at least use social capital to get into secret collections, as well as purchase limited editions of pornographic works) to the realm of the medical and scientific.

However, while the classical sexual objects in Wellcome's collections clearly fit into a model of the religious/spiritual/superstitious approach to medicine, and were about the vital powers of fertility and reproduction, some of the other erotic items (for example the box of Japanese tortoiseshell sex toys currently on display in the Medicine Man exhibition in the Wellcome Collection)
raising rather more puzzling questions about how these fit into the wider paradigms of the collection.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Leo Abse on Stella Browne

I recently came across, cited in Stephen Brooke's Sexual Politics: Sexuality, family planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011: eventual post to follow when I've finished it), Leo Abse's comments on Stella Browne in his autobiography, Private Member (1973).

Abse considered that Stella Browne, Janet Chance and Alice Jenkins, were 'intelligent shrill viragos...[with] pathological disorder... [who] resented their feminine identity'. Stella, he claimed, was a 'loud-mouthed, filthy storytelling ragbag'.

Although at first I was concerned that I had missed a firsthand impression of Stella when writing her biography, on reflection the likelihood that Abse ever met any of these three women, apart possibly from Alice Jenkins, who was the only founder member of ALRA to see the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, seems minimal in the extreme. He was nearly 40 years younger than Stella (and over 30 years younger than Janet Chance), and their paths could only possibly have crossed in the late 1930s when he was studying law at the London School of Economics (possible, but not very likely). After war service in the RAF, he was based in Cardiff until being elected to Parliament in 1958. Furthermore, his condemnation is expressed in terms so very similar to Mrs Garrett's reported description of Stella quoted in Hindell and Simms, Abortion Law Reformed  (1971 - recently reissued in paperback) that the balance of evidence suggests he was working from that source rather than any personal acquaintance.

So I don't think I've let some precious piece of primary evidence escape me, though I suppose this posthumous and hearsay bit of blackguarding might have fitted into my 'Coda' on Stella's afterlife.

Friday 17 February 2012

Various links

A couple of recent posts of mine on the Wellcome Library blog:
 Alan Turing and the Ratio Club (for LGBT Month)
Top archives of 2011
Not one of my posts, but of interest: Evenings with a Merman

Collective Artistes:  ZHE: [noun] Undefined
From childhood to adulthood and across continents, this poignant and honest piece of theatre follows the lives of two British Africans living at the crossroads of culture, nationality, gender and sexuality.  Humorous yet haunting, this story is told by the characters whose lives are healed and celebrated through the experience.
I attended a read-through of this last summer. Not sure if I'll be able to see any of these stagings.

Roma Routes: EU funded project made up of a partnership of heritage organisations and Roma representatives from Germany, Greece, Slovenia, Romania and the UK. The project aims to encourage intercultural dialogue between Roma and non Roma to promote European Roma cultural heritage.

Friday 3 February 2012

Website update: Situating Stopes

I've just added to my website the paper Situating Stopes: or, putting Marie in her proper place that I gave as keynote at the IHR@90 event, The Birth of the Birth Control Clinic, last March. There don't seem to be any plans afoot to publish the proceedings from this conference (and it doesn't seem as though the projected podcasts of contributions have happened), and anyway, much of the material synthesised in my paper was drawn from things I had already written on Stopes and on the interwar birth control and eugenics movements. However, I think it is a useful overview of some of the issues that continue to surround Stopes and make her a persistently controversial figure.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Archives of voluntary action

I see that I have posted before on the vexed issue of the archives of voluntary bodies.

The Voluntary Action History Society is making a concerted effort to make these organisations more aware of their archives and the need to preserve them: Wanted: Champions to safeguard the archives of our charities.

As I commented in a recent post to the Wellcome Library blog, we have acquired over the years a significant collection of archives of voluntary organisations in the medical and health field, and continue to consider the preservation of records from this very important sector a priority.

However, in the course of dealing with this question over the years we have had depressing experiences of records lost or stored in conditions under which they became irretrievably damaged, and encounted instances of very significant institutions which had paid no attention to preserving any details of their history.

Even if records do survive, there may be problems in finding an appropriate repository and in accessing the necessary resources to care for them.

But raising awareness of the importance of archives is a start.

Monday 30 January 2012

Various forthcoming events

The Poynter Lecture at the Wellcome: Shocking Bodies 21 March 2012, 18.00 - 19.00

And also Wellcome related: Classical Archaeology Seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies in London: Jennifer Grove (Exeter) - Henry Wellcome's Classical Erotica: sexually related antiquities collected for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the early 20th C, Feb 22, 5.00 pm in Senate House South Block Room G22/26 (email organiser in advance)

New Histories of Love and Romance, c.1880-1960 25-26 May 2012 University of Glamorgan, Cardiff
'Women in Magazines' conference at Kingston University, London, on 22-23 June 2012

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Website updates

I've recently made some small updates and additions to Literary Abortion and Victorian Sex Factoids and caught up on Recommended Reading.

I also (now some months ago) put in a fair amount of updating on the Victorian Sexuality Bibliography but it's hard to keep up with what's coming out.

I've recently added the English version of the paper that was the basis for my piece 'Sessualita e storia: obiettive raggiunti e sfide future', 'In Evidenza: Sessualita e storia', Contemporanea, XIV/4, ottobre 2011: Sexuality and history: achievements and challenges. A personal view.

Plus the usual ongoing weekly quotation and such information as I can glean about forthcoming conferences and similar events.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Reprised for this year's LGBT Month

My Wellcome Library 'Insights' talk, From Deviance to Diversity on 9th February, at 3 pm
Using a broad range of materials from the Wellcome Library, this Insights session demonstrates the gradual changes in medical and scientific understanding of sexual identity, the bringing about of changes in the law, and the development of more tolerant social attitudes.
Free, but numbers limited.

Monday 23 January 2012

Links of interest

Interview with Hanne Blank, The invention of the heterosexual

On the Voluntary Action History Society blog, an interesting post about Mrs Cecil Chesterton's In Darkest London in which she described her participant observation of facilities for homeless women in the 1920s.

Olive Schreiner Letters Online

Sunday 22 January 2012

Not exactly news

I never know whether to be exasperated or depressed when there is some 'news' story on the history of sexuality. It is probably utopian to hope that journalists will not report as exciting new discoveries topics that have not only been the subject of several decades of historical scholarship but significant amounts of revisionism. Partly I am sure this is also to do with publishers' marketing departments trying to find some Unique Selling Point to promote a volume in a competitive marketplace.

I have recently been noticing a number of advance promotional pieces for a new book on the C18th Sexual Revolution.

I am not a C18th historian: on the whole I prefer not to go back much further than 1850 and frankly, I much prefer the C20th, in particular the interwar period, if I had to choose. However, over my years in the field I have come across a fair amount of work on The Long Eighteenth Century and was rather surprised to see this being presented as (ahem) virgin territory in the matter of history of sexuality.

Edward Shorter posited the late C18th as an epoch of sexual liberation way back in the mid-1970s, although his interpretation of the data has been subjected to significant critique since The Making of the Modern Family. Other names associated with the illumination of questions of gender and sexuality in the UK during the Long C18th and indeed paying considerable attention to changes and new developments: Lawrence Stone, Randolph Trumbach,  Rictor Norton, Roy Porter, Tim Hitchcock, Amanda Vickery, Julie Peakman, Lisa Cody, Mary Fissell, Michael Stolberg, Thomas Laqueur, Kevin Siena, Norma Clarke, Jane Cox, Dorinda Outram, Alan Macfarlane, Mary Abbott, Ludmilla Jordanova, Julie Gammon... a list which could go on.

Friday 20 January 2012

Sex Sin and Suffering in paperback

I am gratified to be able to announce that Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall (eds), Sex, Sin and Suffering: venereal disease and European Society since 1870, first published in 2001, is now available in paperback rather than an hardback edition priced for libraries rather than individuals. It can be purchased directly from Routledge at their website as well as from Amazon (which also has a Kindle edition, but the paperback is significantly cheaper).

The books includes chapters on the UK (with one specifically on Scotland), France, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy and Sweden in Europe itself and also addresses the colonial context, both generally and in essays on Uganda and Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Julia Laite, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial sex in London, 1885-1960

This was a book that I was been ardently anticipating: this was a woefully understudied period in the history of prostitution in the UK, and I have been aware of Laite's work in the area for some years. It does not disappoint.

Its great strength (among many) is its attentiveness to the quotidien business of prostitution and its policing in the metropolis, rather than policy debates and the work of rescue movements. While Laite gives due attention to the various government interventions, both actual legislation and the work of commissions and committees, she is always focused on how developments reflected what was going on on the street and how they impacted the way sex work was regulated.

What becomes clear is the enormous diversity of practices, both in the ways women engaged in exchanging sexual acts for hire and in the means the authorities took to, if not prevent this, to keep it from becoming a perceived source of public annoyance. Since actually trading sex for money is not illegal in the UK, the endeavour to control it took various forms, and Laite does a masterly job of showing the means the police used to harry working women. Besides the oft-criticised 'solicitation' charge - whereby a woman already known to be 'a common prostitute' could be arrested and fined for 'soliciting to the annoyance of the public', even if nobody testified to being actually annoyed - various other strategies could be deployed. During the Second World War, for example, prostitutes using taxis to pick up clients and as a place to have intercourse with them could be prosecuted under wartime edicts concerning wastage of petrol.

The work also demonstrates that despite all the attempts of police, magistrates and moral reformers to designate the 'common prostitute' as a being apart, the boundaries were always fuzzy and women sex workers were part of larger communities and had other identities. Depicted in the media usually either as pathetic victims or scheming harpies, these women - many of whose stories can be recuperated from documentary sources - were doing their best to get by in a harsh world and making the best of their lot.

Ironically largely as a result of increasingly constraining legislation, numerous third parties were significantly involved in the world of sex work. Besides the taxi drivers providing mobile brothel facilities already mentioned, there were many intermediaries and facilitators profiting from the trade, landlords, owners of pubs, cafes and nightclubs, quite apart from the most obvious and stigmatised third party, the ponce or pimp. Prostitution formed part of a wider economy of entertainment and recreation in the city.

This is an extremely important book with a lot to say about commercial sex, women's labour, urban life, policing, and some really rather depressing continuities in attitudes, policies and moral panics.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century (2007)

This is a very useful study of a neglected strand within and around feminism before World War I. It's particularly strong at looking at the controversial and short-lived yet influential journal The Freewoman and going beyond the perhaps overmuch rehearsed account of the debates on sexuality for which it provided a forum, important as those were - they were far from the whole story. It also points up the surprising (with the perspective of a century between) fuzziness of the suffrage/anti-suffrage distinction: a number of scholars have pointed out that anti-suffragists managed to combine a belief that women should not have the vote with a commitment to various causes within the public sphere and indeed aimed at the advancement of women (such as Mrs Humphrey Ward's work for women's higher education), but Delap also shows that a number of self-declared feminists, whether active in the suffrage movement, sympathetic, or disillusioned with the way the struggle was being taken, had attitudes towards other women which were far from sisterly and supportive.

It is valuable to have a nuanced account of how the movements in the UK and the USA influenced one another or produced local mutations of transatlantic developments, and also the influence of certain significant European figures. A whole book could perhaps be written about the place of Swedish feminist reformer Ellen Key's work in different national contexts.

Delap also looks at the extraordinarily heterogenous, not to mention counter-intuitive, sources upon which women were drawing to articulate their discontents with society, the position of women, etc and to advance solutions. The focus tends to be on the more individualistic, rather than collectivist, trend within feminism at the period, though  in many cases the commitment to the development of the individual sat next to involvement in various forms of collective activism and programmes aimed at producing an impact on society as a whole.

This study reveals long-standing fracture lines between different feminisms, and also depicts certain phenomena which are perhaps reflected in other periods: for example, reading Delap's account of the turn to interiority, contemplation of the psyche, and the importance of the individual liberating herself from mind-forged manacles I was strongly reminded of directions taken following the renaissance of feminism as 'Women's Lib' in the late 1960s. During the 1970s there was a similar commitment to personal change, which took individuals down many different paths, including the teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.