Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality, 1885-1914 [this is the 2002 Tauris Parke reissue], London: Penguin, 1995. Pp. xx + 410. £8.99 (pbk.). ISBN 0-14-017449-4; Margaret Jackson, The Real Facts of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality c.1850-1940, London: Taylor and Francis, 1994. Pp. viii + 206. £12.95 (pbk.)/£36.00 (hbk.). ISBN 0-74-840100-8/0-74-840099-0.
If Banishing the Beast did nothing but bring together Lucy Bland's important but scattered articles on turn of the century feminist struggles around sexuality, it would be performing a great service. However, it is a good deal more 'value-added' than that, not only incorporating much expanded versions of earlier articles, e.g. on the Men and Women's Club and on repressive purity feminism's alliance with the state, but much previously unpublished material. It is based on thorough and sensitively interpreted research, not only in published texts but in archives. Thus Bland is able convincingly to make a significant and necessary critique of other recent studies of first-wave feminism and its views on sexual morality. She is thoroughly sensitized to the often pernicious racial and class agendas underlying proclamations about 'purity', and has a nuanced awareness that turn of the century feminism was the reverse of monolithic. Feminist morality between 1880 and the First World War was in a state of evolutionary flux, and the tendency of some scholars to solidify this flux into simplistic fixed positions has produced a picture which has been misleading, where not actually inaccurate.
Jackson, however, in The Real Facts of Life, reiterates this over-simplified view already familiar from, for example, the work of Sheila Jeffreys. Her argument seems to derive from a rather narrow range of published texts, and she assumes these texts to represent their authors' permanently fixed-in-concrete opinions, rather than work-in-progress preliminary communications or ongoing elements in a debate. Her moral universe is simple: something went horribly wrong with the direction that feminist sexual morality took in the 1920s, and we need to apportion blame and designate heroes and villains. Wider social factors which may have borne upon changing ideas of woman's place and sexuality have been ignored.
While Havelock Ellis was undoubtedly an influential thinker (in spite of the restricted circulation of his magnum opus, the Studies in the Psychology of Sex), he was surely not as enormously, malignly, influential as Jackson argues. The way she reads him is open to criticism: Ellis was performing a major work of synthesizing very scattered contemporary material about sexuality, and was thus quoting or summarising opinions and arguments to which he did not necessarily personally subscribe (far more overtly misogynist works by other writers, such as Otto Weininger, are not discussed). Jackson focuses on the major though hard to obtain Studies, and does not explore the far more popular and easily available volumes such as Essays in Wartime or Little Essays of Love and Virtue to which a much wider range of readers would have had access and which surely had a far greater impact in disseminating Ellis's ideas.
Jackson's assumptions about the interaction between reader and text are unduly simplistic and one-dimensional. Her account of the reception of Marie Stopes's writings does not rest on any detailed study of the copious correspondence received by Stopes and does not even take into consideration recent articles by a number of scholars who have actually studied and analyzed this correspondence as well as the records relating to the running of her Mothers' Clinics. A quick scan of the bibliography reveals that no material later than 1990 has been cited, though even Ellen Holtzmann's 1982 article on Stopes's middle-class readership in Journal of Social History does not appear.
Jackson is given to making unsubstantiated statements which are often misleading: Edith Ellis, who made little secret of her 'inversion', is described as 'reputedly a lesbian'. Kathlyn Oliver is said (on unstated evidence) to have been working-class, though her correspondence with Edward Carpenter (cited in Bland, but which Jackson does not refer to) reveals her origins as middle-class. 'Ellis Ethelmer''s works are uncompromisingly attributed to Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, but as Bland cautions the reader, while 'Ethelmer' may sometimes have been a joint pseudonym, it usually concealed the single identity of Ben Elmy, Wolstenholme Elmy's husband. Jackson also assumes enduringly bitter personal hostility between women holding conflicting opinions, which was not necessarily always the case, as becomes clear when turning to Bland.
Bland is far more deeply immersed in her material: one has confidence that she knows not only who the individuals were whom she discusses but their relations with one another and with the movements of their time. She is less ready to force her subjects into predetermined categories, and does not flinch from exploring the copious contradictions which existed in the positions of individuals and organisations. For example, in discussing Ben Elmy's expressed enthusiasm for neo-malthusianism, apparently jarring with his advocacy (as 'Ellis Ethelmer') of 'psychic love', she suggests that his deployment of concepts of 'temperance' and 'foresight' echoes the contemporary phraseology of contraception. Thus it becomes possible to read 'Ethelmer' as making codified allusions to malthusian arguments, in, however, a context where physical sexual intercourse gains its justification from 'pure and mutual psychic love'. Bland also endeavours to explain the strange liaison between Frances Swiney (with her theories of the superiority of the female, the toxicity of the male, and the necessity of chastity) and the Malthusian League, though this still remains somewhat puzzling.
In discussing the involvement of feminists with sexology or malthusianism or eugenics Bland does not make the assumption that they were simply dupes of patriarchal constructs or trying for perverse reasons of their own to justify the double standard. She demonstrates the ways in which women engaged creatively with these various forms of discourse and used them for their own purposes, and how even those who were identified with a particular movement were often to be found voicing specifically feminist points of view within it. She is always careful to explore the meanings that these debates had for the women engaged in them and their reasons for holding the positions that they did. Banishing the Beast is an important contribution to our understanding of the complex feminist debates on sexuality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and deserves a wide circulation.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine