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the guide to historical resources • Issue 1: The Victorian Era •

The Victorian Era

Book cover: Sex,Gender and Social Change (9K)

Author's response


Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain Since 1880

Lesley A. Hall
Macmillan 2000; ISBN 0-333-65053-0

Dr. Paula Bartley

University of Wolverhampton

I was delighted to read Paula Bartley's flattering review of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, which is the kind of review historians dream about. It would be lazy, though true, to say that my choices as to what went in and what didn't were affected by the length limitations of the format for the textbook series - my editor did very kindly grant me a 20,000 word extension, but there was still much that I couldn't cover. So I shall address a few of the points she raises.

Firstly, I should like to dissociate myself from any claims that 'the Victorian female was a hot little number'! I was using this as a blanket characterisation of a certain trend among some historians of the Victorian era (far be it from me to imply that they are necessarily all males with crinoline and corset fetishes...) to argue against the stock repressive Victorian image by over-exaggerating in the opposite direction. (I defy any female to be a hot little number with the repressed unsensual anxious creature who was only too many Victorian males). Goodness knows it seems impossible to get rid of the 'repressed Victorians' stereotype - every few years someone produces a 'radical' new piece of popular history to argue that, hey, they were quite the converse, serious swingers and kinksters having huge numbers of orgasms. My position is that 'Victorian sexuality' like 'woman', is too often the subject of huge and meaningless generalisations.

While I hope that my account was informed by recent theoretical developments, I am rather cautious about the ways in which theory can be used by the historian. If none of us comes to the evidence that survives completely free of preconceptions and assumptions, I have come across too many instances where theory has been deployed as a box into which to cram the evidence, rather than as a analytical tool to assist in understanding it. Also, I have come across instances of developed theoretical arguments which rest on a shaky, at best, knowledge of contingent facts (e.g. the grounds upon which divorce could be granted, 1857-1923 or the precise legal position of birth control).

I concur that the chronological organisation sometimes works against coherent narratives of the history of different topics. However, in many cases, these topics didn't have a coherent narrative - it was a case of stop-start, flurry of moral panic followed by a slump into neglect, ebb and flow of concern, which occurred over and over again across a wide range of sex and gender issues. Using E. M. Forster's characterisation of the development of narrative form in Aspects of the Novel, many of these stories follow the simplest 'And then... and then... and then' pattern and never rise to the complexity of development and causation which defines 'plot' as opposed to mere 'story'. This appears to have been particularly acute in the case of sex education, one of my current research projects. Cyril Bibby, Special Advisor on Sex Education to the Central Council of Health Education, was expressing ebullient optimism in 1946 at the apparent surge of interest in and enthusiasm for sex education on the part of both teachers and parents, an optimism that in retrospect seemed to him ill-founded and deceptive. It was not that there was furious opposition: the subject was simply ignored and neglected, or given the most minimalist of attention within the school curriculum.

In the instance of abortion, which Paula Bartley mentions, I perhaps did not make clear enough the extent to which the Bourne judgement of 1938 foreclosed the more radical agenda being promoted by the Abortion Law Reform Association. It satisfied most of the requirements of the sympathisers among the medical profession by inscribing in case-law the medic's right to employ his or her clinical judgement 'in good faith' to perform an abortion. In spite of the ongoing efforts of ALRA and its supporters throughout the 1950s (which should not be underestimated as a factor in keeping the movement alive), it was the thalidomide scandal, combined with the dissatisfaction of articulate middle-class married women with the reliability of the contraceptive methods available to them, which reignited the struggle in the 1960s.

I would certainly agree with Paula Bartley's comment about the extent to which feminism and eugenics were intertwined in the early years of the twentieth century. A further analysis of this interesting topic may reveal that there was a radical moment prior to 1914 in which a very real feminist note was being struck in the debates, which got lost with the assimilation of 'social purity' into 'social hygiene', as with the debates on male responsibility for the dissemination of venereal diseases which dissipated with the introduction of a new public health agenda on VD control (for a further discussion of this see the Introduction to, and my chapter in, Roger Davidson and Lesley Hall (eds.) Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Diseases in European Social Context since 1870, forthcoming, Feb 2001).

I felt it was important to include the broadest possible spectrum of sexual behaviour and attitudes towards sexuality, both the normal and the 'deviant', as these are intricately related within a much larger system of understandings of and beliefs about sex and gender. As McLaren demonstrated in The Trials of Masculinity, perceptions of deviancy are used to define, and police the borders of, the 'normal' and acceptable, while as Kinsey discovered, the boundaries themselves start to break down when individuals are questioned about their own intimate practices.

It would have been nice to include more on geographical and regional variations and such localised phenomena as the Bolton Whitman fellowship and the circles around the Leeds Arts Club. My Lancashire grandmother's expression 'living tally' (i.e. setting up a household without formal marriage) suggests that this was a recognised and acknowledged phenomenon in some districts. But as Paula Bartley points out, a good deal of work still needs to be done on sexuality in the provinces.

Again, much more could have been written about the role of religion, not only the traditional groupings of Judaism and the various branches of Christianity but also the rise of various religious 'alternatives' such as theosophy, diverse occultist groups, and by the 1950s Wicca, which Ronald Hutton in The Triumph of the Moon has made a compelling case for as being a peculiarly British religion. It is notable that many of the marriage reformers of the interwar period were clergymen (or lay persons active in religious organisations) promoting a theology of marriage informed by the changing status of women and incorporating the insights of sexology. A strong note of nondenominational sex-and-nature mysticism is discernible in the popular writings of Marie Stopes (there is less distance between her and D. H. Lawrence than might at first appear!), and this clearly formed a powerful part of her appeal.

But I would see two main lacunae in Sex, Gender and Social Change. I would admit that the relatively sparse attention I gave to issues of race (and indeed constructions of 'the Other' more generally, for example the delineation of 'French vices' and 'Hunnish practices') is a weakness. However, there are several important studies either recently published or in progress which do tackle this. I also consider that the question of changes and/or continuities in specifically male behaviour, attitudes, and identities was not addressed with as much fullness as I should have liked. This is definitely an area which requires further investigation!

To conclude, I'm only too aware of how provisional Sex, Gender and Social Change is as an account of its topic. Since I completed the manuscript I have been gnashing my teeth over the appearance of so many relevant and important studies: substantial accounts of censorship, Louise Jackson's book on child sexual abuse in Victorian England, Paula Bartley's own important study of prostitution, Roger Davidson's survey of Scottish attitudes towards sexually-transmitted diseases, Chris Nottingham's The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics, and several more, not to mention all the work that I know is now in progress. It's rewarding but also frustrating to be working in such a lively and thriving field!

February 2001

Original review

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