HS2017 Telling Our Stories:
Gender, Ethnicity and Class in Twentieth Century

Week 4 Male and female sexuality in the early twentieth century

Ethel Smyth, English Composer and suffragist, 1925

Photograph of Ethel Smyth 1858-1944, English Composer and suffragist.
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection
Biographical details at The Knitting Circle http://www.knittingcircle.org.uk/ethelsmyth.html

1. Tasks for Students

Go back to the definitions of gender you constructed in Week 1. Add definitions of 'sex' and 'sexuality' and then try to answer the next 3 questions.

2. What do we know about gender relations in Britain after WW1?

3. What do we know about sexual behaviour and attitudes in Britain after WW1?

4. What do we know about the lives of lesbians and gay men in the inter-war period?

The next 4 sections attempt to answer this question.
A. Evidence from the sexologists
'Nature, it might appear, in mixing the elements which go to compose each individual, does not always keep her two groups of ingredients - which represent the two sexes - properly apart, but often throws them crosswise in a somewhat baffling manner, now this way and now that; yet wisely, we must think - for if a severe distinction of elements were always maintained the two sexes would soon drift into far latitudes and absolutely cease to understand each other.'

Edward Carpenter (1896) The Intermediate Sex

'Sexual inversion, therefore, remains a congenital abnormality, to be classed with other congenital abnormalities which have psychic concomitants.'
Havelock Ellis (1897) Studies in the Psychology of Se

B. Evidence from the Law
  • 1861 The Offences Against the Person Act formally abolished the death penalty for buggery in England and Wales which had been established in 1533.
  • Labouchere amendment 1885
"In response to a wave of sensationalism in the press about the prostitution of teenaged girls Parliament adopted the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885. During the passage of the bill Henry Labouchére had introduced a clause late on the night of 6th. August, 1885. This was accepted without debate and was rushed through the third reading the following night, 7th. August. It was passed and became Section II of the Act. This provided for a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour, for any male person guilty of an act of gross indecency with another male person in public or in private. The effect of this was that any and every form of male homosexual expression which offended the feelings of a jury became criminal. This law was dubbed the "blackmailer's charter" and cast a shadow of criminality over British homosexual life until its repeal 82 years later. It was used in 1895 to convict Oscar Wilde and to send him for two years hard labour in prison. "

Section II of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885 "Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour."
The Knitting Circle: Law http://www.knittingcircle.org.uk/labouchere.html

  • Attempt to make female homosexual acts illegal in 1921 - failed.
An amendment to a bill on the age of consent was passed in Parliament. It said ' Any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885'. Because the amendment would significantly change the original bill, the government would not make time for it.
Sheila Jeffreys (1985) The Spinster and her Enemies
C. Evidence from Court Cases
  • The 'Cult of the Clitoris' Case 1918
  • Court decision banning publication of The Well of Loneliness in the UK 1928
'In that letter you say things that may only be said between man and woman, and coming from you they are vile and filthy words of corruption - against nature, against God who created nature.'
Radclyffe Hall (1928) The Well of Loneliness (Chapter 27)

"When the book was first published, it elicited many different responses, and it still does. Many lesbians in the 1930's, '40s, and '50s encountered their first exposure to other lesbians in the book's pages, and found the book liberating, but some gays and lesbians were offended by the book's apologetic tone and pleas for pity.
……Perhaps the most serious charge levelled against Hall is that she invented a literary form in which both male and female homosexuals are depicted as tragic, suicide prone and alcoholic. Hall had created these depictions to highlight the terrible effects of social opprobrium on inverts, but when her imitators in American movies and pulp novels borrowed the theme of homosexual tragedy, they usually neglected the social criticism."
Andrew Wikholm (2000) '1928: Brits Censor The Well of Loneliness' http://www.gayhistory.com/rev2/factfiles/ff1928.htm

D. Evidence from historians and social theorists
Feminists and the exploration of women’s friendships in the past – ‘Like other strands in feminist history, it involves partly the recovery of this ‘lost’ aspect of women’s history and partly the reconceptualization of such friendships.’ (Stanley, 1992, p. 161)

'However, understanding these relationships in the terms they were understood by their protagonists is an impossibility: we can never understand the past as it was understood by those who lived it'. (Stanley, 1992, p. 169)
Goes on to advocate mixture of historical and biographical work.

‘Whether or not these women expressed themselves genitally there is no doubt that physical excitement and eroticism played an important part in their love’. (Jeffreys, 1985)

Jeffrey Weeks in Sex, Politics and Society (1981, p. 200) argues that the most significant developments of the inter-war years in Britain were

  • 'the growing emphasis on the importance of sexuality in married love'
  • 'a new stress on the need to scientifically understand sexuality'

5. What can we find out about cross-dressing?

A. From photographs, memoirs, literature
B. From newspaper stories & court cases
  • 'Woman's attempt to join the army', The Hornsey Journal, 18 August 1916
  • 'Colonel Barker's Tears', Daily Express 28 March 1929 (sentenced to 9 months for perjury)
  • 'Woman who lived as a man', Daily Herald 10 May 1929
  • 'Married girl poses as boy', The Daily Telegraph 30 July 1932

6. What is the significance of cross-dressing?

  • To pass as a man
  • To signify the 'masculine' partner in a lesbian relationship
  • Any other aspects?

7. Why is studying the history of sexuality important?

'Lesbian activists in the 1970s and 1980s felt it was vital to trace a heritage of lesbian sexuality in the past, to feel part of a long, powerful and transgressive lesbian/feminist/queer history. It was also important to try to understand mechanisms of oppression - why and how had lesbians been an invisible, stigmatised or persecuted minority, and how this had been challenged? (Oram & Turnbull, 2001, p. 4)

'..sex is relational, is shaped by social interaction, and can only be understood in its historical context, in terms of the cultural meanings assigned to it, and in terms of the internal, subjective meanings of the sexed individuals that emerge.' (Weeks, 1981, p. 12)

Useful Websites

Hall-Carpenter Archives http://hallcarpenter.tripod.com/
Brighton OurStory Project – lesbian history of Brighton http://www.brightonourstory.co.uk
Gingerbeer: London Lesbian Guide http://www.gingerbeer.co.uk/
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans History Month 2007 http://www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk/resources/books.htm


Bell, B. and Brighton Ourstory Project (1999) Just Take Your Frock Off: A Lesbian Life, Ourstory Books.
Bland, L. and Doan, L. (1998) Sexology in Culture, London: Polity Press.
Bland, L. and Doan, L. (1998) Sexology Uncensored: Documents of Sexual Science, London: Polity Press.
Cant, B. and Hemmings, S. (eds) (1988) Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History, 1957-1987, London: Routledge.
Cline, S. (1997) Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John, Glasgow: John Murray.
Dunne, Gillian A. (1996) Lesbian lifestyles: women's work and the politics of sexuality, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Duberman, M., Vicinus, M. and Chauncey, G. (1989) Hidden From History, New York: New American Library.
Faderman, L. (1981) Surpassing the Love of Men, New York: William Morrow.
Freedman, E. (1997) ‘”The Burning of Letters Continues”: Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality’, Journal of Women’s History, 9(4).
Garber, M. (1992) Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, London: Penguin.
Giles, J. (1992) ‘Playing Hard to Get: Working Class Women, Sexuality and Respectability in Britain 1918-1940’, Women’s History Review 1(2).
Grayzel, S. (1999) ‘The Enemy Within: The Problem of British Women’s Sexuality During the First World War’ in Dombrowski, N. Women and War in the Twentieth Century, Garland.
Hall, L. (1991) Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality 1900-1950, Cambridge: Polity.
Hall, L. (1999) Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain Since 1800, Macmillan Press.
Hall Carpenter Archives (1989) Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories, London: Routledge.
Hall Carpenter Archives (1989) Walking after Midnight: Gay Men’s Life Stories, London: Routledge.
Hall Carpenter Archives. Lesbian Oral History Group (1989) Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories, London: Routledge.
Hallett, N. (1999) Lesbian Lives: Identity and Auto/Biography in the Twentieth Century, London: Pluto Press.
Hamer, E. (1996) Britannia's glory: a history of twentieth-century lesbians, London: Cassell.
Harding, J (1998) Sex Acts: Practices of Femininity and Masculinity, London: Sage.
Humphreys, S. (1988) The Secret Life of Sex: Forbidden Fruit: The British Experience, London: BBC.
Jackson, M. (1994) The Real Facts of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality, London, Taylor & Francis.
Jeffreys, S (1985) The Spinster and her Enemies, Hammersmith: Harper Collins.
Lesbian History Group (1989) Not a passing phase: reclaiming lesbians in history 1840-1985, London: Women's Press.
MacLaren, A. (2000) Twentieth Century Sexuality: A History, London: Basil Blackwell.
Mangan, J. and Walvin, J. (eds) (1987) Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Mason-John, V. and Khambatta, A. (1993) Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, London: Scarlet Press.
Newton, E. (1984) ‘The mythic mannish lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 9(4): 557-75. Reprinted in Duberman, M., Vicinus, M. and Chauncey, G. (1989) Hidden From History, New York: New American Library, 281-93.
Oram, A. and Turnbull, A. (2001) The Lesbian History Sourcebook: love and sex between women in Britain from 1780-1970, London: Routledge.
Phillips, K. and Reay, B. (2002) Sexualities in History: a reader, London and New York: Routledge.
Porter, K. and Weeks, J. (eds) (1991) Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men 1885-1967, London: Routledge.
Smith-Rosenberg, C. (1989) ‘Discourses of sexuality and subjectivity: the New Woman, 1870-1936’, in Duberman, M., Vicinus, M. and Chauncey, G. (1989) Hidden From History, New York: New American Library, 264-80.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll (1975) ‘The female world of love and ritual: relations between women in nineteenth-century America’, Signs, 1: 1-29.
Stanley, L. (1992) ‘Epistemological issues in researching lesbian history: the case of romantic friendship’, in Hinds, H. Phoenix, A. and Stacey, J. (eds) Working Out: New Directions for Women's Studies, Falmer Press.
Stanley, L. (1992) 'Romantic Friendship? ‘Some Issues in Researching Lesbian History and Biography', Women's History Review 1(2).
Souhami, D. (1998) The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, London: Weinderfeld.
Traub, V. (1999) ‘The Rewards of Lesbian History’, Feminist Studies 25(2).
Weeks, J. (1989) Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1900, 2nd ed., London: Longman Weeks, J. (2000) Making Sexual History, London: Polity Press.
URL: http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/hs2017w4.htm
Page created by Penny Welch May 2003/updated February 2007/reading list from 2008-9 added August 2012

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