- 1 The word ‘lesbianism’ is anachronistic for the period studied. And, although ‘inversion’ or ‘uranis (...)
- 2 The most circulated feminist newspapers in the Edwardian period were The Common Cause (the organ of (...)
- 3 All three women had been members of the WSPU which they had left for the WFL. See Crawford. 242–44 (...)
1In Britain, during the Edwardian period, most feminist publications tended to focus on socio-political issues concerning women and, in particular, on the prevailing question of women’s franchise.2 So, in 1911, when Dora Marsden, ‘her devoted friend’, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe3 decided to launch a new weekly journal, The Freewoman, their declared purpose was to debate topics beyond what they perceived as ‘the limited scope of the suffragist movement’ (Crawford 242–44 and 379–81). In the first number of The Freewoman, they issued the following statement:
Our journal will differ from all existing weekly journals devoted to the freedom of women, inasmuch as the latter find their starting point in the externals of freedom. They deal with something women may acquire. We find our chief concern in what they may become. Our interest is in the freewoman herself, her psychology, philosophy, morality, and achievements, and only in a secondary degree with her politics and economics. (‘Notes of the Week’, no 1, 23 November 1911, p. 3)
- 4 Lucy Bland, “Heterosexuality, Feminism and The Freewoman Journal in Early Twentieth-Century England (...)
- 5 In September 1912, W. H. Smith banned the journal from its stores because they thought ‘the paper u (...)
- 6 Rebecca West, “The Freewoman”, Time and Tide, 16 July 1926, reprinted in Dale Spender, Time and Tid (...)
- 7 Edward Carpenter quoted in ‘Some Opinions on The Freewoman’, The New Freewoman, 15 August 1913, p.1 (...)
- 8 Mary Humphrey Ward quoted in ‘Some Opinions on The Freewoman’, op.cit., p.100.
- 9 The wording ‘chairman’ was the official denomination with which Maude Royden described her position (...)
2That women should have the right to vote was self-evident to them, that they should fight for it, was also an obvious fact, however, contrary to many feminists, they contended that the vote could not be regarded as ‘a symbol of freedom’. In their opinion, in order to become ‘spiritually free’, women needed to raise fundamental moral issues that they themselves found controversial. Thus, Dora Marsden and her friends aimed to be daring in their editorial point of view. And, to be sure, as underlined by Lucy Bland4, although its circulation was small and its lifespan, short—47 numbers were published between November 1911 and October 19125—, The Freewoman’s reputation was notorious and it caused a stir among anti-feminists but also amongst feminists. In her 1926 Time and Tide account of The Freewoman, Rebecca West commended the journal for its courage in broaching taboo subjects such as sexuality: ‘the greatest service that the paper did to its country was through its unblushingness’6 (West 65–66). Edward Carpenter, who was instrumental in the creation of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (BSSSP) in 1913, also praised the journal for its boldness: ‘The Freewoman did so well during its short career under your [Marsden’s] editorship, it was so broad-minded and courageous, that its cessation has been a real loss to the cause of free and rational discussion of human problems’.7 However, the proponents of the journal only represented a small fringe of the intelligentsia, the vast majority disapproved of The Freewoman’s stance regarding sexual matters. As would be expected, Mary Humphrey Ward, the leader of the Anti-Suffrage League was disgusted by the journal and thought it shed light on the ‘dark and dangerous side of the Women’s Movement’.8 But, perhaps what was more surprising, was the virulence with which some feminists attacked it. According to Ray Strachey, Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS ‘thought it so objectionable and mischievous that she tore it up into small pieces’ (Ray Strachey, in Bland 5) and Maude Royden, the Chairman9 of the Literature Committee of the NUWSS regarded it as ‘a nauseous publication’ (The Freewoman, 11 July 1912, p.142). Even more surprising was the reaction of Olive Schreiner, a friend of Edward Carpenter’s, who wrote to the famous sexologist, Havelock Ellis, that she thought ‘it ought to be called the licentious Male’ (Olive Schreiner, in Bland 5). For Lucy Bland these strong reactions may be partly accounted for by a backlash on Dora Marsden’s criticisms of the suffrage movement, but they were mainly rooted in the fact that most feminists at the turn of the twentieth century still shared the social purity movement’s views on sexuality. This meant that they regarded physical sex as necessary for the purpose of procreation but deemed it otherwise rather undesirable and advocated abstinence. On the other hand, the contributors to the debate on sexuality in The Freewoman were clearly less prudish and opened the way to a new perception of heterosexual intercourse. However, the fact that they were more open did not mean that they were ready to address the question of female homosexuality: ‘To many of The Freewoman feminists, however, sex was more than simply reproductive (although this did not prompt a discussion of sex between women; lesbianism was barely mentioned in The Freewoman)’ (Bland 9-10). Lucy Bland adds that although relations between women were often sexualised in the discourses of sexologists, the impact of their writings remained very limited until after the First World War.
3Deborah Colher claims that birth control, free love and male homosexuality are topics frequently discussed in the pages of The Freewoman but that ‘discussion of female homosexuality is notably absent among these frank discussions’. To a large extent, she shares Lucy Bland’s interpretation and argues that on account of the dominant eugenic view whereby women were considered as the ‘mothers of the race’, female sexuality was predominantly seen through the lenses of marriage and reproduction and only very marginally, seen through those of birth-control and free-love. She concludes that as a consequence, the context was not ripe for any discussion regarding female homosexuality.
4Both Bland and Colher note the absence of debate on the question of sexuality between women in the columns of The Freewoman and explain this lack by the fact that not only was female sexuality within heterosexual relationships barely seen as existing but when it was, decency made it an almost unmentionable subject of public discussion as testified by the attacks on The Freewoman. In this context, it is not surprising that even in one of the most daring journals on women’s emancipation published during the Edwardian period, the question of sex between women should not have been addressed.
5However, there is a difference between ‘sex between women’ and ‘lesbianism’. Indeed, if there is no denying that sex between women was barely discussed in The Freewoman, the aim of this article is to show that ‘female homosexuality’ was mentioned alongside ‘male homosexuality’.
- 10 Very little is known about these two contributors to The Freewoman. Harry J. Birnstingl was a membe (...)
6In their presentation of The Freewoman, the editors insisted on the fact that they intended for the journal to be open and to welcome opposing points of view on the subjects that would be addressed in its pages. The debate on the question of ‘homosexuality’ was a testimony to this openness. However, it is to be underlined that the number of articles whose core subject was ‘homosexuality’ was relatively small in view of the total number of articles published during the eleven months of the existence of the Freewoman. As shown in the list below, altogether there were less than a dozen articles including several letters to the editors, involving mainly two male authors, Harry J. Birnstingl and Charles J. Whitby10, on this issue.
Harry J. Birnstingl, ‘Uranians’, Freewoman 7, Jan 4, 1912, pp.127–8.
Charles J. Whitby, M.D., ‘Tertium Quid’, Freewoman 9, Jan 18, 1912, pp.167–69. (reply to Birnstingl)
Harry J. Birnstingl, ‘Uranians II’, Freewoman 10, Jan 25, 1912, pp.189–190. (reply to Whitby)
Albert E. Löwy, ‘The Intellectual Limitations of the “Normal”’, Freewoman 11, Correspondence (to the Editors of The Freewoman), Feb 1, 1912, p.212–13.
Charles J. Whitby, M.D., ‘A Matter of Taste’, Freewoman 11, Feb 1, 1912, p.215–16. (reply to Birnstingl)
Harry J. Birnstingl, ‘The Human Minority’, Freewoman 12, Feb 8, 1912, p.235. (reply to Whitby)
Scython, ‘Uranians’, Freewoman 14, Correspondence (to the Editors of The Freewoman) Feb 22, 1912, p.274.
Charles J. Whitby, M.D., ‘Uranians’, Freewoman 15, Correspondence (to the Editors of The Freewoman), Feb 29, 1912, p.291. (reply to Scython)
Marah, ‘The Human Complex’, Freewoman 22, April 18, 1912, p. 437–38.
- 11 According to Rictor Norton, ‘The word “homosexualität’ was invented by the German-Hungarian Karoly (...)
- 12 Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion (1896) was censored in 1898 and it was never sold in England duri (...)
- 13 See ‘Ulrichs Karl Heinrich’ in Eribon 483.
7Even though the term had been introduced in the English language some twenty years earlier,11 it is interesting to note that none of the articles mentions the word ‘homosexuality’ or any of its derivatives in their titles. Only the articles containing the term ‘uranians’ seem to offer a clear understanding of their content, although, even in this case, it may be argued that not all readers would have known what their central theme was about unless they had actually read the articles. It is to be remembered that censorship was strong12 and only a very small minority had access to the literature on sexuality. According to Lesley Hall, even in the 1920s, ‘readers at the British Museum were protected from volumes deemed potentially corrupting’ (Hall 110). The terminology used in the articles reveals the point of view of the authors and also the perception of ‘homosexuality’ at that time. The term ‘uranism’ was coined by German jurist and sexologist Karl Ulrichs, who developed a theory whereby a male ‘uranian’ or ‘urning’ was ‘the soul of a woman inside a man’s body’.13 If initially these terms labelled ‘male homosexuals’, they were soon applied to women as well. In ‘The Uranian Question and Women’, Elisabeth Dauthenday insisted that homosexuality was not a choice but an innate condition:
Uranism is no one’s fault since it is due to a disorder of empirical natural laws.
Like all other deformities or functional disorders, it deserves compassion and not contempt.
It is definitely compatible with intellectual functioning.
- 14 Elizbeth Dauthendey, ‘The Uranian Question and Women’ (1906) in Faderman 316.
It is never the result of exterior causes or training but always congenitally conditioned.14
- 15 Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897. Its aim was to (...)
8Ulrich’s theory was popularised and further developed mainly by Magnus Hirschfeld15 in Germany and, by Havelock Ellis in Sexual Inversion (1896) and by Edward Carpenter in The Intermediate Sex (1908), in Britain.
- 16 Harry J. Birnstingl, ‘Uranians’, The Freewoman 7, Jan 4, 1912, p.127.
9Birnstingl’s article, whose declared goal was to inform The Freewoman readers on the question of homosexuality, refers to the above authors and theories. His strategy in addressing this ‘delicate’ issue was to place it on a scientific level. Although he considered that it was impossible to clearly distinguish between supposedly specific feminine and masculine qualities and attributes, he conceded that human evolution might be heading towards greater differentiation: ‘If the tendency of evolution is to segregate the sexes, as it appears to be, since the lower we go in the scale of living organism the greater the tendency towards hermaphrodism and a protoplasmic condition of self-impregnation, then these types must be recessive. However, they are not on that account to be ignored’.16 The phrasing of this statement was making an obvious link to the then acclaimed work, The Evolution of Sex (1889) by Patrick Geddes and Arthur Thompson in which the authors explained that the higher the organism, the greater the level of differentiation existed between the sexes. It was also a reference to the newly rediscovered works of Gregor Mendel in that it sought to describe homosexuality as a recessive characteristic and heterosexuality as a dominant characteristic. By acknowledging the prevailing scientific view of the evolution of sex differences and by presenting homosexuality as a recessive trait, he was shifting people’s perception of it, away from abnormality to a variation of normality and thus justified its defence.
- 17 In the early twentieth century, for most feminists, the concept ‘passion’ was associated to feeling (...)
- 18 The law in force at the time was what was called the Labouchère Amendment (1885) whereby ‘acts of g (...)
10It is to be noted that although he referred to ‘sex inversion’—a man in a woman’s body and vice versa—, Birnstingl’s was mainly relying on Edward Carpenter’s theory of an ‘intermediate’ or ‘third sex’ as his definition of ‘uranians’ illustrates: ‘people who hover between the sexes’. He insisted on the fact that it was an error to believe that ‘homosexuals’ displayed identifiable external traits. Indeed, he maintained that what distinguished them from ‘normal’ people were their ‘delicate psychological differences’. If the latter were personally aware of their ‘aberrant natures’ and ‘heterodox passions’,17 society remained unaware of their condition unless they willingly divulged their true ‘natures’. Drawing on the authority of science and medicine, he argued that although ‘homosexuality’ was neither a sin, nor a crime ‘uranians’ must hide their condition because it was severely punished by the law.18
- 19 This pseudonym was a reference to the Ovidian character who had the faculty of changing his sex.
11Like most sexologists of the Edwardian period, Birnstingl presented an apparently ambivalent perception of ‘homosexual’ sexuality. He insisted on the fact that the attractions between ‘uranians’ were of a sexual kind whilst at the same time claiming that they did not necessarily lead to sexual intercourse especially amongst women. This was consistent with the commonly held view whereby men being theoretically more active and women, more passive, men’s sexual needs were higher and stronger than women’s. It is to be noted that this point of view was expressed in a later contribution to The Freewoman’s debate on ‘homosexuality’ by Scython,19 who identified herself as ‘a uranian, as a woman masquerading as a man’ and claimed that she/he felt no desire ‘to mate with a woman’. She felt that this lack of sexual drive was normal as according to her ‘women as a sex, are chaste; men are not, though of course, there are, as all know, numberless exceptions’. Sexuality was not the most important and interesting factor about female ‘inversion’, what was of greater interest was the link between female ‘homosexuality’ and feminism. If Birnstingl cast a doubt on the sexlessness of some of the celibate childless feminists, he also argued that procreation was not the sole purpose of a woman’s life, that women could be socially useful even if they were not mothers:
And now I have arrived at the relevancy of these remarks to this paper. An epithet that is often applied by those opposed to the Woman’s Freedom movement in the shape of an argument is the word ‘sexless’. They draw attention to the numbers of women in the ranks of the agitators who are celibates and childless, and who seem insensible to the passion of love, thus, they declare, leaving unfulfilled the greatest mission in life. It apparently has never occurred to them that numbers of these women find their ultimate destiny as it were, amongst members of their own sex, working for the good of each other, forming romantic—nay, sometimes passionate—attachments with each other. It is splendid that these women, who hitherto have been unaware of their purpose, an enigma to themselves and to their relations, should suddenly find their destiny in thus working together for the freedom of their sex. (Birnstingl 128)
- 20 According to Michael Lombardi-Nash, Anna Rüling (1880–1953) is the first known lesbian activist. Sh (...)
12This discourse is very reminiscent of Love’s Coming of Age in which Carpenter developed his theory of the intermediate sex which laid the stress on the mental rather than physical characteristics of homosexuals whom he thought were superior individuals in that they possessed both masculine and feminine qualities and whom he regarded as a dynamic force conducive to social change and progress. For Carpenter, the most important trait of the ‘intermediate’ women was neither their physical appearance nor their sexuality but rather their attachments to other women and their social instinct which expressed itself in their feminism. In his view, feminists were women usually endowed with intellectual and mental capacities above those of other women (Carpenter 72). As pointed out by Havelock Ellis, it is to be noted that this outlook was widely shared by the sexologists amongst whom were, Hans Kurella, Iwan Bloch, Magnus Hirschfeld and Anna Rüling (Ellis 262–3).20 One recurring question was to establish whether women became feminists and ‘inverts’ due to a congenital predisposition or whether feminism was the cause of their ‘inversion’. For Havelock Ellis and subsequently for other tenants of the theory of innate and acquired inversion, it became clear that the answer lay in a combination of congenital and environmental factors: ‘These unquestionable influences of modern movement cannot directly cause sexual inversion, but they develop the germs of it, and they probably cause a spurious imitation. This spurious imitation is due to the fact the congenital anomaly occurs with special frequency in women of high intelligence who, voluntarily or involuntarily, influence others’ (Ellis 262).
- 21 Richard von Kraftt-Ebing’s essay Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) on sexual ‘deviance’ was an example o (...)
- 22 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Oppositeness.
- 23 Censorship ensured that only specialists had access to what was regarded as ‘indecent’ matters. But (...)
- 24 Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 1892 , see chapter on “Effemination and Vira (...)
- 25 In an article entitled ‘Intellectual limitations of the “normal”’ Albert E. Löwy replies to Whitby (...)
13Birnstingl’s purpose was clearly to launch a debate on the question of homosexuality and especially on the link between feminism and ‘uranism’ as testified by his repeated references to the Woman’s Emancipation Movement. However, Charles J. Whitby’s reply to Birnstingl’s article altogether avoids this specific issue. From the start, the tone is set, Whitby explains that he is not surprised that the ‘disgusting’ question of homosexuality should be discussed in The Freewoman since: ‘such a paper exists precisely to let the light of day into these dark and dusty corners’. He reproaches Birnstingl with relying on Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex which he considers unscientific and its author, a ‘democratic anarchist’. As a medical man, he positions himself as an authority on the subject. The title of his reply, ‘Tertium Quid’, is evocative of the use of Latin in works whose subject matter was deemed unsuitable for the general public,21 the aim being to discourage laypeople from reading them. Literally, ‘Tertium Quid’ means a third something, ‘some third thing similar to two opposites but distinct from both’,22 and is therefore a reference to the theory of the ‘third sex’. By his own admission, he feels uncomfortable about the subject: ‘the difficulty seems to be that homosexuality is one of those subjects which those who are competent to discuss would prefer to leave alone’23 but thinks it is his duty to present ‘the medical standpoint’. He presents three main arguments. First of all, using the terminology of Eugenics, he assimilates the homosexual condition to that of ‘imbeciles, dwarfs, and monstrosities’. He then explains that one should distinguish between ‘femininity’ and ‘effeminacy’ in men, as well as between ‘mannishness’ and ‘masculinity’ in women: ’Genius is androgynous, but it is never homosexual. A man of genius may be feminine, but he must not be effeminate’, just as a woman may be ‘mannish’ but not ‘masculine’. Finally, he adds that true inversion is a very rare phenomenon, that most cases of inversion are environmentally induced, often the result of a want of anything better. This last point is evocative of the theories developed by Krafft-Ebing who argued that sexual inversion as the manifestation of a functional degeneration was rare but that ‘acquired antipathic sexual instinct’ was relatively frequent and mainly fostered by same sex environments such as prisons, schools, convents, etc.24 In this logic, Whitby considers ill-advised to render homosexuality more visible.25
- 26 The scope of ignorance and the need for people to be informed on the subject is presented in a diff (...)
14In his article, ‘Uranians II’ Birnstingl mocks the idea that a ‘medical man’ should be more competent to deal with such an issue as homosexuality than other informed people. He then congratulates Whitby for his courage in overcoming his repugnance for the topic for by doing so, he helps to lift the veil of ignorance surrounding the subject.26 He questions the pertinence of putting together in the same category dwarfs, imbeciles and monstrosities and adds that unlike for imbeciles there is no scientific evidence to show that uranians are the outcome of sin and ignorance. He agrees that there are two types of inverts but insists that his interest lies with the congenital type which, contrary to Whitby, he believes is far more common than the acquired type. In a nutshell, he argues that what differentiates him from Whitby is a question of degree, not of kind, of the acceptability of the dose femininity in men and of mannishness in women. And bringing back the debate to feminism, he reproaches Whitby with having outdated Victorian views on womanhood.
15The two men carry on exchanging views in two other articles. Whitby further develops his belief that effeminacy—which he describes as a man deliberately aping the sexual (to be understood in the broad sense of the word) conduct of women by wearing makeup and high-heeled shoes—leads to decadence, disease and racial ruin. Birnstingl, on the other hand, reiterates the link between feminism and female homosexuality by underlining the fact that feminists do not approve of makeup and high-heeled shoes. He also insists on the fact that although people focus on the appearance of uranian people, this aspect of their lives is in fact not very important compared to the sphere of affection.
16Although the question of homosexuality occupies a very small portion of the topics addressed in The Freewoman, the articles dedicated to it present a glimpse of the main concerns regarding this taboo subject during the Edwardian period. Far from solely dealing with male homosexuality, these articles concern themselves with both women and men.
17The fact that the question of physical sex between women is only marginally mentioned is hardly surprising at a time when discussing female heterosexual sexuality was still highly controversial. In that respect, the terminology used to refer to same-sex love is also rather significant of the way the ‘phenomenon’ was then perceived. As a matter of fact, contrary to the term ‘homosexuality’ which by definition emphasises the sexual aspect, such concepts as ‘uranism’, ‘intermediate sex’ or ‘inversion’—which were more prevalent—laid the stress on the psychological side of things. What primarily constituted an invert’s identity was not so much her/his sexuality as the fact that she was a woman ‘trapped’ in a man’s body or vice versa. This meant that the focus was sex/gender differences and to a much lesser extent on sexuality. The question of whether inversion was predominantly innate or acquired, whether the difference between a ‘normal’ individual and an ‘urning’ was a matter of degree or not involved interrogating the essence of femininity and masculinity. But, to posit the corporeality of an intermediate sex was even more subversive in that it opened the way to a new perception of the sex differences, it implied the existence of a continuum of the sexes and therefore anticipated on the deconstruction of the female/male binary.
18Interestingly, despite Birnstingl’s repeated assertion of the existence of a link between ‘inversion’ and feminism, the feminists did not join in the debate. The fact that the editors of The Freewoman who entertained close friendships with other women, kept away from the subject is evidence that feminists were not ready to address the issue of female homosexuality which it must be said was used by their opponents to discredit them.
19Despite its restrained stance on female homosexuality, The Freewoman was a daring and groundbreaking publication on this subject.