Research Essay on Elizabeth Blackwell and Gender Equality

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‘I am ready to maintain that there are many females who never feel any sexual excitement whatever … a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved of his attentions.’

In the above quotation Dr William Acton, a leading medical professional in late nineteenth-century Britain, foregrounds a distinction in sexual interests between men and women. Although Acton's view should not be regarded as representative of the entire nineteenth-century medical population, it nevertheless reflects the commonly-held perception that sex was an act exclusively enjoyed by men while passively endured by women for reproductive purposes. Acton implicitly draws attention to the importance of regarding sexuality as an arena in which two groups, men and women – each with unequal access to social, economic, and political power – interact and thus have the potential to engage in struggle. Traditionally, historians have interpreted the period spanning the latter half of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century as one in which Victorian Puritanism gave way to a sexual revolution that granted sexual freedom to women and could therefore be perceived as serving their interests. Contrary to this view, recent feminist scholarship has identified a concerted, male-dominated backlash against women’s efforts to gain sexual autonomy in fin de siècle Britain. Through the emergence of scientific disciplines that sought to provide a comprehensive classification of sexual behavior, namely sexology, it may be argued that male sexual theorists attempted to popularise ideas that were at variance with feminist efforts to challenge the social limitations placed on women. By examining scientific portrayals of female heterosexuality produced over thirty years from c. 1882 to 1912, this essay shall critically assess the view that discourses of sexual liberation benefitted the cause of women’s independence. Although sexologists additionally sought to classify female homosexuality, and women certainly sought to contribute to scientific debates about lesbianism also, this discussion – in efforts to remain focused and succinct – will focus predominantly on how women themselves interacted with theorizations of female heterosexuality advanced under the banner of science.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided fertile ground for the examination of women’s efforts to defy social norms. Throughout this period, increasing numbers of women sought to question social constraint, both institutionally through the suffrage movement and more generally by entering into the labor force to achieve economic independence. From as early as the 1830s onward, the cause of emancipation and concerns for female sexuality were inextricably linked – women who sought an education and employment opportunities were often deemed ‘unsexed’ or referred to as ‘semi-women’. As women began to move into male-dominated spheres, marriage, and birth rates among the middle class declined, and a general concern arose that distinctions between the sexes would be extirpated. Indeed, owing to the challenge posed to traditional male sex roles by women’s increasing economic and social freedom, Joe L. Dubbert contends that a ‘masculinity crisis’ developed from 1880 to 1920. Arguably, such a crisis of male identity formed the bedrock for the emergence of a new science of sex – sexology – in the nineteenth century, particularly as this field was premised upon evolutionary arguments about the inferior biological nature, sexual passivity, and maternal destiny of women. Through an assessment of how women in Britain, specifically those who identified as ‘New Women’ and those who contributed to the feminist journal The Freewoman, responded to and interacted with scientific writing on sexuality over thirty years, this commentary endeavors to affirm that a sustained women-led effort was made to theorize and transform perceptions of female heterosexuality. Whether this effort yielded success or not remains highly questionable.

Rita Felski remarks that to examine pre-Freudian sexology is ‘surely to invoke an obsolete science and a vanished world’. However, as Michel Foucault has shown in his study of the relationship between sexuality and identity, sexuality is a category of modernity and thus significant for understanding how individuals have come to regard themselves as modern subjects. Sexological literature therefore provides an important insight into how discourse operates to create new descriptions and categories that individuals may subsequently assume as identities. In the final two decades of the nineteenth century, the marginalization of women from the scientific and medical domains meant that the theorization, classification, and labeling of female sexuality initially had little formal involvement by women. Despite their relative exclusion from efforts to scientifically define sexual identity, women still sought to develop their conceptualization of sex. Elizabeth Blackwell, Britain’s first female doctor, is a key example of a feminist who challenged the male-dominated medical profession’s efforts to define women by producing what I deem ‘proto-sexological’ literature. In The Human Element in Sex, published in 1880 – over a decade before Havelock Ellis rose to prominence as Britain’s leading sexologist – Blackwell constructs a model of sexuality founded on the concept of female sexual independence. Her depiction of women’s sexual desire as equal to, and distinct from, men’s, arguably supersedes the contemporary ideology promoted by male medical authorities that female sexuality did not exist or was weaker in women. Blackwell’s writing sought to mount a direct challenge to such medical knowledge:

‘Considering … the enormous practical edifice of law and custom, which has been built up on the very sandy foundation of the supposed stronger character of male sexual passion, it is necessary to examine closely the facts of human nature, and challenge many erroneous conclusions.’

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Contrary to the perception expressed earlier by Acton, of women as sexless and submissive to their husbands, Blackwell makes explicit in The Human Element her goal of affirming the equal capacity of both sexes to guide and control the sexual instinct. It is evident that by portraying women as sexual equals to men, ‘The sexuality of women [is] the keynote to which all men’s relations should be tuned’, she theoretically succeeds in confronting and dismantling contemporary opinions on the inexistence of female sexuality. Given her unique position as the first woman to write about sexuality from a simultaneous scientific and feminist perspective, one would expect Blackwell’s ideas to have been widely read and discussed within feminist circles. In reality, as affirmed by Margaret Jackson, it has proven difficult for historians to assess the extent of Blackwell’s influence, particularly as there is little direct evidence from late nineteenth-century feminist quotations and references of how her ideas may have been used or considered. Although one may identify how Blackwell interacted with theorizations of female sexuality, the impact of her contribution remains distorted and vague.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s exploration of female sexuality through a scientific lens may have failed to catalyze change. However, women’s efforts to understand and classify female sexuality were not stymied, and an emergent group of New Women – proponents of a type of feminism that encouraged women to resist the conventions of marriage, motherhood, and confinement to the domestic sphere – made some effort to theorize female sexuality throughout the 1880s and 1890s. New Woman feminism, extolled mainly by middle-class women who sought opportunities for education and work, oftentimes focused on issues of gender politics rather than sexual identity. By recognizing the existence of a ‘female invert’, a type of female masculinity developed before sexology popularised the notion, some New Women feminists utilized the concept of ‘inversion’ as a tool for challenging the existing gender order, thus allowing women to marginally contribute to theorizations of sexuality. Among these were Olive Schreiner and Sarah Grand. Schreiner’s 1883 novel, The Story of an African Farm, offers its author a platform to proclaim her view that social conditioning creates gender difference and, subsequently, to destabilize contemporary assumptions about female identity formation, ‘We all enter the world little plastic beings with so much natural force … and the world tells us what we are to be, and shapes us by the ends it sets before us’. Similarly, Grand’s 1893 text, The Heavenly Twins, draws upon concepts of inversion to formulate a feminist critique of existing epistemologies of gender, specifically emphasizing the importance of women’s reclamation of scientific knowledge related to sexuality. For Grand, the development of effective feminist politics is connected to making accessible discourses of female sexuality that circulated in the male-dominated medical sphere, as outlined by the character of Evadne, ‘It is criminal to withhold knowledge from any woman who can acquire it’.

Although Schreiner and Grand’s respective works of fiction made some contribution to theorizations of female sexuality at the fin de siècle, primarily by focusing on issues of gender, it is highly debatable whether these women successfully added much to the emerging scientific discourse on female sexuality, particularly as their views and assertions were limited to literary texts and meeting rooms, rather than scientific journals or medical gatherings. Even in formal groups established to explore concerns related to sexuality, such as the Men and Women’s Club, women’s ideas of sexuality were often molded by the insistence of male members on the dominance of the heterosexual instinct and the advocation of a model of sexuality that was aggressive, compulsive and essentially male. Furthermore, women were constrained by the limitations of language throughout this period. Although feminists sought to examine the implications of female sexual autonomy, their literature and discussions were wrapped in ‘the language of patriarchal science’, which hindered the expression of female emotion and subjectivity. Despite the ease with which historians can identify New Women feminists as attempting to interact with scientific theorizations of female sexuality throughout the 1880s and 1890s, women’s exclusion from the realms of medicine and science affirm that their contributions to an emerging discourse on female sexuality failed to concretely deliver an impact.

In the 1890s, Havelock Ellis – often regarded by historians as establishing ‘the basic moral categories for nearly all subsequent sexual theorizing’ – rose to prominence as a foundational figure in the field of sexology in Britain. Ellis’s recognition of the existence of female sexuality and the importance of female pleasure; alongside his call for greater tolerance of sexual deviance and efforts to broaden the range of acceptable sexual behavior, ensure that he has traditionally been earmarked as a progressive sexual radical who played a key role in pushing forward the feminist sexual agenda. Contemporary feminist scholars, however, argue that under a façade of scientific objectivity, sexology sought to legitimate male sexual domination by propagating a powerful ideology that reinforced the social control of men by women. It is hence worth considering how women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain responded to the sexological model of sexuality and whether they aligned with modern-day feminist scholars in their perception of this as a scientific re-packaging of male sexual values. Published from 1897 to 1910, Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex are based on two important themes: male domination and female submission is biologically determined and essential element of sexual pleasure; and all forms of sex, even those which may seem violent or dangerous, are ultimately harmless and legitimate due to deriving from ‘innocent and instinctive impulses’. These thematic strands are evident from the very first essay in Volume I of The Studies, in which Ellis, through an assessment of female ‘modesty’, strives to define the process of dominance and submission as natural, ‘an inevitable by-product of the naturally aggressive attitude of the male in sexual relationships, and the naturally defensive attitude of the female’. Volume III further maps this relationship between pleasure and pain in heterosexual relations. Ellis’s examination of the process of ‘courtship’, whereby the woman is portrayed as a type of prey to be caught and forced to surrender to stimulate the sexual excitement of her male partner, reveals a deep-rooted belief in the inextricable relationship between male sexuality, power, and violence:

‘In the struggles for life violence is the first virtue … The infliction of pain must inevitably be a frequent indirect result of the exertion of power. It is even more than this; the infliction of pain by the male on the female may itself be a gratification of the impulse to exert force.’

Although Ellis asserts the female capacity and right to receive sexual pleasure, it is notable that this form of pleasure is strictly circumscribed. In courtship, the woman must be hunted and forced to comply; in sexual activity, she should remain passive and reliant on male-inflicted pain to experience satisfaction and desire, ‘the woman’s part is … the more passive part. She is … the instrument in love; it must be his hand and his bow which evoke the music’. Ellis’s work presents pain and pleasure as inseparable components of the sexual experience. It may thus prove difficult for modern observers to understand how anyone could interpret the founding father of sexology in Britain as a supporter of female sexual autonomy. An assessment of how feminists reacted to the conclusions put forth by Ellis shows that his ideas did not go unchallenged or without critique. Indeed, Ellis welcomed correspondence from women, believing that it provided an insight into female emotions, and thus his work quotes copiously from women who both agree and disagree with his findings, as affirmed by one contributor: ‘As regards physical pain, though the idea of it is sometimes exciting, I think the reality of it is the reverse … No woman has ever told me that she would like to have pain inflicted on her’. Despite a high level of engagement with women, demonstrated by his case studies and written correspondence, Ellis’s view that ‘the idea or even the reality of pain in sexual emotion is welcomed by women’ remained unchanged. Although staunchly feminist historians such as Sheila Jeffreys maintain that the development of sexology was a deliberate negative response to the threat of feminism, this essay concurs with the more moderate position advanced by the likes of Lesley Hall that care should be taken not to over-emphasize the influence of sexological writing in the years before the First World War. As evident from the difficulties encountered by Ellis in publishing and publicizing his work, the new science of sexology occupied a marginal status within the British medical establishment. Where sexological texts evaded censorship and were available, Bland argues that many feminists made ‘selective use’ of the ideas about female sexuality put forth, and thus sexology was not homogenously accepted or rejected by women. Rather, Ellis offered – as feminist Lady Rhondda put it – ‘a whole new world of thought’, which both she and her contemporaries were ‘far from accepting’ wholesale.

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Research Essay on Elizabeth Blackwell and Gender Equality. (2024, February 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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