Defining the Historian: Women Who Write About Sex


I’ve spent the last month being part of two amazing initiatives run by the BBC, here in the UK. Firstly, as part of the BBC’s new campaign to increase the number of women it can call on for expert opinions, the aptly titled #ExpertWomen (you can see my brilliantly cringe worthy audition tape here) and then as one of the AHRC and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers. Both were amazing experiences, and while I am incredibly lucky to have had them, they were timely reminders of what the world outside of academia, the public *real* world, finds interesting about the research that we do.

I’ve blogged about my experiences as an #ExpertWoman over at the BBC Academy website, but on all the days, there was one question that I kept finding myself being asked over and over again; WHY? Why do you write about sex? Why do historical sexual attitudes interest you? And more intriguingly, ‘are you worried about how you’d be perceived, publically, as a young woman talking about sex?’

Now, I’d like to be able to sit here and tell you all that I hadn’t given it a second thought, that I am a strong independent feminist and if I want to talk about sex, I’m going to talk about sex, and you had better just sit down and listen. But I can’t. I have been, in the past, occasionally, worried. And I’ve been trying to understand why. Why do we immediately judge women if they initiate a discussion about sex? What is it about the feminine voice, discussing sex with authority or knowledge, whether that is medical, personal, or historical, that society finds so challenging, so revolutionary, or so subversive? Surely women have been writing about sex for as long as men? I’m pretty sure we’ve been talking about it for even longer. So to try and answer this question for myself I turned first to my books, and then to the brilliant community of historians I know on twitter. And we made a list. A list of women who have written about sex, throughout history, so that I can prove women have been doing this for just as long as men. Sexual knowledge is not the authority of just one gender, although history often likes to tell us differently.

Sappho c.630/612 – 570 BCE The original influence behind the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphic’, Sappho’s existing poetry explored love, and the acts of love, between men and women, and women and women. She achieved such status in the classical world, she was known as one of the nine earthly muses.

Hroswitha of Gandersheim. 935-1002 A.D. “With zeal ministering to my womanly muse…” a playwright found in an Abbey? This was Hroswitha, whose writings explored love, and sexual exploitation of women, as well as the desires and lusts of men in power.

Trotula 11th-12th C Although the concrete history surrounding Trotula is a little murky, she is believed to have been an early authority on medical texts covering women’s anatomy, health and wellbeing in the medieval period. Although scholars disagree on just how many texts to attribute to her, she is widely believed to have practiced at the School of Salerno, one of the worlds earliest medical schools, combining knowledge from both Eastern and Western doctrines, and allowing both men AND women to study there. Well, until the Catholic Church degreed otherwise.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil c.1090-1164 “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.” I picked up a book of the love letters between Heloise and her lover Abelard back when I was an undergrad. It still remains one of the most moving and erotic set of letters I have ever read. As far as I am concerned Abelard was a bit of a wuss, but Heloise writes with a strength and a passion that I never expected to find evidence of from a women in this period of history. Read it, and be inspired.

Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179 Not only did she write of her holy visions as sexual encounters, Hildegard also wrote passages exploring the difference between men and women’s sexual urges and passions. She divided men and women into four types according to their personalities and urges, arguing that celibacy was not for everyone – the artistic woman, for example, needed to have a sexual relationship with a man, ‘If they remain without men…they suffer from a number of bodily conditions. If they have men, they are healthy.’

Julian of Norwich 1342-1416 Often acknowledged as the first women to write a book in English, rather than Latin, Julian focused her explorations of Christianity and Christian tradition on the feminine aspects of her relationship to God. Scholars have argued that she wrote passionate descriptions on being married to Christ, and enjoying a sexual relationship with him, all from the comfort of her bricked-in cell. Controversial much?

Jane Sharp 1641-71 Author of one of the main texts on Midwifery, whose influence continued into the eighteenth century, Jane Sharp argued that women, not men, should learn the medical knowledge needed to safely deliver children into the world. She argued that men had no idea what it felt like to be a women, and as such, should have no say over women’s bodies. Someone might want to bring this to the attention of the American senate committee currently debating birth control…

Aphra Behn 1640-1689 Not only is she the first woman to earn a living by her pen, Aphra’s personal life is worthy of it’s own dramatisation. Although most of the women on this list are women orientated in their work, Aphra is unique because she wrote ‘like a man’ exploring men’s sexual attitudes and relationships.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague 1689-1762 Her memories of the freedom of women in the Ottoman Empire, and enjoyment of women-only spaces were one of the many reasons Lady Mary Montague made this list, along with her passionate love life. She left a great collection of letters and memoires exploring women’s society and relationships.

Mary Robinson 1757-1800 Mistress of the Prince of Wales, champion of women’s rights, and notorious for her sexual affairs, she packed a hell of a lot into her short 42 years.

Mary Wollenstoncraft 1759-1797 Although most well-known for ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ her other writings also argued that to deny a woman’s sexual desire was immoral.

Colette 1873-1954 One of the most beautiful writers at the turn of the century, Colette’s description of her relationships with both men and women in the music halls and salons of France were written into all of her books.

Marie Stopes 1880-1958 Author of the modern sex manual, ‘Married Love’, Stopes is one of the earliest voices of the modern birth control movement. She also highlights, in my opinion, women beginning to seize back medical authority over their bodies.

Radcliffe Hall 1880-1943 Possibly the only writer since Sappho to write books about women, for women, Hall’s overtly lesbian narratives matched her lifestyle.

Anais Nin 1903-1977 One of the greatest writers of erotic, Nin’s Little Birds and Delta of Venus were published after her death. Her letters and other writings often explored women’s relationships with love and sex, and she is utterly inspiring. Seriously, put down 50 Shades of Grey and read something real.

So there we are, a list of the women who have made history by writing about sex. From medical texts, to playwrights and poets, from the ancient world to the modern, it is in no way complete – but at least we can see that men haven’t been the only voices exploring sexual desire. Women talk and write and think about sex with just as much eloquence as their male historical counterparts. Maybe you find that challenging, but I know I don’t, not any more. All I need to do is look at this list, and I know I’m in good company. Anais Nin once said, ‘women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers’. Erica Jong replied ‘But that’s why we must do it’. I think I agree, don’t you?