Annie Besant: #FreeThinking For BBC Radio 3

So I’ve spent the last few months in a hermit-like existence writing ‘A Victorian Guide To Sex’ and ignoring everything else, especially my blog. But, now that the manuscript is finally in at its publishers, and just before I drown under the myriad of edits and rewrites (oh, and also get around to finishing the PhD, that would also be good) there was time to experience the insane, intense, and (yes, a lot of adjectives – IT WAS THAT GOOD) intellectually-explosive weekend that was Radio 3’s #FreeThinking Festival at the Sage, in Gateshead, as one of their ‘New Generation Thinkers’ for 2013.

BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, launch a yearly search to find 10 young academics, at the start of their careers, to showcase their research and areas of expertise to a wider audience. After a selection process which saw us flex our argument and opinion muscles, as well as coming up with, and pitching, ideas and subjects that would make great radio programmes, the final ten are named the AHRC’s and BBC Radio 3’s ‘New Generation Thinkers’ . Being selected as one of this year’s ’10’ has been an amazing experience, from taking part in Nightwaves debates, to The Essay, and having the chance to pitch ideas in Radio 3’s commissioning rounds. The first half of our year has been leading up to ‘The Festival of Ideas’, a great weekend of debate and discussion where we each presented an extended version of ‘The Essay’ on our own research, based around the festival’s theme of ‘Who Is In Control?’. It is also a great excuse to go out for a curry at 10 p.m at night, and stay up until 2 a.m talking about Doctor Who.

One of the things I knew I wanted to tackle was the preconception many of us still seem to have that the Victorians, and the 19thC as a whole, was pretty much a dry tumbleweed of sexual prudery or rampantly disowned deviance. Obviously both of those poles did exist, just like in our own society, but something that often gets ignored in our retelling of history is the attitudes and sexual norms of a historical period, in favour of the extremes. Having researched ‘A Victorian Guide to Sex’ for the last year, I’ve come across loads of exciting and surprising facts about the Victorians and Sex, as well as some truly unique stories, one of which I chose as for my #FreeThinking talk, ‘False Conception: Female Sexuality in Victorian England’ – which sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but is basically the story of one woman’s fight for contraception and sex education in the nineteenth century.  There, see, like I said, SURPRISING.

In 1877, Victorian society was rocked by the reports of the Bradlaugh-Besant obscenity trial. Arrested for publishing an immoral or obscene book, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (who doesn’t really get that much of a look-in in my talk – Sorry Charles, your time will come, I promise), both editors of The National Reformer, had recently reprinted an American pamphlet from the 1830s, by Dr Charles Knowlton. Fruits of Philosophy’ set out every possible form of contraception available in the 19thC, as well as the methods and benefits they would give to the ‘Young Married Couples’ for which it was intended. The debates that this created are hugely important to our understanding of the Victorians and their attitudes to sex, as well as the persisting double standard between men and women at this time. Charles Bradlaugh held on to his parliamentary seat after the scandal, but in 1879 Annie lost the custody of her young daughter, Mabel, as the courts decided that there was to much of a risk that she might ‘grow up to be the writer and publisher of such [similar] works’ as her mother.

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Be...

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Besant (1847-1933) during the 1880s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Annie is a controversial figure, both in her own time, and now. After ‘False Conception’ first aired, one academic argued she was ‘a Malthusian, racialist & eugenicist’ and that I had conducted an ‘astonishing whitewash’ of Annie’s life. Which are pretty horrifying terms to be connected to, and all the more important to address. So let’s unpack this a little. To begin, Annie was not a Malthusian. She was a Neo-Malthusian, which means she disagreed with the Malthusian religious ideas of delayed marriage and abstinence, and instead advocated early marriage and the use of birth control methods. But, she did agree with the premise of Malthusianism – the subject of population control, and the fear that a growing population would be unable to be support itself. It’s an 18thC idea that was seen as highly controversial in its day, and throughout the 19thC. For Annie, it was also an intensely personal issue. Papers from her divorce case state that ‘her efforts to impress upon her husband their duty to limit their family within their means had been a source of friction between them.’ For Annie, the creation of children who would be born into a life of poverty and early death was akin to murder, and yet at the same time she seems to have possessed a uniquely practical outlook on the human condition – people want to have sex. More importantly, people are going to have sex, and unless you are going to educate them about how to have it safely, the most common result will be an unplanned and unsupported pregnancy. It’s an argument that is still going on today, as you can see from this epic smackdown delivered by Hilary Clinton in 2009.

Now for the terms racialist and eugenicist. I don’t think anyone can hear those two words together and not immediately think of the horrors of the Holocaust, or the atrocities and genocide that seems to reoccur in modern warfare. Eugenics – a term first coined in 1883 – and ideas of race are interwoven into many debates from the Victorian period, from the hilarious bad science of phrenology, to the awful beliefs and arguments for racial supremacy that persisted into the 20thC. So was Annie Besant a racialist and a Eugenicist?

Well, one of the joys of being a phd student is that you can’t – and wouldn’t – claim to know everything, and my research into Annie is still ongoing. But what I do know is this: Although born in England, Annie’s family were Irish and it is something of which she was intensely proud, saying that while, ‘her blood was three quarters Irish, her heart was 100% Irish’. Throughout her life she was known as a huge supporter of Irish Nationalism and the Home Rule movement, and marched as part of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration on the 13th of November, 1887. By the turn of the century, and now living in India, she became a passionate advocator of Indian Independence, publishing a weekly newspaper arguing for freedom from British Rule:

“We claim an open path for Indians to every post in their native land, as promised by the Proclamation of 1858, and the abolition of every law, that places them in a position inferior to that enjoyed by the English. We ask that capacity and high character shall determine all appointments to office, and that colour and religion shall be entirely disregarded as qualifications.”

– Annie Besant, Commonweal, 1914

These are not statements commonly linked to those who support racialist or eugenic doctrines. The 1877 trial is uniquely important to our understanding of sex, sex education and sexual attitudes during Victoria’s reign, and the wider Victorian ideas of true love, respect and mutual physical pleasure that I talk about in ‘False Conception’ exist in the majority of the marriage guides and manuals that I have read in the course of my research. This is the backdrop against which Annie Besant published ‘Fruits of Philosophy’, to a 19thC public as intrigued and as interested as we are in the experience and realities of sex. It was also a society concerned with eugenics, Darwinism, civil war, anarchists, socialists, slavery and science. And as always, is far more complex than it first appears. 12 minutes is not enough time to express all of those points, and so I’ve tried to address them here. I believe Annie Besant deserves greater investigation, she was a passionate campaigner for worker’s rights, the rights of women and personal freedom. Her advocacy of birth control in a society that refused to discuss it publicly cost her her daughter, and yet she was undaunted. She traveled the world, well educated, heavily politicized and extremely eloquent – an incredible nineteenth century woman, and a unique subject for research.

*N.B. Anyone interested in further reading should check out ‘Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England’ by J.A. and Olive Banks, which is a great book on the subject. Also Joanne Stafford Mortimer’s ‘Annie Besant and India 1913-1917’ in the Journal of Contemporary History, and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time: Annie Besant featuring Dr Lawrence Goldman, Dr David Stack, and Dr Yasmin Kahn.

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?