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Sex & Suffrage: Sexual Revolutionaries

DR GILLIAN MURPHY (THE WOMEN'S LIBRARY, LSE)


From the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1870s and 1880s onwards, British feminists have been talking about sex. This conversation was primarily about ways to protect women from undesired sex and of preventing men acting out their undesirable sexual advances.


‘In or about December, 1910, human character changed’, wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay ‘Character in Fiction’ (1924), as a moment of social evolution. Before and long after this date, the women’s movement had been involved in long discussions about relationships, from free love to chastity. Marriage was another topic: the ideal state for some but legalised slavery for others. Then there was the question of men – were they allies or brutes?


Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy

The suffrage campaigner, Elizabeth Wolstenholme, lived with Ben Elmy and only married when she became pregnant in 1874.[1] She made a significant contribution to feminist ideas on sexuality through her books and articles. In The Human Flower (1892), a book for older children, Elizabeth described the plight of the married woman in relation to sex and reproduction, giving the idea of a woman’s right to choose:


Seeing the still existent unjust social conditions, legal or social, in marriage and noting the misery so frequently the lot of the wife – too usually led or left to accept marriage ignorant of the actual incidents of matrimony which, unless of reciprocal impulse, may prove repugnant and intolerable to her; involving moreover the sufferings and dangers of repeated and undesired childbearing….the functions of wifehood and motherhood must remain solely and entirely within the wife’s own option.[2]


In Baby Buds (1895), Elizabeth explained relationships for a younger audience:

We found in talking and writing to one another that our thoughts and desires and general wishes were so much the same, that we began to love each other. So at last we resolved to marry – that is to live together for the sake of our sweet companionship and also to more readily do our duty as tender parents, to any dear little child which our love might cause and bring to life.[3]


The overall message of Elizabeth’s writings was the removal of couverture and right of the woman to control her own body, which comes across powerfully in her poem Woman Free (1893):


For but a slave himself [man] must ever be / Till she to shape her own career be free / Free from all uninvited touch of man / Free mistress of her person’s sacred plan.[4]

The composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, described her mother’s ignorance about marriage at the beginning of an oral history conducted by Brian Harrison in the 1970s.[5] Emily, daughter of the Earl of Lytton and Viceroy of India, married Edwin Lutyens in 1897, when his career as an architect was just beginning. Emily had little idea about what married life entailed beyond the chilling advice of her mother who told her never to refuse her husband and to always keep a pot of cold cream near at hand. Ned wrote to Emily: ‘I am so unhappy to think that my selfishness may have been causing you pain. Teach me to pray, even as my mother used to teach me, teach me to have control.’[6] As Elisabeth Lutyens explained in an oral history about her mother, it was not the thing for women to take pleasure in sex. After the birth of Emily’s third child in 1904, she asked Ned: ‘I want more of you, not your body, but your soul and intellect.’[7] In trying to fill this void, Emily first became involved with the Moral Education League and then the suffrage movement, initially through Mrs Pethick Lawrence (Ned designed The Dutch House at Holmwood in Surrey in 1901-1904), and then through her sisters, Constance Lytton and Betty Balfour.[8] Emily did sit on the Executive Committee of the London Society of Women’s Suffrage. However, it was theosophy that brought Emily the fulfilment that her marriage had failed to do.[9] By the start of the First World War, Emily wrote: ‘…if our love is to continue it can only be on my side by the severance of our physical relationship…I have suffered intensely physically during all my married life….I believe and hold firmly that a woman has the right over her own body. Where she gives it willingly the relationship is beautiful - where she gives it because she must it becomes prostitution whether in or out of marriage and is degradation.’[10]


Frances Swiney

Ideas of ‘sexual excess’ and ‘continence’ can also be found in feminist writings. Frances Swiney, President of the Cheltenham Women’s Suffrage Society from 1903 and a theosophist, took these ideas to create her own unique brand of theosophy.[11] Beginning in 1899 with The Awakening of Women, or Woman's Part in Evolution, Frances argued for the biological superiority of women, saying man was “a waste product of Nature.”[12] She explained how women’s oppression was due to her sexual subjugation to men and how “women, to their lasting shame, have pandered to men’s passions, instead of controlling them.”[13] Instead, women could be free from men’s ‘sexual excess’ through the natural law of ‘continence’ and the natural law of reproduction. Frances promoted these ideas through the League of Isis which she founded in 1907. In her pamphlet The Bar of Isis or the law of the mother, Frances proclaimed that there should be no sex during gestation or lactation. Moreover, women should not bear more than three or four children and, as “the most highly evolved organism”, she should have at least four to six years between each child.[14] In this way, Frances believed that “with the natural restrictions placed on sexual relations, she is gradually teaching man self-respect, self-reverence, self-control and the exercise of a love that worketh no evil.”[15] Frances, herself, produced six children in quick succession.




Margaret Shurmer Sibthorp was a co-founder of the League of Isis and a theosophist. She founded and edited Shafts from 1892-1899, a journal that discussed feminist and sexual questions. In November 1897, Margaret herself considered the question of sex in Shafts. She used words such as passion, desire and lust but these were feelings that women could overcome. Margaret viewed passion negatively and opposed to love: “It is not love but passion…. which has made man ever resolve to hold dominion over woman… With the death of passion will cease all desire on the part of man to dominate over woman.”[16] Earlier in 1897, Margaret published an article about the free lovers group, the Legitimation League, by its secretary, George Bedborough. He set out the aims of the League in “educating public opinion in the direction of a higher relationship between the sexes.”[17] There was a fine line between sexual radicalism and obscenity and the League was hounded by the police. The League did not survive beyond the arrest of Bedborough, along with its president, Lilian Harman, and the trial in October 1898. He was accused of selling obscene works, which was Haverlock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion, concerned with homosexuality.



The journal The Freewoman devoted much copy to the topic of sex, particularly in its correspondence pages.[18] The journal was founded by Dora Marsden, along with Mary Gawthorpe, who had both been part of the Manchester suffragette group.[19] The Freewoman was a short-lived journal with its first issue appearing in November 1911, and the last in October 1912. The paper reappeared in 1913 as The New Freewoman, a literary journal, folding a year later to come back as The Egoist, edited by Erza Pound.[20] For many of the writers in The Freewoman, there was more to reproduction alone. As a letter from ‘a grandmother’ stated: ‘In these modern discussions on sex people are too apt to focus attention on parenthood, and to forgot the more important aspect of the question, the human passion of love…’[21] She also separated the ‘love problem’ as ‘human and spiritual’ from the ‘parenthood problem’ which was ‘the animal prosaic side’ of sex.[22]

Urania, a journal privately printed from 1916 to 1940, sought to challenge gender norms.[23] Its founder Eva Gore-Booth, and her partner, Esther Roper, were involved in suffrage movement, and together with Thomas Baty, formed the Aethnic Union in 1911, a feminist revolutionary group. In Urania, the group brought together hidden stories of lesbians, transsexuals, cross-dressers and of intersexuality. The journal’s mission was to convey ‘sex is an accident’, the phrase credited to Eva Gore-Booth. Urania presented numerous articles on gender passing: women who ‘disguised’ themselves as men or vice versa. Into the 1930s, Urania devoted space to stories about individuals who underwent surgical sex changes.[24] Like other feminists, Urania argued for the rejection of marriage.


Find out more about these women, organisations and journals in:


*digital Women’s Rights Collection on LSE Digital Library: https://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/collections/suffrage


*LSE Library Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/albums


*‘Sexual Revolutionaries of the suffrage movement’ on our Google Arts and Culture Platform: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/sexual-revolutionaries-of-the-suffrage-movement/RQLCb13WOTDcIQ

About the Author

Dr Gillian Murphy is the Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship at LSE Library. She moved to LSE with the Women’s Library in 2013, where she had worked as an archivist for many years. Gillian promotes the Women’s Library collection and the Hall-Carpenter Archives through exhibitions, talks, blogs and workshops.

[1] Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy in Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide 1866-1928 (London: UCL Press ), p 188-206. [2] Ellias Ethelmer, The Human Flower. A simple statement of the physiology of birth and the relations of the sexes (1897), p 39. For a discussion of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s pseudonyms see Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, p 192. [3] Quoted in Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, p 190. [4] Ellias Ethelmer, Woman Free (Women’s Emancipation League, 1893), p 20. [5] For full interview of Elisabeth Lutyens, The Women’s Library, 8SUF/B/049 https://richmedia.lse.ac.uk/libraryarchive/20201007_8SUF-B-049m.mp3 [6] Jane Ridley, The architect and his wife: the life of Edwin Lutyens (London: Chatto and Windas), p 121. [7] Ibid. p 159. [8] Ibid, p 168. Also Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, p 165. [9] Emily encouraged other suffrage campaigners to become theosophists, such as Marion Wallace-Dunlop. See Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, p 179. [10] Ridley, Architect and his wife, p 247. [11] Frances wrote about women’s suffrage in Anglo-Russian and Christian Commonwealth, see Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, p 668. [12] Frances Swiney, The Awakening of Women or women’s part in evolution, 3rd edition (London: William Reeves), p 19. A digitised copy can be found on the Internet Archive. [13] Ibid. p 85. [14] Swiney, Bar of Isis, p 18. [15] Ibid., p 48. For more on Swiney’s philosophy see George Robb, “Eugenics, spirituality and sex differentiation in Edwardian England: the case of Frances Swiney”, Journal of Women’s History, vol 10 no 3 (1988), pp 97-117 and Sheila Jeffrey, The Spinster and her Enemies (Spinifex Press, 1997). [16] Shafts, November 1897, p 302. [17] Shafts, April 1897, p 125. For more on the Legitimation League see Karen Hunt, Equivocal feminists (Cambridge University Press, 2002). [18] Lucy Bland, “Heterosexuality, feminism and The Freewoman journal in early twentieth-century England”, Women's History Review, vol 4 no 1 (2006), pp 5-23. [19] See entries in Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement. [20] Modern Journals Project has digitised these journals at https://modjourn.org/ (accessed 27 October 2020). [21] ‘A grandmother’, The Freewoman, 22 February 1912, p 270. [22] For more on this see Bland, “Heterosexuality, feminism and The Freewoman”. [23] See Karen Steele, “Ireland and Sapphic Journalism between the Wars: A Case Study of Urania (1916–40)” in Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain 1918-1939 eds. Catherine Clay, Maria Di Cenzo, Barbara Green and Fiona Hackney (Edinburgh University Press, 1918), pp 388-401. [24] For example Urania, Jan-Apr 1936.

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