Wendy Steiner

  • The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Women Question by Ruth Brandon
    Secker, 294 pp, £16.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 436 06722 6

There was a time when phrases like ‘sexual politics’, ‘male chauvinism’ and ‘phallogocentrism’ carried a certain paradoxical éclat, yoking, as they do, the private realm of sex with the public realms of politics and language. We have grown so accustomed to the merging of public and private that it is hard to feel the force of such conceits these days, hard to remember that getting married was not always an act of political defiance (or defeat) and having children was not invariably a part of ‘having it all’. Ruth Brandon’s intelligent study, The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question, focuses on a crucial stage in the politicisation of privacy, describing the personal involvements of social reformers in Britain between 1880 and 1914 as they enacted the Woman Question in their own lives.

The scene of this ideological soap opera is London, a genteel hotbed of reformist debate, despite the jailing of Oscar Wilde and the snail’s pace of women’s suffrage. Havelock Ellis contributed his scientific zeal to the Fellowship of the New Life, and Olive Schreiner enlivened the Men and Women’s Club. Eleanor Marx felt obliged to decline membership there for fear of shocking the ladies by her unmarried cohabitation with Edward Aveling. Perhaps not entirely genteel (Ellis marvelled at the intensity of her body odour on warm summer walks), she worked tirelessly for workers’ organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation. The Fabians, however, were indisputably genteel – the very personification of Samurai and New Republicans, reading all the new books, leading healthy country lives and belonging to gentlemen’s clubs. It was on the issue of private versus public reform that the Fabians and the New Lifers split. The New Lifers held that socialism could come only through the self-improvement of individuals, without which political action was useless; the Fabians believed that political action was the first priority. It is thus not surprising that the Woman Question loomed so large for both groups, since industrialism was propelling women out of the ‘natural’, private space of the home into the political world of the workplace. The question was: which of these was the proper sphere for women’s self-realisation?

Brandon does not spell out precisely what the Woman Question was for these reformers: in fact, male liberation and free love seem to have been just as much at issue. Young Havelock Ellis was transformed by James Hinton’s exhortations to men and women to open themselves to love. But interestingly, the preoccupation with free love produced not a private absorption in sex, an Eastern ars erotica, but a public scientia sexualis, a merging of objective observation with erotic subject-matter in a contradictory and sometimes disturbing discourse. Brandon quotes Michel Foucault on the significance of the sexual debate for the 19th century: ‘The “right” to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and ... the “right” to discover what one is and all that one can be, this “right” was the political response to all [the] new procedures of power.’ This theme of self-determination threads its way through Brandon’s book as the ‘nub of the Woman Question’. She uses the term ‘wife’ for a partner of either sex whose role is to promote self-realisation in the other.

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