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‘Victorian’ Ladies and Passionlessness: Myth or Reality? (part 2)


1. Discuss the status of the female orgasm in Victorian America. Does the 19th-century medical debate about female sexuality shed any light on the impact of passionlessness on women’s lives?

2. What does the history of birth control and abortion tell us about 19th-century women’s attitudes towards sexuality? What do the efforts to outlaw contraception reveal about attitudes towards female sexuality?


Question 1

Barker-Benfiled, G.J., The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes towards Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America, Routledge (London, 2000).

Barker-Benfield, G.J., ‘The Spermatic Economy: a Nineteenth Century View of Sexuality’, in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, ed. Michael Gordon, St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1978). (Also in Feminist Studies, no 1:1 (1972).)

Degler, Carl, ‘What Ought to be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century’, in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, ed. Michael Gordon, St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1978). (Also in American Historical Review, vol. 79 (1974).

Laqueur, Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard, 1990), Chapter 1: ‘Of Language and the Flesh’.

Laqueur, Thomas, ‘Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology’, in The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur, University of California Press (Berkeley, 1987). (also in Representations, vol. 14 (1986).)

Peiss, Kathy, ed., Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, 2002), chapter 4, doc. 3: ‘Health Reformer William Alcott Discussed Nymphomania, 1855’.

Shade, William, ‘‘A Mental Passion’: Female Sexuality in Victorian America’, International Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 1 (1978).

Question 2

Brodie, Janet Farrell, Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, 1994).

Gordon, Linda, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America, Penguin (New York, 1990).

Lewis, Jan, and Kenneth Lockridge, ‘‘Sally Has been Sick’: Pregnancy and Family Limitation among Virginia Gentry Women, 1780-1830’, Journal of Social History, vol. 22 (1988).

McLaren, Angus, A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford, 1990).

Mohr, James, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900, Oxford University Press (New York, 1978).

Noyes, John Humphrey, Male Continence: or, Self-control in Sexual Intercourse. A Letter of Enquiry Answered’ (1866).

Reed, James, The Birth Control Movement and American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue (Princeton, 1984).

Riddle, J.M., Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Harvard, 1997).

Daniel Scott Smith, ‘Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America’, in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, eds. Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner, Harper and Row (New York, 1974). (Also available in Feminist Studies, vol. 1:3/4 (1973), pp. 40-57.)