As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, please enjoy this short excerpt from Kirsten Leng’s Sexual Politics and Feminist Science.
In Sexual Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany, 1900-1933, I examine German-speaking women’s overlooked contributions to the rethinking of sex, gender, and sexuality taking place within sexology between 1900 and 1933. In so doing, I demonstrate that women not only played active roles in the creation of sexual scientific knowledge, but also made significant and influential interventions in the field that are worthy of rediscovery and engagement. Collectively, I refer to these women as women sexologists and as female sexual theorists, both to disrupt assumptions regarding sexological authorship and expertise, and to acknowledge the sustained intellectual energy these women dedicated to exploring, analyzing, and theorizing sexual subjectivity, desire, behavior, and relationships. Their sustained attention, focused textual output, intertextual and interpersonal connections to male sexologists, and international influence distinguish them from other feminist or female authors who wrote about sex at this time.
Of the nine women whose work I discuss, six were born and lived in Germany—namely, Ruth Bré, Henriette Fürth, Johanna Elberskirchen, Anna Rüling, Helene Stöcker, and Mathilde Vaerting; the others—Rosa Mayreder, Grete Meisel-Hess, and Sofie Lazarsfeld—were Austrian. Although this study focuses on developments within Germany, the close cultural, intellectual, and political ties between Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century allow for an examination of sexual theorizing taking place among Austrian women as well.
Several of these women, such as feminist intellectuals Stöcker, Mayreder, and Meisel-Hess, are well-known figures in German and Austrian women’s history, while others, like writer-activists Elberskirchen, Rüling, Vaerting, and Lazarsfeld, are only now being rediscovered. Regardless of their relative fame, these women were remarkably productive sexual theorists and researchers who wrote on a range of topics including sexual instincts and desires, homosexual subjectivity, gender expression, sexual difference, and motherhood.
At a time when sexual norms, ethics, and knowledge were unstable, contested, and quickly changing, these women sexologists saw feminist potential in the scientization of sex. They intervened in the discursive melee to articulate new understandings of female sexuality and same-sex desire, criticize hegemonic expressions of masculinity and male heterosexuality, investigate the effects of war on sexuality, and insist on the fluidity of gender. Their research and theories underwrote empowering representations of autonomous, active, female sexual desire, gender expressions that exceeded the masculine/feminine binary, and new forms of heterosexual relations beyond contractual marriage and prostitution.
Science was strategically valuable for women. Deploying the language of science enabled women to frankly and publicly participate in debates about sex and sexuality and not comprise their respectability—a precious political commodity for disempowered social actors, and one that, for women, was largely premised upon the presumption of sexual ignorance. Science could help women conjoin claims regarding somatic sexual needs and evolutionary imperatives with demands for economic independence and legally inscribed rights and freedoms. Moreover, couching their claims in what Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal have termed the “moral authority of nature” enabled women to assert that realizing their demands would improve not only individual but also collective well-being.
Yet the appeal of science was not merely strategic or rhetorical: treating sex objectively and rationally, as science claimed to do, further provided women with an alternative to religious frameworks for discussing sex, and broke with the conception of sex as sin. Many women insisted that gaining “objective” knowledge about sex was a necessary precondition for the formation of moral opinions, and for the proper governance of sexual life. As Johanna Elberskirchen put it, “As long as you rely on metaphysical arguments, which are elastic, a willing person with a good understanding of argumentation can confound you. That ends when you appeal to scientific facts, the results of natural history; they cannot be twisted or turned.” In Elberskirchen’s view, “The source of every higher ethic, every higher moral is the laws of life.” Many women like Elberskirchen believed that science exposed the integral roles women played in sexual and social life, and revealed that women possessed innate sexual needs and instincts-along with a natural, “biological” right to live as autonomous and self-determining sexual agents. On the basis of its revelations, many women hoped that sexual science would affect a break with the arbitrary authority of the past and resolve long-standing inequalities. By revealing the “laws of life” and replacing ignorance with enlightenment, science could place women’s destiny under their own control, and liberate them by opening up new vistas of existential possibility.