Jude's Reviews > The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1800-1930

The Spinster and Her Enemies by Sheila Jeffreys
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Mar 22, 09

bookshelves: the-f-word, class-work
Read in March, 2009

Jeffreys takes on the pedigree of a pseudo-conflict that had long made me itch - the apparent tension between loving women and loving sex that is still fanning the a-historical rant contingent of the "pro-sex" discourse, was a thorn-in-the-side of some periods of second-wave feminism, is being addressed with much more nuance by the third, but that is rarely considered when assessing the first wave.
Most of my formative feminist reading was done around the time of this book's publication - 1985 - but I only stumbled across it recently second-hand. Apparently this is a "classic" - re-issued in 1997, but as always I wonder what the true fate of such passionate and essential work will be...

from the jacket:

Sheila Jeffreys examines the activities of feminist campaigners around such issues as child abuse and prostitution and how these campaigns shaped social purity in the 1880s and 1890s. She demonstrates how the thriving and militant feminism of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was undermined, and asserts that the decline of this feminism was due largely to the promotion of a sexual ideology which was hostile to women’s independence. The circumstances about which she writes are frighteningly familiar in the present political climate.


For someone like me - bright enough to feel itchy, but not focused enough to pursue and explore, this book is one of those affirmations of the DUH we know is waiting in history if we are willing to look. The descriptions of court cases illuminating victorian - thru- the twenties court-approved attitudes towards & treatment of children & women are horrific in a whole new way.

One of the ideas which had still not become common when Jeffreys was writing is the simple notion of "sex" including more than "sexual intercourse." That the "sexual freedom" advocated by Shaw, Ellis et al sounds so much like the "sexual revolution" of the 60's is no accident: for women it amounted to the freedom to be fucked. That this vision of "freedom" had survived nearly intact says a lot about the power of the definitions of both "sex" and "freedom" written into the western psyche during the era covered by this book.

This is not ancient history, and could be recommended to those complacently comfortable with Time magazine letting them know when the revolutions are over, or confused and dismayed that some women still seem so angry: those probably just as likely to think that Obama spells the end of racism. But books like this have always been for the reality-based reader - who is hope enough.



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