Feminism & the Rise of Women’s Sexuality


It has become a popular conception that, before the rise of feminism, all people were tragically misinformed on the subject of female sexuality.

Before the female vote, the media tells us, there was not a doctor in the world, much less the United States that believed women could have orgasms. Men did not expect their wives to have sexual desire, and mothers told their daughters to “lie back and think of your country,” actively encouraging young women to anticipate unengaging sex lives. Even wives bought into this, so we’re told, treating sex with their husbands as a fleeting annoyance.

Right? Maybe not.

We can’t ask the United States women of the 19th century themselves how they felt about sex, but we can consult the literature on the subject that they likely read, and these texts tell of a sexual knowledge that is rarely acknowledged today.

            It’s easy to see where the media got the idea of 19th century Americans as prudes. In the middle years of the 19th century, one of the best-selling books on the subject of sexuality was Dr. William Acton’s Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, which went through several editions of printings in both England and the U.S. Among other things, Acton posits in his book that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally.” In addition to this, a Londoner by the name of Captain Frederick Marryat wrote a book of his travels in the United States in 1839. In this book, he told the now-famous story of American women so ashamed of their bodies that they refused to use the word “leg,” preferring the much more refined “limb.” Captain Marryat tells of this habit being taken to its extreme at a girls’ school, where the headmistress had dressed all four limbs of the piano “in modest little trousers with frills at the bottom of them!” It’s clear, through Marryat’s accounts, that many people took Dr. Acton’s advice completely to heart.

            The question arises, though, of whether Dr. William Acton’s views were representative of all experts in the field. Phrenologist Orson S. Fowler, for one, would beg to disagree. “Passion [is] absolutely necessary in woman,” he wrote in 1870. “Amativeness is created in the female head as universally as in the male… That female passion exists, is as obvious as the sun shines.” Indeed, Dr. Charles Taylor, in 1882, believed that a woman’s passion was so strong that ignoring it could be damaging to her health: “It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or married life… I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” For if the reproductive organs are not used, Dr. Taylor says, “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet, or disturbance first and weakness ultimately occurs.” Dr. Taylor recommended muscle exercises and sexual education. This gives the impression of major disagreement in the field, when we compare these statements to Dr. Acton’s.

            Not all views were as strong as Taylor’s, though. Popular medical writer Henry Chavasse, in 1866, believed that in human beings, as well as animals in general, “the male is more ardent and fierce, and… the desires of the female never reach that height as to impel her to the commission of crime.” Chavasse also points out that while women’s pleasure may be “less acute” than men’s, women’s is longer lasting. Chavasse takes an interesting middle ground with these statements.

            All of this information may lead one to believe that many doctors believed in some female desire, but they were tragically misinformed as to the actual nature of sexual biology, weren’t they? Perhaps not. Dr. George Napheys, in 1869, grasped the truth of a myth that persists today: that any sex during pregnancy is somehow detrimental to both mother and child.

Napheys writes, “There is no reason why passions should not be gratified in moderation and with caution during the whole period of pregnancy.” On the subject of female sexual desire being indecorous, Napheys says, “It is a false notion and contrary to nature that this passion in a woman is a derogation to her sex. The science of physiology indicates most clearly its propriety and dignity.” He goes on to denounce wives who “plume themselves on their repugnance or their distaste for their conjugal obligations.” His wrongness when calling sex an obligation aside, it’s clear that many doctors were well aware of the biology of sex, and that some thought the attitude that sex was unrefined was detrimental.

            What, then, of the female orgasm? Passion is one thing, but were doctors of the 19th century even aware of the existence of the female orgasm? Dr. Ely Van de Warker, in 1878, makes it clear doctors of the time period were well aware of orgasms in women. Van de Warker, a fellow of the American Gynecological Society, described sexual passion in women as “the analogue of the subjective copulative sensations of man, … the acme of the sexual orgasm in woman is the sensory equivalent of of emission in man, observing the distinction necessarily implied between the sexes – that in woman it is psychic and subjective, and that in man it has also a physical element and is objective.” Van de Warker is essentially making the point that just because there is no physical proof of the female orgasm, does not mean it doesn’t exist.

            To further prove the point, in the American Journal of Obstetrics in 1883, Dr. J. Milne Chapman described, with a good amount of detail and a startling amount of accuracy, woman’s sexual response. He said the preparatory stage “may be reached by any means, bodily or mental, which, in the opposite sex, cause erection. Following upon this, then, is a stage of pleasurable excitement, gradually increasing and culminating in an acme of excitement, which may be called the state of consummation, and the analogue of which in the male is emission. This is followed in both sexes by a degree of nervous prostration, less marked, however, in the female, and… by a relief to the general congestion of all the genital organs which has existed, and perhaps increased, from the beginning of the preparatory stage.” This description shows fairly conclusively that many doctors did, in fact, understand female sexual passion, pleasure, and orgasm; in fact, I would argue that Chapman’s description of each stage of female pleasure having an equivalent in men shows an understanding and lack of the fear of women that one might expect from doctors of the Freudian age.

            Carl N. Degler, writing on this very subject of sexual awareness in his essay, “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the 19th Century,” says, “All of this evidence, it seems to me, shows that there was a significant body of opinion and information quite different from that advanced on women’s sexuality by William Acton and others of his outlook,” and I must say I agree. It is unavoidable, looking at the evidence, to begin to believe that doctors of the time were more informed than historical writers and the media of today make them out to be.

            But how widespread were these opinions? Were these observations kept only to the doctors themselves, or did the ordinary public have access to these truths? At least Napheys, Chavasse, and Fowler were writing books on their opinions that were meant to be read by those untrained in medicine, so Acton’s views were hardly the only ones available. And Napheys’ and Fowler’s books sold very well, prompting the printings of several editions.

            Several doctors pointed out that there was some danger in the Acton point of view. Montrose S. Pallen, for example, made a connection between the beginnings of puberty and the onset of mental problems in young women. He called it a time of “new and extraordinary physical change,” making the point that repression of sexual feelings can cause illness. Another doctor, William McLaury, posited that illness in women can come from lack of sexual gratification. “Females feel often that they are not appreciated,” Dr. McLaury wrote in a medical journal, “that they have no one to confide in; then they become morose, angular and disagreeable as a result of continual disappointment to their social and sexual longings. Even those married may become the victims of sexual starvation when the parties are mentally, magnetically, and physically antagonistic.” The overall truth – or lack thereof – of these claims notwithstanding, McLaury’s and Pallen’s beliefs clearly show the trepidation many doctors felt when faced with the Acton model of women.

            In a similar vein, Henry Chavasse wrote in his book Physical Life of Man and Woman, on the subject of the causes of sexual maladies including nymphomania, that these illnesses “are born as well of extreme restraint as of extreme excess… Females seem to suffer even more than males… Hence the old proverb, ‘The convent and the confessional are the cradles of hysteria and nymphomania.’” This shows the seriousness of women believing themselves to have no sexual desire, and believing that they ought to have no sexual desire. The outlook could be very damaging.

            It’s hard to understand where the idea of women having no sexual desire could even come from, as doctors tell us that husbands of the time, as much as now, were gratified by their wives’ pleasure and often craved it. Dr. Van de Warker wrote that the husband “not only demands pleasure and satisfaction for himself, but he requires something much more difficult to give – the appearance, if not the real existence, of satisfaction and pleasure in the object of his attentions. Unhappiness and suspicion are often the result of the absence of this pleasure [in women], and are sure to work to the material disadvantage of the weaker party. To show that this is really the case, I need but to remind physicians how often they are approached by husbands upon this subject; yet further, how often the coldness and indifference of wives are alleged as the excuse for conjugal infidelity.” If doctors and husbands alike feel as though coldness of wives is a reason to ask a doctor for medical advice, then that very coldness could hardly be their idea of natural.

            Van de Warker’s explanation of female “impotency,” or lack of sexual desire, is quite interesting. He ascribes it to “sexual incompatibility,” saying, “so far as my own observation extends, the husband is generally at fault. The more common cause is acute sexual irritability on the part of the husband.” (Today, “acute sexual irritability” is more commonly known as premature ejaculation.) Another doctor, William Goodell, agreed, cautioning men to learn what their wives desired sexually or else cause female impotency. “Destroy the reciprocity of the union,” Goodell says, “and marriage is no longer an equal partnership, but a sensual usurpation on the one side and a loathing submission on the other.” What is most remarkable about Goodell’s quote is not only that he, like Van de Warker, puts the onus on men to improve their wives’ sexual desire, but that he believed, in the 19th century, that a marriage’s ideal state of being was “an equal partnership.” It’s an awfully progressive view for the times.

            Looking over this evidence, it’s clear that, if not all doctors believed in female passion and orgasm, there was at least some debate on the subject. Degler, in his essay, puts it like this: “… In the end, there is a certain undeniable inconclusiveness in simply raising up one collection of writers against another, even if their existence does make the issue an open one, rather than the closed one that so many secondary writers have made it. It suggests, at the very least, that there was a sharp difference of medical opinion, rather than a consensus, on the nature of women’s sexual feelings and needs.” It must have been a turbulent time for women; their education about their very bodies could change from one educator to the next.

            So, then, the question of whether or not 19th century Americans were prudish has been answered, or answered as well as it can be. A question that cannot be answered conclusively is this: why do historical writers keep portraying the doctors of this time as so backwards? For they certainly do: Walter Houghton says in 1957, “For the sexual act was associated by many wives only with a duty, and by most husbands with a necessary if pleasurable yielding to one’s baser nature; by few, therefore, with any innocent and joyful experience,” disagreeing totally with many accounts by doctors of the time in question. Another modern historian, Nathan Hale, Jr., goes even further than Houghton: “Many women came to regard marriage as little better than legalized prostitution. Sexual passion became associated almost exclusively with the male, with prostitutes, and women of the lower class.” This is a far cry from Goodell’s “equal partnership” in love and sex.

            Perhaps this is a defense mechanism on the part of the historians, a way to distance themselves from those that they study. Maybe it’s just shoddy researching and an inability to own up to it. Or perhaps it’s simple profiling: grouping all doctors of 19th Century America together as prudes is far easier, after all, than to portray them as the varied group that they were. Unfortunately, the reason is difficult to determine, and the question of “why?” may never be answered.

            It appears to be true that there were the beginnings of the sexual liberation of women in the late 20th century visible in the mid to late 19th century. The ripple effect is fascinating, going from “equal partnership” to bra burning to Start Cutting Up Men. The origins of feminist sex are in Chavasse, in Napheys, and in Van de Warker. The 19th Century seems to have been quite different from what we assume.

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