In 1918, the final year of the First World War, over 100 women were convicted for infecting a member of His Majesty’s (HM) armed forces with venereal disease (VD) in England under the controversial Regulation 40D of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Young Lucy Adams from Wakefield was one such woman. She was arrested following a brief affair with an unnamed soldier, and faced a public trial. During the trial, she would have heard the details of her disease retold by the medical practitioners to an all-male court room before being sentenced by the magistrate to a six-month imprisonment, with hard labour. Adams, who was married at the time, protested, claiming that she did not know that she was suffering from the disease. As reported by the Wakefield Express on 7 September 1918, the magistrate told her in his sentencing remarks that when her term was up, he hoped that she would become a proper citizen – highlighting her failure not only as a wife, but also as a citizen.
The First World War is often viewed as a catalyst for women’s rights as women gained better access to the labour market and the right to vote shortly after. Simultaneously, the fear of prostitution and female promiscuity peaked during the war. As a response, the War Office attempted to control women’s lives in a number of ways under DORA, such as restricting drinking, imposing curfews in some areas, and banning women suspected of prostitution from the vicinity of military bases. This post offers some reflection on the trials of women accused of infecting soldiers with VD and on their reporting in the press, as scholars rarely acknowledge or discuss these marginalised women in relation to the First World War.
Interview by Deborah Deacon, Christina Fabiani, Kaitlin Findlay, Adam Kostrich, and Kate Van Genderen.
Edited by Rachel Hope Cleves
Maybe it’s the come-hither look of the female subject on its pulp-inspired cover that leads Amanda Littauer’s Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties (UNC, 2015) to fly off the shelves. More likely, the intriguing research, lucid prose, and well-crafted argument explain the book’s popularity. I assigned Bad Girls to students enrolled in my spring 2016 graduate seminar, “The History of Gender, Sexuality, and the Body,” because the book prompts us to rethink what we think we know about all three categories in the course title. Students of the history of sexuality typically come to class already steeped in the popular memory of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. Bad Girls shakes up this familiar narrative by detailing how young women and girls in the 1940s and 1950s pursued new sexual freedoms, often at a high cost, causing social upheavals. Long before the emergence of a counter-culture, ordinary girls and women challenged the conservative codes of sexual morality that dominated American society and discourse. Their insistence on their right to pursue sexual pleasure has been, until now, an untold story in the history of America’s long sexual revolution.
In 1913, the New York theatre world was electrified with the presentation of Eugène Brieux’s play, Damaged Goods. While Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, had referenced sexually transmitted disease, Brieux’s plot featured a main character wrestling with the physical and social ramifications of syphilis after an ill-chosen affair. As with so many of his works, Brieux intended the characters in Damaged Goods to point out social injustice — in this case, the way syphilis could be spread to innocent spouses and children — but the only heroes in the story remain solely the men who also pose the greatest threat. The syphilis bacteria isn’t the real pathogen in the story. Instead, the real threat stems from how the male characters use their intelligence, rendering the women helpless carriers of the disease. The play and the publicity surrounding the piece cast women to the sidelines, but the actual history of the production places women in far more active roles.
Interview by Justin Bengry
Yorick Smaal’s recent book Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War (Palgrave, 2015) looks to the dynamics of wartime to consider how sex and sexuality was affected by global conflict. Massive influxes of American servicemen transformed sexual communities, and even language, in Australia. Sexual fluidities still characterised queer communities and male identities before a more rigid sexual binary emerged later in the century. Smaal’s work offers not only an exciting local study, but one inflected by global processes, challenging us to think of queer history in the most expansive of terms.
In 1999, RTÉ, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, aired journalist Mary Rafferty’s three-part special, States of Fear. The exposé included interviews with survivors of Ireland’s industrial schools, state-funded Catholic institutions where poor and unwanted children were deposited for most of the twentieth century, and where many suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The series shocked Ireland, drawing such an intense public response that, before the final episode aired, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern issued an official apology on behalf of the Irish state for failing to intervene. The next year the government established an inquiry into the alleged abuses, led by High Court Justice Seán Ryan.
Christian Brother’s School, Tralee, Co. Kerry, circa 1910. (Courtesy of National Library of Ireland).
Catholic lay orders, mostly Christian Brothers, ran the industrial schools. They were pitiful institutions: teachers poorly trained, facilities badly kempt, resources ineffectively used. The “Ryan Report” revealed that children had complained to parents, police, and others about their treatment to no avail and were instead ignored or punished for speaking up. It was their word against the word of the adults, the doers of God’s work on Earth. Continue reading