Interview by Rachel Moss
Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages explores the variety of strategies developed by medieval artists and writers to render sodomy visible. The author Robert Mills argues that we need to take account of the role played by translation—whether visual, verbal or cultural—in endowing sodomy with a pictorial or textual form. Mills also considers the extent to which medieval materials can be re-visioned in light of twenty-first-century categories of thought. Arguing against the view that anachronism inevitably produces a distorted picture of the past, he advocates instead a flexible approach to questions of terminology—one in which fidelity to an authentically ‘medieval’ vocabulary doesn’t constitute the only possible framework for understanding images of gender and sexuality in the period. Focusing on a wide array of sources, including visual depictions of sodomites in illuminated Bibles, motifs of gender transformation as envisioned by medieval artists and commentators on Ovid, and imagery and texts associated with religious houses and other enclosed spaces, the book builds a picture of sodomy’s rich multimedia presence in the Middle Ages.
Interview by David Minto
A sweeping account of sexuality and socialism in twentieth century Britain, Stephen Brooke’s Sexual Politics has the feel of a traditional political history even as it foregrounds a subject still too often ignored in the analysis of political modernity. Demonstrating how leftist organizing shaped national battles over abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, the book also explores how these issues affected Labour Party politics. From the sexual utopias envisaged by Edwardian radicals through to the liberal orthodoxies of the Tony Blair years, Brooke follows a vast and varied cast of characters who cumulatively emphasize the significant bearing of class on sexual politics in Britain. Labour Party reforms of the late 1960s regarding abortion, contraception, and gay sex have long been acknowledged as important aspects of the country’s “sexual revolution,” and these events provide pivotal chapters in this book too. Brooke’s longer history of leftist sexual politics, however, places these watershed moments in a suggestive new frame, while his attention to entanglements between them promises fresh conceptual insights.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision established the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. Discussions of the United States national past abounded in the majority opinion and in the dissents. The words “history” / “historical” / “historic” appear in the decision 63 times and the word “tradition” appears 47 times. The Justices used the word “precedent” 26 times and the word “past” 10 times.
The 5-4 decision, delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, relies heavily on the work of historians of sexuality, gender and race. Two amicus briefs shaped the historical framework for the majority opinion: Brief of Historians of Marriage and the American Historical Association as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners and Brief of the Organization of American Historians as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioners. Obergefell, in other words, is a clear example of how the work of historians matters. This collective body of work shapes how policymakers interpret the past and regulate the present.
Below is a bibliography of historical scholarship used in these amicus briefs. These books and articles form an extensive syllabus with which to teach students about the decision in particular and about the racialized and classed histories of women, gender and sexuality more broadly.
Notches also wants to know how our readers would teach the Obergefell decision in the classroom. We invite you to use the comments section to share sources and ideas for teaching this decision to high school, undergraduate and graduate students. What sources would you add to the bibliography below?
Happy Pride from the Notches Editorial Board.
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision, Notches is excited to publish a three-part series that reflects upon the antecedents and legacies of this Supreme Court decision, which established that a state’s ban on the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. Our contributors, Linda Gordon, Beth Bailey and Heather Munro Prescott, invite us to reconsider the significance of Griswold. Each article suggests new ways of contextualizing Griswold and the history of reproductive politics in the United States.
When the Supreme Court decided Griswold in 1965, birth control advocates might well have concluded that the decision marked a final recognition of the basic human need for reproduction control. It had taken fifty years to defeat the repressive, prudish and sexist ban on birth control that began in the 19th century. Furthermore, in the eight years between Griswold and Roe v Wade, eighteen states in the US repealed or loosened their prohibition on abortion. It seemed that acceptance of reproductive rights was on an unstoppable path to victory, much as gay marriage appears today. But this optimistic prediction proved wrong, of course, and another fifty years of a powerful campaign against reproductive freedom followed.
Margaret Sanger surrounded by supporters on the steps of the Brooklyn Court of Special Sessions, January 7, 1917. The photo was taken during the trial of Sanger and others who had been arrested in 1916 for operating a birth control clinic in contravention of New York state law.
I don’t want to rehash what so many, including myself, have written about the anti-abortion movement. Instead I want to look at the fifty years before Griswold, in order to put that decision into context—and to understand why I consider it to have been too little, too late.
Rebecca L. Davis
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision, which struck down state laws that banned married people’s use of contraceptives, arrives in the midst of fraught contests across the United States over women’s access to reproductive healthcare. From last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, which allowed employers to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) reproductive healthcare mandate for health insurance plans if it violated the employer’s religious beliefs, to more recent Congressional proposals to prohibit abortion after 20 weeks, religious voices echo throughout American debates over reproductive choices and healthcare options. Religious institutions and individuals typically appear in histories of reproductive rights as foes of women’s reproductive choices. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of organized opposition to legal contraceptives in the twentieth century, and Catholics united with conservative Protestants to challenge legal abortion in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
The loudest voices in these debates tend to be the conservative ones. But as three scholars showed at a panel on “Religious and Reproductive Politics” at the April 2015 meeting of the Organization of American Historians (the professional organization for scholars of North American history) in St. Louis, religious activism in defense of women’s reproductive rights has a crucial yet often overlooked history that demands our attention. More provocatively, these histories of religions and reproductive rights challenge the idea that either religious beliefs, leaders, or institutions are more likely to oppose women’s reproductive freedoms than support them. Instead, they show that many previously overlooked individuals, acting upon religious beliefs and asserting their religious authority, have been forceful, effective advocates for reproductive rights.
Los Angeles Clergy Counseling Service on Problem Pregnancies advertisement, circa 1969. Private collection of Gillian Frank.
Matt Cook, Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2012)
Thomas Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).
Miriam Frank, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).
Estelle Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
Raúl Necochea López, A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Daniel Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
Erica Ryan, Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender, and Americanism in the First Red Scare (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2014).
Interview by Katherine Harvey with Jennifer Evans
A sweeping history of changing sexual attitudes and behaviours in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex explores the history of the ‘first sexual revolution’. The book traces the transformation of western approaches to sexuality during the Age of Enlightenment. Dabhoiwala detects a decline in the influence of church and state over individual sexual behaviour, and an increasing sense that consenting adults should have the freedom to do with their bodies as they wish. The significance of these changes was so wide-ranging that their impact was felt far beyond the bedroom, creating new ideas about equality, privacy and individual freedom which continue to influence our lives even today.