Victoria Russell

In June of last year, I gave a paper at a workshop on sexuality. Its title was, ‘What is the history of Sexuality?’ Without giving it too much thought, I constructed my twenty-minute paper around the main focus of my PhD: psychological androgyny, or the unsexed mind, as a notion of psycho-sexual equality espoused by radicals in England between 1790 and 1840. Simple. I was all set to give a paper that ticked the necessary boxes regarding sexuality and history. Just to be on the safe side, however, I decided to revisit the question one last time: ‘What is the history of sexuality?’ It was then that the complexity of the question and my apparent ignorance dawned on me. Despite hours of reading, research and general all-round pondering on psychological androgyny and sexual identity, I was suddenly flummoxed. Never mind history, what is sexuality? All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure. How was I to explain to a room full of expectant onlookers that I didn’t understand the question? Perhaps if I delivered the paper at warp speed, no one would notice. It was certainly an option. And then it dawned on me again: the organisers of the workshop weren’t trying to be difficult; they were merely asking a question that we have been trying, in one way or another, to answer for centuries. The radicals of my research were asking the same question: ‘What is Sexuality?’

Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) by Pieter van Dyke, 1795, (wikimedia commons)
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) by Pieter van Dyke, 1795 (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the more recent broadening of accepted sexualities, we still find the term difficult to define. Is sexuality a universal given, something all living creatures possess, or is it something peculiar to human beings? Is it something that requires self-awareness? Imagination? The ability to feel? The ability to compare and contrast? Where does it come from? Is it biological – determined by anatomy and hormones? Is it psychological – a product of environment and culture? Is it innate or learned? The nineteenth-century sexologist Havelock Ellis argued that in order to understand the true nature of sexuality, we would need to remove all the ‘external modifying conditions’ of society and culture. We would need to strip humanity back to its barest essentials. Thankfully, the history of sexuality does not call for such drastic and arguably unethical action. Instead, it merely asks that we attempt to identify those ‘external modifying conditions,’ such as religion or education. Once identified, it asks that we consider how these might have influenced notions of sexuality and identity over time. This, for me, is what makes my area of study – psychological androgyny – so fascinating. It is from the late eighteenth century – a time of huge social and political instability – that people, and Romantic radicals in particular, started to consider and to publicly comment on the effects of environment and social conditioning upon psycho-sexual development.

English advocates of psychological androgyny – Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Johnson Fox and John Goodwyn Barmby, to name but a few – believed that the human mind was naturally unsexed; it was fluid, infinitely varied and beyond simple categorisation and segregation. This egalitarian concept sought to challenge and undermine increasingly conservative and prescriptive notions of gender and sexuality, whipped up by war and the revolution in France. In a bid to maintain stability and social order, conservative and patriarchal opinions, which had existed largely implicitly before the French Revolution, became increasingly explicit. Conservatives called on Biblical precedent and advances in the human sciences to argue that men and women were complementary, yet unequal, opposites. Men and women had distinct and separate bodies, characters, and spheres of responsibility. They argued that to blur such naturally occurring distinctions through mistaken notions of equality would result not only in social chaos but in the dilution and weakening of the sexual and moral character of society and the nation. William Barrow warned that the blurring of sexual identities would ‘impair the firm texture of the British Character.’ In other words, Britain’s intellectual and physical borders would be made vulnerable to foreign attack. To ward against this ever-present threat, greater segregation between the sexes was necessary.

William Blake, ‘Couple in a Waterlily’, Jerusalem, Ch.2, Plate 28. c. 1820, (Wikimedia Commons)
William Blake, ‘Couple in a Waterlily’, Jerusalem, Ch.2, Plate 28. c. 1820, (Wikimedia Commons)

Romantic radicals, in contrast, offered an inclusive, gender-neutral image of mankind that rejected conservative correlations between sexual function and form. The biological, they argued, could not determine the psychological, and a weak body, whether male or female, was not evidence of a weak and dependent mind. ‘Human Beings,’ Coleridge argued, ‘are differenced from each other by degrees only, and these degrees too often-times changing.’ Sexual difference was the arbitrary product of social engineering, underpinned by the patriarchal institutions of education and marriage. It was, they believed, psycho-sexual segregation that was to blame for many of society’s ills. The imposition of increasingly rigid sexual identities for men and women, based on little more than fashionable custom and religious dogma, encouraged brutishness, ignorance, alienation, disaffection and a lack of fellow-understanding and respect that extended into the marital home and beyond. For society to progress, the fluid nature of the human mind – irrespective of biological sex – had to be acknowledged and nurtured. It was to be a revolution, not of war and bloodshed, but of the human mind.

Psychological androgyny was not, however, a synonym for asexuality, nor was it, as is sometimes argued, the masculine appropriation of the feminine. At a time when commenters increasingly appealed to shifts in the human sciences – for example, the emergence of the two-sex model – for evidence of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sexual character, the concept of psychological androgyny sought to protect what Romantic radicals believed to be an ‘infinitely varied humanity.’ From the outset, however, the egalitarian concept of psychological androgyny was marred not only by the political and religious heterodoxy of its promoters, but by its association with sexual deviancy. I have yet to write my final chapter on why this radical concept failed, but victory over Napoleon, the rapid expansion of Empire and the extension of male suffrage in 1832 seem in many ways to have reinforced and reinvigorated patriarchy.

But there was also the not insignificant issue of ambiguity and categorisation. The question that I keep asking myself is not so much why the concept of psychological androgyny failed, but why it has failed ever since to attract significant historiographical and social interest. The problem is, I believe, one of categorisation. The organisers of the workshop rightly highlighted the ways in which the history of sexuality continues to expand and refuses to be easily confined and categorised. And yet, as the radicals of my research discovered, androgyny presents a genuine challenge, and it is one deeply rooted in the politics of sexual identity. Where do we place psychological androgyny? How do we define it? Quite obviously, it does not fit into the traditional male/female binary. Romantic radicals wished for stereotypical binaries to be dispensed with as unhealthy and unnecessary. And yet, in order to consider what psychological androgyny is, we first need to consider what it is not, i.e., purely masculine or purely feminine. To do this, however, we need to consider what these two qualities are themselves. In trying to transcend the traditional binaries of gender, we are continually restricted by them.

In a society that is still largely wedded to binary descriptions of sexuality – regardless even of sexual or psychological orientation – psychological androgyny is a tricky concept to get our heads around. Although it assumes the middle ground, it cannot and should not, I believe, be classed as a third or separate gender. It is a slippery, amorphous concept that constantly evades categorisation. And even though the radicals in my study identified publicly as heterosexual, the fluid nature of androgyny means that it is neither masculine nor feminine; neither heterosexual nor homosexual. Instead, it has the capacity to be all of these and more. It is this flexibility that made, and still makes, the concept of psychological androgyny so disconcerting to the conservative and the orthodox. By placing fewer restrictions upon the expression or identity of sexuality, anything is possible.

William Blake, Albion Rose, 1794-5 (Wikimedia Commons)
William Blake, Albion Rose, 1794-5 (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, the concept of psychological androgyny can contribute to our understanding not only of the past, but of the present. As a fundamentally political ideology, engaged with the social and ethical issues of its day, the Romantic concept of psychological androgyny sought to overcome ignorance, division and isolation in all its forms through education, research and reform. It sought then to look beyond the simple and increasingly divisive male/female binary and even, worryingly to some, to look beyond sexual orientation itself. As demands for recognition rightly grow among LGBTQ communities, I think there is much we can learn from the Romantic concept of psychological androgyny, its reception, its challenges and its apparent failure.

It is surely important for historians, as well as society in general, to reflect more upon the issues that unite rather than those that divide. It is human nature to define, categorise and generalise – it’s how we make sense of a complicated world. But we are so often at pains to chart the emergence of difference that we frequently lose sight of similarities. Both in the past and now, androgyny adds an element of realism to the debate on sexuality and identity. By providing a flexible alternative to the rigid binary model, it can highlight the extent to which societies are prepared to go in order to defend artificial and inaccurate dichotomies. It recognises the limits of human knowledge and accepts ambiguities in human nature – it acknowledges the ‘infinitely varied’ in our collective humanity.

victoria-russell-portrait1Victoria Russell is a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis focuses on the radical concept of psychological androgyny in England during the Romantic era. She is particularly interested in how the concept helped influence reforms to education and marriage. She is currently an Associate Tutor on the Certificate of Higher Education module, British History from 1750.

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