Kirsten Leng

Sexual Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany, 1900-1933 examines how German-speaking feminists engaged the emerging field of sexology at the beginning of the twentieth century to rethink gender and sexual subjectivities, develop feminist theories, and advance demands for social, political, and cultural change.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Kirsten Leng: In the book, I examine how German-speaking feminists engaged sexology at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sexology was a new field of study that took shape in the later decades of the nineteenth century. It drew upon biology, psychology, anthropology, archaeology, history, zoology, and other disciplines to comprehensively study sex, gender, and sexuality. These women approached sexual science as a resource for rethinking and reformulating gender and sexual subjectivities, for building feminist theories, and for advancing demands for social, political, and cultural change. Importantly, I argue that women were not merely “users” of sexology, but actually created new knowledge that challenged sexist biases and expanded possibilities for gendered and sexual expression. Women were in dialogue with male creators of sexual scientific knowledge, in the pages of sexology journals and on the governing boards of various sex reform organizations. Although they may have clashed in their conceptualizations of gender and sexuality—particularly when it came to what we would now call cisgendered women’s bodies—women and men shared many of the same “blindspots” when it came to thinking about race, class, and ability. This meant that the sexological knowledge that these feminists—who were white, European, and middle-class—created was emancipating for some women, yet limiting for others.

I think that people will want to read this book for a number of reasons. For people interested in the history of feminism or feminist ideas, it illuminates the intellectual resourcefulness of women, many of whom did not have any formal education. The book highlights feminists’ contributions to a world-changing scientific field, sexology. For people interested in science and technology studies, the book pushes back on assumptions that sexology was inherently antagonistic to women, and that feminists were allergic to, or removed from, science. Instead, it shows how science could serve multiple different political ends. Along these lines, the book reframes sexology as a field of contested knowledge among a range of actors who occupied different social locations (and had different degrees of access to power). For people interested in the history of gender and sexuality, it shows how actors in the past were rethinking the boundaries and possibilities of gender and sexuality in ways that were incredibly expansive, and that, in some cases, foreshadowed contemporary discussions—for example, of gender and sexual fluidity, which they grounded in their examinations of biology, psychology, anthropology, and genetics.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

Leng: I blame British sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist Edward Carpenter. I initially encountered these gentlemen, and the whole world of turn-of-the-century sexology, whilst writing my Master’s thesis on the British socialist Eleanor Marx, who was a contemporary and collaborated with both men. When I began my PhD, I intended to study the politics of socialism and homosexuality in Britain and Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; however, in the second year of my doctorate I took a course on “sex, crime, and the city,” which allowed me to delve deeper into the worlds of sexology and sex reform in Germany and Austria. I discovered the writing of Anna Rüling and Johanna Elberskirchen, who were publicly open about their homosexuality in the early twentieth century, collaborated with leading sexologists like Magnus Hirschfeld, and wrote fascinating speeches and treatises about womanhood, homosexuality, and sexual politics grounded in contemporary scientific knowledge. Within their writing, Rüling and Elberskirchen used scientific knowledge to question what it means to be a woman, to insist upon the “naturalness” of homosexuality, and, in Elberskirchen’s case, to criticize normative heteromasculinity.

When I discovered Rüling and Elberskirchen, there was very little written about them. Yet they utterly fascinated me. And I couldn’t understand why they had been so elided, given that they were involved in sex reform and feminist causes, and clearly conversant with contemporary sexology. Elberskirchen’s work was even published and reviewed in sexological journals. Their work—and the elision of their work—inspired me to ask: were there more women writing and thinking “sexologically”? Why haven’t their stories been told? Why don’t we think of them as sexologists in their own right, especially given that many male sexologists, like Edward Carpenter, were not trained scientists either? These questions wouldn’t leave, and prompted me to shift my research focus away from socialism and homosexuality, towards women’s sexological work in Britain and German-speaking Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

My book ends in 1933—for perhaps obvious reasons. Many of the people I study went into exile, or didn’t survive the Third Reich or Second World War. As I suggest in my conclusion, I remain curious about women’s sexological knowledge after World War II. Someday, perhaps, I’d love to write a twentieth-century history of women sexologists that accounts for the dramatic transformations wrought by the Second World War and Holocaust, and that accounts for women’s work beyond Europe and the U.S.

NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Leng: It certainly speaks to feminism and its intellectual history, to the social and political possibilities of scientific knowledge, to the ways in which gender, race, class, nation, and ability can limit our perceptions of the world and shape our research. I am so grateful to the book for providing occasions to think about the relationship between subjectivity and epistemology, the place of women in histories of ideas and the sciences, and the role of feminism in Germany (and Austria’s) past.

NOTHCES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use and were there any especially exciting discoveries or any particular challenges?)

Leng: I undertook archival research in five different countries (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States), where I collected monographs, health guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished memoirs and manuscripts, and personal and organizational correspondence.  I also took stock of meeting minutes, reading lists, and the contents of personal libraries. To make sense of these documents, I engaged diverse analytical practices. I read the texts hermeneutically, attentive to their use of evidence, citation practices, and political arguments. I read women’s  texts comparatively, specifically against men’s texts, to account for rhetorical and political differences. I further read the texts through the lenses offered by philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of “knowledge/power”; feminist science studies’ arguments about subjectivity, objectivity, and epistemology; and sociological treatments of knowledge-making as a social practice. I then situated these texts and their emergence at the intersection of major early twentieth century phenomena: namely, the rise of sexual science, the women’s movement, the welfare state, urbanization, and moral reform movements.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

Leng: In my dissertation, I examined the writing and ideas of German-speaking and British feminists. I examined their exchanges but also read their work comparatively. My dissertation also ended in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War, when transnational connections broke down and the war reshaped the direction of sexual scientific knowledge production. In my book, I examine the period 1900-1933 with a focus on German-speaking feminists. Not to slight the British, but I wanted to mine the daring ideas put forward by the German feminists (who have yet to receive their fair share of historiographic attention), and also to examine what happened to sexology, feminism, and sexual reform during, and as a result of, the First World War.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Leng: First year, first semester, of my Master of Arts program, I happened to take an elective history course on Gender and Sexuality in Victorian Britain. To this day, I don’t know why I took it, or why it appealed to me—I was pursuing a Masters in Political Economy, and was planning on studying the parliamentary debates surrounding same-sex marriage that were occurring at the time in Canada. Yet this history course captivated me: the whole concept that sex and sexuality had histories blew my mind. I had read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 during my undergraduate studies, but it was not until I read actual evidence of how understandings, beliefs, and norms surrounding gender, sexuality, and sexual practices varied across time that I really understood the possibilities latent in the assertion that sex had a history. For me, learning that something so seemingly natural and unchanging as sex had a history was incredibly liberating and empowering: it opened up the future, too.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Leng: We are in the midst of a radical rethinking of gender and sexuality. People, by and large, are becoming much more accepting of the fact that gender and sexuality are not static, binary phenomena. Especially among younger generations, there is an embrace of sexual and gender fluidity and plurality. My book shows that such radical rethinking of gender and sexuality has a history, and that science was a resource in such intellectual-political projects. (By the same token, my book also pushes back against the notion that science “proves” gender and sexuality are binary!) It also shows that feminists lead efforts to rethink gender and sexuality, and that while some feminists of the period may have been gender essentialists, that was not true of all! Finally, the book disavows the artificial distinction between theorizing and practice: the feminists, and many of the sexologists, I examined in the book were engaged in projects aimed at social, political, cultural, and economic reform, and saw their intellectual work as part and parcel of their political projects.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Leng: I’m currently at work on a book that examines another aspect of feminist history, albeit on a different continent: namely, a history of humor in U.S. feminism, with a focus on the later twentieth century. What has intrigued me is the degree to which sexually-marginalized actors, such as lesbian feminists and sex workers, were at the forefront of humorous activism. The book examines both activist and cultural practices, and hopes to further dismantle the division between politics and culture present in so much of the historiography of feminism. Sex, humor and feminism: as it turns out, the triumvirate enjoys an incredibly fascinating, if again overlooked, history.

Kirsten Leng is Associate Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a historian of sexuality, feminism, science and humor. Leng’s research makes contributions to the history of sexuality and sexology, to the history of science and feminist science studies, to studies of contemporary sexual subjectivity, and to feminist humor and media studies. Her most recent work takes up the role of humor in the history of feminist activism and culture in U.S. during the late twentieth century. She Tweets @KirstenLeng

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