By Anna Cook
Last Wednesday (9 September), long-term NEH-MHS fellow, April Haynes, gave a brown bag lunch presentation here at the MHS titled “Riotous Flesh: Gender, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice, 1830-1860.” April described for us the way in which nineteenth-century female reformers embraced physiology – the “glamour science” of the 1800s – as a way of speaking about human sexuality and establishing their right to act, as embodied individuals, in the public sphere. Specifically, she focused on the lectures given by nineteenth-century radical Sylvester Graham during the 1830s on “the science of human life.” In these lectures, Graham spoke about the virtue of sexual self-restraint and particularly about the dangers of “solitary vice” (masturbation) which, he argued, could adversely affect the nervous system of both men and women.
When Graham offered these lectures to women-only audiences as a “lecture to mothers” in cities up and down the Northeast from 1833-1837 riots broke out, with male protesters alleging that Graham was a “mass seducer” of his female audience, and that the content of the lectures were inappropriate for women’s ears. In response, Women, many of whom were active in other reform movements such as the anti-slavery movement, resisted the protesters and asserted their right to attend the lectures – at times even bringing adolescent daughters in tow. In 1840 a group of women founded the Ladies Physiological Society, a sister-society to the American Physiological Society, for the promotion of physiological science. Women’s societies across the East and Midwest enthusiastically sought out lecturers and literature on physiology, bringing Grahams ideas from metropolitan centers into “into the hinterlands.” Eventually, the language of physiology and its moral framework for thinking about human sexuality made its way from the margins into established spaces such as schools and hospitals. During her stay here at the MHS, April has been using the records of the New England Female Medical College, records from girls’ schools, and the correspondence of women’s organizations with missionaries and missionary societies in order to track the ways in which women may have carried the language of physiology from reform movements into these institutional settings.
In the conversation that followed April’s presentation, attendees posed questions about the link between Graham’s movement and temperance activism (Graham’s roots as a reformer were in the temperance crusade), the religious dimension of his physiological theories (Graham himself was Presbyterian, but his ideas had wide appeal across religious lines), and the ways in which Graham’s concept of “solitary vice” re-framed the question of masturbation as concern for women as well was men (since the problem was no longer non-procreative sex, but rather a broader lack of self-restraint). April suggests that Graham’s new framework provided women with a way of “reworking embodiment,” affirming the reality women’s bodies and sexuality while simultaneously offering them a path to bodily respectability: self-restraint. By “abjecting one particular behavior” (masturbation) possibilities were opened up for women to imagine themselves as sexual beings who would remain pure as long as they stayed within the boundaries virtuous sexual activity. We also spoke about the striking lack of dissenting voices, even from the free-thinking radicals who, as April put it, “could think their way out of marriage!” yet did not question the danger of the solitary vice.
Many thanks to April for sharing some of the fruits of her research with us. I, for one, look forward to reading the project in published form. Best wishes to her as she moves on to a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society.