Early Asexual Feminists: The Asexual History of Social Purity Activists and Spinsters

Daria Kent is an asexual writer and artist working in New York City. You can follow her on Instagram @Daria_Kent_.

"[...]spinsters were seen as queer, not because they were not mothers or wives, but because they wanted to go into the public sphere and to break the gender boundaries between the private and the public." — Hellesund Tone

Before they were suffragettes, these progressive women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were social purity activists. Social purity or temperance activism serves as one of the earliest major examples of women-led activism in Western history. Although these women are rightfully credited with modern age of consent laws, they are rarely credited as an asexual and queer movement. This article will walk through the history and doctrine of social purity activists. From their campaigns of the late nineteenth century to being branded spinsters in the Roaring 1920s, these women consistently challenged perceptions of sexuality and gender roles.

Social purity activism is a term that summarizes a long period of women-led activism in England and the United States in the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century. The period was marked by a series of campaigns that focused on issues pertaining to women and children. Social purity activists worked (among other things) to raise the age of consent, end lawful sex work, end sexual violence against women, further temperance, and generally change perceptions of traditional gender roles.

The movement was first brought together in the 1880s, campaigning for an end to sex work. These activists included feminists who wanted to end male sexual hypocrisy; religious figures who preached celibacy; and those who opposed government regulation of sex work. This melange would produce the social purity movement, as well as base the movement in a distinctly asexual framework, one that “argued that sex was not a human necessity”.

This point of focus would resurface frequently in the history of social purity activism through the idea of abstinence. The movement was driven by concepts of celibacy or “continence,” with the early Social Purity advocates most blatant in this stance. For them, abstaining from sexual relationships was a wholly feminist cause. Prominent British social purity activists such as Francis Swiney and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy believed that it was only through continence that wives would be able to establish equality with their husbands. Both famously called upon their fellow women to cease sexual relations with men in order to end sexual violence and women's subjugation. Swiney even argued that sexual desire was “not natural” and was likely part of unnatural patriarchy and its control. She was known for using eugenics to assert that women were the dominant sex, more evolved than men. For Swiney, women were destined to lead the human race to an egalitarian and asexual state.

Many social purity activists made the decision not to marry and remain celibate. At the time, this was not an entirely radical choice. They were acknowledged then as spinsters, but not with the distasteful connotation of the early twentieth century. As Norwegian anthropologist and historian Hellesund Tone illustrates in an interview with We Who Feel Differently:

Victorian culture was a society with separate spheres for men and women, a strong emphasis on gender differences and how women had certain characteristics and men others, and it was acceptable for men and women to live separate lives. In that gender framing, it was possible to develop a woman’s culture, where men were excluded, and women; femininity and feminine values got great attention. Therefore, these spinsters could live in a culture where they worked amongst other women. They were doctors, nurses or teachers, and they spent their whole careers with other women doing good for society… It was possible to develop this women-only sphere, where many spinsters had the possibility of creating lives full of dignity.

The ideal relationship, in the mind of social purity activists, centered around the concept of psychic love. Historian Sheila Jeffreys defines this relationship as a “realisation of justice, equality, and sympathy between the sexes”. Once again, this relationship was defined by its sexlessness, but it is still a compassionate, emotional union. The description bears resemblance to some modern asexual relationships: a queerplatonic relationship or a non-romantic relationship that is closer than a friendship. It is quite possible that the social purity movements have influenced modern perceptions of asexual relationship possibilities.

The social purity movement was affected by pre-existing Victorian ideas about feminine sexuality. Though the movement aimed to provide women with new ways to engage with their sexuality, these new options were limited. Notably, the movement was anti-sex work. Some social purity activists also prioritized non-sexual relationships. Social purity beliefs were dominated by traditional Christianity ideas.

Although social purity activists did not accomplish all of their goals, they were successful in raising the age of consent to sixteen in the United States in the 1870s and in Britain in the 1880s. On both sides of the pond, activists were able to sow the seeds for future feminist movements and change perceptions of sexual morality. As the twentieth century approached, the movement evolved alongside the changes of the new millennium.

What truly transformed the social purity activists into spinsters was opposition. The world was not progressing towards the asexual utopia that Swiney envisioned. On the contrary, sexology exploded in the early twentieth century, signaling a major cultural shift towards sexual liberation. Women experimented with shorter skirts and bobbed haircuts, becoming ‘flappers’. The availability and independence of the automobile allowed couples to be more sexually active. Psychologist Sigmund Freud and physician Havelock Ellis entered the public zeitgeist, bringing once-taboo discussions of sexuality with them.

On these grounds, many historians have interpreted the Spinsters, who still clung to many of their beliefs from social purity activism, as prudish and old-fashioned. These historians fail to acknowledge the inherent patriarchy grounded in the Western world’s newfound sexual liberation. This misogyny is evident in Ellis’ work, which was widely popular at the time. Ellis’ defined women’s sexuality purely as it complemented heterosexual men’s. He emphasized that women played “the more passive part” in—presumably heterosexual—sexual interactions, and thus were inherently masochistic. As a man of eugenics, he also argued that there were innate biological differences between the sexes that made women psychologically weaker and emotional. He also declared that motherhood was the only and ultimate reward for women. The Roaring Twenties––and Thirties––were hardly free of the era’s rampant misogyny.

Spinsters failed to adhere to this new, narrow vision of what a woman should be, as it was defined by men. They were white, middle-class women and held a certain amount of privilege. With their university educations, they held more formal education than a good number of men. These women worked in the public sphere as teachers. They lived alone and provided for themselves. The spinsters were also actively involved in influencing legislation, just as the social purity activists before them. These women took on traditionally masculine characteristics as opposed to exploring a more feminine sensuality. The mainstream deemed this behavior as “a perversion of normal, heterosexually defined femininity” and showed great scorn for the spinster.

Gender nonconformity was feared for its possible links to lesbianism, helped in part thanks to Freud’s popularity at the time. And while modern queer theories disagree with Freud’s thesis, it is very likely that many of these women were indeed queer by today’s standards. Historians have suggested the possibility that spinsters were asexual, bisexual, lesbians, transgender, or some combination of the aforementioned, by today’s standards. After all, Boston marriages—the practice of two women living together independent from men—were not uncommon among spinsters. But whether or not these individual women were spinsters is beside the point. For Tone, the identity of the spinster was fundamentally queer. Tone states,

I would claim that spinsters were seen as queer, not because they were not mothers or wives, but because they wanted to go into the public sphere and to break the gender boundaries between the private and the public. They wanted to have access to public life, to be able to take jobs and to be in politics; they wanted to have their own economy. In the Norwegian context, this is the queerest characteristic of the spinsters: They really wanted to break some fundamental gender roles and consequently, they were seen as a threat to the established gender order.

The spinster was a queer identity not only because of her lesbian potential but her gender nonconformity; her mere existence challenged perceptions of gender.

If social purity activism was a step towards future feminism, the newfound stigma around spinsters in the early twentieth century was retaliation from a world simply not prepared for the possibility of queerness or gender equality. These women carried an ideology firmly grounded in an asexual possibility that grew to encapsulate a broader queer significance. Their work would not only influence the legislation of their day but begin to shift mainstream perceptions of sexuality and gender roles.

This article is the second in a series identifying asexuality as it appeared in historical movements. Although queer history generally lacks research, the research involving historical asexuality is almost nonexistent. In this series, I hope to remedy that lack by focusing on early queer social movements, proving that asexuality has always existed in the world alongside other queer identities. The first article focuses on the dandy, a historical archetype beginning in the nineteenth century, as a wholly queer figure—not simply gay, but rather asexual and gender-defying. Redefining the Dandy: The Asexual Man of Fashion can be found here.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Cavanagh, S. L. "Spinsters, Schoolmarms, And Queers: Female Teacher Gender And Sexuality In Medicine And Psychoanalytic Theory And History." Discourse 27.4 (2006): 421-440. Print.

Jeffreys, Sheila. The Spinster And Her Enemies. North Melbourne, Vic.: Spinifex Press, 2010. Print.

Harwell, Adrienne. Social Purity Movement. Women in American History : A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection: Progressive Era through World War II, 2017.

Hellesund, Tone. Interview by We Who Feel Differently. 28 Oct. 2009, https://wewhofeeldifferently.info/interview.php?interview=78

Robb, George. "Between Science and Spiritualism: Frances Swiney's Vision of a Sexless Future." Diogenes, vol. 52, no. 4, Nov. 2005, pp. 163-168.