Mendus and Rendall's second major theme is the relationship between sexual subordination and economic and political inequality. They maintain that an understanding of sexuality is necessary to a full comprehension of political relations, as both are masculinist ideologies in western societies: "That duality, that equation of sexual experience and of knowledge, through which the full subject hood of the adult might be attained, is one which pervades nineteenth-century discourses of gender" (p.7). In other words, an inexperienced woman was not allowed full social participation on any other than very restricted grounds. The two themes nicely dovetail: in order to challenge the social order, women must explore new ways of representing female sexuality.
For example, in "The Marriage of True Minds: the ideal of marriage in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill" Mendus argues that Mill, long since lauded as a pro-feminist man in a hostile age, in fact formulated his notion of female equality at the expense of women's sexuality. Many feminists themselves took this course and endorsed what has come to be known as maternal feminism. Other nineteenth-century women engaged in the more difficult exploration of women's sexual nature. Mendus and Rendall include the Brontes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning among these latter. Two of the essays in the volume particularly explore early feminist notions that knowledge is power for women: "Friendship and Politics: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925)" by Jane Rendall, and "Privilege and Patriarchy: Feminist thought in the nineteenth century" by Mary Maynard.
Other topical articles are Anne Digby's "Women's Biological Straitjacket," an examination of the ways in which medical discourses presented controlling representations of femininity, and Joanna de Groot's "'Sex' and 'Race': the construction of language and image in the nineteenth century" in which orientalism and the intersections of race and gender are explored. This article seems to have inspired the choice of illustrations for the cover: two paintings by W. Holman-Hunt, "Afterglow in Egypt" (1854-63) and "The Lady of Shalott" (1886-1905). One presents an idealized, dark-skinned woman, and the other a Pre-Raphaelite rendering of the Arthurian legend. De Groot's article suggests ways in which exoticism, either of race or a mythologized past, functions as a way of representing unequal gender relations as superseding both culture and history. And if sexual subordination is constructed as universal, then it must also be unchanging.
This volume should be seen as part of the ongoing critical project of rereading the past, jettisoning preconceptions and discovering the multiple voices beneath the perceived monolithic order. The Victorians did not project a one-dimensional picture of themselves as much as we created of them. The contributors to Sexuality and Subordination allow nineteenth-century voices to be heard a little more clearly, in some of their diversity.
Miriam Jones is a Ph.D. student in English literature at York University and an active feminist.
Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Hutchinson: London, 1987.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. 2 Vols. New York: Vintage-Random, 1980, 1986.
Gallagher, Catherine, and Thomas Laqueur, eds. The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: U of California P,1987.
Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid- Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986.