In our free World of the book exhibition this year, a special display focuses on the history of the struggle for women’s equality – intellectual, political, and physical – in the English-speaking world, from England in the 17th century to the present day in Australia. Over the course of three blogs, we’re exploring this display. You can also read part one on intellectual equality and part two on political equality.

Bodies and beyond

Reproductive health has long been recognised as a crucial aspect of establishing a truly equal society. In European and Anglo-American history, campaigns to establish reproductive rights for women have usually been connected to atheist and non-conformist movements, since the concept of such rights is in opposition to Judaeo-Christian beliefs about the generative purpose of sex. In 1832, American physician and atheist Charles Knowlton (1800–50) began distributing a text he had written entitled The fruits of philosophy, or the private companion of young married people, which included a method of birth control. He was charged with obscenity and fined as a result, and despite similar charges against those who published subsequent editions, it continued to circulate.

In England in 1876, British reformers and secular campaigners Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91) republished Knowlton’s text and were charged with obscenity. After conviction and heavy fines along with a sentence of 6 months’ hard labour, the verdict was overturned. You can read an Australian imprint of their edition in full through a digitised copy in this collection. During the ‘Knowlton trial’, the Malthusian League was formed with the aim of establishing safe access to birth control as a way of improving the lot of poor women, in particular. Victorian readers who are members of this library can read the Malthusian League’s journal and the Malthusian and Eugenics Review through the Women’s Studies Archives. The socialist Fabian Society – founded in Britain in 1884 and still thriving globally, including in Australia – also campaigned for women’s reproductive rights in this period.

The first contraception clinic in Britain was founded by Scottish-born palaeobotanist and women’s rights campaigner Dr Marie Stopes (1880–1958) in 1921. Through the clinic and through her controversial publications on sex and birth control, Stopes furthered the work of the Malthusian League and the Fabian Society. Today, sexual and reproductive health clinics in her name operate around the world, including in Australia.

It is an uncomfortable fact that campaigns for women’s reproductive rights were often associated with eugenicist beliefs about the primacy of white, wealthy people. In 1921, Stopes also founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, through which she advocated for the sterilisation of those she deemed ‘unfit’ for motherhood and the use of contraception to further the ‘progress’ of the white ‘race’. Its newsletter is held in this collection. One of her most vocal opponents was Dr Halliday Sutherland, whom she sued for libel in 1923. Through successive appeals by each side, Sutherland ultimately triumphed in 1924 at the High Court of Britain. Read more about Sutherland and his clash with Stopes.

On display in World of the book is Stopes’ text Contraception, published in 1923. It is shown alongside the cataloguing cards created for it here at this library.

Marie Stopes' book 'Contraception' sits open at its title page, with four handwritten cataloguing cards displayed next to it.
Marie Stopes, Contraception (Birth control): Its theory, history and practice. A manual for the medical and legal professions, London 1923, and catalogue cards for this book, Rare Books Collection (currently being catalogued)

The book was added to the library’s collection in that same year (1923). The cards represent the different categories under which it was entered into the catalogue: author, title, subjects, etc. At some stage the book was removed from open access and its cards withdrawn from the catalogue, probably the result of a public complaint or decision by a librarian. Removing the cards from the public catalogue effectively effaced the book’s existence, but the book and its cards were placed in a restricted section with other controversial titles. Collection history of this kind reflects a broader social history of ideas and cultural change. It also reminds of both the crucial role that libraries play as repositories of information, and the fact that archives are not neutral: they are governed by humans, and are inherently political. Watch the 2016 Foxcroft Lecture, delivered at this library by Dr Patrick Spedding (Monash University), to learn more about restricted and banned books in library collections. Read a 2017 interview with Jarrett Drake, digital archivist at Princeton University’s Mudd Manuscript Library, in which he reflects on the issue of archival neutrality and the importance of diversity in archival practice.

In the middle of the 20th century, while the debate around women’s reproductive rights continued, the philosophical concept of womanhood was taken up by continental philosophers, including those identified as Existentialists. French feminist, novelist, critic, activist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe (1949) is a foundational text in feminist thought. It is shown in its first edition in World of the book, with a modernist binding designed by French artist Mario Prassinos.

De Beauvoir deconstructed the notion of the ‘eternal feminine’ and introduced a differentiation between biological sex and socially constructed gender identity, famously stating that ‘[o]ne is not born but becomes a woman.’ Harking back to the critique of medieval author Christine de Pizan, de Beauvoir argued that women have suffered by being perceived historically and culturally as the inferior ‘Other’. Three years of research went into the writing of this 800-page encyclopaedia of the history, laws, sciences, religions, customs, folklore and cultures which have resulted in the objectification of women and the concept of the feminine. French women would not gain access to legal birth control until 1967, and to abortion in 1975.

Simone de Beauvoir squints towards the camera. She stands in a crowd in Beijing.
Simone de Beauvoir in Beijing in 1955, Xinhua News Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Le deuxième sexe was first translated into English in 1953 by HM Parshley, a male zoologist with no philosophical background who was invited to undertake the task by Blanche Knopf, wife of de Beauvoir’s American publisher Alfred Knopf. You can read more about de Beauvoir’s life during this period, including her famous open-marriage with fellow Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in Judith Thurman’s introduction to Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s 2009 English translation, The second sex. The not-for-profit digital magazine Aeon has shared a 1959 televised interview of Simone de Beauvoir.

De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan (1921–2006; American author of The feminine mystique, 1963) and others of their generation were part of what is now known as the ‘first wave’ of feminism. They cast a long shadow, and inspired a ‘second wave’ of feminist thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s around the world, for whom the politics of sexuality and sexual liberation were driving issues. One of the most significant feminist voices of this generation is Australian Germaine Greer (born 1939), author of The female eunuch (1970). It is today best known with the cover produced for the 1971 edition by London’s Paladin Press, featuring a woman’s torso as a bathing suit, hanging from a rail; this is the edition displayed in World of the book.

Display in World of the book featuring works by (L-R) Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Rosi Braidotti, Virginia Woolf and
Christine de Pizan.

Greer’s polemic against the oppression of women quickly became an international bestseller: within six months, it had been translated into 11 languages. Its analysis of attitudes towards women and its call for an end to sexual repression placed it at the centre of feminism for many years. Greer’s commentary on contemporary sexual and gender politics – particularly transgender politics – continues to prove controversial, antagonising many people. In 2013, the University of Melbourne acquired her extensive archive.  

As second-wave feminism has given way to third-wave, another key voice is again an Australian: Italian-born, Melbourne-raised Professor Rosi Braidotti (born 1954), currently a Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, where she founded the Gender Studies Programme in 1998. Braidotti is a leading figure in contemporary feminist philosophy and women’s studies, whose work combines continental philosophy, social and political theory, cultural politics, gender, feminist theory and ethnicity studies.

In her recent book The posthuman (2013; part of our World of the book display) she discusses human subjectivity in the ‘post-Anthropocene’, that is, in the ‘posthuman’ digital age, in which human experience is no longer always mediated by our physical bodies. Prof Braidotti is currently generously donating to the library selected items from her significant private collection.

This consideration of women’s rights – and more broadly, human nature – in the digital age brings us to the end of our three-part exploration of a special display in World of the book about works by women that have changed our world. The struggle for true intellectual, political and physical equality for all goes on, however…

More to explore

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