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Occult gender regimes: Polarity and the spirited body – II

In my last post in this series I examined the relationship between spiritualism and the rapid growth of communications technology in the nineteenth century. This time round, I’m going to focus on the notion of “female passivity” in terms of Spiritualism, and its relationship to wider cultural discourses of the period. Just as spiritualism took off at the same time as the rise of the telegraph, it also was contemporaneous with the growing tensions over women’s role and influence – the so-called “Woman Question”. The “Woman Question” encompassed a wide range of issues – not only female suffrage, but also calls for an improvement in women’s education, work opportunities, and legal reform. For example, prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, women had no seperate legal identity from their husbands – upon marriage, a husband became the legal representative of his wife, and gained control of her property.

Spiritualism emerged during a period of general optimism, radical questioning of ideas, and an urge towards democracy. Spiritualists believed that any person could be a medium, regardless of class or gender. They also stressed not only the continued existence of departed relatives in the afterlife, but also that those who had “crossed over” retained all of their individual characteristics and wished to maintain their relationships with the living. Moreover, the spirits continued to learn and make their own progress towards moral perfection in the afterlife. Spiritualism’s rationale of progress in both life and the afterlife held out a salvific hope for all peoples. Spiritualism also participated in the wider cultural equation of science and progress, inviting people to become “investigators” observing first-hand demonstrations rather than merely accepting orthodox religious doctrine on faith. Spiritualists believed spirit communications were scientific – as scientific as the marvels of the telegraph. Spiritualism also spoke of a “new dispensation” – the idea that spirit communication was ushering in a new era of social progress and moral perfection (in America, this was influenced by the Civil War). Spiritualists became involved in a number of social reform movements – in particular, women’s rights. As the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated in their History of Woman Suffrage:

“the only religious sect in the world that has recognised the equality of women is the spiritualists.”

The dominant view of (“respectable”) Victorian womanhood was underwritten by the “natural” assumption that women were innately passive and fragile, whilst men were rational, active, and possessed will-power. Man’s sphere was the public world, woman’s sphere the home, and domestic life. This view was upheld both by religious authorities, and by scientists, doctors and educationalists. Whilst clerics invoked Biblical proofs, scientists turned to biology. Victorian science, although it portrayed itself as objective and disinterested, was underwritten by cultural prejudices and by “common sense”, and this is particularly obvious for pronouncements on women’s abilities. In the nineteenth century, the “common sense” assertion that men were rational and intellectual, and women were emotional and intuitive was reinforced through scientific pronouncements that irrefutably demonstrated a biologically determined difference between the sexes. Darwin, for example, makes this distinction very clear in The Descent of Man (1871):

“The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture,music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half a dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison.”

Scientific proofs that men were rational and women emotional (and deficient in the capacity for logical thought) indirectly supported the view that women and men were complementary to each other (and therefore, women should not attempt to “compete” with men). The anthropologist J. McGrigor Allan, in 1869, asserted that: “In reflective power, woman is utterly unable to compete with man.” and that woman “is content, in most instances, to let others think for her … and discover the most proper person to do so.” Allan believed that efforts to educate women would be useless, that “Any encroachment of one sex on the physical and mental characteristics of the other, is unnatural and repulsive…” and pointed to differences in biology which “predisposes men for intellectual and women for reproductive work.” adding that “the history of humanity is conclusive as to the mental supremacy of the male sex.” One element of the “proof” of women’s mental inferiority came from comparisons of brain size. Allan explained that “the female skull approaches in many respects that of the infant, and still more that of the lower races.” Gustav Le Bon (1879, La Psychologie des Foules) concurred:

In the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.

Le Bon also weighed in against the idea that women could be educated and were capable of competing in male activities:

A desire to give them the same education, and, as a consequence, to propose the same goals for them, is a dangerous chimera… The day when, misunderstanding the inferior occupations which nature has given her, women leave the home and take part in our battles: on this day, a social revolution will begin, and everything that maintains the sacred ties of the family will disappear.

Influential physicians such as Henry Maudsley argued that not only should women’s education be limited to their “foreordained” work as mothers and nurses of children, but that excessive mental strain would lead to “physical degeneration” and lead to future racial decay.

Passivity and power
The prescriptive image of Victorian femininity presented women as passive, gentle creatures, submissive and displaying domestic, moral virtues. “Womanly decency” was an ideal in which gender and class intersected. Spiritualist literature often portrayed women in terms of this ideal. It was woman’s passivity – her innate “finer feelings” which, for spiritualists, allowed women to become effective mediums. As Alex Owen (2004) explains:

“Passivity became, in the Spiritualist vocabulary, synonymous with power. And here lay the crux of the dilemma. For the very quality which supposedly made women such excellent mediums was equally construed as undermining their ability to function in the outside world.”

Some spiritualists believed that one did not choose to become a medium – one was effectively chosen by the spirits – and the development of a medium’s abilities was guided by the spirits, rather than the individual.In spiritualist discourse, the very qualities which made women appear to be deficient (when set against the norms of masculine qualities) rendered them as effective mediums – the delicate constitutions and heightened nervous sensitivity; the passivity and impressionability which women had, became the markers of a successful capacity for contacting spirits. (NB: This theme of passivity as a primary qualification for mediumship was one of the reasons why Madame Blavatsky disassociated herself from the spiritualist movement). William B, Potter’s 1865 work Spiritualism as it is for example, continually stresses the importance of sustaining a “passive or negative relation to the intelligences who seek to impress us…”.

Such passivity – although natural for women, led to suspicions of “unmanly behaviour” for male mediums. The poet Robert Browning, for example, dismissed the celebrated medium DD Home as “effeminate” and a “sot” and later lampooned all mediums (and especially Home) in a poem entitled “Mr. Sludge, the Medium.” Medical detractors of spiritualism often linked it to hysteria – and hysteria in men was thought to be be indicative of, as John Russell Reynolds put it (A System of Medicine, 1879) a sign that men were “either mentally or morally of feminine constitution” Medical pronouncements of the symptoms of hysteria portrayed such women in terms of degeneracy, waywardness and wilfulness – some directly equating spiritualism with “emotional incontinence”. An American physician, Frederick Marvin, describing the condition of “utromania” (a disease brought on by a misangled womb) stated that sufferers were susceptible to “embrace some strange ultra ism – Mormonism, Mesmerism, Fourierism, Socialism, often Spiritualism” (quoted in Owen, 2004, p149).

Also, spiritualism had other radical elements, particularly in America, where the so-called “free love” movement caused much public scandal. “Free Love” was not a call for sexual permissiveness in the contemporary sense, but the belief that sexual relations should be governed by mutual love, rather than traditional notions of marriage. Advocates of free love often argued that women should have the right to refuse their husband’s sexual advances and called for a liberalisation of divorce laws. At the 1865 Chicago Spiritualist Convention, a free love marriage ceremony was held which ended with the assertion that “Man has no right to woman .. by the linking of your hands we infer your hearts are already united, and that you only ask public recognition of the marriage already registered in heaven” (quoted in McGarry, 2008, p98). Spiritualism was to some extent influenced by the writings of Swedenborg, which stressed the centrality of the marriage of souls on both earth and in heaven. Some spiritualists believed that for each person there was a unique soulmate who would be revealed via the world beyond, whilst others stressed the desirability of finding one’s spiritual counterpart in the present – even if that meant overcoming the bonds of state marriages, which in the words of one woman spiritualist (see McGarry, p98) was “little more than an honorable servitude.” Although most spiritualists were not advocates of “free love” – many free love advocates were spiritualists. The majority of free love advocates did not seek to abolish marriage as an institution – because they believed in its sacrality as spiritual union – they agitated for the ending of oppressive marriages and the equality of wife and husband.

Scholars such as Alex Owen and Ann Braude have argued that women mediums gained a degree of agency by speaking on behalf of spirits – by becoming conduits for the spirit world – in much the same way that women came to be valued as telegraph operators. Mediums became themselves a form of media – able to transmit sounds and sights from great distance. Women mediums took the stage as “inspired” public speakers (in a period where the spectacle of women speaking in public was both a novelty and an outrage), and, through lecturing and writing were able to take on positions of leadership. Equally, they were encouraged and fortified by the affirmative messages from spirits they received. The spirits became a powerful source of alternative authority and, when believers accepted the veracity of a message, they tended to accept the power of medium. As Ann Braude says: “more women stepped beyond conventional female roles because of Spiritualism than they would have without it.” (Braude, 2001, p201) and: “Trance speaking was a transitional phase that enabled both individual women and women as a group to break through limitations on their role. It embodied a combination of feminine qualities with a departure from the feminine role that had a strong appeal to men and women in the 1850s.” ((Braude, 2001, p98).

Alex Owen locates the paradoxical and fragile nature of women’s agency as mediums:

“Although a medium was bound by prescriptive notions of femininity, she was also able to use them for her own ends. It meant, in effect, that she could both subscribe to the idea and undermine it. Mediumship operated as both acquiescence and resistance, conformity and transgression, representation and its refusal. The medium attained power because of qualities which were associated with powerlessness, but such power allowed her to move beyond the confines of the ordained female role and into new or forbidden territory.”(Owen, 2004, pp223-224)

This recalls Judith Butler’s formulation of agency as located within the productive reiterability of regimes of discourse/power rather than a possession of an autonomous subject. There is some thought-provoking discussion of the relationship between agency and possession in Mary Keller’s The Hammer and the Flute. Using the strategic term ‘Instrumental agency’, Keller questions an assumption which is often made in analyses of possession and women – that agency is ” a measure of autonomous, teleological progress.” Keller, in a similar manner to Alex Owen, points towards women’s agency in possession arising out of the interplay between the transgressive and the normative – that one can simultaneously transgress a tradition whilst embodying or re-enacting it.

In the next post in this series I’ll examine the influence of thermodynamics and look at some late nineteenth-century occult representations of polarity which draw on magnetism & electricity.

Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Indiana University Press, 2001)
Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult and Communication Technologies 1859-1919 (Cornell University Press, 2010)
Sander L. Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G.S Rousseau and Helen Showalter, Hysteria Beyond Freud (University of California Press, 1993)
Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)
Mary Keller, The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power, and Spirit Possession (The John Hopkins University Press, 2002)
Molly McGarry, Ghosts of futures past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press, 2008)
Patricia Murphy, In Science’s Shadow: Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Women (University of Missouri Press, 2006)
Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago University Press, 2004)
Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard University Press, 1991)