Interview by David Minto
A sweeping account of sexuality and socialism in twentieth century Britain, Stephen Brooke’s Sexual Politics has the feel of a traditional political history even as it foregrounds a subject still too often ignored in the analysis of political modernity. Demonstrating how leftist organizing shaped national battles over abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, the book also explores how these issues affected Labour Party politics. From the sexual utopias envisaged by Edwardian radicals through to the liberal orthodoxies of the Tony Blair years, Brooke follows a vast and varied cast of characters who cumulatively emphasize the significant bearing of class on sexual politics in Britain. Labour Party reforms of the late 1960s regarding abortion, contraception, and gay sex have long been acknowledged as important aspects of the country’s “sexual revolution,” and these events provide pivotal chapters in this book too. Brooke’s longer history of leftist sexual politics, however, places these watershed moments in a suggestive new frame, while his attention to entanglements between them promises fresh conceptual insights.
David Minto: The term “sexual politics” is so capacious and protean that I’m curious how you came to isolate the three central strands of your study. Why choose contraception, abortion, and homosexuality as your main subjects?
Stephen Brooke: In part, the decision to concentrate upon contraception, abortion and homosexuality was an instrumental one, designed to use those issues to help define sexual politics in a particular way, given, as you rightly say, the capacious and protean qualities of the term. Focusing on those issues made the subject manageable.
However, instrumentality was not, of course, the only reason for choosing these topics.
In the book, I wanted to explore the tension between sexual politics and party politics. This tension was best articulated by Ivy Oakes and Elizabeth Roche of the East Midlands Working Women’s Association in the 1930s and Allan Horsfall, a homosexual rights campaigner of the later twentieth century. The East Midlands Working Women’s Association was actually a group of Labour party women who wished to talk about the problem of abortion, but were not permitted to do so by the party: as Oakes and Roche said, they were “so anxious” to make clear “conditions” among working-class people that a “non-political Association was formed out of the political body”. Allan Horsfall was similarly discouraged by his local Labour Party from pursuing the cause of homosexual rights, to which he responded: “I asked…how the individual conscience was to make itself felt…except through political action.”
So I wanted to explore the landscape they articulated, a landscape in which sexuality was a way of thinking about the boundaries of politics and how those boundaries change.
To accomplish this methodologically, I thought the book had to link one way of doing political history, rooted in an older approach based upon what parties debated, discussed and enacted, and newer approaches based in social and cultural history, which looked at power and the ‘political’ outside the ambit of formal politics, because the question of sexual reform (and indeed the position of sexual reformers) was often both inside and outside formal politics. Even those, such as women’s and gay rights activists in the 1970s, who rejected the Labour Party as a vessel of radical reform, eventually saw that however flawed Labour was, it was a route to power and to changing law and policy on sexual issues.
Contraception, abortion and homosexuality were the issues that were not only debated outside the context of Labour and left politics in Britain, but debated formally within Labour and left politics – contraception particularly in the 1910s and 1920s, abortion in the 1930s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and homosexuality in the 1960s and again from the 1970s to the present day. So these were issues that had, in varying degrees, a consistent life within the sphere of formal politics.
There are other issues I would like to have explored: marriage, venereal disease, pornography and sex education – all of which could be gathered under the rubric of ‘sexual politics’, not least because they invited legal and political attention – but these issues did not have the same purchase in the formal discussions of Labour and left organizations over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
I also think that contraception, abortion and homosexuality are issues that highlight the resonances between sexual reform and socialism.
Sex has an importance in everyday life, in the way it involves, whether for pleasure or as a burden, the body. Socialism is committed to ameliorating everyday, material life and, inevitably, it had to deal with questions like reproductive control and sexual freedom to think about material amelioration, just to make everyday life better for a working-class mother or a gay man, whether that was about eliminating the fear of reproduction or the fear of criminal prosecution. But, of course, sex isn’t just quotidian; it has transcendent or transformative aspects. And socialism, at least at some points in the twentieth century, embraced a transformative vision, a belief in building new worlds.
DM: One of the interventions your book makes is to bring working-class experiences of sex, gender, and family life into the same frame as Labour Party institutional politics and the elite world of policy debate. What was the most difficult part of pulling this off? And was there anything that surprised you about these interactions?
SB: Class and gender difference are absolutely critical to both the experience of sexuality and to the access ordinary people have to power in twentieth-century Britain. And of course the two are linked. Particularly in terms of questions such as contraception and abortion, for example, I wanted the experience of working-class women to be at the heart of any discussion of sexual politics, since it was upon their bodies that the limits of ordinary people’s power over contraception or abortion were written.
If the book succeeds in realizing the aim of bringing class into the discussion of sexuality in the political sphere, it’s because of influences from both social history and cultural history.
With regard to the influence of social history, I wanted to look for working-class voices and working-class experiences in the link between sexual politics and formal politics. Recent work on a variety of subjects by Julie-Marie Strange, Andy Davies, Claire Langhamer, Selina Todd, Kate Fisher and Ben Jones has been very important in placing such experiences and voices at the heart of late nineteenth and twentieth-century history and I wanted to see if I could adopt such an approach in a history of politics.
Work in cultural and gender history on the construction of subjectivities and identities also influenced me. Animating the discussion of particular sexual issues within left politics were particular constructions of class and gender and particular culturally-constructed protagonists, such as the working-class mother and the breadwinner male. A book I found incredibly useful in this regard was Anna Clark’s The Struggle for the Breeches (1995); Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London (2006) was also an important intervention that used the dynamic construction of subjectivities and identities to think about power, class and sexuality. With regard to my book, one thing that mobilized concern around sexuality in the twentieth-century was a fear that, in a period when the breadwinner male was not providing economic security, the working-class wife was struggling not only with low wages, but with reproduction, with the threat of the over-large family. Both socialists and sexual reformers therefore believed that sexuality had to be modernized, not for the sake of sexual freedom, necessarily, but towards the aim of ameliorating the material position of working-class people. Even when affluence becomes more obvious in Britain in the 1950s, a modernized sexuality was key to protecting that affluence for working-class people.
Another point is about agency. What people like the East Midlands Working Women’s Association, the women interviewed by the Fabian Women’s Group in the 1910s, the Women’s Cooperative Guild and working-class gay activists like Allan Horsfall attempted was to exercise agency, whether this was about gaining access to political power and making particular experiences important to politics or about contesting the meaning of particular words or language. It should be acknowledged that such agency was more often exercised by middle-class people working in the field of sexual reform, such as Dora Russell and Antony Grey, who had easier access to power. I hope the book also demonstrated that it was not only middle-class reformers who put sexual reform on the political agenda, but that this was also the product of working-class experience and agency.
I’m not sure I was surprised by the importance of class to thinking about sexual politics, but doing the book did underline the importance of exploring the register between categories such as class, gender and sexuality, instead of looking at them in isolation.
DM: Your book makes a persuasive case that in Britain socialist theorizing and organizing were crucial to legitimizing sex as a subject of politics and securing reform. Yet one of the central trajectories you trace over the twentieth century is the ascendance of a decidedly liberal, individualist, rights-based rhetoric that seems to have triumphed by Tony Blair’s New Labour years. How do the two themes square? Did sexual politics ultimately change the character of the Left as much as the Left changed sexual politics?
SB: This question can be linked with the one above. One of the advantages of looking at political discussions of sexual questions such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality is to be able to see how the protagonist of such discussion changes in the late twentieth century. In the 1960s and the 1970s, new protagonists appeared in the political discussion of sexual questions. In particular, the individual becomes more important. There is a movement away from a framework rooted in particular protagonists and a particular context (heterosexual marriage), which opens up possibilities to protagonists who could not be discussed within that older framework: single women; women who did not wish to be defined with reference to marriage; homosexuals; and lesbians.
There is a larger social and economic context to this – the rise of affluence and welfare perhaps weakens the emotive touchstone of the impoverished working-class mother in discussions of something like contraception and abortion. What British society in the 1960s and 1970s increasingly looked at was who had been left behind or marginalized by affluence and welfare, those who remained outside the ambit of a ‘modern’ consensus, or those kinds of individuals who suffered under what was increasingly perceived as outmoded laws on abortion and homosexuality. The claims of women (rather than married women) and the claims of gay men and lesbians became important in this regard and Labour and left politics the 1970s reflected that shift towards talking about different ways of identifying collectively or discussing the rights of individuals. This is what energizes Labour politics in the 1980s, particularly if one looks at grassroots politics.
As for New Labour, I think the responsiveness to questions of sexuality after 1988 resulted from a variety of things: a revulsion at the bigotry of Section 28 of the Local Government Act passed by the third Thatcher government, which prohibited what was termed the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality; an attempt to look progressive socially, while being fiscally conservative; and, finally, by the need to defuse the threat of human rights cases in European courts by passing progressive legislation at home.
All that being said, I think it’s important to understand that even if the dominant protagonists of sexual politics may have changed by the later twentieth century, class doesn’t go away as an important framework. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, when the pro-choice movement tried to protect the 1967 Abortion Act, it was to avoid going back to backstreet abortion, a reference that was clearly about class difference in access to abortion. Within the Greater London Council-inspired reforms of the 1980s, concern about promoting women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of ethnic minorities went along with concern about unemployment, housing and access to power and services. So I wouldn’t see a liberal, individualist or rights-based agenda and a class-based one as necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes it is, on the ground, when the new identity politics and the old class politics seem in conflict, as demonstrated in Peter Tatchell’s by-election campaign in Bermondsey in 1983. But sometimes it is a case of two discourses moving in uneven orbits around a common centre, particularly in something like the campaign to defend the Abortion Act.
I would view this as less about squaring an argument about class and an argument about the rise of individualism than about seeing the way overlapping discourses inflect the political discussion of sexual issues. There’s a great line from the socialist writer R.H. Tawney (not about sexuality) that refers to the “radiant ambiguities” of socialism and I think that’s what I’d point to here: the productive ambiguities between ideas of class and ideas of the individual.
DM: Each chapter tends to focus on one particular strand of sexual politics, though you also draw some comparisons between them. Did you come to think of the agitation around each issue as complementary? Conversely, were there moments when the relationships involved seemed especially antagonistic?
SB: That’s a really interesting question. I think the agitation is complementary at certain moments – by that I understand the question to be whether there was a large measure of agreement on particular issues. The 1960s is a high point of consensus on sexual issues, gathered around a progressive, liberal approach to abortion and homosexuality. The 1940s and 1950s also see a considerable amount of agreement or acceptance on the question of birth control and the need to promote it as a way of protecting the family and protecting living standards. But, if you look at the 1970s and 1980s, there’s a lot more disagreement. On abortion, for example, there’s a lot of agreement on the endpoint – defending the 1967 Abortion Act – but a lot of disagreement on things like abortion on demand, the relationship between free choice and ideas about fetal viability, and, more generally, the degree to which second wave feminism informed abortion activism. Gay and lesbian rights also see a lot of division, despite a rough consensus on the need to get rid of Section 28 and to promote AIDS awareness. The 1920s are also a period in which sexual questions divided people politically. I think the thing that unites sexual reformers across the decades, however, is the problem of promoting the idea of sexual reform as a political issue. Ironically, this is most successful in the 1980s, a moment of considerable tension among reformers.
DM: I was fascinated by the frequency with which ideas of “utopia” both animated your political actors and shaped their ambitions. However, part of your argument is that “the most far-reaching change came from the shifting understanding of traditional ideas.” Am I going too far then in seeing utopic thinking as playing a distinctive role in the sexual politics your study describes?
SB: Doing the book convinced me of something I probably already knew: that the ground of the sexual lies in the everyday and that the ground of sexual politics is really about the experience and meaning of some pretty mundane, but profound things: who can one desire, love and have sex with? What consequences does sex have on material and emotional life? Sexual politics in the twentieth century was really about changing or debating the meaning of those experiences and terms and, not least, changing the law and changing state practice on sexuality. But, of course, those experiences may not simply be quotidian, but also potentially transcendent or transformative: desire and love can change us or, at least, we think they can change us and the world around us. That’s probably enough bad philosophizing on my part, but a belief in the transcendent, transformative qualities of sexuality drove the discussion of sexual reform alongside a concern with the material context of sex. The desire to love in new ways was linked to the making of new economic and social worlds. This is most clear, perhaps, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the work of Edward Carpenter, Stella Browne and Dora Russell, but it remains in the writing of later twentieth-century writers such as Sheila Rowbotham, Jeffrey Weeks and Luce Irigiray. One of my favourite quotations (with those already noted by Ivy Roche, Elizabeth Oakes and Allan Horsfall) is from Dora Russell, who spoke of a “trade union of lovers” that would “conquer the world”. Over the twentieth century, utopianism has gradually died in the vision of socialism, but one can still see traces of it, even in the 1970s and 1980s, in discussions of sexual reform.
DM: Another thing that struck me about your story was the relative absence of both race and religion compared to how I imagine these elements would figure in a similar study on the United States. Is that a fair characterization? If so, does this stem from the nature of the British Left or the analytic focus you wanted to maintain?
SB: Again, that’s a great point. I certainly think I could have paid more attention to religion, particularly in terms of the secularization debate and work on religion by people such as Calum Brown and Matthew Grimley. I also think that race is important, seen in eugenics earlier in the twentieth century and, later in the century, the question of multiracial migration. Had I spent more time on identity politics in the 1980s, I would have explored the question of race more fully. But, at least with reference to religion, I think that the British Left was, at least by mid-century, more secular and materialist than one might see in a party in an American context. There was concern about the Catholic vote as late as the 1960s and this conditioned, to a certain extent, the parliamentary left’s response to questions such as homosexuality and abortion. But I would not say that religion was a driving force in shaping the Left’s approach to sexual politics. Indeed, parliamentary opposition to either extending or constraining the 1967 Abortion Act was often more about avoiding association with what were perceived as two extremes (the pro-choice and the anti-abortion movements) than about religion.
DM: This question is more about British history in general than sexual politics, but the bulk of your study takes place in England and I wondered if you were tempted to pursue threads further into Scotland or even into the Empire/Commonwealth?
SB: It is a very Anglo-centric study. And not that this gets me off the Anglo-centric hook, there appeared at the same time a terrific book on Scottish sexual politics, The Sexual State: Sexuality and Scottish Governance 1950-80 by Roger Davidson and Gayle Davis (2012) which addresses the particularities of the Scottish case better than I could have done. I am interested in the way Scotland, Wales and, in particular, Northern Ireland highlight differences with England. I am also interested in the global and imperial angles, particularly in the way, for instance, that sexual debate and information circulated around the British world (I am thinking, among other work, of work on the imperial angle of the birth control movement). But it also seemed that this would take the book places that actually much of the material I looked at (and, I stress, the material I was able to look at) did not really justify. However, I would have liked to develop the European and American aspects of this question. Sexual radicals in England were very much embedded in European discussions of sexuality in the interwar period, for instance, and in the 1950s and 1960s, campaigners on sexual issues, particularly homosexuality, were interested in European and American examples. And, as I think I state in the book, but don’t develop (but, and forgive the shameless plug, I have recently published an article on in the most recent issue of Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique entitled ‘Sexual Rights, Human Rights, the Material and the Post-Material in Britain, 1970-2010’ which does develop this point), the role of European courts and European ideas of human rights is crucial for pushing along the political development of sexual issues. But, yes, it would have been nice to open up the book a bit more in that regard.
DM: Finally, what did you make of the movie Pride? Do you think the film-makers and critics absorbed the lessons of your book…or might they be advised to look back over a chapter or two?
SB: I liked it a lot, as a film. As a document of history, it got at emotional truths maybe more than all of the historical truths, but that’s not so bad. They didn’t need to look at my book, but they should have looked at the brilliant Gay Men and the Left in Postwar Britain (2007) by Lucy Robinson and Matt Cook’s great book on Queer Domesticities (2014). However, if any filmmakers want to look at my book, for any reason, yes, please.
Stephen Brooke is Professor of History at York University, Toronto. He is the author of Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2012), as well as recent articles on the photographer Roger Mayne, love and romance in popular film and music in twentieth-century Britain, the history of the 1980s, and the relationship between sexual rights and human rights. He is presently researching a history of London politics in the 1980s. He tweets, sporadically, from @stephenjbrooke
David Minto is the Fund for Reunion-Cotsen Fellow in LGBT Studies at the Princeton Society of Fellows and a Lecturer in Princeton University’s History Department. He completed his Ph.D. in History at Yale University in 2014, winning the Edwin W. Small Prize for outstanding work in US History. He is currently revising his dissertation manuscript for publication under the title of An Intimate Atlantic: The Special Relationships of Transnational Homophile Activism.
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