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“Free From All Uninvited Touch of Man”: women’s campaigns around sexuality 1880 – 1914

The history of sex in the last 100 years has generally been represented as a triumphant march from Victorian prudery into the light of sexual freedom. From a feminist perspective the picture is different. During the last wave of feminism women, often represented as prudes and puritans by historians, waged a massive campaign to transform male sexual behaviour in the interests of women. They campaigned against the abuse of women in prostitution, the sexual abuse of children, and marital rape. This article describes the women’s activities in the social purity movement, and the increasingly militant stance taken by some pre-war feminists who refused to relate sexually to men, in the context of the developing feminist analysis of sexuality. The main purpose of the paper is to show that in order to understand the significance of this aspect of the women’s movement we must look at the area of sexuality not merely as a sphere of personal fulfilment but as an arena of struggle in which male dominance and women’s subordination can be most powerfully reinforced and maintained or fundamentally challenged.

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