Can a woman be a genius?


In the early 20th century, many British feminists fought for women’s suffrage, often arguing that everyone’s voice should count in a democracy and that women could bring a particular benevolent ethic to politics. But, as historian Lucy Delap writes, some went in a different direction, focusing on how some women might wield the power of their will to become something unthinkable: a female genius.

At that time, says Delap, doctor and sex researcher Havelock Ellis linked genius to passion and libido. He described creativity as “a male secondary sexual character, in the same sense as a beard”. According to him, women also possessed a vital force, but one that was essentially conservative, focused on reproduction and education, not innovation.

While Ellis supported woman suffrage, some people used similar reasoning to oppose it. They argued that the lack of “great” female artists and thinkers demonstrated that women were generally less capable and less deserving of political rights than men. In response, some suffragettes sought out examples of overlooked female geniuses. For other feminists, the suppression of exceptional women was not just a topic of discussion, but a central problem that they sought to solve. As suffragette Helena Swanwick wrote, the world suffers “from the stunting, warping or exasperation of its strongest and most original female spirits”.

This kind of formulation was very much in its day, writes Delap. Many Edwardian progressives and utopians viewed the masses of people as incapable of leading. Instead, they pinned their hopes on the exceptional individual who was able to see beyond social norms and overcome obstacles with willpower.

Within feminism, this was linked to what Delap calls an “introspective turn.” Rather than asking men to grant them political rights, some women have focused their political energy on internal transformation, seeing the obstacles to greatness less in patriarchal institutions than in their own mindsets. It tied in with the idea of ​​the new woman, a driven, physically active person with the drive to achieve whatever she wanted.

The free woman, the first British periodical to call itself “feminist”, embodied this form of feminism. Published in 1911 and 1912, its authors and editors were inspired by new ideas about psychology and sexuality. While suffragists generally avoid public discussion of sex, contributors to The free woman echoed Ellis’ view that sexual energy was a life force that could be channeled into genius – except they thought this was also true for women. Feminists of this school also argued against equating femininity with motherhood, suggesting that intellectual and artistic pursuits might be more valuable, at least for some elite women.

One of The free womanThe editor of Dora Marsden wrote that “not for a moment do we wish to support the idea that all women will be free, any more than all men are… a feminist must appeal to free women, not ‘ordinary’ women.”

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From: Lucy Delap

The Historical Journal, vol. 47, no. 1 (March 2004), p. 101 to 126

Cambridge University Press

From: Lucy Delap

The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 61, no. 2 (winter 2000), p. 233-276

Princeton University Library


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