The Spinster and Her Enemies

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The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930
The Spinster and Her Enemies.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorSheila Jeffreys
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectSocial purity movement
PublisherPandora Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Paperback)

The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930 is a 1985 book by the political scientist Sheila Jeffreys, in which the author discusses the change in sexual attitudes that occurred in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and criticizes the idea that this change represented a shift from sexual puritanism to sexual revolution. Jeffreys also examines feminist involvement in the Social Purity movement.

The book received positive reviews, praising Jeffreys for her treatment of friendships between women. However, commentators have also suggested that the work forms part of a trend within feminism hostile to sexual freedom.


Jeffreys discusses the change in sexual attitudes that occurred in Britain between 1880 and 1930 from a feminist perspective, criticizing the idea that "the sexual puritanism of Victorian England gave way to the first sexual revolution of the twentieth century." She examines feminist involvement in the social purity movement in the 1880s and 1890s. She also discusses the physician Havelock Ellis, the poet Edward Carpenter, the psychiatrist Iwan Bloch, and the neuroanatomist Auguste Forel.[1]

Publication history[edit]

The Spinster and Her Enemies was first published in 1985 by Pandora Press.[2]


Gay and feminist media[edit]

The Spinster and Her Enemies received a positive review from Mary Meigs in the gay magazine The Body Politic. Meigs praised Jeffreys's treatment of figures such as Ellis, Carpenter, Bloch, and Forel, endorsed her view that in 1880s Britain, passionate friendships between women were only acceptable when they posed no threat to heterosexuality, and credited her with documenting the use of accusations of lesbianism as a weapon against feminism in the 19th century. She concluded that Jeffreys "reminds us that patriarchal hostility to lesbians is as strong now as it was in the period she describes so thoroughly."[3]

The book was also reviewed by Eileen Barrett in Sojourner: The Women's Forum.[4]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

The Spinster and Her Enemies received positive reviews from the biographer Phyllis Grosskurth in The Times Literary Supplement,[5] the historian Lillian Faderman in the American Journal of Sociology,[6] and Penny Summerfield in Victorian Studies.[7] The book was also reviewed by Anne Summers in Sociology of Health & Illness,[8] Judith Wishnia in Contemporary Sociology,[9] the historian Marilyn Lake in Signs,[10] and Ruth Doell in the Journal of Homosexuality,[11] and discussed by Margaret Hunt in Feminist Review.[12]

Grosskurth, writing in 1986, called The Spinster and Her Enemies one of the best studies on the "struggle of women in history" to have appeared within the last decade, and described the book as "splendidly documented, provocative and never dull." She considered Jeffreys's most original contribution to be her theory that the "sexual reformers" were actually working against the interests of women. However, she criticized Jeffreys for ignoring Ellis's "contribution to female sexual fulfilment."[5]

Faderman endorsed Jeffreys's view that the inequality of power between men and women in the area of sexuality is the basis of women's social inequality, and that spinsterhood or lesbianism are remedies to that inequality.[6] Summerfield credited Jeffreys with documenting "a sustained attack" on female friendships "arising from the threat they posed to male dominance", and with exposing "enormous male opposition" to what Summerfield referred to as "gyn/affection". She wrote that while Jeffreys depicted the hold of the "ideology of compulsory heterosexuality" as absolute, further documentary evidence was needed to determine the extent to which this was true between World War I and the 1970s.[7]

Evaluations in books[edit]

Jane Egerton described The Spinster and Her Enemies as a major work in The Sexual Imagination from Acker to Zola: A Feminist Companion (1993).[13] The feminist Rene Denfeld criticized The Spinster and Her Enemies for being part of a repressive, anti-sexual trend within contemporary feminism in The New Victorians (1995). According to Denfeld, when she asked the National Organization for Women for information on its position on pornography, she was sent material that included an excerpt from The Spinster and Her Enemies. She considered this an endorsement of the work by NOW, which she found "shocking at first and then saddening."[14] Michael Mason discussed The Spinster and Her Enemies in The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (1995). He found Jeffreys's views similar to those of other historians of feminism sympathetic to the anti-sexual views of some feminists. However, he described her as more outspoken, noting that she was open about the involvement of Victorian feminism in "moralistic propaganda", admired people who were "admittedly reactionary", and rejected sexual liberation.[15] Jeffreys commented in the second edition of Anticlimax (2011) that she wrote The Spinster and Her Enemies to "demonstrate that the 'sexual revolutions' of the 20th century liberated men by legitimising increased sexual access to women, rather than leading to women's empowerment."[16]


  1. ^ Jeffreys 1985, pp. 1, 106–109.
  2. ^ Jeffreys 1985, p. iv.
  3. ^ Meigs 1986, p. 32.
  4. ^ Barrett 1986, pp. 43–44.
  5. ^ a b Grosskurth 1986, p. 298.
  6. ^ a b Faderman 1987, pp. 1037–1039.
  7. ^ a b Summerfield 1989, pp. 595–597.
  8. ^ Summers 1987, pp. 101–102.
  9. ^ Wishnia 1987, p. 704.
  10. ^ Lake 1988, pp. 641–644.
  11. ^ Doell 1990, pp. 117–120.
  12. ^ Hunt 1990, pp. 23–46.
  13. ^ Egerton 1993, pp. 132–133.
  14. ^ Denfeld 1995, p. 241.
  15. ^ Mason 1995, pp. 217–218.
  16. ^ Jeffreys 2011, p. x.


  • Denfeld, Rene (1995). The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order. New York: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86373-789-8.
  • Egerton, Jane; Gilbert, Harriett, Editor (1993). The Sexual Imagination from Acker to Zola: A Feminist Companion. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-03535-5.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Mason, Michael (1995). The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-285319-8.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila (1985). The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930. London: Pandora Press. ISBN 0-86358-050-5.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila (2011). Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press. ISBN 978-1-74219-807-1.
  • Barrett, Eileen (1986). "The Spinster and Her Enemies". Sojourner: The Women's Forum. 11 (11).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Doell, Ruth (1990). "The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930 (Book)". Journal of Homosexuality. 19 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Faderman, Lillian (1987). "The spinster and her enemies (Book Review)". American Journal of Sociology. 92 (4). doi:10.1086/228619.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Grosskurth, Phyllis (1986). "Effects of reform". The Times Literary Supplement (4329).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Hunt, Margaret (1990). "The De-Eroticization of Women's Liberation: Social Purity Movements and the Revolutionary Feminism of Sheila Jeffreys". Feminist Review. 34 (1).
  • Lake, Marilyn (1988). "The spinster and her enemies (Book Review)". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 13 (3): 641–644. doi:10.1086/494459.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Meigs, Mary (1986). "Define and conquer". The Body Politic (125).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Summerfield, Penny (1989). "Dear Girl/The Spinster and Her Enemies/A Passion for Friends (Book)". Victorian Studies. 32 (4).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Summers, Anne (1987). "The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930 (Book)". Sociology of Health & Illness. 9 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Wishnia, Judith (1987). "The spinster and her enemies (Book Review)". Contemporary Sociology. 16.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)