My doctoral research project provides the first intimate history of how women in the United Kingdom understood their embodied and emotional experiences of sexual desire 1870 and 1928. Focusing on letters, diaries, and life writing, it explores how women wrote about (or did not) the intimate realm of desires, pleasures, and bodies, and the languages and ideas available to them. Using ordinary women's voices, this project will build on a growing body of research into sexuality and sexual expression, challenging the existing focus of scholarship on regulation and representation. Going beyond the tendency to focus narrowly on England, this alternative history of women's sexuality will place sex and intimacy at the centre of its comparative analysis of Britain and Ireland, exploring how these experiences were culturally specific. Through this, I will consider how intimate lives became part of the public politics of sexuality, and vice versa.
My research will break new ground in taking the intimate and physical as a starting point through analysis of letters, diaries, and other personal testimonies. Sources which cross the public and private boundaries illuminate how intimate lives became part of public sexuality politics. Assumptions that private sources do not deal with sex are inaccurate, as demonstrated by the range of source material available for this project. Drawing on existing research into sexual ignorance, and theoretical concepts of sexuality, I will investigate what these sources can tell us about ideas of sexual difference and normality as historically specific. This project's significance therefore lies in its attention to 'hidden histories' of gender, sexuality and class experience as part of recovering people's stories and experiences from the past, and its social implications in the current climate of debate surrounding female sexual autonomy, resonating with challenges to women's rights in areas such as abortion and sexual violence.
The project will develop through an extensive programme of archival research, focused on the identification, acquisition, and analysis of letters, diaries and other personal documents. Cross-cultural comparison between Britain and Ireland will highlight experiential differences moulded by geography and religion, with Irish sexual experience being given little scholarly attention until recently.
Current historiography in the field highlights the complexity of researching and writing this history given societal taboos and accessibility of records documenting intimate sexual and bodily experiences. This complexity, however, illuminates the value of exploring difficult questions of sexual experience and understanding, including prevailing assumptions about 'normal' sexuality and sexual behaviour. This contribution to the expanding literature surrounding gender, sexuality, bodies and emotions in the United Kingdom from 1870 to 1928 will thus be situated in an underused and unique perspective concerned with the physical bodily experience and female heterosexual sexual desire.