Inventing Normal Sex

By Laura Doan

Read Laura Doan’s full article in this quarter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.


Marie Stopes in her laboratory (1904)

Earlier this year I spotted an article in the Guardian headlined: “Anger after nun says Mary likely to have had sex.”  Sister Lucia Caram—a Dominican nun with a huge Twitter following—had received death threats from outraged viewers after stating on Spanish TV that Mary and Joseph “were a normal couple”—and “having sex” was a “normal thing.”  I’m no expert on the teachings of the Catholic church but I can assure readers that whatever happened between Mary and Joseph, it was not normal.  My archival evidence indicates that even a hundred years ago, most ordinary people in Britain and North America viewed the physical expression of conjugal love as part of Nature’s scheme, the moral order grounded on the assumed authority of the natural order.  Sister Lucia’s translation of a story from the distant past into words current now would trigger alarm bells for most professional historians, though not all.  According to one historian of the early Christian church, the fourth-century theologian St Augustine saw the marriage of Mary and Joseph as an “asexual friendship,” while another argues that Augustine understood the “normal” relations between women and men as “heterosexual love.”  There are obvious advantages to narrowing the gap between then and now but we need to recognize the ways anachronistic expressions obscure how people in the past understood or talked about the sexual.  In my article for JHI I explore how and when marital relations in Britain came to be configured as normal by turning to the work of a highly influential natural scientist, Marie Stopes.  The history of sexual normality in Britain begins in the 1910s with the dissemination of the writings of Stopes, whose understanding of science as a positivist and empiricist endeavor, in tandem with her adept use of statistical methods, enabled her to pioneer a modern way to think about sexuality.

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1913 Chart by Stopes

There is now a substantial historiography accounting for the emergence of homosexual practices, identities, cultures, and communities across the globe, yet the story of the rise of heterosexuality is largely untold.  I see my own project as honoring a rare contribution to the field by the historian Jonathan Ned Katz, whose important book—The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)—broke the silence surrounding this most elusive of sexual practices.  Unfortunately, historians of sexuality have been slow in building on Katz’s intervention and, consequently, as he puts it: “the “heterosexual norm still generally works quietly, unspoken, behind the scenes.”  Such neglect points to a curious lopsidedness in the history of sexuality in which the homosexual possesses a historical presence the heterosexual lacks.  Queer theorists have been highly effective in theorizing how heterosexuality secures its power through a perverse symmetry with its lexical counterpart, but detailed historical understanding of how the hetero evolves and establishes its dominance over the homo is sketchy.

With the medicalization of sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sexologists required an ideal social norm—called the “normal”—against which perversion, anomaly or deviance might be measured.  Conjured into existence through the taxonomical elaboration of the perversions, the normal would become a paradox—hegemonic as an absent presence, lurking obliquely in early twentieth-century references to “regular” sexuality.  A product of negative identification, the category of the heterosexual would come to be perceived not for what it is but for what it is not.  For this reason, the title of my new book in progress is subtitled “an unnatural history”—unnatural in the sense of what is unusual, unexpected or strange in constructing heterosexuality.  I suggest attempts to produce knowledge of a normal sexual subject are inextricably connected to the circuitries of a much older discursive formation which pits the natural against the unnatural, the latter associated with what is irregular or at variance with the usual.  To this day, as the historian of science Lorraine Daston observes, the “reproach of the ‘unnatural’ has not lost its sting.”  The history of normal sex is full of the unexpected, not least in its resistance to ontology, its appeal to all things “natural,” and its investment—indeed, privileging—of the abnormal, a topic I discuss at length in my article.


Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)

My main concern has been to investigate the consequences of tethering the normal to Nature, as if the natural order was simply a fact of life.  The history of modern heterosexuality begins with investigating the consequences of fusing and confusing the natural and the normal—or, to put it more accurately, historicizing normal sexuality entails looking closely at how the norm of normal became bound up with what was imagined as Nature’s scheme.  In the first half of the twentieth century ordinary Britons came to see sexual instincts not only as part of—or contrary to—Nature’s plan but also as normal or abnormal, largely due to the tremendous influence of Stopes’s research on the cyclical nature of female sexual desire.  Comparing Stopes’s research methods to those of the well-known sexologist Havelock Ellis indicates the invention of heterosexuality owes more to natural science than sexual science.  Often pigeonholed as a birth control campaigner or agony aunt, Stopes should not be underestimated as a central figure in the making of sex as normal.  In addressing ordinary people rather than professional colleagues, Stopes turned her readers into collaborators, carving out conceptual space for imagining sexual desire between women and men as a project of scientific interest.


Laura Doan is Professor of Cultural History and Sexuality Studies at the University of Manchester, UK.  She is author of Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (2001) and Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War (2013). 

What we’re Reading: Week of October 23rd

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.



Patrick Cabanel (interview par Bernadette Sauvaget), “A partir du XVIe siècle…” (Libé)

Luca Provenzano, “Street Fighting Men” (LARB)



Regina Hansen, “Tricking and treating has a history” (The Conversation)

Rebecca Bengal, “Alec Soth’s Mississippi Dreamers in a Nightmare America” (The Paris Review)

Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, “Trump Is the New ________” (Chronicle of Higher Education)



Susan Dunn, “An Icy Conquest” (NYRB)

Seamus Perry, “The Rhymes are Sometimes Poor” (TLS)

Jack Miles, “A Roadmap to Qur’ans in English” (LARB)”

Aisha Harris, “How Movie Theaters, TV Networks, and Classrooms Are Changing the Way They Show Gone With the Wind” (Slate)


Feral Frames: On occupy-able frames and expanded thresholds as mediators between the real realm and the pictorial realm

By guest contributor Zahra Safaverdi

I see the status of architecture as a “domain of cultural representation” and also knowledge production. Buildings embody the notion of architecture by making physical the manifestation of space via different materials, tectonic characteristics, and orientational attributions; however, they cannot exhaust the architecture fully. The built form is a mere vessel, a proxy for architecture to showcase one dimension of its multifaceted existence.

Let’s take a close look at figure number one briefly. Figure 1 represents Plafond de Peinture; Plafond du même cabinet (1740). The painting is done by French goldsmith, sculptor, painter, architect, and furniture designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonier and is engraved by Pierre-Alexander Aveline. The original engraving is currently located in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. As their record states, the engraving is done for the ceiling of Count Bielinski’s cabinet. “Large central roundel shows a sunburst as background for a mythological scene. A chariot, drawn by two horses and driven by a man is surrounded by female figures, putti, garlands and fruits. Cartouches at the four corners are decorated with putti.”


The engraving depicts a frame which contains another frame inside. The frame inside holds an entire world within itself, depicting a scene from a divine territory. What is striking in this engraving is the role of the intermediate frame: The frame morphs from its traditional definition and assumes a new character: It acquires depth, hence hinting at the frame becoming a three-dimensional space rather than a mere boundary maker. The frame, then, becomes a stage for characters to reside on and not only observe the pictorial world but interact with it, dive into it or emerge from it. Characters could sit on the frame, walk in and out of the frame or morph into the frame itself, shifting shapes and turning into another entity (Figure 2,3,4).

In these engravings, the frame doesn’t divide the world of the image from the real: It connects the two to each other and it blurs the boundaries between them. By providing a gradual tonal transition, the frame becomes an occupy-able threshold allowing free meander between the world of the image and the world of the real.

This seemingly peculiar function of the frame is not specific to Meissonier’s engraving or late Baroque ornamentation. This way of being for the frame is in fact not even peculiar. Ever since modernity, interpreted here as post 1800, the distinction between the product of imagination (the physical manifestation of the image, the world of imagery) and that which belongs to the reality and the normality of the quotidian life has been clear. This clarity, this separation, this profound emphasis on keeping the realm of the real discernible from the realm of the imaginary is the product of modernity.

Looking back at historical references of late Baroque, one could see that this boundary has been rather subtle and there wasn’t a rigid distinction between the two. The framing and ornamentation would turn the pictorial realm of the image into a latent reality, a condition of possibility which needs a small trigger to burst into our world. In late Baroque and Rococo ornamentation, the frame could shift character and attribution and morph into the pictorial realm in a seamless manner. Such characteristics would let different worlds (different depictions) exist adjacent and related to each other without colliding or collapsing. The meandering frame becomes the adhesive holding everything together, weaving in and out of different spaces and preventing the entire construct from unraveling on itself. (For most precise examples take a look at late Baroque churches in southern Germany, as analyzed here. For the purpose of this essay, the following churches have been analyzed in depth: Steinhausen Pilgrimage Church, Weltenburg Abbey Church, St. Johann Nepomuk Church in Munich, Pilgrimage Church of Vierzehnheiligen, Birnau Pilgrimage Church, Zwiefalten Abbey Church.)

With the progression of digital technology, the boundaries between real and imagery are once again blurred in the world at large. As one could observe in many contemporary works in the movie/gaming industry and the art domain, access to virtual reality is not limited to goggles and gadgets anymore and the pictorial realm has already leaked into reality, turning the space of the immersive installation into a liminal zone and a state of in-between-ness. (Take a look at installations done by team lab, the “Void” series of immersive experiments, “Box” by Bot and Dolly, and experiment done in Harvard’s seminar “Mechatronic Optics”.) Given such change, the modernist definition of space- defined based on a didactic grid and forms driven from platonic geometry-needs a revision.

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Figure 5

Let us investigate two contemporary installations as examples of environments where the said boundary is blurred. Figure 5 represents the installation “Between you and I”. Here, Anthony McCall defies traditional definitions of space-making by extending the realm of the imagery into the reality. He materializes the virtual world by creating a new interpretation of an atmosphere that is defined by materials that have been traditionally perceived immaterial before. By portraying the light beams as solid, he highlights dust particles and creates an illusive weightless fog. These liminal zones, then, become mediums mediating the two realms and connecting them together in a seamless manner. Sarah Oppenheimer does the reverse action with her spacial installations: By modifying the existing space, she extends the reality into the pictorial realm, hinting at spaces that are present but do not exist in our immediate tangible world. These deceptive liminal zones are distorted reflections of reality, stretching dimensions of the room without occupying extra space (figure 6).

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Figure 6

By relying on the historical evidences of late Baroque framing and also evidences in the contemporary art domain, all of which eliminate the need for separation between image and the material world called reality, the possibility of an alternate mode for space and architecture existence would emerge: objects that could act as an occupy-able world with spatial qualities and orientational attributions. These objects provide the moment where the boundary between the imaginary and the real is blurred and the physical rigid threshold is broken. This alternative domain would, then, not only becomes a quasi-physical manifestation of imagery and imagination but a way in which these two realms could be welded to each other with a less pronounced seam: a tight fit that is not just a binary relation between two worlds of the real and the imagery, the normal and not normal. Frames with their latent ability to exist in two paradoxical mode of existence simultaneously, that of separation and that of connection, have the capacity to expand and become a place of in-between-ness and a state of limbo. Introducing occupy-able frames as design elements and re-purposing thresholds, which are seen as program-less spaces now, could be steps toward an alternative mode of space-making. In the architecture discipline, each space inside a building is assigned a specific function and is placed under a specific category called “program” (for example in a house, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, living rooms are all different program spaces). If the program was the major dictating element of architecture in the modernist approach, here the flow between spaces and the circulation becomes the new driving factor for shaping spaces. Lacan expressed where this is leading us: no one knows anymore whether the door opens to the imaginary or to the real. We are all unhinged.

Why shouldn’t our space be?

Zahra Safaverdi is the Irving Innovation Fellow in Architecture from Harvard University, where she examines new modes of representation of space in the post-digital era. She is one of the current directors of the MASKS event series and the editor of MASKS: journal of dissimulation in art / architecture / design.


Work Referenced, and further reading

Conner, Steven. “Reading Michel Serre.” 20 April 2017, milieux/.

Hayes, Micheal. Architecture’s Desire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010. 1-50; 89-134.

Hejduck, John. Mask of Medusa. 1st ed. N.p.: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989. 40-65.

Hendrix, John Shannon. Architecture and Psychoanalysis: Peter Eisenman and Jacques Lacan. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany. London: Phaidon Press, 1968.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Space, Place, and Atmosphere: Peripheral Perception in Existential Experience.” Architectural Atmospheres (2014): 19-45.

Pallasmaa, Juhani, and Peter Zumthor. Sfeer Bouwen = Building Atmosphere. Rotterdam: Nai010 Uitg., 2013.

Picon, Antoine. Ornament: The Politics of Architecture and Subjectivity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Serres, Michel. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. London: Continuum, 2009. 100-240; 275-300.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Siegert, Bernhard. Cultural techniques: Grids, filters, doors, and other articulations of the real. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Young, Michael. The Estranged Object. N.p.: Graham Foundation, 2015.

Betting and Belonging at the Candlewick Ward Club

By contributing writer Brendan Mackie

Clubs were everywhere in 18th-century Britain: there were clubs for church bell ringers, clubs for masturbators, clubs for aristocratic rakes, clubs for collecting art and antiquities, Welsh cultural clubs, clubs for people named Gregory, natural philosophy clubs, literary clubs, radical political clubs, and quotidian dining clubs. London clubs have received a great deal of antiquarian and academic interest. In 2002, historian Peter Clark revitalized club history by showing them to be essential features to an urbanizing Atlantic World. Since them, research on clubs has focused at the role of particular kinds of clubs as cultural institutions. Much attention has been paid to the larger clubs of the 19th century—gentlemen’s clubs, professional clubs—which have more fulsome, better preserved documentation. My research seeks to extend the discussion of clubs by trying to understand why so many men spent so much time and effort to organize their fun in the 18th century. Why did so many people impose rules over their trips to the tavern? What work did this do? To begin to answer these questions, this winter I am trawling through the generous archives of club paperwork in London. There are centuries of attendance lists; centuries of elections, withdrawals and expulsions; centuries of minor administrative resolutions, and centuries of tavern bills.

The problem is that very little of this paperwork illuminates the everyday social experience of clubs. Take the records of the Candlewick Ward Club (established 1739), a dining club for the residents of a neighborhood in the ancient city of London. Three minute books from the club have been preserved in the London Metropolitan archives (CLC/004/MS02841/001-003): big, thick, and promising to this young researcher. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of these records are tedious administrative minutiae: attendance lists, accounts, memoranda, votes resolving to move the club from one tavern to another. They can be quite boring.

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Candlewick Ward (left) and Langborn Ward in 1765 (

Records of wagers frequently interrupt the regular business of the Candlewick Ward Club, however, and these can reveal the slightly muffled echo of the voices in the club room. Bets could only be made for wine (to be drunk by the club), and each bet had to be entered into the club book alongside that day’s minutes. The bets all come from the daily conversation of the club room, so we can read them as fragments of chatter. The members talk much about their city, and how it was changing. The men bet about how long Mr. Munday had been at the King’s Head tavern. Whether there was stained glass in St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church. How long Mr. Abingdon the brewer had been dead for. If the cross atop St. Paul’s Cathedral could be seen from the corner of Gracechurch street. They bet about the big building projects that were radically changing the face of their city, whether the builders repairing the 600 year old London Bridge in 1765 were fully paid (they weren’t), whether the Southwark Bridge would be finished by 1817 (it wasn’t), whether the new replacement for the London Bridge would be opened by 1831 (it was).

They argued about themselves most of all. In 1782, Mr. Stainer and Mr. Hotham bet that they would each be married in the next two months, or else they’d buy the club a rump of beef and a dozen bottles of wine. They remained bachelors and the Club dined on their disappointment. Starting in 1810, early arrivals to the Club Room laid wagers on how many members would turn up that night: a dozen, thirty? Each bet meant more wine for the table no matter who won or lost. In 1813 Mr. Butler bet Mr. Clark about how often he had attended the Club: “He has been 7 times at the Ward club held at the White Hart Tavern, Alchurch Lane within the last two years, the present night included.” The Club Book was brought out, the attendance checked, and Butler was proven right. Joseph Eaton lost a bottle of wine for wrongly insisting that he was five feet five inches tall. That same day Mr. Eaton and Mr. Butler challenged each other to a contest in which they tried to guess the total of all the ages of men in the room—and Eaton lost again. They would bet about who was the tallest, the shortest, the fattest, the oldest, the fifth oldest, or the youngest. They bet about how big their club room was, how long the club’s table was, what material the club’s snuff box was, the circumference of a farthing coin. In 1803 Mr. Walter bet Mr. Bower that Mr. Horne would not make another bet that night. Why?

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For a time the Candlewick Ward Club met at the White Hart in Abchurch Lane (

The club wager is an argument, dulled; a personal disagreement written in the club book in careful hand for all to see; disagreement that can be easily resolved, and once resolved, rectified through wine. Unlike much else in life, the wager was a clear division, with a clear solution. You can imagine them scoffing at one another: “You must weigh ten stone.” “No I don’t.” The club book could be brought out, a wager written in it, bottles of wine laid on either side of the issue, and proof found—a scale, perhaps?—and determination made. It was fun. Fun that the men could challenge one another. Fun that proof could be found to solve these challenges. Fun that this tumble of contradictions, bets and resolutions turned the friction of men into more wine for the table.

Wagers allowed the men of the Candlewick Ward Club some control over uncertainty. They were of minor importance to London life, hesitantly making their way up the ladder of public position. Some were elected to seats on the Common Council. Many served as Alderman and Sheriff. Some had Parliamentary ambitions, rarely, if ever, achieved. One member, Peter Perchard, was actually elected Lord Mayor in 1803, although his election stopped his appearance at club meetings. Within the space of a wager, the impersonal forces clipping the wings of these men’s hopes could be measured, written down, and controlled. They bet on how long a government would survive; who would win the election for the next seat on Parliament or Common Council; whether the Queen would give birth to a child, an heir; whether a crucial law would be passed; whether the men, disgusted with the King, would stand up as they drank his health.

Revealed in other ways, disagreements might offend, but through the wager, the offense could be blunted. In 1763 Mr. Oliver had told Mr. Cole that he would build him a marble chimney; it was obviously taking some time, and Oliver bet a bottle that he would be done that very month. (Whether he did or not remains unrecorded.) Wagers could also be safe vehicles for criticism. In 1804 Mr. Atkinson was confident enough of his chances for being elected to Common Council to bet Mr. Poynter a bottle of wine that he would win; he lost. Six years later Poynter bet that another member, Mr. Gimble, would fail in his bid for the same position. Gimble lost. The club drank his defeat.

The seemingly boring control of club protocol worked to dim the passions so they could be less dangerously expressed. In October 1831, for example, the Candlewick Ward Club memorialized the death of its long-serving secretary Joseph Eaton (who was not five feet five inches tall) in the club’s minute book:

The members of this Ward Club are deeply sensible of the loss they have sustained by the death of their late worthy Secretary Mr. Joseph Eaton whose long service of years in that capacity, as well as in various important duties for the benefit of his fellow inhabitants, accompanied as they were by a strict integrity of conduct and conciliatory manners, justly intitled him to the strongest mark of their respect and which they are desirous of thus recording as a humble tribute of regard to his memory.

This memorial is polite, but it is cold, dry, even somewhat callous. The message of condolence is drafted like any other minute into the Club Book; proposed, then seconded, then voted on by the members present (unanimously); the same form the club would use if it were deciding where to go for its annual country dinner, or whether to admit the new member, or whether to change the meeting place from one tavern to another. But a man was dead. A man who was for a long time a friend and colleague, the father to another member, a man who had been giving compliments of wine to the club on his marriages and on the births of his children for the past three decades. The grief the men felt for Joseph Eaton, that man of “strict integrity of conduct and conciliatory manners” may have been monstrous and inexpressible, as grief so often is; but it would be entered into the club book, in well-turned, polite, respectable, cold, dry, safe language. The grief too could be controlled and contained, like the wager could control and contain disagreement and uncertainty. In this way, the administration of the club rubbed the rough edges off the problems of living with other people, and turned them into the easy good fellowship of yet another bottle of wine placed on a full dinner table.

The Candlewick Ward Club exists to this day, though its members no longer make wagers.

Brendan Mackie is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. His podcast is available at He is not yet the member of any clubs.


Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Robert O. Paxton, “The Cultural Axis” (NYRB)

Sanford Schwartz, “The Master of Eglfing-Haar” (NYRB)

W.H. Auden, “The Chimeras” (TLS)

Ross Bullen, “Race and the White Elephant War of 1884” (Public Domain Review)



Annabelle Timsit, “When the World Outlawed War” (The Atlantic)

Dossier 1917: La révolution russe en questions” (Le Monde Diplomatique)

Timothy Brennan, “The Digital-Humanities Bust” (Chronicle of Higher Education)



Hop Dac, “Another Normal,” (overland)

Mike Davis, “El Diablo in Wine Country” (LRB Blog)

Julie Hawks with Alex S. Vitale, “The End of Policing: A New Book on the History of Policing” (Black Perspectives)

Laura McPherson, “We Can’t Stem the Tide of Language Death” (LARB)



About this week: The SF Chronicle’s Oct. 11th front page summed up the past week for me. “Disaster is relentless.” I grew up in the Bay Area and I’ve spent a fair share of my waking hours over these last two weeks tracking these fires, mourning the loss of places and landscapes that I knew as a young(er) person, and thinking about the distance between the glossy, noir images of apocalypse that populate representations of California (Gold Fame Citrus being a more recent example, for more of them, one might turn to Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear). I re-read this Marie Howe poem often.

And what to say about the Weinstein story, and #metoo? Maybe this: Yoko Ono, “Cut Piece” (1965). And this: Gloria Steinem, “A Bunny’s Tale, Part 1” and “Part 2.”

My survival strategy: thinking about art and art making in relation to feminism. A good place to start might be Linda Nochlin’s controversial 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (Artnews, and this past May Hyperallergic published this illustrated guide to Nochlin’s essay.) A decade later, Lucy Lippard published “Sweeping Exchanges: The Contribution of Feminism to Art in the 1970s” (Art Journal).

Why just think about art when you can get out and see it? Ruth Asawa finally gets to climb out of the “domestic” box now that David Zwirner is representing her estate. MoMA is showing Louise Bourgeois. Mieke Bal and Anne Wagner have both written interesting pieces on Bourgeois. Katy Deepwell on “Why Louise Bourgeois is a feminist icon.” In this interview with Kang Kang, Lin Tianmaio discusses her career as a female artist in China, her relationship to feminism–and why she does not claim to be a feminist artist (though that might be the least interesting part of the interview). Kara Walker’s show closed on October 14, but you can read one more review here. Carolee Schneeman has a show opening at MoMA P.S. 1. on Oct. 22nd. Read this Bomb magazine interview with her and then go see it.


Céline Cachaud, “La miniature, essai de définition” (Hillyarde)

Greg Downs, “Introduction to Roundtable on We Were Eight Years in Power”  (Journal of the Civil War Era)

Claude Pennetier, “L’histoire collective de Jean Maitron” (Viedesidées)

Carolyn Steedman, “Middle-Class Hair” (LRB)

The Emotional Life of Laissez-Faire: Emulation in Eighteenth-Century Economic Thought

By guest contributor Blake Smith

Capitalism is often understood by both critics and defenders as an economic system that gives self-interested individuals free reign to acquire, consume, and compete. There are debates about the extent to which self-interest can be ‘enlightened’ and socially beneficial, yet there seems to be a widespread consensus that under capitalism, the individual, egoist self is the basic unit of economic action. For many intellectuals from the right and the left capitalism seems, by letting such economic agents pursue their private interests, to erode traditional social structures and collective identities, in a process that is either a bracing, liberating movement towards freedom or an alienating, disorienting dissolution in which, as Marx famously phrased it, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Economic activity unfettered by government regulation was not always so obviously linked to the self-interest of atomized individuals. In fact, as historians inspired by the work of István Hont show, the first wave of laissez-faire political economists, who transformed eighteenth-century Europe and laid the foundation for modern capitalism, claimed that they were creating the conditions for a new era of mutual admiration and affective connections among economic agents. For these thinkers, members of the ‘Gournay Circle’, emotions, rather than mere self-interest, were the motor of economic activity. They specifically identified the kind of activity they wanted to promote with the feeling of ’emulation’, and touted the abolition of traditional protections on workers and consumers as a means of stoking this noble passion.

Emulation has only been recently been given center stage in the history of economic thought, thanks to scholars like John Shovlin, Carol Harrison and Sophus Reinert, but it has a long history. From Greco-Roman antiquity down through the Renaissance, it was understood as a force of benign mutual rivalry among people working in the same field. Emulation was said to set in motion a virtuous circle in which competitors, bound by mutual admiration and affection, pushed each other to ever-higher levels of achievement. When a sculptor, for example, sees a magnificent statue made by one of his fellow artists, he should experience an uplifting feeling of emulation that will inspire him to learn from his rival in order to make a still more magnificent statue of his own. Emulation thus leads to higher standards of production, generating a net gain for society as a whole; it also, critically, unites potential rivals in a bond of shared esteem rooted in a common identity. This form of friendly competition sustains communities.

Emulation was not for everyone, however. It was understood only to exist in the world of male elites, and only in non-economic domains where they could pursue glory without the taint of financial interest: the arts, politics, and war. The circle of young male artists in the orbit of the great painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as Thomas Crowe notes, could present their (not always harmonious) competition for attention, resources, and patronage in terms of emulation. In the homosocial space of the studio, anything so petty as jealous or avarice was abolished, and such artists as Antoine-Jean Gros, Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Germain Drouais could appear, at least in public, as a set of friends who admired and encouraged each other. Women, meanwhile, were largely excluded from the art world’s apprenticeships, studios, and galleries, on the grounds that their delicate psyches were not suited to the powerful emotions that drove emulation.


Vincent de Gournay

The discourse of emulation shaped access to the arts, but, in a stroke of public relations genius, the members of the Gournay Circle realized that it could also reshape France’s mercantilist economy. Beginning in the 1750s, this group of would-be reformers coalesced around the commercial official and political economist Vincent de Gournay (1712-59). Largely forgotten today (but now increasingly visible thanks to scholars such as Felicia Gottmann), Gournay and his associates inspired the liberal political economists of the next generation, from Physiocrats in France to Adam Smith in Scotland. The Gournay Circle and those who moved in its wake called for the abolition of restrictions on foreign imports, price controls on grain, state monopolies, guilds—the institutions and practices around which economic life in Europe had been organized for centuries.

The Gournay Circle spoke to a France fearful of falling behind Great Britain, its rival for colonial and commercial power. Gournay and his associates argued that France was not making the most of its merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, whose energies were hemmed in by antiquated regulations. To those worried that unleashing economic energies might heighten social tensions, making France weaker and more divided instead of stronger, the Gournay Circle gave reassurance. There was no conflict between fostering social harmony and deregulating the economy, because economic activity was not motivated by self-interested desires for personal gain. Rather, buying and selling, production and distribution were inspired by emulation, the same laudable hunger for the esteem of one’s peers that motivated painters, orators and warriors.

Just as a sculptor admires and strives to outdo the work of his colleagues, laissez-faire advocates argued, a merchant or manufacturer regards those in his own line of work with a spirit of high-minded, warm-hearted camaraderie. Potential competitors identify with each other, forging an emotional bond based on their shared effort to excel. Thus, for example, demolishing traditional guild controls on the number of individuals who could enter into a given field of trade would not only encourage competition, raise the quality of goods and reduce prices—most importantly, it would draw a greater number of people into emulation with each other. Social classes, too, would be drawn to emulate each other, and rather than stoking economic conflict among competing interests, deregulation would encourage economic actors to earn the admiration of their fellows. National wealth and national unity would both be promoted, joined by a common logic of affect.

Under the banner of emulation, reformers challenged the guilds and associations that had long offered some limited protections to workers. Since the Middle Ages, guilds throughout Europe had set standards of production, provided training for artisans, and offered forms of unemployment insurance. Critics observed that they also kept up wages by limiting the number of workers who could enter into specific trades, and further accused guilds of thwarting the introduction of new technologies. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), a political economist linked to the Gournay Circle, believed that the best way to “incite emulation” among workers was “by the suppression of all the guilds.”

For a brief moment, Turgot (still hailed as a hero in libertarian circles) was able to put his pro-emulation agenda into action. Appointed Comptroller-General of Finances (the equivalent to a modern Minister of Finance) in 1774, Turgot launched a laissez-faire campaign that included the abolition of guilds and the suspension of state controls on the price and circulation of grain. The royal decree announcing his most infamous batch of policies, the Six Edits, declared: “we wish thus to nullify these arbitrary institutions… which cast away emulation.” Turgot’s policies provoked outrage across French society, from peasants who feared bread prices would spiral out of control, to guild members who faced the competition of unregulated production. He was forced to resign in 1776; his most hated policies were reversed. But the damage had been done. The guild system, permanently enfeebled, straggled on for another generation. Peasants and workers, to whom the fragility of the institutions that protected their access to food and labor had been made brutally obvious, remembered the lesson. Their outrage in the mid-1770s was a rehearsal for 1789.


“Carte d’Entrée” for the first annual meeting of the Société d’Emulation

Emulation gradually faded away as a justification for liberal economic policies, although throughout much of the nineteenth century ’emulation clubs’ (sociétés d’émulation) remained a fixture of French municipal life, promoting business ventures while excluding groups whose capacity for emulation was considered questionable: women, Jews, and Protestants. As a key, albeit forgotten, concept in the development of modern economic thought, emulation reveals the extent to which the notion of the self-interested individual as the essential subject of economic activity is not in fact essential to capitalist ideology. In eighteenth-century France, laissez-faire policies aimed at increasing economic growth were justified in terms of their contribution to social harmony and emotional fulfillment. In the rhetoric that promoted these policies, the imagined economic subject was not an isolated, calculating egoist but a passionate striver who wanted, more than mere utility, welfare or profit, the admiration of other members of his community (that this community should exclude certain groups of people went without saying). Such arguments may well have been deployed by cynical activists agitating on behalf of powerful financial interests, yet they nevertheless speak to an affective dimension of economic life that is too often occluded. In its short-lived role as an economic concept, emulation showed that the history of capitalism is necessarily entangled with the history of emotions.

Blake Smith holds a PhD from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, where he is preparing a study of the eighteenth-century French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.

Houses of Glass and Veils of Secrecy: Metaphor in Discourses of Political Publicity

By guest contributor Katlyn Marie Carter

We often use metaphors and analogies to talk about politics. The legislative process, you may have heard, is akin to sausage being made. Such metaphors stand to tell us a lot about how we think about politics and different aspects of government. In the case of sausage being made, one might think back a century to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago as a horrifyingly dirty, disgusting, and degrading affair. In our popular culture, sausage making carries generally negative connotations. When we talk about lawmaking like this, the implication is that it is messy and, though the outcome may sometimes be good, getting to the product is not something that bears scrutiny well. On the flip side, so-called “sunshine laws” are proposed as remedies to corruption or foul play in government. The moniker suggests transparency as a potential cure for the worst aspects of the sausage making process. The use of these particular metaphors sheds light on how we, in early twenty-first century America, think about the ills of the legislative process and how best to remedy them.

Studying the metaphors and analogies people in the past used to talk about politics can similarly enrich our understanding of their thinking and help us identify constitutive relationships between thought and practice. If we want to understand how revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century thought about the legislative process, at the moment when modern representative institutions were first being founded, we would do well to consider the metaphors and analogies they used to describe it. These expressions provide us with ways to deftly discern how thinking about such practices was evolving and how ideas were being shaped through experience with their practical application. Furthermore, paying attention to the way concepts were described metaphorically can reveal anxieties as well as ideals by anchoring ideas more firmly in the cultural context in which they were being applied and developed.

I am by no means the first to suggest paying attention to metaphors in revolutionary politics. More than two decades ago, Lynn Hunt urged analysis of narratives and images of the family applied to politics during the French Revolution—a metaphor which was also ubiquitous in struggles between Britain and the American colonies.  Mary Ashburn Miller has pointed to the application of images and analogies from the natural world in order to argue that French revolutionaries often portrayed political events and violence as beyond human control. Perhaps the most widespread analogy used in political discourse in the late eighteenth century was that of the theater, which scholars of the French Revolution in particular have examined at length. Paul Friedland and Susan Maslan have both pointed to the rampant application of the language of theater to politics and read it as anxiety over the evolving meaning and contested implementation of political representation. Describing politics in terms of theater could carry implications of debauchery, debasement, and downright danger. Examining the connotations of such metaphors and analyzing the way they were applied to politics enriches our understanding of the conceptual development and practical implementation of ideas central to the revolutionary period.

Veils of secrecy and houses of glass, along with references to working “behind the curtain,” “unmasking” traitors, and penetrating “conclaves” permeated both American and French political discourse during the Age of Revolutions. These metaphors were particularly prominent when discussing elected representatives and legislative deliberations among them. They were part of debates—in both France and the United States—over the questions of publicity, or transparency as we would call it today, and secrecy in government. In 1788, Patrick Henry critiqued constitutional provisions allowing for the discretionary use of secrecy in the future federal government, declaring on the floor of the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention: “I appeal to this Convention if it would not be better for America to take off the veil of secrecy. Look at us—hear our transactions” (Convention Debates, June 9, 1788). A year later, in response to a proposal to shut the doors of the Estates General meeting to the public, Third Estate deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney proclaimed: “I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows; the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished his house was made of glass.”

The question of when secrecy was appropriate versus what should be done in public view was central to the conception and implementation of representative government in the late eighteenth century. Such references are evidence of this fact; but the way in which these concepts were articulated merits further scrutiny. Interrogating the metaphors and analogies employed can help us identify the concerns underlying calls for more publicity and the way in which critiques of secrecy were linked to understandings of how representative government should (and should not) work. Likening the exposure of the legislative process to public view to removing “the veil of secrecy” was not an intellectually or culturally neutral way of describing the procedural decision to deliberate with open doors. Exploring its connotations illuminates the way in which deploying this particular metaphor was both constitutive and reflective of thinking about the purpose of publicity in representative government.


“Les Aristocrates anéantis,” Artist unknown, 1790. Hand-colored etching on paper. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie.

This 1790 depiction of a National Guardsman revealing a formerly masked “demon of aristocracy” provides a visual representation reflective of the language used to talk about secrecy and the value of publicity in revolutionary politics. An eye appears in the right-hand corner of the image. Rays of sunshine emanate from this eye. This image resonates strongly with the iconography used in popular society publications urging vigilance over elected officials as well as potential enemies.

We know, for example, that veils—which were often referred to in both American and French political discourse—were associated on the most basic level with hiding and thus could have implied intentional obfuscation. In the Dictionnaire critique de la langue française of 1762, a voile was defined as a piece of cloth used to hide something, especially the faces of women who were widowed or residents of the so-called “Orient.” Referring to a veil could thus carry feminine connotations as well as a link to the “East,” which was often associated with despotism in the eighteenth century. A common figure of speech, the dictionary definition went on to detail, was that “a man has a veil covering his eyes when prejudices, biases, love, hate, or other passions prevent him from seeing things as they are.” Though curiously not defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language, when Noah Webster released his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, a veil was similarly defined as “a cover; a disguise,” and the verb form was defined as “to cover with a veil; to conceal,” or “to hide.”

Even a cursory look at contemporary dictionary definitions provides some leads when it comes to better understanding the implications of the term’s use in calling for publicity or criticizing the secrecy surrounding legislative deliberations. The metaphorical lifting of a veil—when it came to publicizing political activity or government work—suggests that publicity was conceived of and portrayed as a remedy to combat active and intentional concealment. Such hiding, which could have carried connotations of femininity or despotism, might even have implied the operation of prejudice or the prevention of adequate information among those who were covered by the veil: the representatives who were deliberating. Talking about removing the “veil of secrecy” from a representative legislature may have been a way to posit publicity as constitutive of such a regime, in contrast to a despotic one. More than that, it also suggested specific purposes for publicity in such a system. Representatives were not only to deliberate in public view for the purposes of honesty and to combat implications of conspiracy or corruption, but also to maintain communication with the broader public for the purposes of their own information.

This is just one example; further unpacking the cluster of metaphors and analogies that eighteenth-century actors applied when they were talking about government secrecy and calling for greater publicity could continue to enrich our understanding of how these concepts were being defined and deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. When Volney made reference to working in a house of glass, he gestured to an ancient sage who reportedly declared his wish to live in a house that would allow constant monitoring of his actions. Referring to a house could have conjured publicity, or transparency, in a Rousseau-ian sense, as making one’s soul legible to the outside world for the purposes of guaranteeing authenticity. Further use of the metaphor in the context of defending one’s individual actions as a representative enforces such a connotation. In 1793, deputy Bertrand Barère responded to suspicions of potential past links to the monarchy by citing the same metaphor, stating: “A Roman citizen said: ‘I wish that a house open to all gazes would be constructed for me, so that all my fellow citizens can witness my actions.’ Citizens, I would have wanted to live in such a house during my time as a member of the Constituent Assembly.” A member of a representative assembly, such references suggested, was obliged to live transparently, perhaps without separation of private from public. Furthermore, the reference to ancient Rome was rife with republican signaling. Using the metaphor of a house of glass to describe the way a representative should live, think, and deliberate on behalf of the people illuminates the way in which transparency was constitutive of an ideal representative as republican and completely open to public scrutiny in all his actions.

In discussing publicity using these metaphors and analogies, politicians, polemicists, editors, and theorists implicitly laid out a case for why it was necessary, for what they felt they were combating by imposing it. They also defined secrecy as a particular type of threat, linked to dissembling, eastern despotism, femininity, carnival (in the case of masks), or religious superstition (in the case of conclaves), among many other references. Metaphors matter when trying to explain how people in the past thought about and articulated concepts; they give deeper meaning to what might otherwise be encountered as ideas isolated in the intellectual realm of philosophical tracts or constitutional frameworks. Looking at metaphors and analogies has the potential to firmly anchor political ideas to their social and cultural contexts and, in so doing, to expose the way ideas were interdependently shaped and translated from thought into practice.

Katlyn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, where she is currently working on a book manuscript about the relationship between state secrecy and representative government during the Age of Revolutions. You can contact her at


Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Europe Slams Its Gates” (Foreign Policy).

Carmen Maria Machado, “Inventory” (LitHub)

Corey Robin, “Triumph of the Shill” (n+1)



Max O’Connell, “Man on the Outside” (

Nell Irvin Painter, “Long Divisions” (TNR)

Hilary Davies, “Things Hidden” (TLS)



A while back, I posted a selection of links that revolved around the question of creative practice, and the binary of “amateur” vs. “professional.” Now that we’re officially in the heart of award season, it seems an opportune moment to continue thinking about the institutions and structures that scaffold these practices.

First, a pair of essays by Alexis Clements (in the LARB), truthful and brutal: “What are the Chances? Success in the Arts in the 21st Century” (2016) and “The Secret Recipe for Success in the Arts” (2017).

Next, Viet Thanh Nguyen on the writer’s workshop (NY Times). Nguyen’s piece reminds me of the collection edited by Chad Harbach (of n+1), MFA vs. NYC. The collection generated a lot of commentary. Loren Glass’s review, “The Creative Precariat,” is another critical perspective on the role of the MFA in adjudicating between those who get to be writers, and those who remain outside of this charmed circle. In his 2016 Artnews essay, Daniel S. Palmer looked at the economic forces and structures driving “the hyper-professionalization of the emerging artist.”

There is push-back against this world, against this particular vision of what it means to be a professional artist/writer/”cultural producer.” Some champion the concept of the amateur (e.g. Miya Tokumitsu, in Frieze, “Completely Unprofessional”; Andrew Berardini, in Momus, “How to be an Unprofessional Artist”) for why should only certified professionals claim access to art making or creativity? Others, weary from waiting at the gate, have chosen to make their own opportunities. In this 2010 interview with Bomb, Danielle Dutton discusses why she founded Dorothy, A Publishing Project. Nick Kokonas presents a different perspective on publishing in his post for Medium, “Why We are Self-Publishing the Aviary Cookbook–Lessons from the Alinea book.”

And there is also the world of the Instagram poet. Here is a NYT profile of Rupi Kaur, and a New Yorker profile of Reuben Holmes.

I leave you with a quote from one who knew all about the perils and pleasures of trying to make it in the “art world”–Carol Rama: “If I really am so good, then I don’t get why I had to starve for so long.”



Rebecca Brenner, “How American Racism Shaped Nazism,” (Black Perspectives)

Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Fate of the Earth,” (New Yorker)

Keenan Norris, “To Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?” (LARB)

Sophie Robinson, “Not The Marrying Type,” (Vida)

Jenny Turner, “Literary Friction,” (LRB)

Basma Radwan:

James C. Scott “Take your pick” (LRB)

Lisa Appignanesi “Freud’s Clay Feet” (NYRB)

Sarah Sentilles “Colonial Postcards and Women as Props for War-Making” (New Yorker)



Timothy Aubry, “The Paradoxical Politics of Literary Criticism” (New Republic)

Andrew Bacevich, “Schlesinger and the Decline of Liberalism” (Boston Review)

Jonathan Zimmerman, “What’s so bad about Ken Burns?” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Eric C. Miller, “India in the American Imagination: An Interview with Michael J. Altman” (Religion and Politics)


The Difficulties of Addressing Memories of Communism

By guest contributor Ilana Seelinger

Whenever you try to teach communist history, you run into the same issue: how do you address the conflicting memories of a contested past?

When you’re talking about communism in a country that experienced it, you can count on the fact that most students will approach it with some prior knowledge of the subject. Although they may not know the historical specifics very well, they will have grown up in a family that remembers the period in some specific way, negatively or positively. The students will also hear about the period from a teacher whose own biases will inevitably color the presentation. Memories of the communist period and their contestation thus continue to shape the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe while their respective societies struggle to build an “official” public memory. It has proven tedious for these societal memories to take the myriad experiences of communism into account. Inevitably, some portion of society always ends up left out of the official public memory construction.

Teaching students in non-post-communist societies about the communist past presents an entirely different set of issues. The students’ parents and grandparents never lived in a communist regime themselves, so any memories they have of the period are likely to be based on the widespread anti-communist sentiment in the West instead of on direct experience of interacting with people who lived in communist countries. At worst, today’s students might not have grown up with any knowledge of communist history at all.  If they’ve learned something about it in school, even that is not likely to have been an unbiased account. In Western Europe and the U.S., history teaching materials on communism tend to follow a Cold War narrative and focus on political history and international conflict. This sort of education leads to a vision of a black and white world, in which everything formerly behind the Iron Curtain appears as a gray, undefined morass of less developed countries.

One way to bypass that Cold War narrative is to move from political history to more personal history, focusing less on changes in leadership and more on, for example, the lifestyle changes that each wave of new leadership brought with it. Modern methods in historical pedagogy for other periods have been steadily moving towards a focus on actual people’s lives rather than strictly chronological representations of political events; they have moved away from the political aspects of history towards a more experiential representation of the past, focusing on the historical actors themselves and encouraging analysis and questioning.  Why then should this not be the case for the communist past as well? By creating a well-rounded view of life during communism, one can help erase the sense of otherness that currently exists between the East and the West.

However, just as with history education in post-communist countries, it is imperative that in depicting the lives of people during communism, educational materials aimed outside the region also offer more than one view. Oppression has to be represented there, but it cannot  be solely oppression. Nostalgia for communism exists throughout the region, so there must  be something in any comprehensive set of communist history teaching materials that offers a discussion of why that is. Without both sides present, students end up lacking an understanding of the legacy of communism and the lasting effects it continues to have on the region today.

Here at the Department of Education of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, this is a question we spent months wrestling with while putting together material on our educational website, Socialism Realised. What we offer is still a work in progress and is by no means a definitive answer to the question of how best to teach the history of formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe to people from outside of the region.

Using multimedia historical sources, mostly clips from feature films but also texts, photographs, a radio broadcast, and various others, we have attempted to put together a small library of material that will introduce users to the communist past in a multi-perspective way. Although we have used material focused on Czechoslovakia, we endeavored to choose items that could in some way represent common experiences across the communist bloc. Our overarching goal was to recreate as much of the complexity of life during communism as possible through multiple eras, bringing the experiences, thoughts, feelings and problems of people who lived through the era to the forefront of our instructional materials. We’ve separated the material, which covers various periods in time, into four axes: the way the regime presented itself (“Ideology”), the way people experienced the regime (“Personal Story”), how the regime oppressed its citizens (“Oppression”), and how people remember the regime now (“Memory”).

One of the periods that we explore is the Collectivization of agriculture in the early 1950s, when a rapid wave of forced Stalinist modernization turned the rural parts of the country upside down. An accurate representation of this period has to include material like the clip we call “Forced Eviction,” in which a rich farmer and his wife are forced to leave their family farm so that the collective can take it over. However, the section would also be incomplete without the clip called “Back to the Past,” in which women who once worked on a collective farm reflect back, probably forty years later, about what material gains collectivization brought them.

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The catalogue page for “Back to the Past” on​

Jumping forward into the period of Normalization, which took place in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, we had to offer examples of both the reasons why some people fought for communism to end and why some feel a sense of nostalgia for it now. “Good Ol’ Days” is one of the latter type, showing people blithely reminiscing over the products they had as children without any thought towards the period in which they lived. “The Dilemma,” on the other hand, offers an example of the daily oppression that some people faced — in this case, having to choose between joining the Communist Party for a chance at career promotion and refusing to join and thereby missing out on professional advancement.

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The catalogue page for “Good Ol’ Days” on

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The catalogue page for “The Dilemma” on

It is important to note that while education on the period up to this point has mainly focused on one of the four axes, oppression, that was not the single defining feature of state socialism for all of the people who experienced it. We aim to capture more of those defining features, reflect a more diverse collection of experiences, and create a more multidimensional view of the communist past. As educators, our responsibility is to help students gain an understanding of the period that addresses as many of those experiences as possible. Our portal offers just a microcosm of the tapestry of experiences that people living in the Eastern bloc had, but by presenting the history through multiple different viewpoints, we intend it to be a true microcosm. 

The Suffrage Postcard Project: A Replica Archive

by guest contributor Ana Stevenson

At the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference, in a panel about digital history, Professor Victoria Haskins discussed what she described as a “replica archive.”  Haskins’ research is concerned with Indigenous domestic servants in Australia and the United States – women whose lives, she rightly notes, are often difficult to uncover in the archives.  Technology, however, has fundamentally changed the relationship historians have with archives.  Following the hours and hours of archival research undertaken across her long and distinguished career, Haskins has amassed copious photographs and photocopies which feature the voices of these women.  Bringing together these photographic fragments from many archives, Haskins suggests, creates a new archive – a replica archive.


The Suffrage Postcard Project can likewise be seen as a replica archive.  Women’s suffrage postcards, though considered ephemeral at their time of production, were numerous.  Postcard scholar Kenneth Florey suggests that more than 1000 suffrage-related postcards were printed in the United States during the 1910s and approximately 2000 in Britain.[1]  Suffrage memorabilia more generally was received enthusiastically by the American and British public, especially in the years prior to World War I.[2]

The majority of the women’s suffrage postcards were printed during the 1910s, a decade which would see the acquisition of qualified suffrage for British women in 1918 and the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States by 1920.  This era is broadly described by scholars as the “golden age” of picture postcards.[3]



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA. 

Women’s suffrage postcards were so numerous, in fact, that even today such ephemera is not inscrutably hidden in the archives.  Many archival collections, especially those which focus upon women’s history, hold large collections of suffrage postcards – for example, at Harvard University’s Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.  Such collections feature both pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage postcards, which were predominantly produced during the first two decades of the twentieth century.  Suffrage organizations and commercial publishers alike produced women’s suffrage postcards.

But the partial nature of such collections, together with the geographical dispersion of the archives themselves, means scholars can only ever gain a fragmentary perspective.  Though archives such as these are partially digitized, they are often largely inaccessible to the public.  Aware of such limitations, Florey published his seminal work, American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog (2015).  Bringing together digitally as many women’s suffrage postcards as possible, The Suffrage Postcard Project goes a step further.

The Suffrage Postcard Project is therefore an attempt to bring together as many women’s suffrage postcards as possible, and thus create a replica archive.  It features postcards from the personal collections of Catherine H. Palczewski, Joan Iverson, Ann Lewis, and Kenneth Florey, as well as postcards from various special collections in the United States.  This replica archive centers upon women’s suffrage postcards in a way that fragmented collections cannot and is also easily accessible to the public.



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA.

The postcards are now available as an ever-expanding digital corpus.  The field of digital humanities has presented other pertinent questions for conceptualizing such a digital corpus, specifically in relation to the nature and meaning of “the archive.”  Historians, literary and feminist scholars, and library and archive professionals have very different understandings of what constitutes an archive.  “In a digital environment,” Kenneth M. Price concludes, “archive has gradually come to mean a purposeful collection of surrogates.”[4]  Kate Theimer further argues that it is important for digital humanists to understand the differing ways in which archivists understand what constitutes “archive” and how collections are created.[5]  Haskins’s concept of the replica archive might help reconcile these disciplinary, methodological, and conceptual differences, as it forces practitioners’ cognizance of the created and curated nature of the digital archive.

This format enables scholars to apply new research methods.  Tagging the themes which appear in women’s suffrage postcards necessitates finding language to describe visual themes.  Jacqueline Wernimont and Julia Flanders discuss the process whereby they encode literary texts for the Women Writers Project.  This process, they argue, entails “many of the same difficulties encountered when reading it.”  Indeed, issues relating to “categorisation, explication, and description [are] central to digital text markup, forcing the digital scholar to grapple consciously with formal issues that might otherwise remain latent.”[6]

So how do we identify the visual themes in the postcards?  The process is called “tagging,” wherein specific words are used to identify repetitive themes.  Our preliminary response was to consider how to apply thematic tags such as “public” versus “private,” “domestic space,” “wife” or “woman” versus “mother,” “husband” or “man” versus “father,” and the subtle but nonetheless significant semantic differences associated with each individual choice.  Even the application of seemingly clear-cut concepts such as “pro-suffrage” and “anti-suffrage” could sometimes be nebulous.  As my co-founder Kristin Allukian and I worked together and alongside our research assistants, our discussions led us to expand upon how we initially conceptualized our approach to tagging the visual themes.

Such digital methods, then, enable scholars to ask unprecedented research questions about the early-twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement and its many detractors.  This also provokes new questions, as well as the reconsideration of old assumptions.

For example, observable trends become incontrovertible when analyzed using digital methods.  A scholar might discern that upper-middle-class adult white women are the primary subjects of suffrage cartoons.  However, when this impression is considered across hundreds of postcards, other trends emerge: children and animals are ubiquitous; men often appear as the subject of debate; white working-class people are depicted somewhat regularly; racial stereotypes about Irish and Chinese immigrants are evident, although rare; and African Americans are conspicuous due to their absence.  Scholars were not formerly unaware of such trends, but a digital humanities approach provides stronger evidence for such thematic claims.



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA.

Such research will contribute to the fields of women’s history and feminist visual culture, but also has significance for the interpretation of images in intellectual history.  My fellows and I are using digital humanities methods to gain new insights into questions of print pigmentation, gender, race, class, and parenthood as represented in women’s suffrage postcards.

The Suffrage Postcard Project also presents undergraduates with opportunities for intellectual development.  Since 2015, undergraduate and masters research assistants from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of South Florida have supported the digitization of the postcards.  In addition to acquiring valuable digital humanities and public history skills, these students have based research projects around the women’s suffrage postcards.

At the University of South Florida’s 2017 Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium, the 2016-2017 research assistants undertook an interview with The Intersection podcast.

The Suffrage Postcard Project is always looking out for new additions to our digital corpus, contributions which can enrich our replica archive.  Should any interested reader have women’s suffrage postcards from a personal or institutional collection they might like to share, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Our twitter handle is @Suff_Postcards .

Ana Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa.  Her research centers upon the development of feminist in transnational social movements in the United States, Australia, and South Africa.  Follow her on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson.

[1] Kenneth Florey, American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2015).

[2] Kenneth Florey, Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2013).

[3] Catherine H. Palczewski, “The Male Madonna and the Feminine Uncle Sam: Visual Argument, Icons, and Ideographs in 1909 Anti-Woman Suffrage Postcards,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91, no. 4 (2005): 365; Florey, American Woman Suffrage Postcards, 4.

[4] Kenneth M. Price, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3, no. 3 (2009).

[5] Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (2012).

[6] Jacqueline Wernimont and Julia Flanders, “Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 29, no. 2 (2010): 432 and 427-428.