Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 11, 1996

Women's History Month: "Sex Talk" Speaks Volumes

Amy Hungerford
Special to The Gazette

     While a cold drizzle persisted into Thursday evening, an
audience of about 60 people gathered in the musty warmth of the
Merrick Barn Theater at Homewood to hear Princeton historian
Christine Stansell weave a tale of free-love ménage, progressive
labor politics and epistolary sex-talk in turn of the century
Greenwich Village.

     Stansell's lecture, "Talking about Sex: Feminists and
Radicals in Early Modernist Culture," kicked off a series of
events celebrating March as Women's History Month. The talk was
co-sponsored by the Women's Center, the Graduate Representative
Organization and the departments of History, English, and
Hispanic and Italian Studies.

     Speaking from a stage set for the performance of Ibsen's The
Lady From the Sea, Stansell told the stories of two "cele-brants"
of free love: Hutchins Hapgood, a journalist, and Emma Goldman, a
writer and champion of women's freedom. Through the stories of
these two free lovers Stansell showed how the radical
intellectuals of Greenwich Village saw free love as a political
tool that could dissolve boundaries of sex and class. Stansell
also traced how free lovers' voluminous "sex talk" produced a new
anti-feminist discourse alongside a language expressive of
women's sexuality.

     Stansell's lecture followed Hapgood and Goldman through the
mazes of their respective free love relationships. Hapgood had
married his free lover, Neith Boyce, but enjoyed relationships
with other women--in particular, with "Marie," the subject of his
book An Anarchist Woman--while he was away in Chicago writing
about the labor movement. The letters which pass back and forth
between Hapgood and Boyce detail Hapgood's escapades and create
an erotic language that, Stansell explained, casts wife as
mistress. Stansell foregrounded the importance of "talk" in
"thickening" the erotic atmosphere of the relationship: 

     Hapgood wrote to Boyce not only of his desire for
transgressive sex--"I am naughty tonight..."--but also of his
"desire to talk and to hear you talk."

     In Emma Goldman's case, Stansell explained, letters "careen"
between four people: Goldman, her lover Ben Reitman, our friend
Hutchins Hapgood--eventually Reitman's lover--and Almeda Sperry,
a lesbian acquaintance of Reitman's who hoped to sleep with
Goldman. Goldman's love letters to Reitman reveal both a
fascination with his plebeian aura and an exuberant language of
sexual expression.

     Addressing Reitman as "Hobo," Goldman rhapsodizes about the
longings of her "treasure box" and complains that Hobo has
neglected "Mount Blanc" and "Mount Jura" (producing delighted
laughter, of course, from the audience in Merrick Barn).
According to Stansell, Sperry sent her own love letters to
Goldman, who then sent them to Reitman who then showed them to
Hapgood, thus generating a web of sexual talk within which the
free love diad--in this case Goldman and Reitman--remained

     Stansell suggests that these free lovers thus created a
"space of reciprocity" where hurt and jealousy were considered
part of a bygone era.

     In the final section of her lecture Stansell showed how the
psychological dramas Goldman and Hapgood played out through
"talk" became precisely the kind of material brought to the stage
in the first Modernist avant-garde one-act plays. But Stansell
also showed how "sex talk"--in this case Hapgood's novel, Story
of a Lover, about his wife's free-love affair--also instituted a
new anti-feminist language which, she suggested, is still
dominant today.

     Though Hapgood champions the sexually emancipated woman,
Stansell argued that the story nevertheless casts the man in the
role of victim, psychologically wounded by the refusal of his
emancipated wife to talk about her affair. This leaves us,
Stansell concluded, with a new genre: "male feminism with a

     In the post-talk buzz over baked goat cheese and glasses of
wine, Nadja Durbach, a second-year graduate student in history,
reflected on Stansell's distinctive scholarship.

     "She's a powerful cultural historian with an eye for the way
sexuality and class impact and inform each other," she said.

     Stansell's lecture was taken from her forthcoming book on
the American moderns. She is also the author of the acclaimed
City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, and
co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Powers of Desire.

     Professor Stansell's lecture will be followed this month by
a variety of Women's History events, including a panel on "Career
Options for Feminists," organized by two Hopkins undergraduates,
and an all-day symposium on race and sexuality in the Americas.
For more information about events consult the Calendar, or call
Women's Studies at (410) 516-6166.           

     Please note that events sponsored by Women's Studies are
renowned among students for their sublime munchies.

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage