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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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In the years between 1900 and 1914, the home of Carpenter and Merrill served as a meeting place for many involved in progressive political movements. Carpenter's optimistic vision of the fusion of the personal and political in an egalitarian society was appealing to many involved in the labor and feminist causes.

From the perspective of history, Carpenter's effort to incorporate sexual issues into the labor movement is of special significance. Both in the United Kingdom and abroad, he fostered groups of workers dedicated to the discussion of sexual matters. Carpenter's ability to gain support within labor organizations for sexual reform was exceptional; for the most part, the labor movement in Britain allied itself with conservative moralizing positions.

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In 1913-14, Carpenter helped to found and served as the first president of the British Society of Sex-Psychology, the first public forum in Britain for the scientific discussion of sexual matters. The Society sponsored an ambitious series of lectures and pamphlets for the general public and also tried to encourage medical professionals to deal more objectively with sexual matters. Because the British Library would not allow access to materials with controversial sexual content, such as Carpenter's publications, the Society established a small library of fundamental works for members.

Including many ardent feminists in its membership, the Society emphasized the links between the oppression suffered by homosexuals and by women. To avoid attracting police investigations, the Society prefaced its publications on homosexual themes with extensive notes of caution, but these nonetheless made clear the compelling scientific rationale for reform.

Others worked more secretly to promote the concerns of homosexuals. By 1897, Charles Cecil Ives (1867-1950) had founded the Order of Chaeronea (named after a battle of 338 B. C. E. in which the Sacred Band of Thebes was slaughtered), which became an international organization by the beginning of the twentieth century. Inspired by Masonic practice, this underground society utilized elaborate rituals and codes to prevent outsiders from penetrating its activities.

As proclaimed in the Commentary on the Rule, members pledged to work surreptitiously to improve legal and social conditions for homosexuals, and it is known that some utilized their social positions to advocate the "Cause" to politicians and to influence positive images of homosexuals in the arts. Although its specific achievements are hard to reconstruct in detail, the Order is historically significant as the first organization advocating the position that reform of laws could only be achieved by a cohesive organization, composed solely of homosexuals.

While providing an emotionally supportive environment for its largely upper-class members, the society officially discouraged use of meetings for sexual contacts. Many of the known members, such as writer and artist Laurence Housman and architect-designer C. R. Ashbee, seem in any event to have preferred sexual affairs with working-class men, rather than with members their own social class. Such relations were justified by Ives as means to a fundamental transformation of society.


The Bloomsbury group challenged the restrictive gender and sexual categories that otherwise seemed to dominate British society in the early twentieth century. Beginning in 1906 and continuing until about 1930, this influential circle of writers, artists, and intellectuals met regularly in the houses of Clive and Vanessa Bell and of Vanessa Bell's siblings, Adrian and Virginia Stephen (known as Virginia Woolf after her marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912). Many of the male participants in the group had been members of the Apostles while at Cambridge, including novelist E. M. Forster, writer Lytton Strachey, and economist John Maynard Keynes. Other prominent figures involved in Bloomsbury included the painters Dora Carrington and Duncan Grant, art critic Roger Fry, publisher Leonard Woolf, and hostess Ottoline Morell, among others. Many of the individuals in the group made significant contributions to twentieth-century culture.

No single political or intellectual creed dominated the group, which was suspicious of political dogmas, whether of the left or right. In deliberate opposition to restrictive Victorian morality, members of the group exuberantly discussed all kinds of sexual matters. The openly homosexual members of the group--Strachey, Forster, Keynes, and Grant--found strong support from other participants.

Many of the members of the group developed relationships that defied simplistic categories of homo/heterosexual. For instance, Strachey had an affair with Grant between 1905 and 1906, but after that relationship ended he developed a close and supportive (though not sexual) relationship with Dora Carrington, while remaining avowedly homosexual. By 1917, Strachey and Carrington began to live together, and they continued to do so until Strachey's death in 1932, even after Carrington married the heterosexual Ralph Partridge in 1921. During her marriage to Partridge, Carrington had affairs with both men and women, and she began to identify herself as a lesbian by 1923. Despite her other involvements, Carrington committed suicide after Strachey's death because she could not envision life without him.

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