It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger

Book cover of Sexology in Culture.from Lucy Bland and Laura Doan (eds.), 1998, Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires, Cambridge, Polity, and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 27 – 43.

Copyright: This article is  copyright. Please contact me for further information, or contact the publisher directly for permission if you want to reproduce it. Download: It’s what you do with it that counts as a Word document for personal use.

Key Words: anarchism, androgyny, antifeminism, celibacy, feminism, fin de siècle, Freewoman, homosexuality, individualism, misogyny, sexology, sexuality, radicalism, Vienna

Key People: Harry Birnstingl, Edward Carpenter, Dora Marsden, Otto Weininger, Charles Whitby

Notes and References

It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger

Vienna, 1903: a twenty-three year old Jew, Otto Weininger, shoots himself through the heart. His book, Geschlect und Charakter, (Sex and Character), 1 published four months previously, immediately goes into a second edition, becoming a best-seller in Austria and Germany; fourteen editions by 1914. 2 The 1906 English translation is still being reprinted in the 1920s. 3 The notoriety of the book is inseparably entwined with the scandal of the suicide; though little is known about Weininger himself, Sex and Character becomes a major source of speculation and analysis. Misogynist, anti-semitic, anti-sexual, the book’s themes highlight the anxieties of the age. Weininger was one of the examples used to develop Lessing’s theory of Jewish self-hatred. Feminists indignantly repudiated this ‘horrible book’, 4 and even many anti-feminists found it necessary to distance themselves from it in public.

Knowing this I was surprised to find Sex and Character excerpted and seriously discussed in the English anarchist-feminist paper The Freewoman in 1912. Why did it give him space? A liking for polemic, perhaps — the editor points out that English anti-feminists are much less interesting than Germans (sic) 5 — but maybe there was more to it. I began noticing frequent references to Weininger’s work in early twentieth century debates about homosexuality. It seemed that Weininger’s contemporaries took him seriously, and some campaigners for women’s and homosexual liberation were able to find something valuable in his work. My initial attempt to find out more about Weininger in relation to these seemingly contradictory images eventually led me into a wider investigation of some of the complexities of early twentieth century feminism and sexual radicalism.

Sexology at that time was part of a wider debate about gender and sexuality, but its role and influence cannot be understood simply from an analysis of sexological texts. Sex and Character was published in England at a time of intense feminist activity. Although the book can be seen as an example of anti-feminist backlash, it is important to look at how such works were actually used by their readers. Aspects of Weininger’s theories were taken up by Edward Carpenter, whose extensive writings on sexuality had already given him a key role among those who were trying to think about the relationship between sexual and social change in their own lives. Selective use and combination of Carpenter’s and Weininger’s ideas enabled some readers, including feminists, to rethink sexual and gender categorisation.

photo of Otto Weininger in 1903
Otto Weininger in 1903

Weininger was born in Vienna in 1880 and attended university there, studying mainly philosophy and psychology, but also taking courses in medicine, experimental zoology and biology. He was one of a group of young men who discussed new theories in all these areas, as well as the works of such writers as Ibsen, Strindberg and Zola. 6 He read Freud and Breuer on hysteria, and showed some of his early work to Freud. 7 In 1902, Weininger’s doctoral thesis, which forms the first part of Sex and Character, was accepted. Shortly afterwards he converted to Protestantism. During the next few months he wrote the second part of his book, and it was published in June 1903. That October, he killed himself.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been characterized as both a ‘city of dreams’ and ‘the proving ground for world destruction’. 8 Intellectuals pondered the fate of the individual as old certainties were challenged by new scientific ideas, modernist aesthetics, feminism and mass nationalist movements. The city fermented with new movements in art, music, architecture, law, politics, and psychology, and Jews played a prominent part in most of these. 9 Numbering about 10 per cent of the population, many Viennese Jews were highly assimilated. However, the emerging Germanic nationalist movement cast them as outsiders, or enemies within; Vienna was the nursery for rapidly growing anti-Semitism, as well as the Zionism which responded to it. 10

Misogyny was intellectually commonplace and institutionalized, taking on new modernist forms. Prostitution was legally regulated in Vienna, though it was alleged at the turn of the century that only about one in twenty prostitutes was registered with the police. Behind this claim lay a notion of so-called ‘hidden prostitution’: any woman, however respectable she seemed, could be secretly a ‘prostitute’ (that is, engaging in illicit sex), and the police operated a system of informers and agents provocateurs to discover such women and force them to register. 11 This suggests that notions of the sexualized woman were widespread; the ‘hidden prostitute’ idea is particularly relevant to Weininger’s work.

Viennese feminists criticised prostitution for reducing women to sex objects, and campaigned for economic and social reforms, as well as sex education and a modernisation of sexual morality. Like their opponents they drew on new ideas from psychology and sociology about the nature of men, women, and sexuality. 12 Both male and female homosexuality were illegal, and there seems to have been no organized homosexual movement in Vienna before 1911, though the active campaigns for women’s and homosexual rights in Germany would certainly have been influential. 13 Weininger himself says that agitation for women’s rights seems to coincide with what he calls the effeminacy and Jewishness of the age, an increase in homosexuality and masculinized women. 14

Sex and Character is Weininger’s answer to the ‘Woman Question’. In it he attempts ‘to place the relations of Sex in a new and decisive light […] to refer to a single principle the whole contrast between man and woman […] it is a gradual approach to the heart of psychology.’ 15 The book sets out to provide a new rationale for the relations between men and women, based on the ethics of the transcendent individual.

Part One, ‘Sexual Complexity’, draws extensively on biological and psychological evidence to demonstrate that all organisms are fundamentally bisexual; that the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ are no longer adequate. In the case of humans, Weininger argues that there is no such thing in reality as a man or a woman. Man and Woman, he says, are ideal types; anatomically and psychologically, actual men and women contain elements of both. In principle the amounts of masculinity and femininity in us could be represented mathematically, our destiny in love worked out in the form of an equation. (We are attracted to those, of whichever biological sex, who will together with us add up to the ideal sum total 1M[an]+1W[oman]). In practice, our constitution is not fixed; we all oscillate between the masculine and the feminine within ourselves, over time and in relation to our environment. 16 He also says that ‘In my view all actual organisms have both homo-sexuality [sic] and hetero-sexuality [sic]’, 17 and therefore rejects both legal penalties and attempts at ‘curing’ homosexuality.

He argues that all individuals should be able to develop their fullest potential, so women should not be excluded from education or particular occupations. On the same grounds, he criticises the movement for women’s emancipation — emancipation should be based on the individual, not on membership of a category. Throughout this section Weininger follows tradition in characterizing masculinity and femininity as polar opposites, with masculinity representing a higher degree of development. He derives from this, however, the unexpected conclusion that the highest type of woman is the masculine lesbian. 18

Part Two, ‘The Sexual Types’, sets out a typology of Man and Woman in social context. ‘The ideas “man” and “woman” cannot be investigated separately; their significance can be found out only by placing them side by side and contrasting them.’ Although he repeats that he is not talking about actual men and women, this is not a distinction he maintains clearly. Woman, he says, ‘is devoted wholly to sexual matters […] to the sphere of begetting and of reproduction’, while ‘the male is something more than sexual.’ He mentions the possibility that this, ‘the most significant difference between the sexes’ could be historically produced, but does not develop the point. 19

There are, moreover, two types of Woman, the Mother and the Prostitute. Again, any actual woman will have varying amounts of these (as will men). Both types devote their lives to promoting (hetero)sexual intercourse, simply engaging in different types of matchmaking. The Mother represents the false morality of the bourgeois family. Motherhood is merely animal, non-moral, a means to reproducing the race; prostitution, however, is human, anti-moral, a more authentic expression of sexuality. 20 However, ‘to put it bluntly, man possesses sexual organs; her sexual organs possess woman.’ Man, in other words, can transcend sexuality, ‘can know about his sexuality, whilst a woman is unconscious of it and can in all good faith deny it, because she is […] sexuality itself.’ Women are incapable of self knowledge. They have no boundaries: ‘as there is no such thing as one-ness for her there can be no plurality, only an indistinct state of fusion with others.’ 21 They lack the prerequisites for a transcendental morality. Only men can be separate individuals, recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others like themselves.

Jewishness is presented in an analogous way. Judaism is sexual, feminine, family-centred, lacking in individuality, slavish. However, ‘I mean by Judaism […] neither a race nor a people nor a recognised creed. I think of it as a tendency of the mind, as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion only among the Jews.’ Again he mentions, then drops, the possibility of historical rather than innate causes for this. He attacks the persecution of Jews. Every individual, man or woman, Jew or Christian, deserves equal justice, equal freedom. ‘[W]hoever detests the Jewish disposition detests it first of all in himself […] Hatred, like love, is a projected phenomenon; that person alone is hated who reminds one unpleasantly of oneself.’ 22 Anti-Semitism is a form of self-hatred. In passages like these, Weininger could be analysing himself.

Jewishness and femaleness, he says, are the enemies within our own souls, to be transcended if we are to become authentic moral individuals. ‘[W]oman, as woman, must disappear […] not the emancipation of woman from man, but rather the emancipation of woman from herself.’ Can a woman cease to be ‘Woman’? Yes, but ‘… only if [she] can place herself in relation to the moral idea, the idea of humanity.’ 23 The only way in which this can happen is by men and women refusing sexual intercourse with one another: women because they must reject the sexuality which enslaves them; men because it goes against the categorical imperative which says human beings must not use one another as means to an end. In the present state of society, he says, men and women are unable to encounter one another as free and equal individuals. 24

What I find most remarkable about Weininger is the clarity of his insight into his own intense misogyny. A few feminists of the time recognized the value of this.

[M]any women […] feel instinctively that, as Weininger expresses it, the man does despise them and hold them in contempt, and they despise themselves. 25

The real importance of this book lies in its so fully concentrating and carrying to its logical conclusion the andro-centric view of humanity. 26

What Englishman has the courage and clarity to speak his inmost thoughts like that? 27

His attempts to explain male subjectivity, his perception of the connections between misogyny and self-hatred, and his critique of femininity as destructive to women are rare among feminists or anti-feminists of his time. (Weininger cites no feminist author in his 132 pages of bibliography). 28 However, his characterization of Woman’s diffuse physical and psychological selves involves a deeply confused and confusing slippage between Woman and women. Like Freud and many others he concludes that Woman is a mystery, unknowable. But he explains why:

The highest form of eroticism, as much as the lowest form of sexuality, uses the woman not for herself but as a means to an end — to preserve the individuality of the artist. The artist has used the woman merely as the screen on which to project his own idea […]

Woman is nothing but man’s expression and projection of his own sexuality. Every man creates himself a woman, in which he embodies himself and his own guilt. […] She is only a part of man, his other, ineradicable, his lower part. 29

He could hardly express more clearly the basis for men’s hatred for women as a form of self-hatred. Elsewhere he says, ‘The hatred of the woman is always an unsuccessfully overcome hate of one’s own sexuality.’ 30 In the end, then, it is the enemy within who has to be killed. ‘Love is a phenomenon of projection just as hate is, not a phenomenon of equation as friendship is […] [S]exual union, considered ethically, psychologically, and biologically, is allied to murder; it is the negation of the woman and the man […] Love is murder,’ because it destroys the reality of the woman. 31 Although in theory this leaves open the possibility of love between men, Weininger’s all-important logic implies that such a love would have to be non-sexual.

Discussing the reception of Weininger’s book, author Ford Madox Ford writes:

[I]t had an immense international vogue. It was towards the middle of ’06 [when the English translation came out] that one began to hear in the men’s clubs of England and in the cafés of France and Germany […] singular mutterings amongst men […] Even in the United States where men never talk about women, certain whispers might be heard. The idea was that a new gospel had appeared. I remember sitting with a table full of overbearing intellectuals in that year, and they at once began to talk about Weininger […] under their breaths. 32

title page of the first english translation of Sex and Character, 19061903, the year of first publication, also saw a new wave of agitation for women’s suffrage in England, initiated by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). By 1906 militant campaigns were well under way, and politicians could no longer speak in public without being interrupted by cries of ‘Votes for Women.’ According to Ford, advanced young men, ‘serious, improving, ethical, […] careless about dress and without exception Young Liberals,’ discussed Weininger in relation to these unruly suffragettes, and their tones ‘contained a mixture of relief, of thanksgiving, of chastened jubilations, of regret and of obscenity. […] For [he] had proved to them that women were inferior animals […] And they were […] unfeignedly thankful.’ No longer need they ‘live up to the idea that women should have justice […} In this respect they would at least be able to be at one with the ordinary male man. It made them very happy.’ 33

Ford depicts Weininger being used to validate misogyny, or rather to reconstruct it in a new form. His account substantiates the theories of those feminists, in particular Sheila Jeffreys, who see sexology as part of an antifeminist backlash. 34 The editor of The Individualist wrote that the worst aspects of men’s character had been roused by the advance of the women’s revolution, and that Weininger’s ‘abominable’ book could not have sold so well ‘were not the demand for expression of foul hatred of woman prevalent in a certain quarter’. 35 But although Weininger’s work was openly welcomed by some German anti-feminists, their English counterparts, whatever they said in low voices among themselves, in public repudiated his work for its sexualized account of womanhood. An anonymous reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement wrote:

Underneath all this verbiage there is little more than an assertion in technological phraseology of the Mahomedan or Mormon view that woman is merely an unintellectual and non-moral organism for the perpetuation of the race […] the discussion of matters which […] are commonly excluded from conversation […] seems to have been well received […] in Germany. 36

The majority of English readers, the writer continues, can confidently be expected to reject it. Misogyny, it seems, conforms to national character. A similar comment in an American context is made by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman who in her review of the book accuses Weininger of taking the ‘oriental’ position that women have no souls. 37 In fact, in his own twist of orientalist rhetoric, Weininger explicitly repudiates what he calls the ‘Asiatic system’ of women’s sexual oppression which he sees operating in his own society. 38

A more complex response to Weininger came from influential German sexologist Iwan Bloch whose book The Sexual Life of Our Time was published in English in 1908. Bloch, denying that male homosexuals are necessarily women haters, labels misogynists such as Weininger a ‘fourth sex’. He calls Weininger ‘the apostle of asexuality’ (emphasis in original), ‘whose views are unquestionably strongly pathological […] the work of a lunatic’. 39 Despite these comments, elsewhere in his book Bloch treats Weininger’s theories critically but seriously, rather than as the ravings of a madman.

Already we can see that there is no one simple way in which Weininger’s work was being understood. His repudiation of sexual intercourse between men and women, which Bloch takes as a sign both of misogyny and of madness, could be seen in a quite different light. Revolutionary celibacy was a call being heard from some strange bedfellows at this period. Tolstoy, for instance (cited by Weininger), 40 advocated celibacy as a means to greater spirituality, and his writings on the relations of the sexes were debated in England by Christian socialists and anarchists among whom the ‘sex question’ was at the forefront of debates about how to live a new life. 41 Many feminists and their male supporters responded to the sexual double standard with a call for chastity for men. A few went further, claiming that until women were fully emancipated, equal sexual relations were impossible. Sheila Jeffreys points out that for many women such arguments led to a conscious political choice of spinsterhood. 42 Some men were also putting forward similar arguments. For example twenty-year-old anarchist-communist Guy Aldred argued in The Religion and Economics of Sex Oppression that marriage is a licence to rape, that as long as women are economically, legally and socially unfree they are oppressed by sexual intercourse in or outside marriage, and that men and women should ideally relate as non-sexual friends and companions. 43

Some homosexual men, most notably Edward Carpenter, used evolutionary theory to argue that humans were evolving towards a spiritual stage beyond gender and sexuality, and that uranians were in the vanguard of this process.(‘Uranian’, ‘urning’, or, after 1908, ‘intermediate’ were preferred to ‘homosexual’ as terms of self-identification by both men and women in the early years of the century.) Theoretically, for them asexuality was not a transitional demand, but a desired end. Since expression of their own sexuality was illegal, this could be seen as merely an expedient position, although the idea appears in private correspondence as well, suggesting genuine belief. Similar notions were shared by some lesbians, for instance those involved with the Aëthnic Union, which hoped for an androgynous, asexual future.

Carpenter himself, however, was not prepared to renounce sex publicly or privately, and as I will show, chose to focus on other aspects of Weininger’s work. Carpenter holds an uneasy place in the pantheon of sexology, and is often omitted altogether. There are several possible reasons for this, not least the propensity of writers on the subject to construct theoretical lineages which lend support to those perspectives and methodologies they themselves favour.

book cover Edward Carpenter, Poet and Prophet, by Ernest Crosby, with photo of Carpenter.

Carpenter did not write as a scientist, although qualified to do so, and he prefigured modern radical critiques of science, claiming that it often embodied the prejudices of the day. His methodology was eclectic; his writings draw on socialist utopianism, feminism, Hindu mysticism, anthropology and evolutionary theory with equal enthusiasm. Unlike other sexological writings of the period, all his work was intended for a general readership. Sexology was to have a long and never entirely successful struggle to establish itself as a reputable discipline, and Carpenter, with his anarchist and socialist connections and his unconcealed homosexuality, could hardly be claimed as an objective scholar. (Heterosexuality is rarely seen as a disqualification for writing on the subject.)

As his writings show, for him the personal — including the sexual — and the political were inseparable. Havelock Ellis was to call him ‘a pioneer in living almost openly a homosexual life, which needs a rare combination of skill and courage […] He succeeded where Oscar Wilde miserably failed.’ 44 Ellis solicited Carpenter’s advice, information, and life experiences when writing his own book Sexual Inversion, declared an obscene libel after its English publication in 1897. It was many years before Ellis was again able or willing to publish in England on sexuality, or to publicly associate himself with radical causes. In the early years of this century, then, Carpenter stands in England as a lone figure writing in positive terms about homosexuality and arguing for sexual and women’s liberation as an integral part of progress towards a good society. He could perhaps be called an intermediate sexologist, his work bridging those purportedly objective writings aimed at an elite audience of experts and professionals, and the private speculations of individuals uncertain how to understand their feelings and experiences.

Well known as a lecturer and writer, his works dealing with sexuality brought him letters and pilgrims from all over the world; he was seen as someone who lived his politics and could help others do likewise.

Early in 1895 Carpenter published, for private circulation only, the pamphlet Homogenic Love: and its Place in a Free Society, in which he argued that same-sex love was natural, had a positive part to play in social progress, and should not be persecuted. Later that year, amidst huge publicity, Oscar Wilde was tried and imprisoned for homosexual acts; Carpenter was one of his few public supporters. At the time, Carpenter was preparing to publish Love’s Coming of Age, incorporating revisions of earlier pamphlets on sex, marriage and women but although at this stage he was not proposing to include Homogenic Love, his publisher took fright, cancelling the contract. ‘The Wilde trial had done its work; and silence must henceforth reign on sex-subjects’, comments Carpenter. 45 He eventually managed to get the book published in 1896 by the Labour Press in Manchester and it sold so well that by 1902 it was taken up by Swan Sonnenschein in London, who also that year published Carpenter’s Iolaus: an Anthology of Friendship, celebrating same sex friendships (mainly male) through the ages. By 1906 Love’s Coming of Age was in its fifth edition and included a new chapter called ‘The Intermediate Sex’, based on an 1897 article ‘An Unknown People.’ It was in a 1905 revision of that article that Carpenter first used the term ‘intermediate’ — a concept he was to develop most fully in his book, The Intermediate Sex, published in 1908. 46

Carpenter, a feminist and supporter of the suffrage movement, believed that uranians — not just intermediates but intermediaries — could help heterosexual men and women towards a better understanding of one another, and that male uranians were more naturally sympathetic to women and their fight for freedom. When Sex and Character appeared in English, one of his women friends hoped that he would ‘publish a counter blast.’ 47 Instead, when The Intermediate Sex appeared two years later, Carpenter took its epigraph from Weininger. In part, it reads: ‘The improbability may […] be taken for granted of finding in Nature a sharp cleavage between all that is masculine […] and all that is feminine […] or that any living being is so simple in this respect that it can be put wholly on one side, or wholly on the other, of the line.’ 48

Two women in nineteenth century costume in affectionate pose. image adapted from 1970s poster advertising Aimee Duc's 1903 novel about the 'Third Sex'
‘Are These Women?’

Ignoring Weininger’s misogyny, Carpenter chooses quotations firstly to strengthen his own arguments for the naturalness of different forms of sexuality, and secondly to suggest tentatively that perhaps all men and women, not just uranians, have both male and female characteristics. Carpenter’s concept of the intermediate sex thus has more flexibility than other current concepts like sexual inversion or the third sex, which depend on notions of fixed gender characteristics and identifiably different subgroups. Weininger himself writes: ‘So long as there are two sexes, there will always be a woman question, just as there will be the problem of mankind. […] truth will not prevail until the two become one, until from man and woman a third self, neither man nor woman, is evolved.’ 49 Unlike third sex theories which leave unchallenged the dualism of Man and Woman, Weininger’s ‘third self’ is not an additional category but may be interpreted as transcending category altogether. Both Carpenter and Weininger argued that homosexuality was natural and rejected the prevalent pathological models and the multiplication of sexual categories produced by contemporary sexologies. While Carpenter suggests that it may be the case that there is some degree of intermediacy in most people, Weininger claims that all humans are both heterosexual and homosexual, masculine and feminine. This claim that all men and women are to a greater or lesser degree intermediate was taken up with particular enthusiasm by some readers, who interpreted the idea variously in their struggle to formulate ways of thinking about their feelings and experiences. The combination of Weininger’s universalism with Carpenter’s high valuation of intermediacy produced a self-affirming context in which to discuss their own lives.

This creative interpretation and appropriation of Weininger, Carpenter and other sexologists can be seen among members of the friendship and political networks around The Freewoman. 50 Its editor, individualist anarchist Dora Marsden, was a former suffragette organiser. The paper’s open editorial policy meant its readers and contributors came from a wide range of occupations and political perspectives, and it became notorious for its open discussion of sexual matters. Carpenter, a subscriber and contributor, gave public support for its ‘broadminded and courageous’ contribution to ‘the cause of free and rational discussion of human problems.’ 51 The Freewoman’s readiness to discuss political and sexual revolution meant that it was denounced in The Times, banned by W. H Smith, and subject to harassment by the police. More than just a paper, it seeded spin-off groups, and its Discussion Circle meetings attracted large numbers to hear talks on such subjects as sex oppression, eugenics and prostitution.

Dora Marsden
Dora Marsden

In 1911, Dora Marsden was intending to write a philosophical work incorporating a critique of Weininger 52; her friend Mary Gawthorpe urged her to allow herself the time properly to ‘set the balance to the Weininger-Nietzche-Freud excesses.’ 53 The closest Marsden came to this was to publish long selections from Sex and Character, commenting on them in an editorial in which she both praises and criticises Weininger. His genius, she says, was to recognize the two great oppositions, personality and amorphousness; his ‘boyish misstatement’ to locate these respectively in men, and in Jews and women. If ‘femaleness’ is not co-extensive with the term ‘women’, but refers to a loss of personality, then it is, she agrees, ‘the Great Denial — the thing to be overcome’ in women and men. 54 Some subsequent contributors attacked the decision to publish Weininger’s ‘poison’, 55 but his influence is evident in a number of articles on sexuality, particularly those debating homosexuality.

The subject is first broached in The Freewoman by Harry Birnstingl in the article ‘Uranians’. Birnstingl, an architect, was a supporter of women’s suffrage; his aunts, Kate and Ethel Birnstingl were WSPU members and early subscribers to The Freewoman. Ethel and her long-time companion Alice Pollard ran a feminist bookshop in London. 56 Harry, a friend of Dora Marsden and her companion Grace Jardine, wrote frequently for the paper and gave talks to the Discussion Circle. In ‘Uranians’, perhaps drawing on the experience of his friends and relatives, he points out that many women in the women’s movement, far from being sexless spinsters, form romantic, passionate relationships with one another based on their common struggle. ‘It is splendid that these women […] should suddenly find their destiny in thus working together for the freedom of their sex.’ He cites Carpenter’s positive comments on uranians and in language clearly drawn from Weininger  says: ‘The atoms which go to compose the normal male and the normal female are capable of infinite combinations.’ 57

Before publishing this article Dora Marsden had approached Dr. Charles Whitby as ‘a medical man’ for advice. 58 Whitby, a socialist who had previously worked at a dispensary in Liverpool, recommended publication, followed by a reply by himself. (He was paid ten shillings and sixpence for this. Since contributors were normally unpaid, the transaction suggests particular anxiety about the ‘Uranians’ article.) 59 Preferring ‘homosexual’ to ‘uranian’, using the language of inversion and perversion, abnormality and aberration, drawing on the spectre of child abuse, Whitby at least concedes that the paper is right to ‘let the light of day into these dark and dusty corners.’ 60

In reply, Birnstingl uses Whitby’s own arguments to claim, echoing Weininger and Carpenter, that ‘all men and women are in a greater or lesser degree Intermediates’, and criticises Whitby’s views on masculinity and femininity as well as uranianism. 61 Whitby’s response concedes that ‘Every human being is in some sense an incarnate contradiction’, but draws on biological and racial discourses of evolution and degeneration as well as stereotypes of pathologically (but not constitutionally) effeminate men. ‘There are men, as Mr. Birnstingl must know, with whom it is more compromising for another man to be seen in the street than with a prostitute’, he writes. 62 A similar note of heterosexual panic can be seen in another contributor, Fabian lawyer E.S.P. Haynes, who (despite the fact that he likes and agrees with Birnstingl) is so anxious about appearing in the same journal — never mind the street — with him, that he asks to be published only as E.S.P.H. To use his full name would be ‘like walking through Lincoln’s Inn in pyjamas.’ 63

Birnstingl particularly wanted his full name used. Other contributors used pseudonyms. In a letter drawing directly upon Weininger’s sexual equations, ‘Scython’ writes about his real, inner self,  ‘80F + 20M’ (eighty per cent Female plus twenty per cent Male), concealed from all but a few friends ‘who know me as I am.’ 64 Weininger’s attempt to provide mathematical formulae for an individual’s precise quantities of masculinity and femininity may seem rigid and scientistic, if not quaint, but in practice it allows the scope to enunciate individual variability and to elude the crude classifications of the sexologists, as well as providing an adaptable way of thinking through personal experience of gender dissonance.

Another contribution, ‘The Intellectual Limitations of the “Normal”’ came from Albert Löwy, a trainee solicitor who was a friend of Birnstingl and Mary Gawthorpe. It was published shortly after he returned from a life-changing visit to Carpenter. (‘In the marvel of your touch I learned the magic secrets of love […] I know now […] a life-course […] a hope-force.’) 65 In his letter to the paper, Löwy argues that the vast majority of people are intermediates, neither inverts nor monosexuals. 66 Related ideas can be seen in the letters of David Thompson, a close friend of Carpenter’s from 1890s Sheffield socialist circles.  On reading The Intermediate Sex Thompson, now married and working at the Library of Congress in Washington, wrote, ‘I feel more and more that I am somewhat in that category’. 67  Later, a widower visiting England, he wooed Ruth Slate, a socialist feminist member of the Freewoman Discussion Circle and fellow Carpenter fan. ‘Psychically I think I am much nearer to women than to other men’, he wrote to her, ’but combined with this intermediate temperament are most unruly masculine bodily desires [i.e. for women].’  Later he speaks of ‘the woman part of me.’ 68 Other friends also drew on the fruitful ambiguities of the concept of intermediacy.  A married man wrote secretly to his lover Jessie, (who lived with another woman), calling her a ‘child of Uranus’, and ‘my dear, healthy, gay, philosopher, wife, my boy and comrade.’ 69 Minna Simmons, who had a passionate physical relationship with Eva Slawson, as well as with men, is lent  a copy of The Intermediate Sex and identifies herself as  ‘an eaning [sic]’. 70  For all of them, the concept of intermediacy opens up rather than forecloses ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Lucy Bland argues that The Freewoman generated a space for the public discussion of new ideas about gender and sexuality, with women contributors in particular making selective use of sexological ideas in an attempt to reconfigure heterosexuality for themselves. 71 If heterosexuality is reconfigured, so also is homosexuality. Though Dora Marsden called in The Freewoman for the voice of direct experience, 72 she and other women involved in passionate relationships with one another generally kept public silence on these issues. However private letters show women as well as men were drawing on sexology as part of the process of formulating an identity. 73 As Bland says, the language of sexuality was by no means fixed during this period. 74

Marsden calls Weininger a poet, and although she had earlier argued for the importance of precise definitions in order to discuss sex ‘scientifically, cleanly, and openly,’ she says elsewhere ‘the “Sex-psychologist” should be a poet, not a physical scientist.’ 75 The Freewoman articles and correspondence and the private letters and diaries all show their writers using terms interchangeably from quite different conceptual frameworks, referring for example to intermediates, urnings, homosexual and homogenic feelings, sapphists, inverts, the third sex, and bisexuality, without seeming to be troubled by theoretical incompatibility. Far more important than choice of terminology to those who were trying to develop new ways of thinking about and understanding themselves and their friends, were the values and attitudes of a particular writer, and the respect shown (or not) to those who fell outside the framework of ‘normality’.

‘There is wanted’, writes Weininger, in a quotation cited by Carpenter, ‘an ”orthopaedic” treatment of the soul, instead of the torture caused by the application of ready-made conventional shapes.’ 76 This desire to escape classification is echoed in criticisms of sexology by those who did not fit conventional sexual categories.

Intermediates are a ‘disturbing factor’ in the understanding of the human race; hence the scientist, intent on classification and ‘practical purposes’ is concerned with eliminating those examples which obstinately refuse to be labelled. Complete Inverts he puts in prison or a madhouse, and he ‘explains away’ […] those who do not conform to his rigid categories. 77

Nature […] abhors rules and regulations. 78

[H]ow can one classify and label the different kinds of love! 79

[F]or the classifier, the maker of laws, and other similar guardians of the public morals, these persons form a serious obstruction, seeing that they refuse to be ‘pigeon-holed’ […] the best of all remedies would be to abolish the pigeon-holes altogether. 80

Most accounts of sexology, whether presenting it as stepping stone, obstacle, or something to be negotiated, are embedded within a narrative of progress towards contemporary sexual enlightenment, and tend to focus only on those figures who can be seen as on the right track. Perhaps this is inevitable — as Carpenter cogently argued, there are limits to how far we can escape the presuppositions of our own time 81 — but a more careful attention to the uses and users of sexology gives us a more complex version of how particular sexologies affected and were affected by lived experiences. In spaces they carved out for themselves, we can see women and gay men becoming the authors rather than the objects of discussion, and can begin to understand something of how they negotiated their identities and understood their deepest feelings. The search for truth, says Dora Marsden, is the search for a diversity of voices, all with their own tales to tell. 82 What matters above all is what tales a text makes possible. Eclecticism, seen as a weakness by the theoretically inclined, can also be seen as a strength. Those readers who ignored the unpalatable aspects of Weininger’s work were not endorsing them; they were taking what they needed in order to construct their own versions of the world.

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Notes and References


  1.   ‘Geschlect’, as well as carrying the ambiguities of the English word ‘sex’, also means race, species, family, generation. This linguistic overloading adds to the complexity of the symbolic connections rehearsed in the book.
  2.   Jaques le Rider, Le Cas Otto Weininger: racines de l’antiféminisme et de l’antisémitisme (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1982).
  3.   Thanks to Jean Rose for this information.
  4.   Grace Freud to Carpenter, 20 Oct. 1906, Carpenter Collection, Sheffield.
  5.   Dora Marsden, ‘The Emancipation of Man’, Freewoman, 1:20, April 4, 1912, pp.381-2.
  6.   David Abrahamsen, The Mind and Death of a Genius, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1946).
  7.   Vincent Brome, Freud and His Early Circle, (Heinemann, London, 1967); Le Rider, Le Cas Otto Weininger.
  8.   Robert Musil and Karl Kraus quoted in Allen Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973), pp. 33, 67.
  9. Ibid; Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, (Knopf, New York 1980).
  10. Josef Fraenkel, ed., The Jews of Austria, (Vallentine, Mitchell and Co., London, 1967); Le Rider, Le Cas Otto Weininger.
  11. Karin J. Jusek, ‘Sexual morality and the meaning of prostitution in fin-de-siècle Vienna’, in From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality, ed.Jan Bremmer (Routledge, London, 1991), pp.123-42.
  12. Harriet Anderson, Utopian Feminism: Women’s Movements in fin-de-siècle Vienna, (Yale University Press, London, 1992).
  13. Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld, (Quartet, London, 1986).
  14. Weininger, Sex and Character, (Heinemann, London, 1906), pp.72-3, 329.
  15. Ibid, p. ix.
  16. Ibid, pp.54-5.
  17. Ibid, p.48.
  18. Ibid, pp.66, 75.
  19. Ibid, pp.292, 88-89.
  20. Ibid, Part Two, Chapter 10.
  21. Ibid, pp. 92, 287.
  22. Ibid, pp.303-4.
  23. Ibid, pp.348-9.
  24. Ibid, pp.343-9.
  25. A Grateful Reader, Freewoman, 1:25, May 9, 1912, p.497.
  26. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘Dr. Weininger’s “Sex and Character”’, Critic, 5:48, May 1906, pp. 414-7.
  27. Marsden, ‘The Emancipation of Man.’
  28. Otto Weininger, Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine Prinzipielle Untersuchung, (Braumüller, Vienna and Leipzig, 1903).
  29. Weininger, Sex and Character, pp.248, 300.
  30. Weininger, Taschenbuch, cited in Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self Hatred: anti-semitism and the hidden language of the Jews, (Johns Hopkins, London, 1986) p.247.
  31. Weininger, Sex and Character, pp.245, 248-9.
  32. Ford Madox Ford, Women and Men, (Contact Editions, Paris, 1923), p.30.
  33. Ibid, pp.30-32.
  34. Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies, (Pandora, London, 1985).
  35. ‘Notes and Comments’, Individualist, NS25:318, March-April 1912, p.18.
  36. Times Literary Supplement, February 16, 1906, 54c.
  37. Gilman, ‘Dr. Weininger’s “Sex and Character”’.
  38. Weininger, Sex and Character, p.343.
  39. Iwan Bloch, The Sexual Life of Our Time, tr. Eden Paul, (Heinemann, London, 1908), pp.481, 95, 117-18.
  40. Weininger, Geschlecht und Charakter, p.596.
  41. Leo Tolstoy, The Relations of the Sexes, (Free Age Press, C. W. Daniel, London, n.d.) is probably the pamphlet cited by Weininger and read by Ruth Slate and Eva Slawson. Slate to Slawson, 24 Feb. 1908; Slawson’s diary, 15 April, 1913, Slate Collection, London. See also Tierl Thompson ed., Dear Girl: The diaries and letters of two working women 1897-1917, (Women’s Press, London, 1987); Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England, (Longman, London, 1979).
  42. Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies.
  43. Guy Aldred, The Religion and Economics of Sex Oppression, (Bakunin Press, London, 1907).
  44. Havelock Ellis, cited in Stephen Winsten, Salt and His Circle, (Hutchinson, London, 1951), p.162.
  45. Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, 3rd edn., (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1918), p. 196.
  46. Edward Carpenter, An Unknown People, (A. and H.B. Bonner, London, 1897, 1905); The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women, (Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1908).
  47. Grace Freud to Carpenter, 20 October, 1906, Carpenter Collection.
  48. Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex, epigraph.
  49. Weininger, Sex and Character, p. 345.
  50. It became The New Freewoman, ‘An Individualist Review’ in 1913, before finally metamorphosing into a non-feminist literary journal, The Egoist, in 1914.
  51. Edward Carpenter, New Freewoman, 1:2, 1 July, 1913, p.40.
  52. Les Garner, A Brave and Beautiful Spirit: Dora Marsden 1882-1960, (Avebury: Aldershot, 1990), p.144.
  53. Mary Gawthorpe to Marsden, 29 Sept. 1912; 20 Aug. 1913, Marsden Collection, Princeton.
  54. Dora Marsden, ‘Sex and Character, Freewoman, 2:30, 13 June, 1912, pp.61-3.
  55. ‘True Womanhood’, Freewoman, 2:28, 30 May, 1912, p.38.
  56. WSPU Annual Reports 1908-13 (WSPU, London); further information thanks to Martin Birnstingl.
  57. Harry J. Birnstingl, ‘Uranians’, Freewoman, 1:7, 4 Jan., 1912, pp.127-8. This is probably the piece which led Robert Ross, (friend and sometime lover of Oscar Wilde) to enquire about him. E.S.P. Haynes to Marsden, 1 Feb. 1912, Marsden Collection.
  58. Charles J. Whitby, ‘Tertium Quid’, The Freewoman, 1:9, 18 Jan., 1912, pp.167-9.
  59. Whitby to Marsden, 29 Dec. 1911; 26 Feb. 1912, Marsden Collection.
  60. Whitby, ‘Tertium Quid’.
  61. Birnstingl, ‘The Human Minority’, Freewoman, 1:12, 8 Feb., 1912, p.235.
  62. Charles J. Whitby, ‘A Matter of Taste’, Freewoman, 1:11, 1 Feb., 1912, pp.215-6.
  63. E.S.P. Haynes to Marsden, 7 Nov. 1911; 29 Mar. 1912, Marsden Collection.
  64. Scython, Freewoman, 1:14, 22 Feb., 1912, p.274. ‘Scython’ may have been A.[?] Samuel or Harold Picton. See letters from Samuel, 12 Nov. 1912 and Picton, 24 Oct. 1913, Marsden Collection.
  65. Albert Löwy to Carpenter, 9 October, 1911, Carpenter Collection. Mr. and Mrs H. Löwy, subscribers, and friends of Mary Gawthorpe, were probably his parents. See Freewoman accounts, n.d.; letter to Marsden, 4 May, 1911, Marsden Collection.
  66. Albert E. Löwy, ‘The Intellectual Limitations of the “Normal”’, Freewoman, 1:11, 1 Feb., 1912, p.212.
  67. David Thompson to Carpenter, 2 Sept. 1909, Carpenter Collection.
  68. Thompson to Slate, 10 Dec. 1913; 30 Mar. 1916, Slate Collection.
  69. Poul Mittler to Jessie Marsh, 10 June, 1921; 8 Nov. 1921, Slate Collection.
  70. Minna Simmons to Slate, Jan. 1917, Slate Collection.
  71. Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality 1885-1914, (Penguin, London, 1995), Chapter 7.
  72. Dora Marsden, ‘On Affirmations’, Freewoman, 1:13, 15 Feb., 1912, pp.243-4; ‘Views and Comments’, New Freewoman, 1:9, 15 Oct., 1913, p.166.
  73. See Bland, Banishing the Beast, Chapter 7; Liz Stanley, ‘Epistemological Issues in Researching Lesbian History: The Case of Romantic Friendship’, in Hilary Hinds, Ann Phoenix and Jackie Stacey, eds., Working Out: New Directions for Women’s Studies, (Falmer Press, London, 1992), pp.161-172.
  74. Bland, Banishing the Beast, Chapter 7.
  75. Dora Marsden, ‘The New Morality’, Freewoman, 1:6, 28 Dec., 1911, p.101-2; ‘More Plain Speaking’, 1:17, 14 Mar., 1912, p.332; ‘Views and Comments’, p.166.
  76. Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex, p.164.
  77. Löwy, ‘The Intellectual Limitations of the “Normal”’.
  78. Birnstingl, ‘Uranians’.
  79. Kate Salt to Carpenter, 22 Oct., 1909, Carpenter Collection.
  80. Birnstingl, ‘The Human Minority’.
  81. Edward Carpenter, ‘Modern Science: A Criticism’, in Carpenter, Civilisation: its Cause and Cure, (Allen and Unwin, London, 1921), pp.79-119.
  82. Marsden, ‘On Affirmations’; ‘Views and Comments’.