In May 2016, as part of the Mansfield Series of Friday lectures, Naomi Wolf gave a talk on ‘The State and Banned Speech: The Victorian Invention of Censorship and the New Censors of Today’. In the audience was Katrina Morris (VSP, 2015), who later spoke to the author about her work in Oxford.
The list of Naomi Wolf’s accomplishments is as stirring as it is long: a decorated scholar, a bestselling American author and journalist – noted titles include feminism-focused works like The Beauty Myth and Vagina: A New Biography – as well as that of a former political advisor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Nevertheless, these achievements are centred consistently around one thing: a clear wish to help people.
Wolf visited Mansfield in May, and her lecture (part of Mansfield’s Friday Lecture series) communicated this wish both potently and dynamically. Following an introduction by Baroness Helena Kennedy, Wolf started her talk by expressing great admiration for Mansfield’s Principal, describing her as a kind, well-intentioned leader – at Oxford and in the world of law.
It soon became clear that this description could fit Wolf too. Recently, Wolf returned to Oxford some twenty years after she came here as one of 32 Rhodes scholars in the mid 1980s. Here she has been working closely with Trinity Fellow Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista to explore and expose discourses of sexuality in 19th-century English literature.
Sexuality in the 19th century was a complicated and often dark issue, and Wolf relayed this complexity – present in both the century’s literature and in Britain’s wider Victorian society. She began by speaking of oppression. There were, Wolf asserted, two main threads during the 19th century that created sexual oppression: the laws against homosexuality (laws that were, essentially, dictating who one should love, or who one was allowed to love), and the state’s role in censorship. She continued by discussing the first of these: legal prejudice against homosexuality.
Laws against male-male love have long been in existence, explained Wolf, but modern forms of these laws were in fact invented in Britain. Before the 1800s, it was difficult for anyone, including gay men, to get into trouble for something they had said or written, even if it was related to homosexuality. In order for speech or writing – homoerotic or otherwise – to be persecuted, it had to be offensive to the King. This changed significantly during the second half of the century, when erotic words and pictures, specifically those involving homosexuality, began to concern the state. It was claimed that such works degraded children’s morals, and the morals of the military, and could lead to the total degeneration of British society. Interestingly, the producers of this material overlapped with producers of radical political pamphlets.
It is here where Wolf made perhaps her most poignant point. She stated that one of the most wonderful, beautiful things about Britain was its longstanding cultural tradition of privacy. The state’s attempts to limit production of sexually expressive works were direct violations of that heritage of privacy so precious to the country. How can a government legislate against things that are so subjective to individual creativity and preference? And furthermore, where does this legislation stop? Wolf reiterated her point that such policing never stopped at creative expression; it moved on to policing sexual preferences and practices themselves, and then into people’s very bodies (think of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s).
This, Wolf claimed, is the meat of the motivation for her work. The criminalisation of writers – no matter what their sexuality – is a dangerous thing, and though people found ways around this kind of censorship (for example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, illegal in Britain by 1857, was smuggled into the country with blank cover pages and deceptive bindings) it was still immeasurably harmful.
To illustrate, Wolf spoke of John Addington Symonds, who had been a student at Balliol College during the second half of the 1800s. Symonds was gay, had secret correspondence with Walt Whitman, and was attuned to the fact that erotic literature, let alone homoerotic literature, was heavily monitored, harshly judged, and persecuted at the time. As a result, the love poetry Symonds wrote to his male lover (another, younger student at Balliol) was kept secret, hidden away, a fact that clearly stirred and saddened Wolf. She told of how brave Symonds had been to write what he did, how he had kept this homoerotic poetry in a locked box and had thrown the key into the River Avon: a metaphorical expression of the limits and indeed death that censorship brings upon literary voice.
Wolf also spoke of her familiarity with the struggles of other homoerotic writers: Whitman’s letters, the secret languages of his work, the multitude versions of Leaves of Grass; the Wilde trials, the revolutionary quality of Wilde’s writings and of his romance; various other works that despite much oppression and censorship ‘spread seeds for sexology’ across Britain and Europe like dandelions. But her passion for Symonds came through with unparalleled strength. As part of her research with Dr Evangelista, Wolf has been digitally transcribing Symonds’ hidden, unpublished love poetry, and is the first to do so, finally ensuring him a prominent and significant voice.
A few years ago, Wolf cancelled a speech she was scheduled to give at the Oxford Union, feeling she was unable to express what she needed to, given the current focus upon limits of discussing sexuality: trigger warnings, and related forms of censorships.
In a conversation I had with Wolf after her lecture, she spoke of the frustrations she felt with Oxford in the 1980s, when she first studied here. However, Wolf also spoke of the great changes she has found in the University upon returning to it. When asked where she as a female writer and scholar felt most free, she replied that it was Oxford.
Wolf explained that during her research, she had been able to explore the silences and injustices of Victorian sexuality – and Victorian literary insights into it – as extensively as she had hoped. She added that the current, freedom-based culture of the University had allowed her to discover the deep brilliance of Victorian literature about sexual desire, and the brilliance of fellow female scholars too. She also made clear her appreciation of Mansfield’s mission to strive for open, public education.
Wolf’s answer to one of my last questions – ‘What advice would you give to aspiring female academics or young female professionals entering the workplace?’ – was straightforward: to remain unconstrained by expectation. She believed this was the best and most effective way to help others, and to address the multitude of injustices (sexuality-related and otherwise) that exist in Oxford, in Britain and in the wider world.
Wolf’s strong, clear doctrines of freedom, and her drive to make the world a fairer, freer place, will remain with her Mansfield audience for a long time.