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The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975.

The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975. By Hera Cook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. viii plus 412pp.).

This is an admirable book, and at times, a gutsy one as well. It is refreshing to find a monograph that is soundly researched, logically argued, and women-centered, on, of all subjects, women and sex. Cook manages to do something that more senior scholars often find difficult: to weave a story that is necessarily interdisciplinary, and to do so gracefully, using material and concepts developed by sociologists, economists, and psychologists, as well as those of historians. The Long Sexual Revolution is also replete with that rarest of commodities, common sense.

The story Cook uncovers so well is the role of English women during the demographic transition from 1800 until recent times, and perhaps most importantly, what that transition meant to them. Cook persuasively argues that, in the absence of effective birth control methods, the rising fertility rates of the early industrial revolution necessitated a profound cultural and psychological response. Until well into the twentieth century, English men and women followed Malthus' advice (whether they knew it or not), and exercised the severest moral restraint, whether they abstained from heterosexual activity altogether, limited its frequency, or engaged in male withdrawal. Thus males, as well as females, were involved in what we have popularly regarded as Victorianism. But Cook takes that familiar concept far more seriously than historians have hitherto, showing how such extraordinary restraint was achieved.

By the 1930s England's fertility was at its nadir. But the means of more effective, and more effectively utilized, birth control developed as wider segments of the population became knowledgeable and began to enjoy both privacy and indoor plumbing. Consequently the power of those internalized psychological and cultural restraints gradually lifted. After World War II, English men were more willing to embark on a relatively libertine lifestyle, and as jobs and wages grew in the 1950s, couples married younger and the birth rate surged once again. For working class women, this was a throwback to the traditional regimen that had typified the period prior to the demographic revolution, with courtship and premarital intercourse followed predictably by marriage. Young Englishmen, however libertine they wished to be, still felt the obligation to marry girlfriends that had become pregnant. It was only after the widespread distribution of birth control pills in the 1960s that sexuality, household formation, and marriage all became separated from each other, marking a true sexual revolution in which young women, beginning with those in the middle classes, experienced economic, political, and sexual autonomy for the first time in history.

In creating this narrative, Hera Cook understands only too well that she is taking on some biggies. She takes issue with those who, like Freud or Foucault, essentialize the human body and its desires as some sort of transhistorical entity, yet use the male body as the standard (p. 91, 167-68). Similarly she disagrees with historians such as Jeffrey Weeks who have argued against the notion that the pill led to female liberation (309, 317). Cook is extremely adept at unpacking arguments, identifying the assumptions and evidence behind them, and then providing a better alternative. At times this makes the volume somewhat slow-going, but her careful methods, if rarely dramatic, are ultimately persuasive. She is always careful to offer definitions and to clarify which women she is discussing, allowing for class, generational, and geographic variations. It is often difficult to take issue with anything she has to say, as she anticipates, and then ably dismisses, alternative arguments. She is also adept at using novels, biographies, memoirs and the like, not to prove points, but to give life to points she has already proven logically and quantitatively.

Americans may sometimes find the prose a bit daunting, the occasional Anglicism, misplaced modifier, and passive voice requiring a thorough rereading. This however, should be regarded as the most minor of caveats: this fine book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the demographic transition, or the histories of birth control, sexuality, or English women in the last two centuries.

Judith S. Lewis

University of Oklahoma
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lewis, Judith S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:689
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