Lesbianism and Feminist Legislation in 1921: the Age of Consent and 'Gross Indecency between Women'

Derry, Caroline (2018). Lesbianism and Feminist Legislation in 1921: the Age of Consent and 'Gross Indecency between Women'. History Workshop Journal, 86 pp. 245–267.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dby021

Abstract

In the early twentieth century a large network of organisations, co-ordinated by the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, campaigned for changes to the law on sexual offences. In particular, they sought to strengthen age of consent law for the protection of young girls. Their efforts resulted in the introduction of a Criminal Law Amendment Bill in 1921; it would have raised the age of consent for indecent assault and removed significant weaknesses in the existing legislation which made prosecution for age of consent offences difficult.

However, there was active opposition to the Bill, often anti-feminist in tone. An amendment was introduced by the Bill’s opponents to create an offence of “gross indecency between females”. That offence, if enacted, would have made all sexual activity between women criminal. The amendment was a ‘spoiling amendment’, designed to directly attack the Bill and those feminist organisations supporting it.

This amendment not only led to the Bill’s failure but posed great difficulties for the AMSH and others in formulating a response. Above all, lesbianism was considered publicly unspeakable, as the parliamentary debates themselves made clear. The very knowledge of what it was could be considered as evidence of corruption and lack of purity. What answer could respectable women therefore make? This paper explores the ways in which the Bill’s supporters, particularly the AMSH, responded to the amendment.

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