- Sexuality, Morality, and Single Women in Fin-de-Siècle Central Europe
Last week, I went to see the exhibition "Vienna 1900: Style and Identity" at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Not surprisingly, the objects on view highlighted some of the historical debates over sexuality, morality and women's right to self-determination that the authors of the four books under review explore. I gazed at the golden sumptuousness of Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, with her thin white throat poking out of the sparkling mosaic that covers most of her body, suggesting that the wallpaper and the woman were somehow of one piece, and I stood for a while looking at Oskar Kokoschka's psychically acute painting of Lotte Franzos, with her tortured, twitching fingers. But I found myself most taken with a simple glass box. In it hung a reform dress, high-necked and shapeless, and next to it, a woman's corset, empty, but laced to show the tiny waist and prominent bust typical of 1880's fashion. The display implied that the woman of the time faced a choice between two discrete identities. In the reform dress, she was mobile and free, feminist, but sexless. In the corset, she embodied femininity and exuded sexuality, but at the cost of independent movement and the ability to breathe deeply.
The four books under review all consider how Central European women (and to a certain extent also men) at the fin de siècle tried to balance [End Page 173] these competing views of feminine identity. For the most part, the people in these books believed that women were essentially different from men. But they pondered the meaning and the nature of that difference. What role did sexuality have in shaping a woman's subjectivity? Was motherhood the core of femininity? And if so, what role did unmarried women have in modern society?
Tracie Matysik's book, Reforming the Moral Subject, is an elegantly written intellectual history of ethics reform in German-speaking Central Europe. Ethics reform was not a movement of like-minded individuals, but a protean phenomenon that brought together a wide cast of characters, united only in their belief that ethics needed to be rethought for the modern world and that sexuality "was somehow constitutive of the modern moral subject" (6). In Matysik's work, there is sometimes a slippage between the idea of a sexed or sexualized subject and a gendered one. This seems to come from her sources themselves. The ethics reformers she discusses are the products of a society influenced by new discourses of sexology, psychoanalysis, eugenics, Darwinism, and even pronatalism, all of which considered the relationship between sexuality and identity in some fashion. But because they assumed, for the most part, heterosexuality, their ideas generally rested on essentialized categories of masculinity and femininity.
Matysik ably shows how this emphasis on sexuality as the core of ethics could bring thinkers to a wide variety of conclusions. For radical feminist Helene Stöcker, a liberated sexuality was the source of what she called the new ethics. As Matysik points out, it was far from obvious that sexual liberationists would be concerned with ethics (which inevitably implies some kind of personal regulation) at all. Stöcker's aim was to insist that supposedly private matters, like sexuality and reproduction, were tied to politics and the public. Traditional morality, embodied in the different standards for sexual conduct...