A Queer Reading of the Spiritualist Theory of Gender
Avery Curran (she/her)
'It is essential that the circles always be organized and internally constructed upon positive and negative principles. As there are twelve elements and attributes in every human soul, abstractly considered, so should there be twelve persons constituting a circle; the twelve consisting of six males and six females. This distinction of male and female is not so essential to be observed with regard to sex; but six of the number should possess the feminine attributes of character which are negative and affectionate, and the others should be decidedly masculine, having the positive and intellectual temperament. Male and female are positive and negative principles; and the terms should not be applied and confined exclusively to mere organizations; for some individuals who wear the physical vesture of the male are, in their characters, females; and vice versa.' (Davis, pp. 96-7)
So wrote Andrew Jackson Davis, the prominent early spiritualist, in his 1851 work The
Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse. In doing so, he formulated an understanding of gender that de-emphasised the physical body in favour of the role a person played in the séance. Since the movement’s inception in 1848, in the Hydesville cottage where the teenage Fox sisters heard rapping noises that they interpreted as coming from the spirit world, the appropriate roles of men and women were a central concern for many spiritualists. Whether they were debating the validity of marriage in the context of the oppression of women, or arguing for women’s rights to speak publicly about their beliefs (or even, as in the case of the spiritualist and suffragist Victoria Woodhull, running for President of the United States), ideas about how men and women ought to behave recurred regularly within spiritualist thought. Over time, scholars of spiritualist history like Alex Owen and Ann Braude have touched on the ways in which the spiritualist theory of gender was interlinked with the movement’s feminist leanings. However, the subversive challenge it posed to notions of gender as immutable and determined by biology has been overlooked thus far—nor has it been considered seriously as part of queer history and the formation of new identity categories in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this article, I will discuss the electrical origins of the spiritualist theory, the challenge it posed to normative ways of thinking about gender, and its relationship to the sexological ideas that emerged later in the century. Historians of gender and sexuality have typically looked to the literary and medical spheres to track the discursive shifts around the idea of sex and gender in modernity, but the spiritualist theory approaches the idea from a theological standpoint, and does so with its own distinct style and set of preoccupations.
Davis’s understanding of gender as determined by positive and negative principles was mapped onto contemporary scientific discoveries about electricity, marrying technological and religious discourses. The positive and negative binary that he articulates here refers to the poles of a battery: elsewhere in this book he describes mediums as ‘conductors’, and argues that their ability to communicate with the dead derives from the kind of electrical atmosphere that emanates from them. (Davis, pp. 26-7) Technologically speaking, Benjamin Franklin was the originator of the idea that electricity could be categorised into ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ forms. In Franklin’s original coinage of the terms, the positive or negative charge was situational: something could be made negative or positive according to the needs of the experiment. There was no mention of gender or positive/negative charge as an inherent quality, but the idea presented a useful framework to writers like Davis. It offered a binary that was technologically exciting, and yet recalled earlier philosophical and esoteric ideas, ranging from Kabbalah to Aristotle. Spiritualists also seized upon other technical developments in the early nineteenth century. The scientist Alexander Volta provided a further scientific basis for the eventual spiritualist position in his experiments with the galvanic battery, in which conducting substances of a positive and negative type are placed in alternating order, allowing the battery to produce electricity. (Volta, p. 27)
Davis and other spiritualists transformed the concept and language provided by scientists like Franklin and Volta into the gendered paradigm that spread within the movement over the following decades. Davis’s view that a person’s biology didn’t necessarily have anything to do with their true character allowed for the possibility of a person whose outward appearance seemed to designate them as a man, but whose internal character was feminine, and vice versa. Whatever their physicality, the needs of the séance circle came first, and one’s role was determined internally. The body might be considered a cumbersome confinement—a ‘mere organization’ that could be cast off (metaphorically) like clothing, as implied by Davis’s unusual use of the term ‘vesture.’ (Davis, pp. 96-7)
Other prominent spiritualists held views similar to Davis’s. John Murray Spear, the radical spiritualist whose views attracted controversy in the movement’s press, even built on these gendered principles in his construction of the New Motor, a perpetual motion machine powered by an ambiguously sexual ritual that promised to revolutionise human society. But these principles were not the exclusive province of the fringes of the movement. In 1870, in her landmark history of the spiritualist movement so far, Emma Hardinge provided a clear encapsulation of the electrical theory of gender that had been developed over the previous two decades, through a reported conversation with a spirit:
'Q. How shall I be able to satisfy myself as to the truth of Spiritualism? A. Form a circle of twelve individuals [...] Have six positive and six negative minds. Q. What do you mean by positive and negative minds? A. Six male and six female minds. Q. Do you mean six ladies and six gentlemen? A. No; by a positive or male mind we mean such as your friend O., who is eccentric, and decides upon the propriety of his own acts without advising with his friends [...] A female or negative mind is such as requires the advice of its friends before action of any kind; it is [...] wanting in executive power. Both these classes of mind are necessary for an effective circle'. (Hardinge, p. 142)
The example given of the positive mind, ‘O.’, is a case where the societally determined and spiritualistically conceived genders do indeed correspond, but in this formation it’s a matter of correlation rather than causation, once again introducing the possibility of a person whose body and character were at some sort of odds. The spirit is careful to explain that even ‘male and female’ is not exactly equal to ‘ladies and gentlemen’, a striking departure from much of the contemporary discourse in which gender was biologically determined. A year prior to Hardinge’s explanation of the gendered séance circle, the writer and barrister Luke Owen Pike wrote that ‘the intellect of woman not only has but must have, a certain relation to her structure; and if it could be shown that there exists no difference between the male and female minds, there would be an end of Anthropology.’ (Russett, p. 16) To such a perspective, in which gender, the mind, and the body were so closely enmeshed, the spiritualist view would have threatened more than the discipline of anthropology.
This vision of gender occupies an intriguing position in nineteenth-century understandings of what men and women were, what they were for, and why they were constructed that way. As the historian of spiritualism Alex Owen has argued, in conventional nineteenth-century society, ‘femininity, like masculinity, was generally assumed to be the basis for a given and unproblematic gendered identity, one which was for the most part determined by biology.’ (Owen, p. 6) The spiritualists themselves would have considered the spiritualist vision of gender to be perfectly ordinary: they disregarded the idea of the ‘supernatural’ and instead expanded the category of the ‘natural’, accepting a wider variety of experiences and ways of being into the divine order. But from a more conventional standpoint, the possibility of a ‘physical vesture’ that did not resemble the inner character, in Davis’s framing, could be deeply problematic, undermining the ‘given-ness’, or naturalness, of gender. Berlant and Warner’s understanding of heteronormativity illuminates this effect. They see heteronormativity as depending on an understanding of itself as a ‘natural state’, a ‘sense of rightness [...] often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions.’ (Berlant and Warner, p. 548) A system depending on its status as ‘natural’ is vulnerable to critique that exposes its constructedness; the spiritualist theory of gender threatened the idea that men and women had roles neatly determined by their biology, their relation to one another, and their role in the reproductive process. The spiritualist re-imagining of gender forces the artificiality of gender relations, and gender itself, out of the unconscious and unspoken, and into the light.
Setting this theory alongside another, better-known theory of gender in the latter half of the nineteenth century can help us realise how the spiritualist view both resembled and departed from other schools of thought of the period. Over the course of the nineteenth century, a range of doctors, lawyers, and writers turned their attention to questions of ‘sex’, especially sexual desire and attraction. Gender played an important yet often under-theorised role in these discussions: in sexology, the concept of sexual inversion described the idea that a person’s internal character and body might be somehow mismatched, explaining their sexual behaviour. The spiritualist view of gender is similar to some sexological ideas, such as the argument made by Krafft-Ebing that inversion was, as the historian of sexology Heike Bauer puts it, ‘a part of nature.’ (Bauer, p. 33) But the publication of Davis’s The Philosophy of Spirit Intercourse took place thirty-five years before the publication of the first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis, and consequently complicates our understanding of how discourses around gender and identity developed in the nineteenth century. Some of the principles that later coalesced into sexology and the theory of inversion were present decades earlier, albeit in a very different form, in spiritualist theology.
Unlike theorists sympathetic to the plight of the ‘invert’, such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Davis did not seem to feel the need to mount a defence of those whose ‘physical vesture’ might not match their temperament and character. His description of this phenomenon is entirely practical and devoid of moral judgements in either direction: the passage in which this idea is articulated is more interested in the ideal formation of a séance circle than it is in oppression or pathology. Immediately after describing this type of person, Davis goes on, breezily discussing where the medium should sit during a séance. Additionally, Davis does not seem interested in providing a taxonomy of these individuals, as the sexologists were; in the paragraph following his explanation of negative and positive characters, he simply refers to people as ‘male principles’ and ‘female principles.’ (Davis, p. 97) The only thing that matters in the séance—and, as a result, the only thing that matters to Davis—is the role a person might play in communicating with the spirits. Any straightforward narrative of medical ‘discovery’ or legal advocacy alone is interrupted by the altogether different approach taken by the spiritualists. Spiritualists like Davis and Hardinge constructed a theory of gender that interrupts the notion, set out most recognisably in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, that the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from religion to science, and belief to pathology. Instead, the spiritualist understanding of gender resisted teleology while being the consummate product of its time, and attempted to integrate science and religion while departing from typical ideas about both.
Bauer, Heike, English Literary Sexology: Translations of Inversion, 1860-1930 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael, ‘Sex in Public’, Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998), pp. 547-566
Davis, Andrew Jackson, The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse; Being an Explanation of Modern Mysteries (New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1851)
Hardinge, Emma, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: Published by the author, 1870)
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality Volume One: An Introduction, tr. by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)
Michaelson, Jay, ‘Kabbalah and Queer Theology’, Theology and Sexuality 18.1 (2012), pp. 42-59
Owen, Alex, The Darkened Room (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989)
Russett, Cynthia, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)
Volta, Alexander, ‘On the Electricity Excited by the Mere Contact of Conducting Substances of Different Kinds’, Abstracts of the Papers Printed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1800-1814 vol. 1 (London: Royal Society, 1833), pp. 27-29