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Emma Martin and the manhandled womb in early Victorian England

Janes, Dominic (2011) Emma Martin and the manhandled womb in early Victorian England. In: Mangham, A. and Depledge, Greta (eds.) The Female Body in Medicine and Literature. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, pp. 107-118. ISBN 9781846314728.

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Emma Martin (née Bullock) was born in 1811 and died in 1851. She was a socialist and freethinker. As a child she was strongly religious and at the age of seventeen joined the Particular Baptists – a Calvanist grouping. She remained a believer for a further twelve years. In 1831 she married the Baptist Isaac Luther Martin and they had three daughters. She was very unhappy in the marriage and started to deliver lectures on the role of women. In 1839 she attended her first Owenite social meeting – she was powerfully ambivalent toward the radical views she heard there and she attacked their anti-religious ideas despite their endorsement of her pro women feelings. At the end of that year Isaac moved the family to London and she left him and became a lecturer for the Owenites at a small stipend. This paper begins by examining a remarkable text, published in 1844, which rejected a phallocentric view of religion. Her tract Baptism: a Pagan Rite is inspired by a tradition of comparative religion which had been developed and popularised by anti-clerical comparisons of Catholicism with pagan worship made around the time of the French Revolution. However, other works in this genre, such as Payne Knight’s Priapus (1786) frame their vision of ancient religion around the primacy of phallicism as the central expression of primitive fertility cults and thence as underlying modern Catholic practice. Emma Martin’s work, by contrast, reframed the discussion in two important ways. Firstly, she focussed upon her own experience as a former Baptist so as to sustain a sexualised reading of that denomination. Secondly, her reading centred on the baptismal pool as a womb in which the sinner was reborn. Contemporary accounts critical of baptism indicate that the occasion was feared to be an opportunity for sexual impriority. Martin appears to have seen the act of baptism as an often co-erced fertility ritual. Her other pamphlets, of which several survive, are not directly on gendered themes, but are strongly against religion. Her most active period of writing and speaking lasted until 1845 after which she left the movement to become a midwife. She spent her last years lecturing on gynaecology before dying of tuberculosis in 1851. She thus demonstrated the importance of the womb and its order and disorder as a core element in her practice and sense of duty. By thinking with the womb, she was able to place the female generative process – and its abuses at the hands of men – at the centre of her view of the operation of contemporary society. In this she is strikingly different to other writers of the time on comparative religion who either downplayed the womb as compared with the phallus, or who seem to have regarded the womb as somehow abject.

Item Type: Book Section
School or Research Centre: Birkbeck Schools and Research Centres > School of Arts > History of Art
Depositing User: Dominic Janes
Date Deposited: 27 Oct 2011 12:44
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2014 12:05

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