The Margaret Sanger Papers


Carpenter, Edward (1844-1929)

British socialist activist, sex reformer and poet. Ordained a deacon at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1868, Carpenter became a fellow and lecturer there until he left his curacy. By 1874, Carpenter had become a lecturer for the University Extension movement in the north of England, and by 1880, had settled down on a communal farm in Sheffield with other members of the Extension movement; after the death of his parents in 1882, he bought his own property in Sheffield. Carpenter, who became enamored of socialism and anarchism in these years, began to socialize with intellectuals and members of the Fabian Society, which Carpenter joined in 1909. He also helped found the Sheffield Socialist Club and began writing and lecturing on radical political themes. His publications included Towards Democracy (1881), England's Ideal (1884), and Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889). He also began to broaden his critique of capitalist society to include social and sexual, as well as economic oppression, and soon emerged as one a new group of sex radicals who sought to replace repressive Victorian morality with a new spirit of sexual liberation and freedom that would apply to women as well as men. Carpenter, who published his view in Love's Coming of Age in 1896, began espousing feminist ideals linking sexual freedom with gender equality. A later edition of this volume also included a section on homosexual relations. In 1891, Carpenter fell in love with an unskilled laborer, George Merrill, and seven years later the two men moved in together. While Carpenter's homosexuality was known to his neighbors and his socialist friends, under Britain's 1895 law, it was a criminal offense and Carpenter had to fend off repeated efforts both to expose him and to prosecute him for his socialist ideals. Carpenter addressed the issue of homosexuality in his 1908 book, The Intermediate Sex . His autobiography, My Days and Dreams, was published in 1916. Sanger had a letter of introduction to Carpenter, given to her by Canadian socialist friends, Mildred and Frank Bain, when she arrived in England in 1914. When they met Carpenter gave Sanger his full support and encouragement in her battle to legalize birth control. He also signed the 1915 petition to President Wilson, organized by Marie Stopes in support of Margaret Sanger.
References: Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America (1974); Sheila Rowbotham "Edward Carpenter: Prophet of the New Life," in Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks, Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. (1977); Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (1938).