The Early Feminist Who Used Botany to Teach Kids About Sex

Baby Buds was much more than a plant handbook.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy by a banner that reads "England's Oldest Militant Suffragist Greets Her Sisters"
Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy by a banner that reads "England's Oldest Militant Suffragist Greets Her Sisters" (Wikimedia Commons / LSE Library )

“[A]re the male flowers of a vegetable marrow plant needless, or do they lead a useless life; seeing that they bear no fruit?’”

To a modern reader, this simple question about plants seems innocuous, if a bit unfamiliar. But when Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy posed it at the end of the 19th century, it was radical. She was not just talking about plants; she was talking about sex.

In 1895, under the pseudonym Ellis Ethelmer, Elmy published Baby Buds, a 47-page botany primer for children that doubled as a sex-education handbook. Elmy was not a botanist, but an outspoken first-wave feminist—one whose prominent role in shaping early feminism has only become clear in the last few years, largely due to Maureen Wright’s biography Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement: The Biography of an Insurgent Woman. As an extension of Elmy’s activism, Baby Buds made a covert stand for sexual equality at a time when British politics were actively working against it.

Elmy was born in 1833, in Manchester, to a Methodist minister father and a working class mother, but she was an orphan by the age of 12. After a mix of formal and self-education, Elmy became headmistress of a private girls’ school, and beginning in the 1850s, Elmy became a full-time feminist activist, writer, and poet, with a focus on women’s economic and sexual emancipation. According to Wright, Elmy was the first woman on record to speak publicly against marital rape and argue for its criminality. In 50-plus years of activism, she participated in more than 20 feminist organizations, in positions that included honorary secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union and executive committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Elmy’s dabbling in botany at the age of 65 might seem out of place, but I believe that Baby Buds was an extension of her fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts. The CDAs were an attempt by the British government to control the increasing rates of venereal diseases among army and navy men, who were not allowed to be married, and frequently turned to brothels and prostitutes during their service. The first of the acts, passed in 1864, targeted garrisons and dockyards, where police were given the authority to detain women they believed to be prostitutes. Subsequently, magistrates could order women to undergo compulsory medical examinations for VD and forcefully detain them in hospitals for treatment. The second and third acts, passed in 1866 and 1869, extended the police’s reach beyond garrison and dock towns, forced involuntary medical examinations on women suspected of VD for up to a full year, and increased women’s sentences in hospitals for up to 9 months.

From a public-health standpoint, the CDAs failed miserably. Venereal disease continued to spread, largely because the acts didn’t take into account one of the main sources for their proliferation: men. Responsibility and blame for venereal disease fell entirely on women, particularly the poor and working class. While it would have been degrading for men to undergo compulsory medical examination for disease, women who were subject to such examinations were seen as deserving; in effect, women’s sexuality was criminalized. Though the CDAs were finally repealed in 1886, the damage had been done. A double standard in male and female sexuality had been solidified in British culture.

Elmy’s work with the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the CDAs took on the British government and the acts directly through years of campaigning for their repeal, but her botanical work with Baby Buds fought the cultural fallout from the CDAs that persisted long after. In the book, Elmy uses the sexual reproduction of plants to teach children about human sexuality and relationships. The book’s narrator is a mother speaking gently and lovingly to a young child. The mother begins by straightforwardly describing the plant reproduction to cultivate a base understanding of sexual anatomy and sexual intercourse. But she is not finished with plants. “We shall now, darling, be more able to trace and perceive the further resemblances and differences in the method by which plants and animals (including human beings) come into existence,” she says.

In the rest of the book, she uses the basics of plant anatomy and reproduction to illustrate those of humans, whose “parts or organs [are] similar in formation, and in purpose, as those we have noticed in flowers.” Always referring back to plants, she talks children through the processes of conception through sex—which she compares to “the seeding of flowers”—gestation within the mother, and eventually birth.

It was not much of a stretch for Elmy to connect botanical sexual reproduction to humans, for the language of botany already lent itself to sexual interpretation. Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, favored the reproductive organs of the plant to order his classification system that he laid out in System of Nature, in 1735. The reproductive organs of the plant include the male stamen and the female pistil. The number of stamens in a plant determined the class to which it belonged; the number of pistils determined the plant’s subsequent order.

It was common for 18th- and early 19th-century writers and botanists to impose romantic ideals and sexual fantasies onto the male and female sexes of the plants. In 1791, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, wrote the two-part poem The Botanical Garden, which became the most widely read text about Linnaeus’s sexual system. Oftentimes, it reads more like a bawdy novel than a scientific text:

With vain desires the pensive ALCEA burns,

And, like sad ELOISA, loves and mourns,

The freckled IRIS owns a fiercer flame,

And three unjealous husbands wed the dame.

In 1807, Robert John Thornton published New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carl Linnaeus, in which he romanticizes relations between plants, demonstrated most clearly with an illustration of Cupid shooting an arrow to the plants, inspiring them to love.

It also wasn’t much of a stretch for Elmy to write about botany in the first place. During the first half of the 19th century, botany was considered a proper science for women, as they cornered the publishing market for botanical texts. The historians Ann B. Shteir and Barbara Gates have shown that during this time period, women were writing about nature in unprecedented numbers. For women writers and readers, botany was a source of spiritual edification, but for many, it was also a way to cultivate womanhood through a relationship with nature.

Priscilla Wakefield’s Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, published in 1796, stands out as an early example of this type of writing about botany. Narrated through a series of letters between sisters in which one sister relays her governess’s botany lessons to the other, this was the first book written by a woman that provided a systematic introduction to the science. In 1801, Frances Rowden wrote A Poetic Introduction to the Study of Botany, which served as an introduction to the Linnaean system, but also as a way to teach young women the ways of morality and domestic life. These writings, like Baby Buds, almost always featured a woman or mother as the teacher and narrator in a domestic setting.

While these early botanical writers diminished the sexualized language of botany because it was inappropriate for a woman to write so openly about sex, Elmy embraced it. Some sections of Baby Buds might even be read as controversial in the way she describes male sexuality, as she attempts to shift sexual responsibility for reproduction to men—seemingly a direct response to the sexual double standard perpetuated by the CDAs. To answer the question “are the male flowers of a vegetable marrow plant needless, or do they lead a useless life; seeing that they bear no fruit?” Elmy’s narrator says that even though the male does not carry offspring within it, the male is just as responsible for sex and reproduction. And while bees transfer pollen from the male plant to the female plants, reproduction in humans is intentional for both partners.

Women and men “approach one another for that purpose,” she writes. “Indeed they do so approach at certain times, that the ovules of the female may receive some of the pollen substance.”

In 1895, Elmy followed Baby Buds with another botanical sex education book for young women, The Human Flower: A Simple Statement of the Physiology of Birth and the Relations of the Sexes, which continued many of the same themes but with more direct language. While the majority of Elmy’s activism took the form of public campaigns and organizations, Baby Buds was able to sneak under the noses of those who would find its content objectionable. Since she wrote Baby Buds in women’s domestic writing traditions, most men and professional botanists would have taken little interest in this seemingly simple primer for children. Whether intentional or not, Elmy found an opportune niche in botany that allowed her to teach ideas that were deemed inappropriate for women to write about and to extend her activism to an audience who would have remained closed off to her.