“[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.