Averill Earls Reviews Naomi Wolf's Infamously Flawed Book "Outrages"Historians in the News
tags: books, reviews, Naomi Wolf, Nursing Clio
Averill Earls is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Dig: A History Podcast, and an Assistant Professor of History at Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA. Her current research examines the policing of male same-sex desire in post-colonial Ireland.
Naomi Wolf’s latest book, Outrages, was supposed to be released in the United States on June 18, 2019. In May 2019, BBC host Matthew Sweet had Wolf on his show and challenged her misinterpretation of a key legal term. One argument in the book is that legislative changes in 1857 institutionalized homophobia in the United Kingdom, increasing the number of men executed for same-sex sex crimes after 1861. If correct, this would be a major intervention in Britain’s nineteenth-century history of the policing of same-sex sex, as historians agree that the last man executed for sodomy died in the 1830s.
Spoiler alert: it is not correct. Sweet told Wolf on-air that she misunderstood the term “death recorded.” By the nineteenth century, most death sentences were overturned by royal pardon. So where Wolf assumed “death recorded” meant “So-and-So’s death is written in this book,” it was actually a way for the judge to say the official sentence associated with that crime while not actually passing a death sentence that would be overruled. This practice remained until an 1861 law reduced the number of capital crimes, thus reducing the number of capital punishment sentences needed. (Helpfully, someone created a Wikipedia entry for “death recorded” shortly after Wolf’s interview aired. Priceless.) This all means that her assertion of a major shift starting in 1857 lacks a basic understanding of the field. On the heels of the epically embarrassing interview, publisher Houghton Mifflin recalled all copies of the US edition from retailers. They’ve now pushed publication back a full year, to be released — pending major changes to address the shortcomings of the original “finalized” manuscript — in June 2020.
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