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A Brief Tour of the History of Lesbian History

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 07:00

While proofreading this entry before posting, I found myself thinking about the question of "what are identity categories anyway?" This also comes from the book that I was writing up an entry for last night (which won't post for quite some time), which talked a lot about the difference between "modern sexual identities" versus "pre-modern sexual tastes." Thinking from my own personal experience of "sexual identity," it sometimes feels like even "modern sexual identities" is an invented construct rather than an objective phenomenon. My sexuality category is "lesbian" (also "asexual") but when I contemplate understanding my sexuality as part of an objective, identifiable, widespread cultural "thing" that is a lesbian identity, I either have to conclude that there is no unified "lesbian identity" or I'm not part of it. Similarly, to the extent that there is an objective, identifiable "asexual identity" I also don't feel part of it. Part of my identity is "woman, " but it would be a snare and an illusion to suppose that there is an objective, identifiable cultural experience of "woman" that all women belong to and participate in. And I'm not sure that I feel any more comfortable about assuming that the unease I feel is simply a matter of factoring in the question of intersectional identities. And yet...I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "lesbian" even if I don't identify with some universal unified lesbianhood. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "asexual" even if I don't identify with some universal unified asexuality. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "woman", etc etc.

So does this mean that I'm really a social constructionist? I don't think so. Because I don't think that my experience of those categories is an arbitrary product of a fleeting conjunction of cultures. In fact, I think that my unease with the idea of belonging to "objective, identifiable identity categories" is an unease with the specific social constructions produced by this fleeting moment in time. (I sometimes point out that I identify much more with the sexuality category of "romantic friendship" than I do with the sexuality categories available during my own lifetime.) I experience something--I guess "building blocks of identity" is a good way to put it--that feels apart from the specific conjunctions of features to which gender/sexuality labels are given. But to represent those building blocks as "a matter of individual personal taste" (as the book I was writing up last night would put it) feels trivializing. The distinctions in how I experience romantic and sexual attraction are not the same as my dislike for kale and my love of sushi, even those the latter are both shaped by specific, transitory cultural factors. Would I have always felt a vague, undefinable yearning to eat raw fish if sushi restaurants hadn't been "a thing" within my lifetime? Somehow I don't think so.

At the same time, there are vocal (though minority) voices on the "identitarian" side, both with regard to sexuality and gender, that seem bound and determined to narrow and specify the categories of "lesbian" or "woman" so strictly that we may end with no one qualifying for membership at all, either in the present day or the past. (In some cases, this seems to be an intentional goal.) Human categories are complex and fuzzy. Any time we have tried to eliminate that complexity and fuzziness has ended in tragedy and horror.

These meandering thoghts boil down to a couple of points. 1) Are the social constructionists/anti-identitarians simply wrong-headed in treating contemporary gender/sexual identities as a fixed point to react against? 2) Does it trivialize the inner subjective experience of "identity building blocks" to dismiss them as less meaningful than the complex intersectional structures of those building blocks that we give names to? (This is the topic of my podcast "Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles.") 3) Can one belong to a category that never entirely seems to fit? Anyway, on to the article.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2012. "The History of Lesbian History" in Feminist Studies vol. 38, no. 3 566-596.

This is a survey of the field of lesbian historiography as of 2012. This sort of article is primarily useful to me as a pointer to publications I may not know about, but Vicinus has written a very readable guided tour of the various movements and developments in the field which can help provide a context for the publications themselves. I think anyone trying to navigate the specifics of academic writing on the history of sexuality would benefit from this sort of high-level chronology. It helps remind us that the conclusions of historians are always contingent on the framework they are working in, just as the expression of gender and sexuality in history is always contingent on the historic frameworks people had available.

As a preface, Vicinus begins with a review of the works of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, noting that despite their goals they flounder a bit in determining just what they’re studying. Is lesbianism “an emotion, a sexual act, a gender reversal ... situational or innate”? Agreeing that fuzziness is perhaps an essential feature of lesbian history, she then tackles a summary of the previous 30 years of study of the topic. Her focus, she admits, is her own field of modern British history and draws largely on Euro-American scholarship.

The first question to be addressed is whether using the word “lesbian” is even advisable, but Vicinus comes down on the side of considering the word “a useful shortcut for evoking a whole range of words that have been used to describe attachments between women” with the advantage that the associations of the word keep a certain focus on sex and avoid the scope-creep that a more general term like “queer” invites.

One feature of recent lesbian historiography (aside from regular paradigm shifts) has been a rejection of psychological models of the mid-20th century that divided the world of sexuality into “normal” and “deviant.” The next section of the article is organized around reviewing “five paradigms in less than thirty years.”

1. Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum”

Following the 1970s, as lesbian historians focused on identifying lesbians in history, Rich expanded the concept of “lesbian” to embrace a wide variety of affective relationships such that most women could be identified as within the continuum. This approach was less appealing to many who worked to identify women in history who had an identifiable identity that could be defined as lesbian. Their approach was “essentialist” in the sense that it pre-supposed an essential, unchanging sexual identity that could be determined through evidence.

Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men fell on the “continuum” side in arguing that women’s same-sex relations had a long history in Europe and encompassed a range of expressions, but her stance that most “romantic friendship” relationships were non-sexual spurred a backlash. The initial publication in 1988 of Anne Lister’s diaries put the “non-sexual” theory to bed (as it were) and other work on the topic has identified a more complex and layered understanding of women’s sexuality in the era Faderman studied.

Even as the models of Rich’s continuum struggled with identity-based models, other historians were raising issues of communities marginalized within that original work: Smith on Black women’s friendships, Kennedy and Davis on working-class butch/femme relationships, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s focus on race and class. The search for identification with the past needed to include identification by race and class rather than revolving around a Eurocentric white middle-class model.

2. Social Constructionism

This second paradigm emphasized differences across historic eras, rather than identity. Driven by the work of Jeffrey Weeks and Michel Foucault, it argued that sexuality was always a social construction of a particular set of historic circumstances and that identities in the past were unrelated to present-day categories. This approach drew on observations such as the different features of “masculinity” and “femininity” in various cultures, as well as using anthropology to study affective cultures that don’t correspond across time. Smith-Rosenberg’s work on women’s friendships and networks in 18-19th century America is an example. Same-sex affective cultures of the past might have emotional resonance for the present, but could not be directly equated with modern identities.

By the 1980s, feminist historians were adopting the tools and rhetoric of social constructionism and beginning to view theories of a transhistoric “homosexual identity” as too essentialist. Constructionists argued that the past was an alien country where same-sex acts did not correspond to a defined sexual identity.

3. Queer Theory

Around 1990, historians such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began arguing against the very notion of a stable sexual identity (even in the present day). Queer theory approached identity as a flexible and shifting performance, with gender identity and sexuality simply being another type of performance. Judith Butler is another name prominent here. Lesbian “identity” was to be disassembled and examined as an intersection of gender, sexual identity and desire, all of which are unstable.

In this context, rather than homoerotic desire being a minority identity, it becomes part of a universal erotic pluralism that has always existed. While queer theory lent itself to cultural studies, historians have been hesitant to embrace it, as the dissolving of categories and causation work against the generally understood purposes of historic study.

Moreover, there has been a certain wariness in how queer theory has focused on masculinity and masculine subjects, while dismissing the concept of “lesbian” as essentialist and outdated. And the all-encompassing nature of queer theory led some scholars to consider it of questionable usefulness. Others feel that when queer theory focuses both on historical specificity and the varied nature of sexual behavior, it provides a useful tool--and has been used to question Foucault’s strict distinction between pre-19th century “acts” versus post-19th century “identity”.

Queer theory can still provide a basis for connection with the past on the basis of similarity, but rather by assuming the modern viewpoint as the origin of that similarity. The flip side of this is losing track of history as a factual concept and embracing only the subjective fictions of modern interpreters.

4. Transgender studies

Since the late 1990s, transgender studies have brought new angles to bear on the topics of gender and sexuality, returning to a focus on gender as a crucial attribute rather than sexual behavior. Rather than defining identity through the nature of the erotic object, transgender studies define it through embodied experience of the self.

Vicinus then takes us on a personal tour through how her own focus of study reflects these overall shifts, especially through her studies of female friendship. Having begun by studying female friendship as an emotional resource in the context of heterosexual marriage, she looked for “different” forms of same-sex friendship that could be part of a continuum of same-sex desire. 19th century same-sex friendships were richly varied and provided information in their silences as much as their texts.

Coming to examine the relational nature of sexuality, she argues for a fifth paradigm that focuses on complex identifications that draw on familial, class, national, and racial associations. She has studied the ways that women constructed their individual identities out of the imagery of other relationships to express a vocabulary of love and desire for other women. These relationships were negotiated using flirtation, erotic games, role playing, and careful definitions around forbidden concepts (e.g., what counted as “sex”). Women’s same-sex relations in the 19th century both borrowed the forms of heterosexual courtship and were in turn co-opted as part of heterosexual structures. By this means, women constructed a variety of same-sex relationships as reflections of familiar family ties: husband-wife, mother-daughter, sisters, etc., roles that could shift and co-exist within the same couple.

Currently (i.e., that is in 2012 when this article was written) Vicinus sees the study of sexuality in a “state of fruitful crisis.” Lesbian history is still stuck in the ruts of pursuing a genealogical timeline and trying to name-and-claim identifiable “lesbians”. Visibility is seen as a measure of legitimacy and lesbian identity is still defined in reference to heterosexuality. Lesbians alternate between an assimilationist or adversarial relationship to dominant society, or hold both at once. No one historical theoretical framework can encompass all the necessary analysis.

That said, approaches can still broadly be divided between those focusing on similarity (identifying connections across time and finding same-sex relations integrated into society), and those focusing on difference (examining the impact of social and political institutions on sex-deviant women and the forces for punishment or conformity).

One promising development is the mainstreaming of lesbian topics within general history, showing how homoerotic relationships acted as a historic force, or viewing expressions of female friendship at face value rather than assuming coded lesbianism. The celebration of female friendship supported not only homoerotic connections, but the freedom of women to exist outside of marriage in general.

There is still a place for those studying fragmentary documentation from the pre-modern period for evidence of similarity or difference to modern relationships. And the queer theorists support the desire for connections with the past as a subjective reality. The “lesbian continuum” has returned in the form of Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” concept, declining to define the past while still identifying connections.

Vicinus surveys a number of questions that remain a challenge on the “difference” side of the line, not only in terms of how lesbians are viewed and treated by institutions, but the importance of race and class as contributing axes. The social work that often brought women together in supportive romantic bonds often took colonialist forms with respect to their beneficiaries. And the intersection of transgender studies with lesbian studies partakes of a “difference” approach, not only in identifying trans men/trans-masculine women/butch women as a site of contention, but in tracing the ways that theoretical treatments of gender and sexuality have shifted emphasis from one to the other.

The article concludes with a review of some newer metaphors and images for considering lesbian history, such as Clark’s “twilight moments” and Traub’s “cycles of salience.” Studies that address non-Western history are also getting more attention. As a final coda, Vicinus discusses the biography of Edith Less Ellis, the wife of sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose marriage was full of complex and contradictory sexual themes.