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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 22d - Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places

Saturday, May 26, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22d - Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/05/26 - listen here)

Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places

When you compare the history of men’s and women’s experiences of same-sex desire, there are many places where those experiences are not merely different in the details, but can fail to align at all. In many ways, the expectation that homosexual women and men have a shared experience is a product of the medicalization of homosexuality that began in the later 19th century with the invention of homosexuality as a unified and distinct concept. Throughout most of history, the experience of same-sex desire has been shaped and overshadowed by the different experiences of gender itself.

In some contexts, this has been to women’s advantage, as they were free of some of the consequences of restrictive models of masculinity. But when it comes to researching queer history, those differences have been a stumbling block. To vastly oversimplify the scope of history, men have generally had more power and freedom to act within the public sphere and to arrange their interpersonal relationships to their own satisfaction regardless of their official familial bonds. When you combine this with the knee-jerk tendency of (mostly male) researchers to take men’s experiences as the default and norm, and to understand women’s experiences in relationship to male models, it has meant that those researching lesbian history have often found themselves looking in vain for data and evidence that corresponded to the male experience.

So when I was asked about queer women’s communities and queer spaces for women throughout history that paralleled what we can find for men, my immediate reaction was to caution that the question itself held the seeds of failure. We only have to look back within my own lifetime in the United States to see that the ways in which queer women and queer men organized themselves in public social spaces have had relatively small overlaps. And when you go further back into history, those differences are even more pronounced. As a gross over-simplification, women have tended to organize their romantic and sexual lives via private networks in private spaces, while men have been more able to use public spaces and institutions as a context for making personal connections of all types.

So a search for the equivalent of the sexual cruising grounds in 16th century Venice or 17th century Paris, or the equivalent of English “molly houses” in the 18th century raises the risk of concluding that there has been no public culture of lesbianism at all before the 20th century. So is there evidence for such a public culture, even if only in the popular imagination?

Here are the parameters of what I’ll be looking at today. In the past, I’ve talked about some of the social spaces that coincidentally provided opportunities and a relative “safe space” to develop same-sex romantic and sexual relationships. These can include gender segregated religious communities, gender-segregated educational institutions, or even simply gender-segregated spaces in private homes in a context when women were encouraged to form emotional and affective bonds with each other. But today I want to look at spaces and institutions where women came together for the specific and overt purpose of engaging in same-sex romantic relationships, and in some cases for engaging in sexual activity. That’s a much narrower focus.

I’m going to expand that focus a bit by including fictional lesbian communities: imagined organizations or contexts in which women came together to enjoy romantic or sexual relationships. In many cases, these communities were a product of male fantasies--whether born of prurient desire or of a deep-seated fear of missing out. And in some cases, it can be hard to tell whether a particular description was mere fantasy and scandalous rumor or whether it reflected actual social institutions.

Fictional and Conceptual Communities

I’ll come back to the topic of fictional communities at the end of this essay when I talk about sex clubs. For much of European history, the most obvious examples of queer female spaces come from fictional depictions, often drawing on classical mythology such as imaginings of Amazon societies or the followers of the goddess Diana as discussed in last month’s podcast. In some cases, such all-woman societies were depicted as being sexually frustrated due to assumptions that sex, of course, required the presence of a man, but in many cases there was a recognition that women in an all-female society would form romantic bonds and that there was a potential for erotic relationships as well. We saw this in several fictional depictions of the legend of Callisto in last month’s essay, but the motif of Amazonian societies and their romantic and erotic potential was also popular in drama of the 16th and 17th centuries, as discussed in Walen’s survey of female homoeroticism in that medium. An example would be the mid-17th century play The Female Rebellion which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. 

While fantasies of Amazonian sex were often written by men, with all the distortion that brings, female authors of the early modern period were more likely to imagine separatist societies that included romantic potential but perhaps shied away from a direct admission of sexual possibilities.

Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure, published in 1668, portrays the deliberate construction of a women-only community in which resistance to heterosexual marriage is one of the organizing principles. The result includes what is most efficiently described as butch-femme romantic pairings. As another character describes it, “some of your ladies do accoustre themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” Within the text, overtly erotic activity such as kissing and embracing is considered a potentially scandalous addition to these loving relationships. But we shouldn’t take this as a description of the contemporary view of women’s displays of affection. Kisses and embraces were considered a normal element of female friendships at the time. Within the context of the play, the surprised reaction to this physical affection functions to signal the subconscious understanding that their women-only community has been penetrated by a man in disguise.

A more accurate view of the 17th century English view of affective bonds between women is seen in the poetry of Katherine Philips, who wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women and argued for the primacy of female friendships over the bonds of marriage. She comes into this discussion of fictional communities based on her creation of a semi-real, semi-imagined network she called a “Society of Friendship”, meant to promote social, political, and artistic bonds between women. As for many of her contemporaries, this Society existed more as an unrealized ideal than a lived reality. Philips’ pastoral imagery operated within the theme of "amor impossibilis" (impossible love) in the tradition of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, though it focused, not on the alleged impossibility of same-sex love, but on the pain of the barriers to achieving it. Her vision of a women’s Society of Friendship in which same-sex romantic relationships could flourish remained a fiction for the most part, but it represented an ideal that would be realized in later centuries.

I’ll be going further into the place of personal social networks as a venue for queer women’s community a bit later, but another fictional--or at least, fictionalized--example that directly addresses romantic and erotic possibilities was Delariviere Manley’s 1709 roman-à-clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean. (This is, by the way, the typical length of book titles in the 18th century.) This example straddles the line between fiction and real life because many of the characters in the novel can be identified with the author’s contemporaries and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the homoerotic elements in the text are not entirely fictional.

But while Manley may have depicted a real-life “community of the mind” formed by the women she modeled her characters on, The New Atalantis creates an actual geographic location--a place where women with same-sex interests meet, interact, and live out those relationships--and a named social institution “The New Cabal”. The same-sex community aspects are only one section of a larger narrative, and they are coyly softened by the authorial voice asserting that such relationships could have no “irregularity” because what could women do together after all? In the publishing context of the day, an emphasis on the fictional nature of the narrative was necessary to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. And the work was undeniably political in nature, choosing as its targets prominent members of the Whig party, while Manley herself supported the Tories.

The descriptions of what women do together in the novel mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, but the organizing principle is clearly lesbian. The rules of the community not only exclude men, but also exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men. Marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, as long as it’s off-stage, but male lovers are right out.

The women of The New Atalantis join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion and secrecy but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Gender role play or cross-dressing was not the norm, but there are a few exceptions. One woman is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [that is, the clothing] of the other sex”. This is not quite an example of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in Manley’s fictionalized Memoirs of Europe. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

The formal organization of this lesbian community as a geographic space is fictional, but we can see the shape of what these women’s real-life lesbian community was like in the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age. The accuracy of the specifics must be suspect, though, due to the political satire that inspired it.

Public Meeting Places

Outside of fiction, the evidence for physical public meeting spaces for women seeking same-sex encounters is sparse. (Keep in mind that you can assume the limitation “before the 20th century” in anything I write, unless I specify otherwise.) Emma Donoghue refers to a study of legal records from late 18th century Amsterdam that suggests there were small groups of women there who came together for same-sex encounters, but with no clear mention of specific locations where they might have met. And there are regular references in various times and places to prostitutes engaging in same-sex encounters, so one might add whorehouses to the list of hypothetical meeting places, though that seems a bit contrary to the spirit of the question we’re addressing today.

I’m cautious about drawing any strong conclusions about gender-essentialist differences in women’s and men’s sexuality along the lines of “well, men go to specific locations for sexual hook-ups while women develop long-term emotional relationships,” because gender influences the types of data that have come down to us. For example, much of the evidence for male homosexual cruising places--such as those documented in Merrick and Ragan’s collection of French primary source documents--come from arrest records. If women were far less likely to be arrested and prosecuted simply for sexual activity--whether because there was no applicable law, as in England, or because it wasn’t considered noteworthy without some other criminal element--we can’t take the absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Perhaps there were similar meeting places for women that simply weren’t recorded.

Donoghue quotes a translation from a German visitor to London in the 1780s who writes, “There are females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex. These females are called Lesbians. They have small societies, known as Anandrinic Societies, of which Mrs Y--, formerly a famous London actress was one of the presidents.” The similarity of the description with the French Anandrine Society--which is unlikely to have been factual--prompts a touch of skepticism. But if the German visitor reported accurately, this is a rare reference to a sex club outside of the pornographic imagination. More about those French Anandrine societies later.

There may be an implication of a more informal meeting place for women in 18th century London in a poem titled “Two Kissing Girls of Spitalfields” which describes two women meeting by St. Katherine’s Docks to make out.

Although I’ve mostly confined myself to Europe in this episode, there are some interesting discussions of women’s same-sex meeting places in the Islamic world, though a certain caution is necessary regarding accounts from European travelers.

That caution doesn’t apply to medieval Arabic texts that discuss women’s same-sex relationships. A 13th century treatise titled "On the Literature of Grinders and their Grinding" by Ahmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi describes what seems to be an identifiable social community of women who love women--identified by the Arabic term “sahhaqa” meaning “one who grinds or rubs” referring to the motion involved in sex. This community is defined by yet another term: tharaf or “wit”, but used as a slang term. As Tifashi writes, “They call themselves the witty ones. If they said that so-and-so is tharifa, a witty woman, then it becomes known among them that she is a grinder. They romance each other like men, but more intensely.” And he goes on to describe an identifiable subculture with customs and characteristics of its own.

We might want to be more careful about taking at face value the accounts of 17th and 18th century visitors to Ottoman Turkey who wrote somewhat sensational accounts of women seeking erotic encounters at bath houses--which by definition meant same-sex encounters due to the gender-segregated nature of the institution. There was an Orientalist fascination with lesbian activity in “exotic foreign lands” where it could be safely dissociated from respectable western society. But given the more sex-positive attitude seen in Arabic writings, it seems likely that the basics of accounts like Busbeq’s Travels into Turkey are accurate. He wrote: “Ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together, so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins. By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them.”

Small Personal Communities

By far the greatest evidence for lesbian-like communities in the European cultures I’m familiar with consists of relatively small personal networks of friends and lovers that existed primarily in private spaces, either within the women’s homes or created and maintained through correspondence. If we consider these to constitute a type of lesbian community--and it’s a type that I’d argue was still a major part of lesbian social dynamics in the 20th century--then this is a fertile ground for research.

In the 16th century, we may see a rare working-class example of this type of community in the description in Michel de Montaigne’s travel journal. He describes how a group of eight women in north-eastern France decided to cross-dress and travel together as men to make their way in the world. At least one of the group had sexual relationships with two women, one involving marriage, so it’s not entirely implausible that this was an interest shared by others in the group. Of course, as with any pre-modern example of gender passing, we need to acknowledge that a transgender reading is equally plausible to a lesbian reading.

The 16th century scandal-monger Brantôme tells a number of stories of the French court that imply the existence of networks of women who engaged in sex together, though Brantôme is more interested in being salacious than being truthful and the stories are mostly told at second or third hand.

England in the 18th century saw a profusion of female social circles associated at the very least with romantic attachments, and sometimes more boldly rumored to be sexual. We could be cautious and exclude clearly malicious accusations, such as William King’s defamatory poem The Toast, which accused Myra--a pseudonym for his enemy the Duchess of Newburgh--of being at the center of a circle of lesbians. But that still leaves a number of famous social sets, and some that were not-at-all famous but more informative.

One of the key names from this era is that of sculptor Anne Damer whose reputation as a lesbian and focus of a social circle of women with same-sex interests was well enough known that other women’s sexuality was hinted at by saying that they were “visiting Mrs. Damer.” A more prominent, though less provably sexual circle centered around Queen Anne and her succession of female favorites. But these were only a couple of the many, many small social networks in London that included same-sex romance as part of their shared interests.

Far from London and nowhere near prominent enough to have raised significant public comment, we have the social circle described in the diaries of Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister, from the early 19th century. Using a discreet code, that hid unambiguously erotic descriptions, Lister detailed a complex network of female friends who either engaged in or wanted to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with each other, and who were all clearly aware of being part of an extended circle of such women.

The emerging public acceptance and celebration of the concept of female romantic friendship in the 19th century means that we have plentiful records of women’s social circles that encompassed romantic relationships, though we rarely have solid evidence regarding a sexual component. There are far too many examples to go into detail, but I’ll point you to the show I did on 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman and her circle as one with a clearly erotic component

Lesbian Sex Clubs

Perhaps the topic where it’s most difficult to sort out fact from fiction is that of organized lesbian sex clubs. That German visitor’s description of a lesbian sex club in London in 1780 exists within a fascination with the topic that reached its peak in France around the time of the revolution.

As Lanser points out in The Sexuality of History, this trope arose in a context where social clubs of all types had become popular--organizations focused not on class or family ties, but on a similarity of interests that cut across lines of class and blood. Politically oriented social clubs were a major force before and during the French Revolution and their excesses contributed to a sentiment against secret societies of all kinds in post-revolutionary France. The Freemasons were one target of this hostility, but another target were supposed secret societies of women who met to initiate women in to lesbianism and to engage in group orgies. Lanser dismisses the possibility that these societies actually existed. It’s highly improbable that if they had, they would have left no trace in legal records, but only in sensational and highly pornographic pamphlets.

The most common label for these fictional clubs was “The Anandrine Sect”, where “anandrine” derives from the Greek for “without men”. In addition to sexual activities, this group was depicted as carrying social revolution further to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society entirely. Although hostility to social clubs often focused on the mixing of the classes, attacks on secret lesbian clubs more typically portrayed them as a symbol of aristocratic excess and decadence, in England as well as in France. Remember that word “decadence,” which I’ll come back to. The epitome of this image of aristocratic lesbian excess was the rumors circulated that Queen Marie Antoinette entertained a wide and diverse selection of female lovers and favorites, whose influence contributed to the corruption of the court.

This association of fictional lesbian orgies with aristocratic excess, combined with rising sentiment against secret societies, and the usefulness of lesbian accusations in attacking feminist organizations, may have contributed to the growing caution on erotic topics among the intellectual and aristocratic classes of women in the 19th century. Lesbian eroticisim was shifted conceptually toward lower class women, theatrical performers, and prostitutes. Toward the middle of the century, the trope was taken up by the French decadent writers. One of the goals of the Decadents was to attack what they saw as a hypocritical focus on respectability among the middle class by using art and literature to shock and titillate. The image of the lesbian became one of their favorite tools for this purpose and decadent literature took up the task of creating and depicting lesbian sex clubs in sensational detail.

Two women in a private boudoir were, of course, another of the favored settings for these scenes, but lesbians were described as meeting and recruiting new lovers in public settings such as cross-dressing balls, cabarets, and music halls. Of course, there was an actual public lesbian culture developing in Paris at the turn of the century--including the salons of the famous Natalie Clifford Barney and others, and no doubt including the balls, cabarets, and cafes featured in decadent novels and poetry. But so much of the image of that public culture has been shaped in its details by a prurient male imagination that one must dig deeply to decipher the experiences of actual lesbians of the time.

And that is, of course, the difficulty throughout history: to work from the observations and opinions of outside observers, who were often hostile to the topic, to piece together what a lesbian community or lesbian culture might have looked like in any particular time and place.


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