Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #137z Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men III.B.3 Romantic Friendship and Lesbian Love

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 07:00

This concludes my month-long trek through Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men. Given the density of the information and the intersection of its importance (at the time of publication) and its now curiously dated feel, I don't begrudge the time spent. But I confess I'm looking forward to getting back to a once-a-week schedule for the LHMP posts! For the next publications, I've lined up a few books that I picked up at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress this year, including one that studies medieval artistic depictions of variant sexuality, such as the image I use as the icon for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.3 Romantic Friendship and Lesbian Love

(It makes the most sense to jump down and read my summary of the concluding chapter before coming back to read my final thoughts here. The display order of the two sections is fixed in the blog format.)

Re-reading a book that one has read a very long time ago is an interesting and enlightening experience. I’ve done self-conscious re-reads of several books in the last year or so and discover new things about both myself and the text in that sort of close re-examintion. The other two were fiction: my critical read-through of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which is coming to a close this week, and my “pre-review” and re-read for review of Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. In both those cases, I wanted to challenge my emotional reaction to the book I wanted them to be, contrasted with the book “as it is”. And, to some extent, my running commentary on Faderman has been the same sort of challenge.

When I first read this book back in the early ‘80s, when it was brand new and I was freshly out--out of college and out as a lesbian--I imprinted on it heavily. It was the first serious historical study I’d run across of romantic relationships between women that wasn’t in the sort of “medical case history” genre that Faderman touches on. It gave me long lists of historic and literary references to chase after and a sense that there was a history of lesbianism to study. And as an amateur historian and massive history buff, I was eager to find that facet of myself reflected in past centuries.

But Faderman’s book also left me frustrated because it seemed to treat a lot of myths and stereotypes as fact: the stereotype that Victorian women had no sex drive, the idea that sex would somehow convert a noble and praiseworthy friendship into something sordid. It isn’t always clear when Faderman is presenting these stereotypes as stereotypes and when she’s accepting them unexamined as truths. A disturbingly large number of statements are of the form "women of this time must have felt..." or "it wouldn't have occurred to women of this time to...." Without a presentation of the logical case for those conclusions, it's hard to distinguish Faderman's conclusions as a researcher from her "gut feeling" as a consumer of the pop culure myths she's trying to examine. The summary in the concluding chapter (quoted at length below) seems to walk back some of the aspects that bothered me earlier in the book, but that only leaves me more confused as to what her ultimate position is.

Here, then, are some of my overall impressions in light of this re-read.

One cannot fault Faderman for not having access to the rich wealth of research on lesbian history that had not yet been published at the time she was working on it. (In my own experience, the next ground-breaking work was Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women, which wasn’t published until 1993.) But in a critical review such as the LHMP, one of my goals is to put dated research into context and give the reader pointers to contrasting evidence. I feel the need to note that there is now a great deal of research showing that the tradition of passionate friendship between women in the early modern period and later included relationships on a broad continuum of erotic expression. Faderman's observation that the most well-known publications discussing lesbian sex in these eras were written by men, and usually with a prurient male gaze, sidesteps the general erasure of women’s writings about their own internal lives. Their writings were not encouraged in the first place, were kept from publication, were forgotten or erased from the literary tradition, and--as Faderman notes in her opening discussion of Emily Dickinson’s correspondence--were actively censored by later gatekeepers. One need only look at how close Anne Lister’s diaries came to being destroyed by later gatekeepers to have a sense of how little weight we can put on the signficiance of the small amount of surviving data.

As I say, I can’t fault Faderman for not having access to scholarship that didn’t yet exist, but I do find some fault in the weakness of the critical engagement with what she does present. There might not have been a solid body of work on lesbian sexuality in pre-modern times, but there was enough work on female sexuality in general that the claims about women’s (lack of) sexual desire and social attitudes towards female sexuality strike a wrong note. Another wrong note is struck by how the evidence that Faderman does present for erotic desire in the “romantic friendship” era seems to be discounted or swept aside with “but respectable women wouldn’t allow themselves to feel this way.”

It is difficult to escape a nagging sense that Faderman herself thought that introducing sex into a romantic friendship made it “not respectable,” rather than accepting that a wide spectrum of erotic expression could have been present within the phenomenon of romantic friendship without it changing how women of the time understood their relationships. Faderman also seems to accept a qualitative distinction between “erotic activity that isn’t sex, such as kissing, hugging, fondling, bed-sharing, and passionate verbal exchanges” and “sex, i.e., activity involving the genitals.” Given that we still live in an era when one can argue the truth value of the statement “I did not have sex with that woman” in regard to oral sex, I can understand that such a distinction might be meaningful. But it might also be useful to examine how the participants in romantic friendships might have mapped out the dividing line between “sex” and “not sex”. There is a long legal and cultural history in western culture of the position that “sex” requires the presence of a penis. Given that history, it is within the realm of plausibility that women in passionate friendships in the 18-19th centuries might have held the position that nothing they did together could possibly be categorized as “sex” (even genital activity), and that therefore there was no reason for any self-consciousness or guilt about it. (And no basis for describing it as “sex” even in their own private writings.)

This is where I have issues with the apparent chain of logic that begins the book:

  • Pre-20th century women accepted the notion that “respectable” women did not feel sexual desire so thoroughly that they did not, in fact, feel sexual desire and therefore would not have engaged in sex unless a man (and a male sex drive) were involved.
  • Women in pre-20th century passionate friendships felt no self-concsiousness or guilt about public expressions of affection and devotion.
  • These pre-20th century women would necessarily have felt guilty and self-conscious about engaging in sex, therefore the lack of guilt is proof of the absense of sex.
  • Only after medical sexologists gave women permission to feel erotic desire was it possible for people (both men and women) to retroactively impute erotic desire to women in passionate friendships.
  • This retroactive assumption of sexual desire raised the risk of sullying the reputation of historic women in passionate friendships therefore it is necessary to redeem them by proving that the “serpent in the garden” is sordid modern imaginations, not the historic relationshps themselves.

Faderman’s concluding discussion nicely sums up the history of how popular culture manipulated people’s beliefs about women’s friendships in response to the social, political, and economic circumstances of the time. When it was useful to the dominant forces in society for women to have an emotional “safety valve” in intense same-sex friendships that had no power to disrupt heteronormativity, then those friendships were valorized. When social and economic changes gave women the potential of living lives independent of men, then it was necessary to undermine close bonds between women lest men become obsolete. (Ok, gross oversimplification.) But I still feel there’s a gap between analyzing the history of popular public perception of women’s passionate friendships--the “myth” as it were--and the actual lived experience of women in those passionate friendships, which--based on the scraps of self-reporting that we do have--was likely to have been enormously varied and individual.

In any event, Surpassing the Love of Men is a dense, in-depth study of the public reflection of a social phenomenon, and of the social and political currents it interacted with. For those with a passing interest in history and literature, it is valuable for providing background on how to interpret some of the language that women used to express friendship, and a caution on not interpreting it through a modern lens. For those looking to create fictional characters set in recent centuries, Faderman’s detailed discussions provide guidance on the spaces in which lesbian characters could have existed.

This is a very brief chapter, summing up the book’s overall thesis. “Passionate romantic friendship between women was a widely recognized, tolerated social institution before our century. Women were, in fact, expected to seek out kindred spirits and form strong bonds. ... It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family if not in lieu of them. When women’s role in society began to change, however...society’s view of romantic friendship changed. Love between women--relationships which were emotionally in no way different from the romantic friendships of earlier eras--became evil or morbid. ... Many of the relationships that [men] condemned had little to do with sexual expression. It was rather that love between women, coupled with their emerging freedom, might conceivably bring about the overthrow of heterosexuality.... In the sophisticated twentieth century women who chose to love women could no longer see themselves as romantic friends.... They became as confused and tormented as they were supposed to be. But it was only during this brief era in history [i.e., the 20th century] that tragedy and sickness were so strongly attributed to (and probably for that reason so frequently found in) love between women. This changed with the rise of the second wave of feminism.”

That’s probably a good overall summary of the book’s conclusions. There is further discussion of some of the complexities and conflicts of modern (i.e., 1980s) lesbian feminism. Touching on the place of sex within romantic friendships, “While romantic friends had considerable latitude in their show of physical affection toward each other, it is probable that, in an era when women were not supposed to be sexual, the sexual possibilities of their relationship were seldom entertained.” And then a discussion of the variable place of sexual desire and activity within “political lesbianism” and a nod to the continuing importance of not definining lesbian relationships solely by the presence or absence of sexual activity.

Faderman concludes with an idealistic look to a future when the erasure of sexism and prejudice against same-sex relationships leaves everyone free to enter into the relationships they desire without having to weigh the social, political, and economic consequences at all.

Time period: