One of the themes mentioned by several authors in the collection The Lesbian Premodern was that social understandings of gender/sexuality in Western culture behave in cyclic ways, not as a linear evolutoin of understanding and expression. Lanser's article here looks at one of those cycles: the association of female homoerotic discourse, feminist philosophy, and woman-centered socializing. Understanding cycles such as these can be critical to grounding fiction in a particular time and place. I could easily see a historic novel set in early modern England that deliberately evoked resonances with aspects of lesbian-feminism of the '70s while still remaining true to it's own time.
Lanser, Sue. 2007. “The Political Economy of Same-Sex Desire” in Structures and Subjectivities: Attending to Early Modern Women, ed. Joan Hartman and Adele Seeff. University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE. ISBN 0-7413-941-4 pp.157-75
Lanser opens her article with the bold hypothesis that “in or around 1650, female desire changed.” That there was a conceptual shift in gender relations reflected in literature, politics, religion, and individual behavior in which private intimate relationships between women became part of public life, and that this shift shaped women’s emergence as political subjects claiming equal rights. The mechanism for this was an appropriation of the emerging importance of elite same-sex friendships between men and the use of parallel friendship structures among women to support struggles for autonomy and authority. Although these friendships were enacted in the context of an erotically-tinged discourse, elite women often deflected suspicions of lesbianism by developing a class-based conservatism.
In this article, Lanser goes beyond her previous analysis of the social results of this shift, and argues that the shift may be considered a collective strategy to create a context for emerging feminist consciousness and actions, not simply a reflection of individual, pre-existing desire. A “sapphic” consciousness (encompassing both private and public expressions of same-sex desire) acted to dismantle the logic of patriarchy and thus formed the basis for the emergence of modern feminism.
One objective observation is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the representation of female same-sex intimacy in print experienced something of an explosion. Sapphic scenarios in the late 16th century were primarily generated by men and tended to express male anxieties and fantasies (i.e., that women could “become” men and lay claim to male spaces and privileges). Female same-sex desire was attributed to abnormal physiology, moral degeneracy, or the mistaken direction of an underlying heterosexual desire. The most positive representations in that era tended to invoke abstract and distanced images of desire between women, as in John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis”.
But with the 17th century, women’s expressions of same-sex desire begin to come into print circulation. Lanser offers the following catalog, focusing strongly but not exclusively on poems addressed by one woman to another:
Scholarship has traditionally attempted to explain the homoerotic elements in these on the basis of individual biography, but taken as a whole, this literature calls for a more systemic analysis. Why would this explosion of women into published literature include such public expressions of private same-sex desire. [Note: Lanser doesn’t quite state it outright, perhaps assuming her readership doesn’t need it pointed out, but the 17th century is when women began having their personal writings published in significant numbers are all. So this isn’t a case of the body of published woman-authored literature suddenly introducing same-sex desire as a topic, but that the expression of same-sex desire is part and parcel of women entering the world of published literature.] The question is not simply “do these works represent their authors’ personal desires?” but “why would the authors choose to include representation of same-sex desire in their published work?”
One traditional argument has been to connect sapphic topics with women appropriating masculine forms and conventions, i.e., inhabiting an underlyingly male authorial position addressing a female object because that was how the literary genre was structured. This strategy works to erase the sapphic potential by essentially transforming women writers into “male” voices. [Note: this is, of course, a strategy with a long history in western culture for managing anxiety around same-sex activity. If you can re-define anyone who expresses desire for a woman as inherently masculine, then you don’t need to acknowledge same-sex desire.] This position is difficult to maintain in the face of women’s literature that explicitly elevates same-sex relationships over cross-sex ones.
From a different angle, more recent arguments have been that the homo-desiring elements in this work are used to re-direct the authors’ same-sex desires into an acceptable literary form, creating an image of “chaste femme love” (per Valerie Traub) to distinguish and distance themselves from the “taint” of both tribadism and masculinity. But this explanation fails to support why the authors would include same-sex desire in their work at all if the goal was to avoid attracting suspicion.
Scholarship around the poetry of Katherine Philips and whether it can be read as “lesbian” is a useful lens for examining all the various academic approaches to the topic. Was Philips simply imitating an existing heterosexual “poetic love language” that did not reflect her personal desires? Does her work provide unquestionable evidence that both Philips and her poetry can be classified as “lesbian”? Whether one considers Philips’ poetry to represent only homoerotic desires, regardless of her behavior, the history of Philips scholarship is an object lesson in methods of erasing lesbian possibilities.
Lanser returns to the argument that the inclusion by Philips and other writers of sapphic themes in publicly circulated work must be viewed as a communal reshaping of discourse that operated on levels beyond the simply personal. This argument holds even more strongly for authors who included sapphic themes in their writing with no corresponding motivation in their personal life, such as Margaret Cavendish and Delarivier Manley. Assuming that homoerotic content in their writings necessarily corresponds to homoeroticism in their lives erases women’s agency in using literary themes for public ends.
Perhaps the pertinent question is, “why would women--regardless of their individual private lives--include sapphic themes in their public writing?” Here Lanser returns to her thesis that those themes represent and support a larger social and political movement towards women’s equality and empowerment. And specifically that those themes are part of a deliberate (if diffuse) strategy to create that movement. Simone de Beauvoir is cited as noting that one barrier to women’s collective agency is that individual women are dispersed among patriarchal structures that hinder the ability to see themselves--much less act--as a unified group. But Lanser points out the “agency of print”--the ways in which creation of a published body of literature can become a collective act and can represent itself as the voice of the larger population. Print technology offered a new and powerful means of constructing a collective voice.
Pre-modern literature that made feminist arguments did so largely by comparing women to men and begging for men’s good will and recognition of women’s worth, as in Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies. Beginning around 1600, feminist treatises (such as the pseudonymous Jane Anger’s 1589 Protection for Women or Moderata Fonte’s 1600 treatise The Worth of Women) argue from the premise that women’s social power can only derive from separating themselves from men and focusing their resources in support of other women. Other authors who took a “women first” stand included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Marie de Romieu, and a semi-anonymous group of six London maidservants who published an open letter in 1567 appealing to their female employers to make common cause.
All of these texts highlight the idea of a homosocial economy of women that allows for equality in relationships (an equality not possible between women and men) that can stand against patriarchal structures. The specific activities of constructing these homosocial bonds point out the inequality of male-male friendships and female-female ones: men’s same-sex friendships act within and support patriarchy while women’s same-sex friendships act to subvert and negate its power. For women to create non-marital bonds outside the family was an inherent act of challenge to the status quo which expected women’s loyalties to be to husband, household, and extended family in that order.
Such female alliances were not necessarily or inherently erotic, but given the ways in which women’s oppression was enacted through control of female bodies, for women to claim control of the disposition of their own bodies in ways that excluded men had significant symbolic importance. This sentiment is embodied in the ca. 1700 poem “Cloe to Artimesia” which praises love between women as being above “the dangerous follies of such slavish love” (i.e., love of men) and urges women to “scorn the monster (i.e., man) and his mistress too,” staking out a position reminiscent of late 20th century feminist arguments that the only true feminist position was to reject relationships with men entirely.
Thus female same-sex relationships became almost a pre-requisite for envisioning women’s equality and empowerment, even when such relationships were not practical to enact, and regardless of whether the women envisioning them had an individual erotic orientation toward women. The vision of utopian sapphic relationships created the framework for the practical and material enactment of “friendship as kinship” when other shifts in the social and economic landscape put its realization within reach. That utopian vision might be limited, as in Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure where the premise of the female-only society ultimately resolves into heterosexual marriage, but one could argue that the disguised prince who marries Lady Happy must “become as a woman” to earn that goal. Other works by Cavendish, such as The Female Academy, create women’s separatist communities without the same overt frisson of homoeroticism, but still operating on the premise that women best support women by operating outside of male structures. And her works are regularly infused with the images of female friendships and female intimacies as utopian spaces.
These are only some of the texts that create a direct connection between female homoeroticism and resistance to male authority. Within this context, personal homoerotic desire may have been awakened within the context of political rhetoric, rather than necessarily the other way around.
One parallel theme that emerges from these writings is the depiction of female homoeroticism as driven by an appreciation of similarity. While authors such as Valerie Traub caution against taking this “erotic similitude” as the only theme within early modern sapphic discourse, Lanser considers it plausible that the emphasis on similarity enabled women to construct themselves as authoritative agents by recognizing that authority in other women. This is not to deny the material embodiment of the homoeroticism of these early modern texts, nor to suggest that their imagery is only metaphorical or that none of these writers were reflecting their own romantic and erotic lives. But the expression of those images and ideas could also have political purposes and consequences. And the expression of those ideas could, in turn, give women a context for recognizing and expressing their personal erotic desires. Here Lanser returns to her somewhat tongue-in-cheek proclamation at the start that “female desire changed around 1650.”
In closing, Lanser notes that the ideas she presents here were at play in the 1970s in the concepts of “political lesbianism” and “cultural feminism” as well as the (re)introduction of similitude as a model for female homoeroticism (alongside the earlier 20th century butch-femme model that invoked the concept of desire being driven by difference). Just as the dynamic interplay of lesbian discourse and feminist political action created a synergy for women’s empowerment in the later 20th century, there is evidence for that same interplay in the 17th century.