I'm experimenting with some new tech in the context of this blog. Not "new" as such, but applied in new ways. Writing up long entries like this one has traditionally meant taking notes on post-its as I read, then transcribing them into electronic format. (Plus cleaning up my typing and reviewing for sense, given that the post-its are often disjointed and repetitive.) I've been meaning to take another look at speech-to-text systems that could eliminate at least one of those processes and experimented on this entry.
To cut a long exploration of speech-to-text options short, the most efficient (and reasonably accurate) method I have currently available is the voice notes feature on my iPhone. It only deals with relatively short passages, but has an audible signal so I can start a new note. And it syncs the notes with the laptop automatically. There are a few issues I need to work on (like not reflexively straining my voice when what I want to do is enunciate very clearly) but it saves me a lot of keystrokes, which is becoming more and more desirable on arthritis days. *sigh*
The second experiment was to try "taking notes" from my reading directly by dictation. This requires the same sort of mental realignment as when I started dictating fiction. I could actually hear my brain creaking and grinding its gears. But there isn't anything inherently less natural in reading something and describing it verbally than there is in describing it in writing. So I'll keep trying. I suspect it will be easier when transforming highlighted article pdfs into text, but it'll be a while before I get back to those.
In the last two days I've also plunged into the project of setting up the new podcast account and starting to upload the legacy episodes. I'll blog about that separately at some point. It's being both easier than I was afraid it would be and more complex. It helps that I've given myself enough time and space to work on it before the official podcast changeover.
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part III. The Politics of Intimacy - Chapter 5: Female Intimacy and he Problem of Female Communities: Salons, Satire, and the Mystery of the Précieuses
Discussions like this one remind me of the cyclical and complex interaction of male hostility to women's "unavailability" (or simply disinterest in them) and resulting accusations of lesbianism. When these cycles then interact with the polarized attitudes of historians toward female homosexuality (whether negative or positive or simply inordinately skeptical), it makes even explicit historical data about lesbianism tricky to relate to the experiences and desires of actual historic women.
Turning from how Phillips was sanitized of any suggestion of sexual impropriety Wahl now turns to how women-centered institutions, whether salons, schools, theaters, and on to less voluntary spaces like convents and brothels, became sexualized in the libertine imagination.
The idea of women in gender-segregated institutions engaging in sex was well established from the medieval period on. Convents had rules to try to discourage opportunities for it. But the reformation introduced the idea of the convent as an especially repressed and unnatural environment in which not only f/f sex but perverse practices could flourish. This theme plays out in works like Marvell’s Upon Appleton Houseand Diderot’s La Religieuseand Barrin’s Vénus dans le Cloître. The theme of women being removed from the marriage economy in a physical and social sense extended to removing them from heterosexuality in a psychological context.
Educational institutions didn’t come in for religiously-driven concerns (though in France convent schools were a significant venue for girls’ education in this era) but education manuals included coded language about girls not being left to themselves too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” Given that schools of this era were overwhelmingly single sex, concerns about student sexual activity blurred the issues of masturbation and homosexuality.
While the convent and school offered the excuse of lack of access to male partners, another female-centered institution where female intimacy became a concern was the brothel, under the guise of experienced prostitutes initiating girls into sex as part of their training. See for example Cleland’s novel Fanny Hillwhere some of the prostitutes (though not his protagonist) are depicted as having a preference for f/f sex. 18th century pornographic prostitute narratives depict a culture of bisexual genital-focused sex acts in which the gender of one’s partner is almost irrelevant. [Note: it should be emphasized that these belonged to a fictionalized literary genre written by men.]
Across the 18th century, as the cult of the “proper” domestic woman developed as modest and passionless, her counterpart also became more defined: the libertine woman--whether overtly in the field of sex work, in the demimonde of actresses, artists, and courtesans, or among the aristocracy. Among the accusations leveled at aristocratic women by philosophers of bourgeois morals was that their sexual license included sex with women, and this was viewed as both a symptom and driver of moral decay. 17th century affairs such as that between the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and Madame du Vigean were seen as scandalous, but uncommon and not fatal to one social reputation.
This attitude gave way by a century later to lurid pamphlets attacking Marie Antoinette and her circle, including elaborations on the supposed decadent lesbian sex club called the Anandrine Society. Other literary depictions of libertine f/f sex included mentions of Mademoiselle Rancourt in Diderot’s Correspondences literaires philosophiques et critiquesand novels such as Mémoires Secretsand L’Espion Angloisthough these focused more on actresses.
In England, names that came into mention include actress Mary Anne Yates and aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer. the gossip diarist Hester Thrale provides plentiful examples of how wide-spread rumors of lesbian activity could be in the late 18th century. Any kind of sex not linked to the marriage-based reproductive economy was seen not only as a moral threat but as a political and social threat as well.
But if these overtly sexualized contexts were being seen as a threat to social order, what were attitudes toward more idealized or utopian forms of female community? For that Wahl steps back to look at the origins and context of these idealized communities.
While the French salon was a vibrant context for women’s friendships it was not a homosocial space, unlike the formal male academies it existed in parallel with. But the salons were de facto ruled by women, which made them suspect as a focus of resistance to the patriarchal absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, as well as those male academies. Male criticism and satire of the salons focused on the précieucesas pretentious reformers of French language and morals, who despised marriage for suspicious reasons (and not because of the unequal burden it placed on women). One of those suspicious reasons was same-sex desire. To call someone a précieuse shifted from acknowledging a culture of wit and refinement to a satirical stereotype exaggerated mannerisms, secret codes, and a female cabal that indulged in f/f sex -- “a third species of person.” By the end of the 17th century, the précieuses--which by then was no longer a self identification--were seen as a subversive secret society and a symbol of the hazards of women becoming involved in politics.
Communities of literary women in the first half of the 17th century begin exploring concepts of female heroism or woman-centered societies, as a response to their role in ongoing political disruptions in both France and England, and as a means of maintaining friendships and alliances during those disruptions. The exiled royalist women around Henrietta Maria in France found inspiration among the salons for their own writing which--though coded as focused on love and romance--offered a context for political allegory.
French women didn’t stick to allegory. In this era, women were prominent in the civil conflict known as the Fronde, and the backlash against them became a weapon against women’s direct involvement in politics in general under Louis XIV. The women themselves had seen their actions as part of a tradition of Amazons, but after their fall the image of the Amazon became a negative trope, not only in political contexts but in any type of public intellectual activity.
Shut out of direct political participation, these are the women who formed the core of the salons. They were also behind the rise of the historical novel. In these “private” spheres they could exert the influence forbidden them in public institutions. Historic novels could comment allegorically on current politics in a deniable way, and the rules for salon discourse that forbade direct discussion of politics as “not polite” protected all the participants from direct reprisal, even as they offered a context for the discussion of subversive or progressive ideals.
The historical novel also enabled the creation of fictional worlds into which the female-centered world of the salon could be reflected, as in the Sappho interlude in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou Le Grand Cyrus.Scudéry’s use of Sappho not only as a fictional character but as a nom de plume comes at a time when new translations of Sappho’s work were casting doubt on the “abandoned heterosexual Sappho” of Ovid and returning to the image of the great poet.
Scudéry did not directly engage with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but in identifying with the poet, her own f/f friendships could be aligned with Sappho’s. Her fictional Sappho rejects the idea of marriage as tyranny and forms part of an inseparable group of friends, one especially with whom she exchanges professions of perfect love. The novel’s male narrator is never given entrance to Sappho’s circle, and deflect criticisms of her circle without showing the reader the substance of their relations (and thus what Scudéry envisioned as the nature of their friendship). The layers of representation and commentary obscure the exact correspondences of Scudéry to her fictional namesake’s life.
Wahl continues with a detailed analysis of this work and the history of scholarly analysis of it. [Note: This is one of those passages that I suspect originated as an independent article.]
Scudéry’s Sappho eventually retreats into a utopian woman-centered society of Amazons, perhaps an allegory for the salon. The rejection of a conventional marriage plot resolution for Sappho marks a new option for a female protagonist, and the association of women’s literary traditions with sapphic utopias.
In some ways, the political disruption of the Fronde resulted in a shift in women’s writing in France from political discourse to literary forms like the novel or the secret history. With novels that did not conform to the standard marriage plot, these women defined a new understanding of the desires and aspirations of women both before and after marriage. If women couldn’t have a direct political influence, they could influence women’s ambitions in terms of personal freedom for education and an identity outside of marriage, or even the ability to refuse marriage (or at least to refuse a second marriage).
These woman also aspired to an ideal of “honest friendship” that redefined relations between the sexes in a more egalitarian way. This might be realizable only in a utopian “pastorale” context but it offered new visions and interpretations, as in D’Urfe’s pastoral romanceL’Astrée, in which women were idealized as having the ability to discipline carnal desires in favor of neo-platonic friendship and love.
But even as this Platonic ideal was developed, there was a reaction of skepticism that viewed both chastity and marriage resistance as a false prudery--an--implausible contradiction to the idea that all desirable women should be sexually available to men. The libertine point of view saw relations between the sexes is inescapably physical and sexual. This also led them to doubt the alleged innocence of intimate relations between women, viewing them as the inevitable outcome of the inherent sexual voracity of women.
Male reactions to women’s writing always created a hostile environment for women’s self-definition, but the superficial rejection of physical desire creates a dubious impression that early modern women’s discussion of platonic romantic relations corresponded to modern understandings that preclude physical sexuality. In order to break free of the accusation that women were all inherently libertines, early modern women needed to present the appearance of modesty and chastity, only to be accused of hypocrisy on that account.
Within fiction they could create the possibility of a female protagonist who was both sincerely chaste and independent, while accepting that in every day life this might be impossible.
Although women often shared their doubts and uncertainties about the institution of marriage in private correspondence, by the mid 17th century they were increasingly reluctant to do so overtly in public writng. In return, male writers had no hesitation in accusing them of making public demands to abolish the institution of marriage, as it was understood.
By the creation of fictional proponents of extreme versions of female sexual autonomy, men could undercut the far more moderate requests that women made for the reform of marriage. These fictional exaggerations were then labeled as a representation of the précieuse. Their disavowal of passion in the context of marriage was taken as either hypocritical or unnatural in some form, such as an indication of lesbian desire. This stereotype was depicted in a number of satirical works.
Such women were depicted not merely as wanting their own freedom, but as wanting to subjugate men and to destroy establish social structures. The word cabal is frequently raised in this context.
Not all the critics of the stereotype of the précieuse were male. Some female writers may have joined in the mockery as a way of distancing themselves from an image that they felt uncomfortably close to. Though the satires claimed that there might be genuine intellectual women who sought reforms and ideals, somehow no specific women ever met the standard. Thus all women with intellectual aspirations came under scrutiny as belonging to the extremes of the stereotype.
The only way an intellectual woman had of pushing back against the charge of either hypocrisy or frigidity was to embrace the sexual desire she was accused of concealing. But this, of course, would be sexual desire for men. To resist that would result in insinuations of lesbian desire. Even historians who study the topic waver regularly between treating the polite discourse of the salonnières as indicating a general disinterest in sex, or intimating that their female friendships suggested an unconscious lesbian desire.
What is excluded from much of this analysis is the possibility that some of these women genuinely disdained sexual relations with men (whether from a general disinterest in heterosexuality, or from the negative social context it was embedded in) and that they also experienced genuine and perhaps even self-aware sexual desire for their female associates. Without the explicitly sexual writing that the précieuses specifically excluded from salon discourse, there is always room for those who disapprove of same-sex desires to claim that they didn’t exist.
Accusations of latent lesbian desire were not merely coming from modern academics but are implicit in many of the satirical critiques of intellectual women of the 17th century. But this leaves us with the question of whether these accusations being founded on animosity and utterly false, or whether the suggestions of female same-sex desire by their critics were inspired by genuine observation of the relations between female intimate friends.
History keeps coming back to a regular recurring theme that a woman who rejects the sexual advances of men must be either a prude or a lesbian. This was the socio-political context in which women of the 17th and 18th century developed close relations with each other and attempted to establish some degree of personal and intellectual autonomy. But as the 18th century progressed, a new genre emerged in women’s writing: women who wrote about same-sex desire to represent their own erotic desires, though in coded and deniable terms.
This includes writers such as Madame De Murat and Charlotte Charke and this topic constitutes the subject of the final chapter of the book.
So I'd love to say something really clever in this introduction, but it's 110F currently and my brain has melted. You'll have to wait for cooler temperatures for me to be clever.
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part II Chapter 4 - Female Intimacy and the Question of “Lesbian” Identity: Rereading the Female Friendship Poems of Katherine Philips
Stepping back from the cynical take on “tender friendship” that developed by the end of the 17th century, this chapter looks at an example of the sincere version, via a deep dive into the life and work of English poet Katherine Philips. Half a century before Manley’s New Cabaland in contrast to Behn’s overt eroticism, Philips represents the “polite” culture of female intimacy...or does she?
“Polite” doesn’t mean her work was void of passion. Embracing the ideals of egalitarianism and mutuality, her poems -- and even more, her correspondence -- is subtly charged with eroticism, couched in the courtly language hat the precieuseswere mocked for.
Philips was also ambitious as a writer, rather than shying away from the notoriety of being a woman writing publicly. At the same time, she was sheltered by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman. She challenges easy categorization as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for f/f friendship in general, and the context of her life indicates she valued the bonds as strongly or more so than her marriage.
Known by her poetic nickname “the matchless Orinda” her public legacy faltered between 1710 when the last complete edition of her poems came out, and 1905 when her work came back into publication. More modern scholars have battled over whether to claim her as a proto-lesbian poet or to reject associating her with lesbian sensibility, either as a calumny or because she is viewed as insufficiently explicit to have earned the title. But newer studies of her writings that examine them within their proper chronological context reveal an interplay with shifting attitudes toward f/f friendship.
Philips began writing at an early age and was a supporter of the exiled future Charles II, although the political content of her poetry was often coded in symbolism. Her poetic work served more to maintain a social network of royalist sympathizers, focusing more on bonds of personal intimacy than political purpose. Her royalist sympathies are at odds with her early upbringing among Puritan and Parliamentarian households. She was married at 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. [Note: Wikipedia has a reference that suggests newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. But either is plausible in the context of the time.] What might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded her from the consequences of her personal connections, and she in turn as able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.
The Restoration saw the start of her wider literary reputation as a translator of plays, though this was cut short by her death by smallpox at age 31. Her poems had been circulated privately in manuscript during her lifetime but were only published in any form shortly before her death.
The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.
The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her f/f friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.
The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at he clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.
There is more discussion of critical interpretations of her work, this time from feminist scholars who also wanted to divert accusations of lesbianism. Pretty much everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such, but if people wouldn’t have recognized it as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional raise the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.
Wahl winds up this discussion by suggesting that Philips ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in the language that appeals to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian” poet in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. IN response t some queer historians referring to Philips as “closeted”, Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze.
Philips and her associates were unlikely to have access to the more explicit imported literature that raised awareness of female homoerotic possibilities in England in the later 17th century. That wave began shortly after her death and certainly hadn’t happened yet when she was writing her most passionate poems in the 1650s. The “open secret” of lesbianism came to England after her time, if just barely. Therefore it only makes sense to consider her work and life in terms of popular understanding while she was still alive and writing.
Philips operated in an earlier literary tradition of manuscripts in private circulation and fanciful pastoral pseudonyms. (Hence, she was Orinda, and two of her intimate female friends were Rosania and Lucasia. Her husband was also assigned a nickname.) While the era had access to motifs like female transvestites and hermaphrodites, they were likely to envision f/f desire in the context of romances and Traub’s “femme-femme desire”.
Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. But her work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating and maintaining f/f bonds. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. Her correspondence shows her regular efforts to travel apart from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career.
Royalist allegiances defined her friendships during the interregnum, but politics was expressed in courtly language in her work, with some more overt exceptions. Some have suggested that the poetic persona of Orinda was created ot separate her public/married self from her private/literary self. But she shifts regularly between coded language and declared transparency of sentiment.
The poem “To my Lucasia” expresses this conflict, reaching for an idealized vision but pessimistic about its attainment. True friendship can only be achieved by lowering one’s expectations. Contradictions and contrasts also come out between work on abstract friendship, which emphasizes mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. (Though it must be kept in mind that Anne Owen/Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may have affected the nature of their friendship.)
In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Phlips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, culminating in imagery of wave overflowing that some have interpreted as orgasmic metaphor.
There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems.
The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited was the precieuseculture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century. These were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. (And not, as some have suggested, that the fact of her marriage meant that her ideals of friendship were false or hypocritical.) Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those relations.
When comparing f/f friendship to heterosexual relations, Philip derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.
Part of Philips’ strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her f/f relationships as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on m/f friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate f/f friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her request for validation as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips--considered extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.
In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.
Philips’ insistence on the “innocence” and “purity” of f/f friendship does raise the suspicion that she protested over-much -- that she did have anxieties that her relationships might be viewed as morally or sexually suspect. Her poetic request for a “declared” friendship--a public recognition--shows this uneasiness as does the addressee’s apparent reluctance to perform such a declaration.
The final break with Lucasia/Owen came when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange a marriage for the widowed Owen with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes.
After the change in her relations with Owen, Philips’ rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected.
But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women. (After the breakup with Lucasia/Owen, Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship.)
The conclusion of this chapter looks at how Philips was converted from a complex three-dimensional human being into the iconic “Matchless Orinda” for posterity.
While there is some agreement on finding “lesbian sensibility” in Philips’ poetry, to identify Philips herself as a “lesbian” in the modern sense is to ignore the social context of her times. The 17th century saw no conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognize. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way.
Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her f/f friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for.
What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her (and their) marriage, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.
[Note: It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.]
Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her friendship poems, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the last century. Her most anthologized works focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. The arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative, including an initial poem on the occasion of her husband’s extended absence which left her imaginatively free to begin constructing her own intellectual and emotional community with other royalist women.
The collection then tracks her successive friendships with Regina Collier, Mary Aubrey (Rosania), and Anne Owen (Lucasia), each fragmenting on the question of marriage and separation. After the break with Owen, her work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. It was these that found general circulation in the period after her death and before her obscurity.
The posthumous 1664 edition of her poems focused on a royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to become a stand-in for the absent Charles II, but this interpretation becomes incoherent after the Restoration.
If this was how her poetry was understood and treated in her own day, does that mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”?
The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing.
[Note: This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.]
Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho as being argued to be an essentially masculine figure more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of f/f erotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry, e.g., of Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 50a - On the Shelf for September 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/09/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2020.
LHMP Goes Independent
There are some significant changes coming for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. As of January, we’re leaving the nest at the TLT podcast group and going independent.
At this time, I’d like to thank Sheena, the founder of TLT and continuing head of The Lesbian Review, for encouraging me to start this show and giving me an easy ramp-up process at the start that overcame my anxiety about learning curves. I can honestly say that it’s unlikely I would have started the podcast without having the supportive environment of TLT as a place to do it. When Sheena and I began discussing the logistics of me going independent, it was an entirely positive decision on both sides.
What does this move mean for my listeners? In order to make the transition easier, for the last couple months of this year I’ll be releasing episodes in parallel both through TLT and through the new LHMP channel. Don’t worry, you’ll get regular reminders to switch your subscription, if you listen through one of the podcast apps. Wouldn’t want you to miss a show!
And what about the existing four years worth of programming? I’m re-mastering the shows as “legacy episodes” with new introductions and changing the links from the website. My intent is to have all the existing material continue to be available. These re-released episodes will be numbered sequentially rather than using the complex letter-and-number format.
I’ll also be taking the opportunity to reorganize the show a bit. Rather than a weekly schedule, starting in January, I’ll be podcasting twice a month on the first and third Saturdays, plus, of course, the fifth Saturday fiction episodes as before. Each month will have an On the Shelf episode, with a slightly scaled-back version of the current topics, plus optional author interviews, book appreciation, and other publishing-related content. Then in the second half of the month, I’ll do an essay topic. This will give me more flexibility and a bit less risk of burnout. If you have strong ideas about what youwant to keep in the new, revised Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, this is an excellent time to make suggestions and provide feedback.
And, of course, on 5th Saturdays, we’ll have original fiction. I’ll be taking submissions for the 2021 series in January, so check out the Call for Submissions on the website if you’re thinking of writing something for us.
One consequence of this change is that the LHMP Patreon is going to have more of a practical function. I’ll be paying for my own hosting, rather than being included under the TLT hosting, and it would be lovely if listeners show how much they value the show by pledging enough to cover that expense. I will not be trying to monetize the show through ads--not really a practical idea anyway, since it’s pretty small potatoes in today’s podcast market. Your support, both by plugging the show and if you feel able to make a Patreon pledge, mean a lot to me.
There are a couple other minor changes. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project now has its own Twitter account @LesbianMotif so I can do a lot more promotion of the blog and podcast there without spamming my personal account too much. And having been introduced to the Discord platform for social media, I’ve set up a Discord server for fans of the LHMP and of my fiction. It will be a place to chat and ask questions in a community of like-minded people, and I hope to do some live events there as well. If you’d like an invitation, contact me through any of my usual social media, which are linked in the show notes, as always.
Publications on the Blog
The blog has finally finished posting all the articles I set up at the beginning of this year. I still have a handful of items from that last “shopping trip” to the JSTOR terminal in the UC Berkeley library, but it’s time for a change of pace.
So August covered the politics of sexuality and gender in 18-19th century Egypt, a look at the mythology of same-sex pregnancy in medieval India, a textbook on the history of pre-modern sexuality, and a sensational case of same-sex desire, obsession, and murder in late 19th century America.
In September, I’m going to start tackling four books that all look at the overlap of friendship, romance, and desire between women starting from the 17th century. These are all substantial books, so I probably won’t be doing one a week! In chronological order, they are Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women, Martha Vicinus’s Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928, and Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.
The two most obvious organizing models for women’s same-sex relations in history--though far from the only ones--are passionate friendship (in which the erotic potential of the relationship is tacitly ignored while the emotional bonds are normalized as an expected part of women’s lives) and what we might as well call the butch-femme model (in which one partner is, to some degree, viewed as performing a masculine role and the erotic potential is viewed as arising from the contrast in performative gender). Historical reality is, of course, much more complicated than two over-simplified models. But when I look over the field of sapphic historical fiction, it sometimes feels like the passionate friendship model is seriously overlooked in its plotting potential. So it will be interesting to trace the themes across the last four centuries in these in-depth studies.
At the time I’m writing this, I don’t have an author guest lined up yet this month, though I have hopes that I might pull one out of a hat.
To align with the upcoming blog theme, this months essay will return to biographical topics and look at 17th century English poet Katherine Philips. What did her contemporaries intend when they compared her to Sappho? We’ll take a look at the themes of passionate female friendship in her life and poetry.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The recent, new, and forthcoming books have picked up a bit this month. I found one August book I haven’t mentioned before, which puts an unusual twist on familiar tropes.
Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union by Nyri A. Bakkalian from Balance of Seven starts out looking like a typical American Civil War romance involving gender disguise. And then it takes a turn into time travel...
The year is 1862. Driven by a leading from the Spirit, Chloë Parker Stanton leaves the woman she loves to enlist in the Union Army and fight for abolition in war as she has in the streets of Philadelphia. At home, her lover, Leigh Hunter, eagerly awaits Chloë’s letters, anxious to hear of her survival without discovery, for women are not allowed to wear the Union blue. Three days after Gettysburg comes the news: the Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry has survived, but Chloë Stanton is missing, presumed dead. The year is 2020. Sergeant First Class Leigh Hunter came of age during her seventeen-year stint in uniform. Since childhood, she’d been drawn to the Army in search of something, all the while fighting her inner truth as a trans woman. After her final combat tour, Leigh left the military a decorated combat veteran and finally transitioned. She was quickly recruited by the Joint Temporal Integrity Commission: a new, secretive government agency tasked with intercepting temporal refugees and integrating them into present-day society. Two years after joining the JTIC, Leigh is entrusted with a special assignment: personal custody of a Pennsylvania cavalry soldier from three days after Gettysburg. Her name: Chloë Parker Stanton. Grey Dawn is a tale of war, abolition, union, and women who forge ties that carry them from one life into the next. When the grey dawn breaks on a new era and a new cause, who can you trust to fight beside you?
The first two September books fall comfortably in the lesfic romance genre, starting with the erotic romance Barbed Wire, self-published by Erin Wade.
Set in West Texas where cattle & oil were king and men were masters of their fate. A woman didn't have a chance of making it in the straight shooting, fast riding, hard drinking world of the Texas cowboy or did she? A novel about a love so forbidden it wasn't even whispered. A heroine so unlikely she wasn't believed. This novel scorches the Texas badlands and runs over hearts like a herd of Texas Longhorns.
We also have the second book in Luci Dreamer’s self-published Heart series: Heart Sings. The cover copy rather assumes that you’re familiar with the first book in the series, which regular listeners are, because Luci came onto the show to talk about it.
What happens when someone from Thomas' past threatens her and her family's future? When the Millers begin a new chapter in their lives, not even a year in the harsh environment of the Klondike could have prepared them for the types of obstacles they’ll face. Thomas and Rachel will need to rely on their bond like never before to overcome the threat neither saw coming. Will they be strong enough to weather the storm? And can they trust each other to make the right decisions for their family, even if it will end in heartbreak?
The Testimony of Alys Twist by Suzannah Dunn from Little, Brown Books is something of a surprise: a book with sapphic themes from an established historical novelist at a major publisher. This is definitely going to go onto my “hope I find time to read this” list. Hmm, that is, it goes on my list when it gets a US release. Looks like it’s only UK and Commonwealth to start with. Hope I still remember I want it when it’s available.
1553: deeply-divided England rejoices as the rightful heir, Mary Tudor, sweeps to power on a tide of populist goodwill. But the people should have been careful what they wished for: Mary's mission is to turn back time to an England of old. Within weeks there is widespread rebellion in favour of her heir, her half-sister, princess Elizabeth, who is everything that Mary isn't. From now on, Elizabeth will have to use her considerable guile just to stay alive. Orphan Alys Twist has come a long way - further than she ever dared hope - to work as a laundress at the royal Wardrobe. There she meets Bel, daughter of the Queen's tailor, and seems to have arrived at her own happy ending. But in a world where appearance is everything, a laundress is in a unique position to see the truth of people's lives, and Alys is pressed into service as a spy in the errant princess's household. Alys herself, though, is hardly whiter than white, and when the princess is arrested she must make a dangerous choice.
Rose Tremain is another established and award-winning British novelist who has included sapphic themes in her newest novel, Islands of Mercy, from Chatto Windus.
She was ‘The Angel of the Baths’, the one woman whose touch everybody yearned for. Yet she would do more. She was certain of that. In the city of Bath, in the year 1865, an extraordinary young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced that some other destiny will one day show itself to her. But when she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair with a female lover and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires begin to lead her towards a future she had never imagined. Meanwhile, on the wild island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes relentlessly undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and by the invasive power of the forest itself. Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours become locked together as the story journeys across the globe – from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.
Deesha Philyaw’s short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, from West Virginia University Press tells stories of how religious conflict and hypocrisy affect the lives of African American women, including at least a couple of queer characters.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church's double standards and their own needs and passions.
Testimony by Paula Martinac from Bywater Books tackles the volatile and hazardous world of mid-20th century academia.
In rural Virginia in 1958, history professor Gen Rider has just secured tenure at Baines College, a private school for white women. With two strikes against her―she’s a woman in a men’s field, and she’s a race traitor who teaches “Negro history”―Gen has accomplished the near-impossible and should be celebrating. Instead, she’s mourning the break-up of a long-distance relationship with another woman―a romance she has tightly guarded, even from her straight female mentor. Danger hits close to home when a nearby men’s college uncovers a “homosexual circle” involving its faculty, staff, and students. Suspicion spreads across the two campuses, threatening Gen and her friend Fenton, the gay theater director at Baines. When a neighbor spies Gen kissing a woman in her own home, hearings into moral turpitude at the college catch her in a McCarthy-like web. With both her private life and her teaching methods under scrutiny, Gen faces an agonizing choice: Which does she value more, her career or her right to privacy?
What Am I Reading?
I sometimes think I should skip the coda where I talk about what I’m reading because my reading slump is getting more and more embarrassing. Though I have started a beat-the-heat program of spending evenings out back in my hammock reading a real physical book: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration England.
I’ve also ventured into some audiobooks, both fiction and non, and finished Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, about a boarding school for children cast out of the portal fantasy worlds they found a home in. It isn’t historic but it’s definitely queer.
Here’s hoping, once again, that I’ll get my reading groove back again by next month.
Links and Notes
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I apologize for the length of this blog (which is why I'm posting it by itself rather than doing all of Part 2 of the book in one go), as well as for some of the repetitiveness (which reflects repetitiveness in the book). Written in haste during my coffee break...
Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
Part II - Chapter 3 - L’Amour Galant and Tendre Amitié: Love and Friendship Outside the Bonds of Marriage
Somewhere in the space between scribbling notes on post-its and the translation of them into text for this blog, I have made peace with the use of abbreviations like "f/f" and "f/m". I resisted for quite a while because f/f still carries with it an implication of a specific type of fiction--and a somwhat weaker implication of eroticism. But when I'm scribbling on post-its, writing "f/f" rather than "female same-sex" or "female homosocial" is a big savings. And as I transcribed those notes, I've been getting more and more comfortable with using it as a shorthand in but write-ups themselves. So when I use this sort of abreviation going forward, I don't meant to add a specific implication of sexual relations, but to allow for that possibility along with other interpretations.
There are several interesting themes that come up in this chapter: contortions to deny lesbian possibilities (whether by modern scholars or by historical societies), the cyclicity of the motif of "loss of innocence with regard to women's same-sex friendships", the use of women as symbolic icons of purity, morality, and national character. None of these cycles as discussed in the 17-18th century remained fixed. If they had, they wouldn't have needed to be re-established in the 19th century and later.
Chapter 3 - L’Amour Galantand Tendre Amitié: Love and Friendship Outside the Bonds of Marriage
Libertinism was not the only context in which women pushed back against their sole role being objects of exchange in the marriage economy. In France, upper class ambivalence (by both sexes) toward marriage is illuminated by “galanterie” (roughly similar to “courtly love” in the sense of a culture of extramarital social and sexual relationships). Marriage was viewed as unbearable bondage in contrast to the ideals of friendship, which were based on free association.
English society showed less open disdain for marriage, but had the same conflicts between the economic and emotional dynamics. In England, gender segregation was a barrier to the ideal of “companionate marriage”, which posited emotional as well as economic bonds. Companionate marriage expected the abandoning of networks of same-sex friendships in favor of a focus on the spouse. Those friendships included familial, political, and business connections and were expected to involve strong emotional bonds as well as common interests. Gender segregation before marriage (and assumptions that m/f relationships were inherently erotic) meant that friendships were overwhelmingly same-sex. But formal discourse around the concept of friendship treated it as male-gendered -- as something women were not able to access in its purest form. Patterns of work and leisure tended to reinforce gender segregation after marriage, especially in the middle class.
In France, the stronger continued prevalence of arranged marriage for family advancement led to a more pervasive extra-marital social life. (Not necessarily in the sexual sense of “extra-marital”.) The nobility treated marriage as irrelevant to the organization of private life. The court and salon offered a chance for women to form bonds of “amitié” (amity, friendship) with both men and women. Those who felt vulnerable to sexual gossip might stick to female friendships. The bonds of amitiébetween women offered a chance for self-definition outside the strict categories of virgin, wife, and widow.
Within this context, the theme of a pastoral retreat from the world (whether actual or via imagery) became popular. Pastoral themes represented a setting apart of a conceptual space in which emotional ideals had free rein. While male philosophers argued that women’s souls were too weak for the weight of friendship, the women simply went about the business of creating passionate friendships and networks based on emotional bonds, such as Katherine Philips’ “Society of Friendship”.
Companionate marriage may have been more a theory than a practice. While same-sex friendships were viewed as an acceptable part of “polite society”, Wahl argues that discourse around the topic often worked to distract from a less acceptable political or sexual subtext. F/f friendship was framed in platonic terms, but to contrast with the inherent sexualization of m/f relations. Women were portrayed in didactic literature as “instinctively modest” but it was a modesty that evidently required constant reinforcement and warnings about the consequences of failure. Libertine writers treated women’s platonic friendships as masking ambition and vanity, with lesbianism included as a substitute when men were not accessible, the “polite” literature of f/f friendships have an underlayer of erotic and political potential that cannot be entirely erased -- specifically due to an awareness of libertine framings. Although late in the scope o this book, the ambivalent discourse around the Ladies of Llangollen illustrate this point.
Women participated extensively in the polite discourse of f/f friendship and--unlike male writers--had to negotiate the accusations of “immodesty” in writing publicly at all (on this or any subject). The idealization and rituals of friendship offered an escape from the sexualization of public writing, regardless of the nature of those friendships.
The concept of “companionate marriage” was developed by historians who considered it to represent a shift in, and resolution of, the conflict over the ideals of egalitarian friendship and the traditional gender hierarchy in marriage. But this has been challenged as being based on a specifically English change in women’s ability to have choice in marriage partners (or to avoid marriage entirely). It is less clear that companionate marriage as a concept actively benefitted women within marriage in the ways it was intended to benefit men. The discourse around affection within marriage was largely focused on men’s needs and desires. And it is far from clear that companionate marriage existed in widespread practice as opposed to being promoted in Protestant ideology.
If men were admonished to look within marriage for their sexual satisfaction, women were expected to supply companionship, sexual pleasure, and domestic labor, as well as submissive obedience. At the same time, these male-authored prescriptions for the ideal marriage often lament that ideal as unattainable.
The English Civil War brought social upheavals of all types, and these challenges to existing marriage ideals were often viewed as representing the extreme and radical edges of Protestantism, lumped alongside calls for divorce, polygamy, and free love--calls that, at heart, were about managing men’s sexual freedom.
Even the tentative moves toward marriage reform under the English Interregnum were swept back into the domestic sphere with the Restoration and the rise of a misogynist libertine code that viewed women as sexual objects. Libertine literature portrayed marriage as a source of misery and confinement (for men).
Meanwhile, changes to agricultural and home-based industry were pushing women out of the market economy, reinforcing the belief that women required marriage for economic viability. Marriage became women’s primary employment. Reforms under the Marriage Act of 1753 had the intent of regularizing practices to prevent secret marriages, bigamy, and de facto divorces, though the reforms had the side effect of eliminating some practices that benefitted women (such as those de facto divorces, but also the occasional f/f marriage that had the barest cover of gender disguise). The Marriage Act require parental consent to underage marriage, required that marriages be performed by an Anglican clergyman (with limited religious exemptions) in a church, either with prior announcement (bans) or by a special license. Overall, these changes strengthened parental and state control over marriage.
Some women intellectuals echoed the libertine distaste for marriage, but from the view that it turned women into little more than servants or slaves. They extolled the joys of being an unmarried woman, despite social censure that they were failing to fulfill women’s “purpose”, i.e., procreation.
Aristocratic women were, in some cases, more able to avoid marriage, but even as they did, accusations began circulating that (older) women who urged (younger) women to remain single and choose female friendships instead were acting from seductive ulterior motives in wooing them away from a normative life path. This theme is made overt in e.g., the novel Pamela.
Within the narrow economic opportunities for unmarried English gentlewomen in the 18th century, the position of “paid companion” was one option. [Note: On this, Wahl references Rizzo 1994, which I will be covering next.] But in the 18th century, female critiques of marriage shifted more from public to private writings, to rise again at the end of the 18th century from authors such as Wollstonecraft.
By the mid 18th century, English women’s fates had become more closely bound to marriage than before. [Note: I wish Wahl had thrown in some demographic statistics here, which are often in conflict with the themes in public discourse.] There was a cultural emphasis on providing a “moral and emotional center of the home.” Within this context, women’s education was viewed as a means of making her a more interesting companion for her husband, not for her own intellectual development. The nascent image of companionate marriage as mutuality shifted sideways into the “separate spheres” ideal, with the domestic realm gendered as female.
France never really went in for companionate marriage as a concept until well into the 18th century. In the mid 18th century, upper class writers still found the English ideal of a husband and wife voluntarily enjoying each other’s company to be somewhat absurd. When the idea of “married love” finally did take hold in France, some viewed it specifically as an English import. The church was, peculiarly, another source of antagonism to companionate marriage in France. Women were taught to view marriage as a duty and penance, and men were warned against too great a tenderness for their wives, lest it lead them to illicit sexual practices in order to spare their wives from unwanted pregnancies.
But the greater prevalence of arranged marriages of alliance in France was the greatest bar to viewing spouses as companions. This was not only due to personal attraction playing no role in the arrangements, but to the view that one’s chief loyalty should be toward one’s birth family, not towards a spouse.
On a personal level, women might disfavor marriage for spiritual reasons or from fear of the risks of pregnancy. Women writing fiction often gave their heroines the ability to refuse marriage in ways they themselves couldn’t access. [Note: this is the era of the “salon fairy tales”, which were often thinly disguised satires on upper class French marriage dynamics.] When upper class women had the ability to resist marriage (or remarriage, in the case of widows), they might do so, describing it as slavery and oppression. [Note: “slavery” was not entirely hyperbole here. Class did not exempt women from being physically, sexually, and psychologically abused even to the point of murder by husbands who were considered to be legally within their rights to do so.]
As in England, control over marriage began to shift from the church to the state and to increasing parental control, attacking the issues of clandestine marriages and marriage by abduction. But women were de facto more disadvantaged by these changes than men were. Preserving control over the transmission of inheritance was a major motivation.
One genre of women’s writing in the late 17th century were biographical novels detailing abuses within marriage, in part as a counter to the popular view of non-compliant wives as “notorious women” who were bent on the destruction of family reputations. Instead they portrayed wives in impossible situations trying to find some escape or mitigation.
Driven by all these factors, the resulting upper class disdain for marital relations was later used in Revolutionary propaganda as evidence of libertinism and decadence.
Companionate marriage had more fertile ground among the French middle class, though middle class marriages were just as likely to be arranged for economic reasons. Philosophers began to promote the ideal of “happiness in marriage” but primarily for the husband. The wife’s role was to create that happiness for him. Even those texts that purported to support women did so in a framework that promoted an ideal of domestic fulfillment within the roles of wife and mother.
At the same time, if women’s satisfaction withinmarriage was argued to come from the rearing of children, then obviously the purpose of women as a whole was to marry for that purpose. This was dressed up in the language of philosophy as being “the order of nature.” Women were intended for the production and care of children which, if done correctly, should occupy all their time and attention, leaving no space for other types of personal fulfillment.
This philosophy offered a new attack on the aristocracy, who had an established culture of handing children over to wet-nurses and nursery staff. Within the new ideal of domesticity, aristocratic mothers were “unnatural” as also evidenced by the culture of adultery and sexual license (galanterie).
Aristocratic women were attacked for their relative social autonomy (in the sense of freely associating with men not their husbands, or hanging out with female friends rather than attending to their children). They were especially criticized for a lack of “proper” maternal feelings. Underlying much of this preoccupation with motherhood was a fear of depopulation. There was a genuine anxiety that women had few rational reasons to choose marriage and motherhood if they had alternatives. They must be coaxed and bullied into choosing procreation by framing it as the only “natural” and acceptable life path.
Companionate marriage held out the illusion of greater freedom for women in relations with their husbands, but at the cost of institutionalizing political and social inequities under the rubric that women were “naturally not fitted” for public life and the exercise of authority. Only a few truly radical voices suggested that hierarchical power within marriage was unnecessary and undesirable. Not until the Revolution were significant reforms made to French marriage law, lowering the age of consent, forbidding parents to disinherit children who married against their wishes, and allowing for civil divorce.
The last was short-lived, as were many of the more radical calls for gender equality in the Revolutionary era. As the Directoire consolidated power, it found the more conservative, patriarchal version of marriage better aligned with its purposes. The prescribed duties of husband/father and wife/mother were fixed to the new ideals of the citizen. Napoleonic law was, if anything, more repressive to women in marriage than what had gone before. Revolutionary calls for women’s equality were stamped out and ridiculed.
Though both England and France had embraced the ideology of companionate marriage, by the end of the 18th century they both had large gaps between theory and practice. The role of “ideal companion” was gendered female, and women were burdened with responsibility for upholding and becoming symbols of civic order and moral purity.
An American angle on the discourse around companionate marriage sees the advocacy of the ideal as a reaction to women’s sexual and economic independence there, with f/f bonds representing the feared alternatives to marriage.
Women found a space for autonomy outside marriage and the family in homosocial networks of intellectual and affective bonds. These could provide women with the companionship that companionate marriage had promised to men only.
In 17th century France, and only slightly later in England, women began appropriating the classical tradition of amicitia(friendship) for themselves, in despite of men claiming it as male territory. Male writers had long elevated m/m friendship as an ideal not possible within the necessarily unequal realm of marriage. Now women claimed this experience as well. Male dismissal of the possibility of f/f friendship sometimes took the form of explicitly mocking it in homoerotic terms, as in the poetry of Pontus de Tyard and Edmund Waller. [Note: A number of the poems discussed in Wahl are included in my podcast on 16-17th c poetry. https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-25d...
A major proponent of the culture of female tendre amitiéwas Queen Henrietta Maria, King Charles I’s French queen. [Note: the book doesn’t really expand on this reference at this point, but Henrietta Maria is strongly associated with the precieusemovement discussed later, as well as being a conduit for bringing French social concepts to the English court circle.]
Given men’s satirical and cynical response to f/f friendships, one could argue that they were a more radical challenge to misogyny than concepts like companionate marriage had been. Rather than women seeking equality within m/f relationships, they created separatist female spaces, at least conceptually, in which men were irrelevant. Some traditions of the performance of f/f friendships were borrowed from male neo-Platonic traditions, but others were invented on their own. Not that women consciously set out to create a female-specific version of friendship, but it was shaped by the social dynamics they were forced to operate in.
The cultural constraints on women’s behavior and expression both shaped how they would perform friendship and created different types of opportunities for claiming cultural visibility for those friendships. Within a culture that typically defined women solely in terms of their relationships to men, it was a radical act to work past their assigned cultural roles and function autonomously in the world and with respect to each other.
Women re-shaped the concept of friendship to include attributes like “tenderness” (tendre amitié) and to emphasize emotional bonds (even when framing them as rational and intellectual), thus creating a space in which intimate f/f relations could be eroticized. Tendre amitiécame to designate both ideals previously coded as masculine and practices coded as feminine, such as fragility, delicacy, and sensibility.
Largely barred from the formal academy, the women created a culture of analyzing “questions of the heart” in an echo back to medieval courts of love. Within these debates, though ostensibly centered on the proper conduct of m/f relations, there was a through-line that homosocial amitiéhad logical advantages over the more risky galanterie(and that easily beat out the hypothetical virtues of marriage).
Friendship between women allowed free and honest expression without damage to reputation or being subject to social inequality. The prevailing culture of misogyny and gender hierarchy created a counter-reaction of suspicion that f/f friendships would always give way to heterosexual passion (whether marriage or adultery). Entire genres of (male-focused) literature emerged to demonstrate this supposed inevitability. As men were “superior” creatures, it was assumed that their attractions would always prevail over those of women.
To counter this in turn, salon culture constructed an ideology that prioritized intellectual and spiritual bonds over physical passion and the bodily demands of reproduction. Turning to a Cartesian mind/body duality, salon ideology emphasized the mind as a gender-free zone (as well as explicitly establishing a class-free zone, at least with respect to the leading male intellectuals of the day).
[Note: What can be contradictory here is that these discourses defaulted to assuming carnality to be heterosexual. Although homoerotic possibilities between women eventually made their way into the salon dynamic, they were not part of the basisfor debates and conversations. So even as women expressed sentiments to each other in passionate and bodily terms, this was not at first considered to be in conflict with the emphasis on rationality. But, as Wahl goes on to discuss, this “mind-only” focus could easily be interpreted as asexual or prudish rather than as anti-heterosexual. And when interpreted that way, the contrast with women’s observable passionate expressions could be re-categorized either as hypocrisy or as covert lesbianism.]
Women created a physical space for these discourses within the home, often within a bedchamber (which was more of a public space at the time than in modern understanding) where guests of both sexes would be invited into a private space, turning it into a female version of the “public sphere”, but one in which the female host acted as an autonomous public figure, not as wife or mother.
The salons were also separate from the formal ritual of the court, and so could promote a culture of equality that crossed class as well as gender lines. In addition to the social performance of the salon itself, salon culture revolved around the writing of verse, stories, and letters, largely in private circulation among friend-networks, rather than for publication.
[Note: the socio-political background of the French salons is a massive topic in itself and goes some way to explaining their emergence. See e.g., Bodek 1976 https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-295-bodek-1976-salonieres-and-bluestockings, but a great book on this topic that doesn’t intersect the LHMP enough to blog is Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation(2005).]
One of the aspects of cultural practice that female friends needed to invent was a rhetoric of intimacy -- an established vocabulary for expressing and describing f/f relations that set it apart from the sexually charged vocabulary of galanterie. There were few models in traditional literature for women as speaking, desiring subjects. This meant that when women did express same-sex desire, there was no cultural context for interpreting it neutrally. The options were to de-sexualize it (“they’re just friends playing with imagery they don’t understand”) or to hypersexualize it (the voyeuristic libertine approach).
An example of such an expression is Anne de Rohan’s poem “On a lady called beloved” [Note: see the aforementioned poetry podcast https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-25d... in which the conventions of love poetry are explicitly framing a female author and a female beloved. Historically, there have been contorted efforts to deny the erotic import of works like this in the absence of incontrovertible “proof” of genital relations. An impossible standard of proof has regularly been used to exclude eroticism from expressions of f/f desire. This technique of analytic denial is cataloged in its methods in Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet.
While this dismissive technique of impossible proof belongs to modern scholars, the contemporaries of these expressions of f/f friendship dismissed them from a misogynistic point of view. Women’s co-opting of the language of platonic friendship was “extravagant” or “sentimental”. Women of admirable intellect should disdain friendship with “lesser creatures” (women) in favor of associations with men. Since women were incapable of “true” friendship, such expressions must be merely conventional or hypocritical attempts at flattery.
The rhetorical focus on connections of the intellect or soul, in contrast to amour, has led to historians ascribing a form of prudery to female proponents of platonic friendship. While their writings do depict distrust of m/f passion, the rationale expressed within them points to a practical fear of the consequences of gender inequity, rather than a distaste for physical intimacy as such. These consequences could taint even intellectual relations between men and women with a hint of scandal (for the woman). Women might depict utopian heterosocial and heterosexual relations in their fiction, but they had no hope of realizing them in real life.
The coded language of the salons was not only a matter of protecting personal reputation from scandal, but due to the complexities of French court life. The salons were, in some ways, set up as a counter-culture to the court, but also needed to resist being co-opted for political purposes. The efforts of the salonnières to soften the often crude performances of galanteriecould result in accusations of false prudery and a secret female code of poetic euphemism. This gave rise to the nickname précieuses(precious ones).
In private writings, as opposed to the semi-public heterosocial space of the salon, women expressed a sense of freedom from the need to engage in these games -- to be honest and open with each other rather than the witty verbal sparring needed to maintain appearances within the mixed-gender salon culture. Female friendships were idealized as egalitarian and mutual. The women write of longing to spend time with their friends, of the pain of absence, of the ability to share secrets without fear of censure.
The surviving correspondence of Madeleine de Scudéry and Catherine Descartes serves as an example of the dynamics of such friendships, and of how women were always negotiating the line between eros and amicitia, while blurring the edges. These two spoke of how intellectual passions could be as strong as erotic ones, and dangerous only when directed toward men. In exploring the topic of love and intimacy, they slip into expressing (and gently deflecting) desire for the other’s love in passionate terms. Scudéry side-steps Descartes’ hints at a declaration of love by turning the conversation back to theory and their correspondence settles into exchanges of poetry and more of a mentor/student dynamic. They frame what they feel as love, but “heroic love” not “vulgar love”. And then Descartes addresses Scudéry as Sappho and says that the love she feels for her is not less painful than the heterosexual love she has successfully avoided. She adapts Sappho’s verses and directs them at Scudéry, reversing the identification and evoking the homoeroticism of the original. [Wahl continues with some extended analysis of the context and content of the poetry they exchange.]
But at the time Scudéry and Descartes were exchanging this correspondence, an anti-feminist backlash was already satirizing the ideals of female intimacy and blending that satire with the “open secret” of f/f erotic potential.
This movement can be exemplified by Delariviere Manley’s The New Cabal[Note: Once again, I have a podcast on that. https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-30d... which explicitly used the vocabulary of tendre amitiéas a code for a fictional lesbian sex club, in barely disguised commentary on members of the English court, especially prominent women with influence in the court of Queen Anne. Rumors and satires abounded about the queen’s relationships with Sarah Churchill, Abigail Masham, and other close confidantes. [Note: And yet again, I have a podcast on that.https://www.alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-29d... Politics drove the hostility, but rumors of lesbianism were the weapon. In Anne’s female friendships she pursued the illusion of egalitarian and mutual tendre amitiéwhich floundered on her need, as queen, to be dominant. Historians, as usual, have argued that the homoerotic implications in the correspondence of these women was literary convention and excess, echoing motifs of the time that viewed the rhetoric of tendre amitiéas a French import to England that brought sexualized understandings of female intimacy in its wake.
Intense f/f friendships were no longer given the benefit of the doubt regarding erotic possibilities. It was now easy to undermine ideals of f/f friendship with the implication of lesbianism. Wahl goes into a detailed discussion of the content of The New Cabal.
The theme of the book has now come full circle back to “libertine” sexual knowledge, rehearsing all the fears about what women do together when free of relationships with men.
As noted in Monday's blog, I'm giong to post the sections of this work on a somewhat irregular schedule as I finish them. The writeups are too long for a single post, but I don't want this series of four books to drag out for months on end. So I won't quite complete one book per week. Maybe one every two weeks.
It's fascinating to see French and English sexual culture laid out in parallel so deliberately (and not simply because they're the cultures the author had available sources on). Given how closely connected these two traditional rivals were, the contrasts in social and sexual dynamics shed useful light on the diversity of sexual cultures even within a narrow scope. For an author of historical fiction, these contrasts can be extremely useful. Have your characters interact with people from a neighboring culture whose differences give you a chance to depict the attitudes of your setting and protagonists. Have them travel and encounter new ideas. Have them read books or letters that broaden their minds (or for them to disagree with!). Have your English women react with both shock and envy at the apparent social freedom of French ladies. Have your French characters find community among other women whose marriages offer them no sense of companionship or affection. Build up a slow burn with long affectionate letters of amitié.
Part 1: Sexualized Models of Female Intimacy
Chapter 1: The Tribade, the Hermaphrodite, and Other “Lesbian” Figures in Medical and Legal Discourse
John Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” demonstrates how the image of sexual relations between women was contained by treating it as autoerotic (i.e., because it is based on similarity, the women in essence love themselves) and barren, while also safely locating women’s same-sex desire in the past. But works like this are part of a growing cultural awareness of female homosexuality. There is an increase in prosecutions of women for sodomy in France and elsewhere on the continent, alongside translations of classical sources mentioning tribadism, medical interest in the clitoris, concern with regulating non-procreative sex (especially masturbation), and the emergency of pornography as a literature, especially featuring sex between women.
These movements contradict the oft-cited presumption that sex between women was rarely represented before the 19th century. There is a wealth of representation in law, classics, medical, libertine, and erotic pseudoscientific texts, all of which fed into the new genre of pornography. French sources were particularly rich in these themes.
The idea that women could satisfy their erotic desires without men (which meant without pregnancy or risk of venereal disease) provoked anxiety for the institution of marriage and reproduction. This linkage of f/f sex with fears of marriage resistance and avoidance of reproduction began to link feminism with accusations of anti-maternalism.
France had, perhaps, the longest tradition of legal prosecution of f/f sex, though early laws confusingly transfer male-specific language to their discussion of female sodomy. Both the language of laws and the prescribed punishments were often worded in ways that obscured the exact nature of the acts being punished. Wahl mentions the medieval story of Yde and Olive as an example of anxiety about “what women do”. [Note: This seems a bit out of place in the timeline, but she’s recapitulating the entire French history of legal attitudes toward female sodomy.] French legal cases in the mid 16th to mid 17th century often revolve around gender disguise or suspicions of physiological hermaphroditism, which were interpreted under the definition of sodomy.
But the legal premise [as it had evolved by this date] that sodomy required penetration conflicted with the libertine position that female couples could not have satisfying sex because penetration was not involved. This may have contributed to the rising popular image of the “phallic clitoris” as well as a fascination with dildoes. These created a sexual transgression that was worthy of condemnation.
England stands apart in its absence of legal references to female homosexuality and a lack of prosecutions for it. One can find, in fact, a deliberate omission of f/f possibilities in statutes adapted from texts on both homosexuality and bestiality, where the originals treated men and women as potentially equally participating in both, but the English adaptation mentions women only with regard to bestiality. Various opinions are noted for this relative lack of legal interest in women’s same-sex activities. But England was also, in practice, more tolerant of m/m relations in this era, and in both cases tended to displace the image of homosexuality onto foreign cultures, locations, and individuals.
Legal discourse began to lean on medical “expert witness” to guide questions of gender/sexuality. French cases are cited where medical examination “saved” women from punishment for female sodomy by supposedly demonstrating that they were hermaphrodites.
There was a growing concern about a link between anatomy and f/f sex. In this context, a new theory arose that f/f sex and female masturbation could causeclitoral enlargement, not simply be enabled by it. This was linked to an Arabic tradition of medical writings that associated the clitoris with excess of female desire. The source of these texts then created an association of enlarged clitorises with Arabic, Egyptian, and African women and introduced the idea of treatment by clitoridectomy (though this “treatment” did not become an established European practice until later).
If f/f sex could create “masculine” anatomy that then enabled penetrative sex, then maybe it wasn’t quite so “barren” after all. When tribadism could be viewed as nothing more than mutual masturbation, it wasn’t dangerous to heterosexual institutions, but if it could replace the penis, that was another matter. This shift in imagery also created the idea that the effects of f/f sex were inevitably “visible” on the body. The idea of clitoral hypertrophy entered English texts in the 17th century but wasn’t accompanied by any call to create penalties against its supposed use. English texts often othered the phenomenon entirely and claimed that English women didn’t exhibit it. [Note: This may have been a consequence of English authors engaging in scientific observation and failing to identify actual examples, while still presenting foreign descriptions as fact.]
But with the influx of French culture at the restoration of the English monarchy, the idea of f/f desire as an “open secret” took hold in England. During this same era, the image of the hermaphrodite expanded from an anatomical concept to an allegorical one, representing the dissolution of gender boundaries and becoming an icon of sexual deviance. [Note: My reading has suggested that the metaphorical hermaphrodite arose as an image in England in the early 17th century, if not earlier, and was well established by the Restoration.]
Medical interest in both “normal” and “deviant” anatomy became a cover for prurient interests, and the boundary between medical texts and pornography became fuzzy. Another culturally relevant feature of these medical texts is that they increasingly appeared in the vernacular language, providing a wider reach into (literate) society. Focus on the clitoris came to replace the idea of the hermaphrodite as a representation of anxiety about lesbianism. If the clitoris gave all women the ability to satisfy themselves and each other, what of men?
The theory that stimulation caused enlargement of the clitoris turned attention to masturbation in general. 18th century texts encouraged schoolmistresses to keep an eye out for the practice among students. Such texts both denied that masturbation was common among women and spread the knowledge of its possibility. This is only one example of the generally contradictory nature of the genre.
Semi-pornographic “confession” letters about masturbation (and f/f sex, though the distinction was not always clear) tied sexual knowledge to the practice of reading, as well as well as to cross-class relationships. The framing of such activities as “masturbation” diverted attention from the homosexual nature of the context.
In the mid 18th century in England there was a rise of “female husband” stories. Images of female homosexuality expanded to include passing women and the demimonde of actresses and prostitutes. The idea of the clitoral tribade was split off to form an idea of monstrosity apart from everyday social experience.
Chapter 2 - Representations of the Tribade in Libertine Literature
In parallel with medical interest in the hermaphrodite and tribade, French libertine literature and “gallant” literature “rediscovered” the tribade via classical sources and Italian pornographic literature. Meanwhile, in England, poets such as John Donne and Ben Jonson used the images of the tribade or fricatrice in satire and erotic writing. Playwright and poet Aphra Behn used the idea of the hermaphrodite to explore f/f desire. These uses are not new, but expand on images of f/f desire in Renaissance and classical literature.
One can find several organizing themes within these literary representations, especially viewing f/f desire as a passing developmental stage that gives way to heterosexuality, or as a consequence of gender play or gender disguise, or as a mythological motif. Homoeroticism could be found in plays, romances, and poetry, with both men and women depicted as enjoying desire for both sexes.
Homoerotic themes on the stage are well studied. Wahl looks instead at the specific genre of libertine writings, that focus on explicitly erotic representations and use the tribade as a “scandalous” and transgressive figure. The authors are primarily male, with Aphra Behn being the notable exception in writing openly of f/f desire and interrogating the misogyny and gender constraints that her contemporaries were swimming in.
French libertine writers presented themselves as direct observers/reporters and took at least the appearance of a moral stance, following the tone of the medical literature. They set themselves u as judges of “natural” law to identify those who broke it. Historians often treat this genre either as erotic fantasies or as defamatory gossip while accepting the “amused tolerance” of their stance as sincere. Thus, these historians consider libertine writings on f/f desire to demonstrate its insignificance and inconsequentiality. Wahl argues for seeing a more complex reaction that reveals the men’s desires and fears around f/f sex.
Several specific texts are examined, starting with Brantôme, who pretty much catalogs the libertine views of female sexuality. He combines classical literary examples with contemporary anecdotes, depicting f/f sex simultaneously as a rediscovery of classical practices and as a foreign import from Italy. He adopts a geographic polarity: southern cultures are more passionate, northern ones less adventurous. But sexual knowledge could be transmitted between them like a disease. [Note: Of course, in turn, when English writers tackled the “transmission” theory of f/f sex, they saw France as the source of infection.]
Brantôme raises the question of whether f/f sex constitutes adultery. (A great deal of his work focuses on extramarital sex in general, in line with gallantculture.) He primarily presents f/f sex as a preferred alternative to adultery with men, but also alleges that it can be a symptom or a cause of uncontrolled desire in general. But then he sidesteps the implications of this by focusing on f/f sex as an outlet for virgins and widows, whose activities wouldn’t challenge the institution of marriage.
F/f sex is ok “in the absence of men”, but even depicting it as a “safe” outlet undermines the assertion that f/f sex can’t compete with m/f sex. He repeatedly fails to integrate the idea that f/f desire inevitably gives way to m/f relationships with the actual anecdotes he presents in which women are deeply devoted to each other.
Brantôme echoes Italian erotic literature in depicting f/f sex as an “apprenticeship” to unrestrained sex with men, linking tribades and prostitutes via voyeuristic anecdotes in which his descriptions focus on a male observer. Woven throughout Brantôme’s anecdotes are the message that women will be punished for their same-sex acts, not by an external justice, but as an inevitable “natural” consequence. Dildoes cause fatal injury, discovery brings humiliation.
Brantôme’s terminology for f/f sex is slippery. Though terms like “tribade” and “fricatrice” are used, they don’t clearly align with specific practices he describes and may be used allegorically in ways that remove actual women’s sexuality from the picture. We also see this in the poems by Donne, Woodward, and Jonson in which the female image of the Muse introduces the same-sex element. These (male) English poets, while using lesbian imagery, are not clearly speaking of f/f sex at all. [Note: And yet, even the use of lesbian imagery in a figurative sense reflects or creates an awareness of the possibilities in life.]
Wahl addresses two assumptions to contradict them: that female homosexuality was not an “available category” in early modern England, and that the few clear examples of f/f sex stand apart from other forms of transgressive sexuality. She specifically challenges Alan Bray’s assertion that female and male homosexuality were not linked in the early modern imagination.
She notes Traub’s contrast between “tribade sexuality” involving some degree of masculine performance, and “femme” desire, that had no physical signifier (whether in dress, in the use of a dildo, or in being marked on the body via the clitoris). “Femme” modes were easier to view as compatible with a normative life path ending in reproductive sexuality. Traub’s polarities are blurred in Donne’s poem “Sapho to Philaenis” and in Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda”. These two works also bookend a period of relative tolerance for f/f sex, prior to the rise of satirical takes in the early 18th century. [Note: Given the relative paucity of material, I’m not sure how solidly one can speak of a “period of relative tolerance” when it also included things like Jonson’s attack on Cecelia Bulstrode.]
Donne envisions an “innocent” self-loving relationship between Sapho and Philaenis that explicitly contrasts with m/f sex as “leaving a mark”. The imagery is utopian. Behn blurs the polarities by envisioning a gender-fluid Clarinda who leans “masculine” when actively pursuing desire of a female beloved, while being viewed as a safely “innocent” target of a woman’s affection. The poem praises Clarinda in alternately male and female terms: female beauty, but male-coded behavior. She is desirable to both men and women because she is both male and female. Behn’s use of a plural subject as the observer intimates that all women might be drawn to Clarinda, and that they may remain innocent in that love as they love a woman, not a man.
[Note: It occurs to me that part of the “is lesbianism dangerous” dilemma for writers in this era boils down to a dual meaning of “inconsequence”. If f/f sex is inconsequential/unimportant then it isn’t a challenge to reproductive sex, but becausef/f sex is free of “consequence” whether pregnancy, venereal disease, or simply being categorized as adultery, it has inherent advantages over f/m sex. I think this is one of the things Wahl is arguing, but I wanted to restate it in my own words to fix it in my head.]
Behn’s references in the Clarinda poem to Chloris/Alexis (stock pastoral figures) and Hermes/Aphrodite raise the image of the hermaphroditic hybrid who can be lover to either sex while belonging to neither. But Behn can’t escape the cultural framing that views desire for a woman (or active sexual desire in general) as inherently masculine, while framing f/f relations as “innocent” and “friendship” as opposed to passion.
French libertine poets offer another angle on f/f love but one that fits securely with the assumption of ultimate m/f triumph. F/f bonds are defined within a conventional romance dynamic, but designed for a male audience. F/f love is not to be consummated, it is self imposed suffering, it falls short of “the real thing”. They do wrong to refuse themselves to men. But within this context, f/f love is depicted as tender, egalitarian, and bewildering to men.
The themes of an almost sympathetic tolerance of f/f love and an insistence on heterosexual conversion come to a point in the dramatic and poetic works of Benserade. Written for a libertine audience (both male and female) he ventures to depict happy f/f relations, as in Iphis and Ianthe (though only Iphis is consciously aware of the same-sex aspect), while still promising a heterosexual resolution. (The couple is allowed a happy wedding night as women, but Iphis’s sex-change is still required to make the marriage itself possible.)
Benserade also wrote about losing a female lover to another woman and this work sharply depicts the limits of male sympathy within the complex reasons why he finds the desertion offensive. He could bear losing his lover to a man, but is miffed that a woman’s love could be strong enough to steal her away. He consoles himself that his lover will inevitably be abandoned in turn for a man. He asserts that women are incomplete without a man and therefore two incomplete things can’t achieve completion together. [Note: In the male-authored texts comparing f/f and f/m love, one can see the underpinnings of a major motif in modern biphobia: that a woman who is capable of desiring both women and men will inevitably, at some point, choose men over women. Within the time-scope of Wahl’s study, this isn’t a question of “men can offer marriage and women can’t” because the entire debate concerns gallantrelations apart from marriage.]
In summary, these representations of f/f sexuality illustrate an increasing awareness of the potential for sexual and erotic relations between women, with a consequent concern for policing non-reproductive sexuality, represented in the form of the clitoris. Yet within this context, there are glimpses of the ability to imagine f/f love in utopian terms, even if “invisible”. The conflict is between visibility and consequent male anxiety on the one side, and invisibility and hence inconsequentialness on the other.
Having finished up the long list of journal articles acquired in my last trip to the JSTOR terminal at the U.C. Berkeley library, back in the Before Times, rather than continue my original plan to read some more theory oriented books, I've lined up four books generally on the theme of the intersection between friendship and desire in the last four centuries. (Primarily, as usual, focusing on England/France and a bit of the USA in the later part of the scope.)
Wahl's book is the first of these, looking at two contrasting models of intimate relations between women in 17th and 18th century England and France. The direct comparison of the two cultures is useful because looking at either one in isolation during this period would present a false impression, and yet they were in close communication and influenced each other immensely.
I'm taking the book in several chunks, but may post more frequently than my usual weekly schedule. I'm feeling like I'm finally coming out of my quarantine slump, but don't want to trap myself into too ambitious a commitment yet.
The word “intimacy” is chosen for the focus of this book deliberately for its ambiguity of meaning. It reflects both openness within relationships and privacy protecting those relationships. “Intimacy” can both indicate close friendship and be a euphemism for sex. Wahl looks at the late 17th through 18th centuries in England and France to untangle the meanings of “female intimacy”, originally intrigued by the correspondence between Denis Diderot (author of La Religieuse) and Sophie Volland, whose “intimacy” with other women provoked jealousy in Diderot and veiled hints of sexual impropriety. Diderot never directly accused Volland of having sex with women, but spoke of her “liking pretty women” and of her friend’s “voluptuous and loving” actions.
At a time when men thought women incapable of “true friendship”, how were relations between women viewed? What motivations and purpose were they thought to have? While using the language of love, were they in fact homoerotic?
Wahl is not looking for “lesbian” representation as such, but looking more broadly for dynamics that are inclusive of homosexuality. She follows Foucault, while recognizing his deficiencies with regard to women’s erasure. In the review of theory, Laqueur’s one-sex to two-sex theory is noted.
The creation, in the 18th century, of the middle class “domestic woman” relates to the rise of bourgeois power. But this focus marginalizes anything outside the middle class heterosexual norm. This era saw a conflict between philosophies that viewed women and men as essentially similar, or as fundamentally different. But the focus on differences between the sexes can erase equally important differences among women.
Wahl discusses the meaning of lesbian (in)visibility (cf. Terry Castle) and takes as a starting position that lesbian sex has existed across time, culture, and class, but that specific practices are shaped by culture and era. She rejects a sharp distinction between “sexual behavior” and “erotic but non-sexual behavior”, which is often used in order to narrow and contain the scope of what may be called “lesbian” (critiquing Faderman on this point). The distinction between “romantic friendship” and “lesbian” is treated as artificial and meaningless.
Wahl avoids speaking in terms of “identity” or “choice” in sexuality but argues for a fluid, variable and contradictory model of sexual experience. In this era, we see the image--both for men and women--of a person who enjoys relationships with both sexes simultaneously with no conflict, who sees them as complementary and distinct experiences.
The author notes that transgressive categories like “hermaphrodite” and cross-dressing/gender-disguise figures can identify points of cultureal anxiety, but chooses to focus on Traub’s “fem-fem” dynamic in this book. Wahl treats marriage, not as identical to heterosexuality and inherently excluding homoerotic bonds, but as alignedwith heterosexuality and with reproductive sexuality. Female intimacy can act within or across heterosexual institutions independently of them.
The book will use two reference models as a lens: “sexualized” and “idealized”. These are used to examine not only women’s lives but societies fantasies about their lives.
17-18th century ideas about female intimacy are shaped by a contest between the one-sex and two-sex models. Are women “lesser men” or are they something entirely separate from men? There is a parallel contrast between viewing fem-fem love as a “harmless life stage” that all women might experience, to seeing women’s same-sex desire as a force equal to or stronger than male-female desire.
The “idealized” model of female intimacy is linked to the rising image of domesticity, companionate marriage, and a focus on woman as mother rather than as wife. Women’s friendship shifted to filling a place formerly held by family networks. Even the “companionate marriage” ideal--which in theory held that a husband and wife should be equal (or at least complementary) companions in marriage--strengthened female friendships, as it tended to result in women being companions to their husbands without women receiving the same companionate support in return. Instead, women turned to each other for companionship and support. They worked to create ideal models of friendship and rejected the misogynistic position of the male tradition of platonic friendship which held that women were incapable of “true friendship”. As these efforts adopted the language of courtly love, they produced homoerotic overtones that some historians reject (as mere convention) and others seize upon (as reflecting genuine emotions). Poet Katherine Philips serves as a lens for this .
The erotic and idealized models of female intimacy played out in the same woman-centered social spheres: convents, schools, salons. As this conflict played out, commentary on female intimacy became increasingly satiric, projecting anxieties about the irrelevance of men onto an exaggeratedly decadent elite, in order to elevate middle-class domestic femininity. The reasonable ideals of female equality in the Age of Enlightenment were rejected by male philosophers as the extreme result of the excesses of female intimacy.
Wahl notes the problem that the “sexualized” model is based almost entirely on men’s writings, creating problems for interpretation. The book will conclude with the political uses of sexualized female intimacy to target “aristocratic decadence” in general.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 49e - Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink by Jeannelle M. Ferreira - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/08/29 - listen here)
There are so many joys I’ve gotten from the fiction series on this podcast. The joy of being someone’s first professional sale. The joy of providing a venue for an ongoing series. The joy coaxing a new story out of an author while waiting impatiently for her next novel.
Today’s story was written by Jeanelle M. Ferreira who writes queer historical romance and sometimes poetry. In 2020, her work will appear in Climbing Lightly Through Forests, an anthology tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin (edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, from Aqueduct Press). She notes that she is beyond thrilled to take part in the Lesbian Historical Motif Podcast Fiction project, and not just because the world needs more historical Jewish lesbians. She is also finishing the sequel to 2018’s The Covert Captain and deeply regrets buying that melodica for her spouse and child. Find her on Twitter @jeannellewrites, particularly if you have thoughts on late Georgian coaching inns and post roads.
Our narrator today is Violet Dixon, who is sheltering in place from Covid-19 outside Philadelphia with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats. When not Zoom coaching or social distancing in the recording booth, she is an award-winning stage director. She has previously done author narration for lesbian novels such as KC Luck’s Darknessseries and Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink
Jeannelle M. Ferreira
Oy, dayne eygelekh vi di shvartse karshelekh / Un dayne lipelekh vi roseve papir / Un dayne fingerlekh vi tint un vi feder / Oy, shraybn zolstu ofte briv tsu mir.
Oh, your eyes like black cherries
And your lips like rosy paper
And your fingers like pen and ink
Oh, that you might write often to me.
Tr. Sonya Taaffe, 2006
It was almost too late in the spring for coltsfoot. Her back ached from bending, her hands hurt from twisting stems, and she had gone further into the forest than she meant. The river laughed, just ahead of her sight; the sun had sunk behind.
A feldsher’sdaughter would never grow tall, nor carry the muscle of a day’s work in the rye, but she could take care of herself; besides, she was nothing much to look at and thirty-six. A double blessing, if only she worked out what the blessing was. Meantime she held her hair off her neck, for a moment’s coolness, brushed her hands clean, and was not afraid of the woods.
An arm was round her waist from behind, a light hand at her throat, and Malke found herself held and bent like a reed.
“You shouldn’t go so far. You never know who might be out here.”
“The worst people,” she replied, and turned to face Hanie Apteyker.
She was pale and clever-mouthed, cut narrower than most of the boys she taught and taller than Malke by head and shoulders. She looked elegant in a hat and kapote two hundred years out of fashion, her hands were always ink-speckled, and Malke felt a sweet ridiculous fondness every time she —
“Hanie, no.” Malke got a good look at her. “Not again.”
“Never mind it.” Hanie pushed her wrist over her wrecked cheekbone carelessly as if she flicked off a fly. She was still wearing the clothes she taught in, walked in, and the men who came through Koshany in the Czar’s uniform would have seen not Hanie, but Heskel, a thin enough bone to pick and not quite worn-down enough to be worth ignoring.
“Never mind an eye like that!” Malke grit her teeth. “Did you fight back?”
“Of course I — not much!”
“Love, what did they want from you?”
“They seemed upset I wouldn’t let go my book.” Hanie shrugged. “But I never learned to speak fluent idiot, so what do I know?”
One of Hanie’s peyeshad been cut off, with a slow knife or a dull one. She looked a little lopsided, a little ragged, and Malke felt fear-dryness in her own throat. “Just give them what they want next time, please, please.”
“I couldn’t. Not this one. Read it,” said Hanie, and held out a plain cloth-covered book, not larger than her hand.
“You know I can’t!”
“You can. That’s just the point.”
It was printed in Yiddish. “Sefer ha-Yashar,” Malke read. “M, D, X, C—” With the Latin alphabet she was much slower, and could not have sounded these letters into any word at all.
“So old — and in Yiddish! It must have been written for a woman.” The light was fading, the tall grass and the river never silent, but Malke felt as though the two of them were standing in some long-ago woman’s room, with books of her own and time to read them, time to think in her own language.
“Or by a woman. By — someone like me.” A half-grin, shy, made it past Hanie’s bruises. “I wanted to show it to you, before I sell it.”
“You could make your name from this!”
“I have a name.” Hanie-clothed-as-Heskel shrugged. “I’d like other things more. I’d like to get us out of here, before —”
“Us,” echoed Malke. “You work too much, and you study too long, and your girl never sees you.”
“You should be my wife.”
“If I could, if I could! What’s your plan, scholar?” There was no one here with them but the river; this was where they had always come, with secrets the village could not hold and plans so wide only a river could believe them.
“This.” Hanie tapped the book where it lay tucked inside her shirt. “I’m taking it to Odessa.” Odessa, she said, as if it were not saying into hell oronto the moon.
“You walking there? Walk me home. I’m starving.”
Hanie put one of Malke’s clean aprons on without tying it. There was a potato for each of them and one for the pan, a little schmaltz, but no bread, and Malke would not let her walk three streets to the baker’s back door in the dark. She took her time brushing the worst of the mud from Hanie’s jacket, while the room grew warm and the food began to smell worth eating, but there was nothing to be done for the trouser knees or the hat.
That Heskel the teacher boarded most often at Nathan the feldsher’s house, even now there was a stone on Nathan’s grave and his son’s, the village knew; all of Koshany knew everyone’s everything, but they had needed someone underpaid to teach cheder.
They needed a feldsher, too, and a midwife. It was a slim thread of power only — a younger rabbi might have shouted her down, a less fond father married her off — but it gave Malke these two rooms, and money sometimes. She stitched cuts, broke fevers, held babies away from Lilith, and when Hanie Apteyker had come back to the feldsher’s house wearing the road-dust of Kiev and a pair of trousers, Malke got Koshany’s silence in return.
“Malkeleh, what? You’re staring.”
Malke looked at her, the beaten-white of her linen, the blossom-white of her shoulder; her dark brows a worried question, her cropped hair and its lone front curl. “I want to paint you.”
“No, I, no.” Hanie shook her head. “In America, Malka sheyne, let me buy you all the colors in the world, but here — paint your roots and leaves, please.”
“We’re four hundred rubles from America.” Malke, nettled, ducked past Hanie’s reach.
“It’s too much risk. What if someone saw it, what if they see —”
Malke snorted. She took down her herbal from the room’s one high shelf, its weight falling familiar onto her chest, and she let it open across the table, over the tin plates and the salt dish. The book’s pages crackled with water-wear and long use; dried buds and bracken sifted onto the tablecloth. There were leaves and roots painted in it, every plant Malke had picked or distilled or put down in tincture, the undersketches thick at first and then, years and pages passing, clean and fine. Her father’s handwriting and then her own, better script, for a cough, for bone-setting, for wanting something one could not have, for getting something one should not want.
In the margins, there were pictures — Koshany’s fences and livestock, in broad strokes with ink; little pencil drawings of faces and houses. Nothing to spend color on, only a village aging with the artist who observed it.
The sketch of a young girl by the study house, half a minute’s work except for her plaits, long and careful, inked black. A corner some pages later and the same girl in it, a sack on one shoulder and a book in her opposite hand. Ten pages, twelve pages, a year of young Malke’s work slipped past, and here and now Hanie’s arm had gone round her waist. Drawn in quick as glances, the girl with black braids in the women’s gallery, in the market square, wearing some boy’s stolen hat.
More than half through the book, her father’s lettering long vanished, Malke found it.
An entire, costly page had been given to one subject, ink and charcoal to catch darkness or light, with touches of burnt umber for eyes and brows, alizarin fading at the lips.
“It’s me.” Hanie sounded young, as if she had lent her voice to that girl in the portrait. “You saw — me.”
“I remembered you. You were already gone. I think it was another year before you learned to post a letter.” Malke shrugged. “I don’t think oil and canvas will compound my sins, I’m saying.”
She woke the next morning in Hanie’s arms, very romantic but for the cover of a book shoving her in the ribs. Hanie’s questions were still in her head, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you ask me not to go? As if the girl Malke had been could ever have given words to her own heart.
Hanie was reading, two more volumes were in the bed with them, and sometime near dawn she had been outdoors: her boots on the floor, too close to Malke’s rag-rug, were covered in wet grass.
“Bought bread,” she said, then cleared her throat. “Persuaded. Persuaded Moshe about some bread.”
“Where’s toast, then?”
“I was researching.” Hanie opened her embrace to indicate the little, plain-bound book between them. The Sefer ha-Yashar was heavy, for something so small, and it did not fall open as easily as it should for a book so very old. Malke was resolute in her skepticism, for all a good feldsher stayed just aside of magic, but there was something —
“Toast,” she said, absolutely firmly, and made her feet touch the floor.
Breakfast took no time at all, even with the last scrape of jam chased from the jar; there were no dishes, and there was only one road out of the village. It was a clear morning, no clouds, no damp, nothing to slow a person well used to walking. Hanie sat on the table’s edge, badly-dented cap in one hand. She had always been the kind to read five books before speaking one word, but she seemed to wait now for some permission Malke scarcely knew how to give.
“You can’t go to Odessa dressed like the milkman.” Malke lifted the floorboard beneath which everything of value — paints, sketchbook, fifty rubles and her father’s own herbal — was hidden, and pulled up something squared and soft, kept from the earth’s touch by oilcloth and a layer of plain linen tucked through with white mint and thyme.
It was a young man’s suit, a sharp Warsaw suit, maybe only five years old; it had pinstripes, jet buttons, a wing-collar shirt. It was wool so fine Malke’s fingertips, as she held the morning coat out to Hanie, didn’t catch on the weave.
“I couldn’t, I don’t dare.”
“Shmuel doesn’t want it. He didn’t when he was alive, either, don’t make that face. Auntie Eva made it over from our cousin, and it pinched.”
Hanie, who had walked out of Koshany fifteen years before in a Romani shawl and plaits, stood in the big room of the feldsher’s cottage and looked like a city boy who had lost a tavern fight. Malke’s voice was a wet sound on stones, all over again, her eyes were prickling and her hands twisted tight in her skirts and fifteen years wasn’t time enough for some things to change: she said something useless as spent coals.
“Oy, your boots. Well, maybe even in Odessa no one walks in their shul shoes.”
“Wait.” With the case-knife she kept sharp enough for foxglove stems, Malke cut Hanie’s remaining peyes. Hanie put up one hand to the shorn spot, as if she’d been hurt; Malke, with the dark curl kept safe between thumb and palm, wanted to kiss her.
“It suits you,” she said first, bravely.
She thought she might never sleep again. The rain was a drum on the roof thatch, the wind was full of women’s voices, and the feldsher’s house smelled acrid from three ointments she had let burn. There was white camphor and speedwell to start again in the morning, a spatter-mark searing at her wrist, and only a trace of Hanie’s scent left in the pillows.
The butcher’s dog was barking. Then the hatmaker’s dog, and the paper-seller’s dog two doors beyond. She was no longer used to this, to the nonsense of being a woman alone in a house; Malke pulled the quilts over her head, as if it might help, and when the knock came she lay shaking-still.
Out in the darkness, someone was fumbling the front-door latch.
“Malke! Malkeleh, are you all right?”
It was a small house, no more than four steps to the door. “God’s sake! You knock like a Cossack!”
“Wait! It’s wet! I’m wet!” Hanie, soaked and sodden down to the new split in her left boot, tried half a second to keep from Malke’s arms.
“You’re real. You can’t be real. It’s a week’s walk to Odessa. A week back.”
“Malke, hush, I didn’t go near it. I fell into the river.”
“It took you three days to fall in the river?”
“The big river,” Hanie amended, shrugging and holding on to Malke all at once. They had never kissed on the doorstep, or in a downpour, but it was the blackest hour of morning and Hanie’s mouth was warm. She laughed, too, between kisses, against Malke’s cheekbone, against her throat. “I swear I would have sent a letter, but all I’ve got in my pockets is river-water. Come inside and look, look at this.”
As they dripped and shivered, by the growing light of a fire half kicked, half coaxed to life, Hanie pulled the small, familiar book from beneath her shirt. The Sefer ha-Yashar had been half drowned in the Dniester; its plain pale cover fell by threads and drenched fragments to the floor. Hanie shook it, hard, as Malke had never seen her mistreat any book.
It did not fly apart at the spine. The pages sagged, water streamed from it, and Hanie was still holding the book as if its pasteboard was not melting away in her hands.
She faced the firelight with it, and Malke shouted.
“Pearls,” she whispered, when she could, at least not acting the fool she felt.
“Garnets. A sapphire. I don’t know the purple.” Hanie held the book out to Malke. “I know gold, when it’s heavy enough to drown me. It didn’t, Malkeleh, say something?”
“A woman’s book,” she managed. “We can’t, we can’t take these. They belong to her family.”
“Her family was three hundred years ago, in Venice. I got this off Dmitri the carter for three kopeks, and it belongs to us.”
“Off you go again, us.” Malke sniffled. Hadn’t she spent twenty minutes in the rain?
“I’ve got enough here to be married.” Hanie brushed over the sapphire, the size of her small finger’s nail. “We could leave in the morning, if we wanted. More or less. If only we dry.”
“Leave Koshany? They won’t have… there won’t be a feldsher.”
“No.” Hanie looked at Malke, looking lost, and gently took her hand. “There will be Malke Pecherska, a botanical painter in America.”
“Malke Apteyker, I thought. Did you change your name in that river?”
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One of the advantages of having broad scholarly interests is the chance to see patterns recur across otherwise-unrelated fields. Duggan--in studying the turn of the 20th century--identifies that as a crucial turning point for lesbian identity. Those who study the mid-20th century identify that as a crucial turning point for lesbian identity. Those studying the rise of the 19th century sexologies claim them as the crucial turning point. Randolph Trumbach specializes in the cusp of the 18-19th century and claims that as the crucial turning point for homosexual identity. Valerie Traub studies the turning of the 16-17th century and identifies is as a key context for the evolution of lesbian identity. See the pattern here?
It's a pattern familiar to other fields. There's a joke among historical linguists that the birthplace of the Indo-European language family is always the homland of the scholar studying the question. Among my friends who study the history of fashion, there's a similar observation that "the birth of fashion" occurs within a given scholar's era of expertise.
And yet, are all these scholars in error? Or are these concepts constantly evolving, hitting multiple key developments, and always in dynamic change? (Even the question of the birthplace of Indo-European is open to the counter-question of whether it had only one singular birthplace.)
It's a useful reminder that we often see most clearly the things we examine in the greatest detail.
Duggan, Lisa. 1993. “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.73-87
The introduction to this article identifies the turn of the 20th century as “a crucible of change in gender and sexual relations in the United States” and stakes a claim that the period from 1880-1920 was when the “Modern lesbian” emerged. [Note: One hears this claim about a variety of different points in the 19th and 20th centuries. So I’d withhold judgment about the accuracy of the claim.] This study focuses on the lesbian as a “desiring subject” -- a woman who considers her desire for other women to be a fundamental part of her identity. And that it was this self-identification that made the emergence of public lesbian identities and communities possible.
The precursors to this identity were the bourgeois “romantic friendship” and the working class “female husband” passing as a man. [Note: This is an oversimplification, alas, so it serves as a poor basis for theory.] The relationship of these images and how they relate to the emergence of the lesbian are obscured by a reliance on cultural representations rather than actual lives. For example, was the “mannish lesbian” a distorted antifeminist caricature? Or a strategic deliberate performance?
Anne Lister is invoked as an earlier example of a woman self-aware of her homoerotic desires and strategically deploying “mannish” traits, but she is dismissed as being isolated and not part of a “socially visible network” of such women.
The author presents her approach as studying how identities are constructed within contested narratives, especially how newspapers turned real women’s lives into fictional narratives that were, in turn, appropriated by sexologists as “case studies”, and then reclaimed by actual women as identities. Identity, she says, is the structure that gives meaning to experience. At the turn of the century, lesbian identity played a role in the public preoccupation with shifts in gender roles and the rise of psychological theories of sexuality.
Within this context, the sensational story of the murder in 1892 of 17-year-old Freda Ward by her 19-year-old female lover shows how the creation of narrative played out. One feature was how the relationship underlying the event was framed as unique, having parallels only in decadent French literature, while in fact the literature of American sexologists could product many similar case studies (not necessarily involving murder). The sensation was created, in part, by the reworking of the facts of the case in a variety of genres: fiction, folk ballads, and even a proposed play to feature Sarah Bernhardt.
Despite the murder at the center of the case, Alice was not tried as a criminal, but rather evaluated for insanity. The “medical” case, as recorded, featured Alice as having been a child whose interests were male-coded games and activities, disliking female-coded ones, while Freda was described as “typically feminine.” The two young women became lovers, though Alice was said to have the stronger attachment, and Alice proposed marriage to which Freda agreed.
They planned an elopement in which Alice would present as a man, and agreed on what names they would go by as a married couple.
During this time, Freda was courted by a man, which caused some friction between them. Freda’s older sister found their correspondence and, in collaboration with Alice’s mother, insisted that the relationship end. Alice, in despair, killed Freda (as she had promised to, if she was betrayed) because she couldn’t bear for anyone else to have her.
Although presented in the form of a medical case history, this narrative was constructed out of the testimony of family and neighbors, as well as of Alice herself. It partakes of elements from different class-specific narratives: schoolgirl “crushing” in the vein of romantic friendship, but a plan to use passing to achieve their goal, which fits more into a working class framework. As the public narrative evolved, Alice’s plan to disguise herself as a man was transformed from a strategy to an expression of masculine identity.
The motivation for the murder was depicted as a conflict between Alice’s fixation on the relationship as an established promise, while Freda in fact made and broke several engagements with men and seemed to treat Alice as only one of multiple suitors.
The third part of the narrative was the conflict between the young couple and their older female relatives. Although male relatives existed, they do not appear to have been drawn into the matter until after the murder.
Within all these frameworks, the masculine role-play was viewed and treated as a symbol of the “seriousness” of the relationship -- both from Alice’s point of view in wanting their commitment to be treated as the equivalent of a m/f romance, and from the point of view of their relatives who saw the gender role-playing as a sign that it wasn’t a harmless crush but dangerous deviance.
The coverage of the murder case led to interest in similar cases of female partners, such as actress Annie Hindle, where the press concocted stories of the jealousy she inspired in the female fans who were attracted by her male roles on the stage. Here the narratives were entirely invented and fastened onto Hindle’s name only due to her stage cross-dressing and her romantic involvement with a woman. That was enough for newspapers to force a connection with Alice Mitchell.
Multiple other examples are given of sensational newspaper stories that invoke the Mitchell-Ward case as a reference point for any female couple who came to the attention of the law, and as an argument that such relationships were likely to provoke jealous violence.
The article concludes by suggesting that the emerging “lesbian identity” may have constructed itself from an assortment of cultural motifs, similarly to how the Mitchell/Ward story blends features of different social stereotypes. And particularly that the “mannish lesbian” image was a deliberate strategy to create an identity separate from feminine society, which in turn led to the female partners of such women escaping the label of “lesbian” until as late as the mid-20th century.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 49d - Artificial Scarcity of Representation: Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana- transcript
(Originally aired 2020/08/22 - listen here)
What does representation mean when we’re looking deep into history? When the people we long to identify with had radically different understandings of the very identities we’re looking for? As I put it in an essay I wrote several years ago: who owns history? Who gets to claim specific historic figures for “their team” when the scanty evidence can validly be interpreted in more than one way? And how are those questions magnified when we’re talking about mythic or fictional creations in the first place, for whom the entire concept of “historic truth” is of questionable usefulness?
This month’s podcast theme on representations of the sexuality of the goddess Artemis or Diana is intended to poke at those questions and discuss why they can be so thorny and why we can find ourselves asking the wrong questions in the first place. After considering the question of Artemis/Diana in particular, I’m going to talk about why the creation of an “artificial scarcity” of representation bothers me more generally, and how I struggle to avoid contributing to it.
The Goddess Artemis
Both the Greek goddess Artemis and the Roman Diana have complex histories and attributes. The many versions of them share themes without having overall consistency. Artemis was a goddess of hunting, of wild beasts, and of wilderness in general. Her key attributes included virginity or chastity, expressed as a desire not to marry and more generally to resist being treated as an object of desire by men.
In many stories she is attended by a group of women who are similarly pledged to remain unmarried and who are cast out of the group if they stray. Some related this attribute to a desire for autonomy from men and a degree of power that was not available to married women in Greek society--not even goddesses. To be in a relationship to a man put him in a position of power over her, and as with Athena, this wasn’t compatible with the flavor of divinity that Artemis represented.
Some later Greek writers represented Artemis’s rejection of relations with men as a rejection of sexuality in general and placed her in opposition to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
But Artemis was not a simple, one-note divinity. Her devotion to chastity made her a natural as the protector of young girls, but she was also one of several goddesses overseeing chidbirth and midwifery--an attribute connected with the story that she was born before her twin, Apollo, and was midwife for her mother at her brother’s birth. Even as she protected women in childbirth, she was also blamed for specifically female causes of death. She had some attributes of a goddess of the moon and the underworld, mirroring Apollo’s association with the sun. Artemis has some attributes that seem borrowed from mother goddess traditions, though she was not represented as a mother goddess directly.
There are a wide variety of more local traditions and interpretations of Artemis that may reflect what were originally independent local deities with similar attributes, or where myths about an unrelated figure were transferred to her. This type of conflation of independent traditions into a unified figure--often with attempts to smooth out the inconsistencies--is called syncretism and is a key factor to keep in mind. Artemis doesn’t have a consistent, coherent story in part because she did not evolve from a single source. This syncretism also accounts for the many and conflicting variants in some of the key myths associated with her.
The story of Orion is one of those inconsistencies. The basic story is that Orion was a great hunter who became a companion of Artemis through that shared interest. Things go wrong--though there are several versions of what, why, and how--and Orion is killed. Maybe accidentally by Artemis. Maybe she’s tricked into it. Maybe he was stung to death by a scorpion. Maybe the earth goddess takes him out because he swears he’s going to hunt every animal on earth to extinction. Maybe Apollo is responsible because he’s afraid Orion will win Artemis’s heart and hand. There are a lot of different variants and they speak differently to the motif that Orion was the one man that Artemis was attracted to. None of the stories have her actually succumbing to his charms, but she does put him in the sky as a constellation, so she liked him enough for that. Sometimes the legend of Orion doesn’t involve Artemis at all. The point being that there isn’t one single story. No “true version” that trumps the others. This is a feature of classical mythology in general. The river may run to the sea, but it meanders and shifts in its course on the way, sometimes joining other rivers, sometimes splitting into a complex delta, sometimes drying up entirely or emerging from an underground course in unexpected places.
One of those story-rivers about Artemis is that she was intensely protective of her independent status with regard to men. There are any number of tales of Artemis taking revenge on men (or gods) for offences ranging from trying to rape her to accidentally viewing her bathing naked to simply challenging her status as the best hunter around. The most famous of these is the tale of Actaeon who sees her bathing--in some versions accidentally, in some, deliberately--at which Artemis turns him into a stag and he is hunted to death by his own hounds.
The story of Callisto (for which see a previous podcast) emphasizes the requirement Artemis had that her followers also remain chaste with regard to men. But the Callisto story also introduces the implication that relations between women weren’t considered to fall under the requirement for chastity. And therein lies one of the sources of ambiguity. Did Artemis’s chastity refer only to heterosexual relations or to sexuality in general? We’ll return to this question.
The Goddess Diana
The Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana had an independent origin from Artemis, but absorbed many of the Greek goddess’s attributes, making it difficult to disentangle the two. She was a patroness of rural spaces--though not so much of wilderness, a patroness of hunters and of the Moon. Like Artemis, she is considered a twin to Apollo. Another similarity is that she was dedicated to remaining virgin and was a protector of childbirth.
Later medieval traditions that associated her with witchcraft gave her a male consort and a daughter. Diana was often presented as having three distinct aspects, reflecting associations with hunting, the moon, and the underworld. In the last, she was sometimes associated with Hecate.
As with Artemis, Diana’s mythology, attributes, and worship were syncretic, incorporating material from a variety of sources--including, in her case, many of the traditions that Artemis had already attracted, making it pointless to try to define a single “true” version of Diana’s nature.
It was in this amalgamated version as Roman Diana that the goddess entered the later medieval, Renaissance, and early modern imagination, during various revivals of interest in Classical literature and imagery. She was assigned both the iconography and some of the specific mythic stories that had belonged to Artemis, including the transformation and death of Acteon and Jupiter’s seduction and rape of Callisto disguised as the goddess.
But Roman Diana also retained distinctive attributes and traditions of worship that differentiated her from simply being a mirror of Artemis. Although virginity was a key attribute of Diana, even more than Artemis she was not a deity for women only. Nor--despite the myths about men being punished for trespassing on her domain--was she depicted as being particularly hostile to men in general.
Diana left two legacies for post-Classical Europe. The worship of Diana (or of local deities conflated with Diana) continued into the early medieval period, making her a named target for Christian efforts to erase pre-Christian practices. These traditions contributed to the later association of Diana with witchcraft. But the second legacy came through the revival of classical myth and legend, both during the medieval period, and again in the Renaissance and later.
Diana’s rejecting of marriage or sexual relations with men, both for herself and her followers, was a repeating theme in the context of women’s resistance to marriage. Examples include Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” in which Emily prays to Diana to save her from marriage to either of the two men fighting over her. There are any number of other examples of Diana as an icon of marriage resistance. Shakespeare’s female characters regularly invoke Diana either when remaining chaste, as with Rosalind in As You Like Itor Hero inMuch Ado about Nothingor Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in cases where turning from a chaste life to marriage is framed as abandoning Diana’s temple, as with Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well.
Aro-Ace or Lesbian?
As I discussed in the podcast about Callisto, interpreting how Diana’s sexuality is viewed in historic literature requires some thought about the concepts of virginity and chastity. Does Artemis/Diana reject sex and romance generally, or sex and romance with men specifically? Male-dominated Neo-Platonic philosophy interpreted her sworn virginity as a renunciation of sexuality in general rather than an absence of sexual drive, but unless a text specifically addresses same-sex options, questions remain.
If we’re looking to classical, medieval and early modern sources for a clear answer to this, we won’t find one. The ways in which the goddess is represented, the words put into her mouth and the actions attributed to her, are ambiguous and contradictory.
If you consider the question from the point of view of modern sexual identities, this seems a perplexing problem. But neither the classical Artemis/Diana nor the people who used her as a character in historic literature and art were modern people with modern categories for sexual identity. Just as it makes little sense to think about classical Greek and Roman ideas about male same-sex relations in terms of modern concepts of homosexuality, it makes little sense to think about historic references to virginity or chastity in terms that treat all gender pairings as equivalent.
Within the context of classical mythology--or, indeed, much of pre-modern literature--a virgin was a woman who had not had sex with a man. That was it. Men were the only sexual partner who counted for the definition. Male-female pairings were the norm against which everything else was evaluated. Everything else was--to use a modern concept--queer. And people didn’t necessarily distinguish the specific ways in which it was queer.
This, by the way, is my answer to people who question whether aromantic or asexual people are queer-by-definition. Queerness is divergence from the expected societal norm. For as long as our societal norm defaults to expecting everyone to be alloromantic and allosexual, then diverging from that state to any degree makes you just as queer as diverging from the expectation of heterosexuality, or the expectation of being cis-gendered, or the expectation of being monosexual. This might seem like a bit of a tangent, but it touches on one of the themes underlying why people view the question of Artemis/Diana’s sexuality to be a question of ownership.
But surely there are hints and clues in the historic portrayals of Artemis/Diana that could answer the question once and for all? Just as we can identify hints and clues in the lives of historic people that enable us to identify people as homosexual or as transgender or as other identities that weren’t clearly defined back then? Well, yes, there are hints and clues, but just as for other sexuality and gender questions, the answers aren’t clear-cut. And often they aren’t clear-cut for the specific reason that people weren’t thinking in terms of those modern categories.
So let’s look at some specific data.
In the podcast about Callisto, I went through a number of examples of Diana--or her followers--being depicted as embracing same-sex love. These interpretations viewed their chastity as being an exclusion of relations with men, not romantic or sexual relations in general.
Every version of the story of Callisto is predicated on the understanding that Callisto believed that while accepting Jupiter’s sexual advances would get her kicked out of Diana’s band, accepting Diana’s sexual advances would not have the same result. Maybe Callisto is shown as being uncertain about having sex with Diana, or as welcoming it, but she definitely does not consider herself as committed to rejecting sexual relations in general. Whether it is William Warner in his poem Albion’s Englandasserting that “a maiden to a maiden might do this” or Atalanta, in Thomas Heywood’s The Golden Ageassuring Diana that “we [nymphs] are all coupled and twinned in love” these examples support the vision of a lesbian Diana. The Callisto podcast includes other literary references to a lesbian, or at least homoromantic, version of Diana, so I won’t reiterate them all.
But Artemis/Diana often appears in other contexts that don’t reference the Callisto story. And in these, we have the opportunity to see Diana being depicted as standing against sexual love in general. This sometimes occurs in contexts where she is set up as an opponent to Venus, the goddess of love, romance, and sex. But can we distinguish between Venus as promoting heterosexual love as opposed to all types of love? Only rarely, for obvious reasons, but a pertinent example is in the Thomas Lyly play Gallathea.
Gallatheais something of a typical cross-dressing play in which gender disguise results in accidental same-sex desire, but in this storyline, two young women both cross-dress, both fall in love with the other (each initially thinking she’s falling in love with a young man), and continue to maintain their love after their gender is revealed.
The play includes a rivalry between Venus and Cupid on the side of love, and Diana and her nymphs on the side of chastity. In an initial encounter between Cupid and one of Diana’s nymphs, the nymph denies any knowledge of the thing called love and, when Cupid describes the symptoms and effects of love, she calls it “a foolish thing.”
In revenge for being rejected, Cupid decides to shoot his arrows at Diana’s followers to force them to love--not to love men, but to love each other. “I will make their pains my pastimes and so confound their loves in their own sex that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities.” So in this play, it isn’t only men that the nymphs reject, but clearly the experience of love in general. Of course, we must understand that the playwright’s assumptions and prejudices are at play in treating same-sex love as an “impossibility”, but the Diana of Gallatheais clearly distinct from the Diana of The Golden Age. And both reflect what writers of the time considered compatible with the mythic Diana they had inherited.
Let us skip to the end of the play, after Diana has captured Cupid and punished him for tormenting her nymphs. Diana and Venus appeal to the judgment of Neptune regarding Cupid’s fate, but also the fate of Gallathea and Phyllida’s love for each other. The two maidens, now again presenting as women, are challenged by Diana to “leave these fond affections.” But they proclaim their continued love and devotion and when Venus is asked if she approves, she answers, “I like well and allow it. They shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that nature or fortune shall overthrow love and faith.” And though Venus’s ultimate stratagem is to turn one of them into a boy, she approves their love before making that decision.
So in this depiction, Diana and her followers are specifically depicted as aromantic in general, not loving men or women, in contrast to Venus’s support of all forms of love.
But the Gallathea story points out one of the difficulties in identifying unambiguously asexual interpretations of Diana in eras that didn’t clearly distinguish asexuality from abstinence, and that often entirely overlook the question of same-sex desire. Gallatheaprovides a clear example of asexual Diana specifically because it doesrecognize the existence of same-sex desire and weaves it into the plot conflicts.
Texts that include an overt recognition of the possibility of female same-sex erotic desire are rare, and those that include them typically have the focus on the desire itself, not on a negation of that possible desire. This makes it hard to find similar examples but there’s a passing reference in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia. Like the Callisto story, the plot involves a man disguising himself as a woman (the Amazon Zelmane) in order to gain social access to the object of his desire, Philoclea. Philoclea, completely ignorant of “Zelmane’s” true gender, gradually realizes that she has fallen in love with someone she believes to be another woman. And she realizes that what she feels is something other than friendship but more akin to what she has been told heterosexual desire is like. In adjusting to this realization, Philoclea tries on several possible resolutions to her love.
“First she would wish, that they two might live all their lives together, like two of Diana’s Nymphs. But that wish, she thought not sufficient, because she knew, there would be more Nymphs besides them, who also would have their part in Zelmane. Then would she wish, that she were her sister, that such a natural bond might make her more special to her. But against that, she considered, that though being her sister, if she happened to be married, she should be robbed of her. Then, grown bolder, she would wish either her self, or Zelmane a man, that there might succeed a blessed marriage betwixt them.”
There are several similarities here to Gallathea, if one sets aside the gender disguise issue. Philoclea recognizes her desire as equivalent to heterosexual desire, and compares the companionship of Diana’s nymphs as being an unsatisfactory arrangement because it would not fulfill the specific and exclusive nature of her desire. By implication--though not expressed as overtly as in Gallathea--theArcadiaenvisions Diana’s band as excluding sexual desire, even when the possibility of sexual desire between women is accepted.
Given how hard one must work to identify unambiguously homoerotic themes in depictions of the mythic Diana, it seems odd to find it even harder (though clearly not impossible) to find evidence for works that treat the mythic Diana and her followers as unambiguously asexual. It is the silences and omissions on both the topic of homoeroticism and the topic of asexuality that create the difficulty. Sometimes those silences are deliberate, but more often they’re a byproduct of a historic culture that didn’t view the concepts as requiring distinction.
Artificial Scarcity of Representation
So...why should we care? For that matter, why is a podcast that specifically focuses on lesbian desire in history and literature taking all this time to argue the equal validity of an asexual versus lesbian rendering of Artemis/Diana?
Well, one minor reason is that I’m both lesbian and asexual, and it makes me uncomfortable when people act as if those two important parts of my identity are in conflict. But that’s dodging the question because the point is that there’s no reason why Artemis/Diana can’t be an icon for both allosexual lesbians andasexual non-lesbians and anyone else who finds connection with the mythology. When we’re looking for representation in the past, we need to move beyond the “naming and claiming” impulse and learn how to share.
Identity categories--whether gender, orientation, even ethnic and cultural--are by nature unstable and mutable. As I discussed in a podcast episode where I compared identity features to the semantics of prepositions--which, by the way, that was a really fun one, you should go back and listen to it--identities are inherently complex in structure. The features that make up a specific named identity come together in a particular social and historic context and may not make sense to people in a different context. To insist on a one-to-one correspondence of the identities we recognize today with identities in the past is as pointless as trying to fix the meaning or pronunciation of words, as futile as trying to force that river to run in exactly the same course for all time. I regularly point out that the gender and sexuality categories that were accepted and embraced when I was a teenager are vastly different from the ones current today. How much more so the identities of hundreds or thousands of years ago? Yes, there are commonalties, there are touch-points, there are thematic similarities. But there are not exact equations. And to try to force that one-to-one correspondence erases as many aspects of the past as it affirms.
Furthermore, it treats the relationship of contemporary people to history as a fixed and limited resource. It acts as if one person’s identification with a historic figure erases all other possibilities and steals the possibility of identification from other people. And here’s the thing: nobodyshould want that because everybodyhas something to lose.
Whether it’s the question of whether we’re allowed to “claim” a historic woman as a lesbian if she was in a marriage to a man, or whether the question is trying to divvy up every single historic person into a bin labeled heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, or whether we’re arguing over where to draw the line in past centuries between butch women and trans men, we all lose if we stake out the position that there can only be one right answer in every case.
The point may be especially clear in the case of Artemis/Diana simply because the question of historic truth is moot. But the argument holds much more widely. We can either create an artificial scarcity by demanding exclusive ownership of historic icons, or we can recognize the fuzzy, overlapping, shifting, ambiguity of identity categories and agree to share. And when we share, we allget more representation.
Notes and Links
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It occurs to me that it might be useful to add a tag for "history of sexualty textbook" now that I've included a handful of items in that genre. I have doubts about how useful they are to my imagined target audience, though it's hard to tell without feedback. All I know is that, in general, I've found them of minor use and interest to me personally. This means I'll try to deprioritize them in my reading--the problem being that it isn't always possible to identify something as being a textbook until I start reading.
After assembling a massive number of blog entries in advance back in the Spring, I'm now coming to the end of that cushion and need to assemble my planned reading for the next couple months. This will run smack dab into the disruption of my reading habits caused by quarantine and working from home. It's not that I don't have time--I have more "free" time than ever before--but my rhythms and habits haven't settled down into new patterns yet. I used to do most of my reading and note-taking during my lunch hour or on the commute train. Now I ride my bike on my lunch hour and the commute is only a few meters. But we keep on keeping on and it's time to wrangle this part of my life back on track.
Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5
Have you ever come out of a book wondering, “Was there actually a gap that this book was needed to fill?” This work is a perfectly reasonable survey of the topic of pre-modern sexuality, but having read through it, I don’t feel like I learned a single new thing. If it had been published in, say, 1990, it would have been a treasure. But in 2011 it’s just assembling material that is easily available in other general surveys. Nor did it feel like there was any new theoretical approach or synthesis involved. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad book! Not at all. Just an unnecessary one.
No, I take that back. I do feel that the book is flawed in certain essential ways. The authors work entirely too hard to establish their premise that there is no such thing as “sexuality” before the 19th century. But on a number of points, it feels like they’ve gotten too hung up on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the idea that if you don’t have language to talk about a thing, the thing doesn’t exist. Even if it were true that nobody ever used the word “lesbian” before the later 19th century (which isn’t true), how does it follow that nobody before then had a concept of a woman having a strong--perhaps even exclusive--preference for women as sexual or romantic partners? Ah, but they address that. Individual people may well have had preferences, but that was an incidental individual taste, like disliking cilantro.
Let’s think about that idea of taste as applied to food. Were there vegetarians before someone invented the word “vegetarian”?
Note: As I was writing this up, I found myself writing a lot of “the authors argue” or “the authors discuss” in order to distance myself a bit from the content. It got really awkward and I went back and rewrote everything. Just take it as given that this is summarizing their positions and not an endorsement.
Introduction: Sex before Sexuality
The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.
Examples are given of how a culture might have all the themes that are today understood as comprising the concept of (male) homosexuality, without compiling them into a concept parallel to that one. A culture could embrace male-male bonds and male beauty while proscribing specific sex acts between men. The attitudes in Ottoman and ancient Athenian cultures toward active/passive roles in m/m sex are compared. How can we say homo/hetero-sexuality didn’t exist in a culture that encouraged homosocial and homoerotic themes, but that valorizes m/f courtship/marriage/reproduction as a distinct sphere of experience?
Consider the gender dynamics of stage cross-dressing interacting with cross-dressing plots in the plays. How did people understand the sexual dynamics and all the layers? Is this an “undifferentiated sexuality” that treats boys and women identically? (Note that this assumes the point of view of a dominant male.) If adolescent boys were considered to fall in the same sexual-object category as women, can relations with them be considered truly “homosexual” if that concept is defined as sexual desire between people of the same gender? Similarly (with less concrete data offered) can we apply this question to desire between female-presenting women and cross-dressing ones?
One framing is that the pre-modern position was that it was the culturally determined gender role of one’s partner that mattered, not their biological sex. [Note: but this ignores the question of how they conceived of same-sex relations when there was no cross-gender element.]
It was in the 19th century that people invented the terms heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, sadist, masochist, and sexuality. [Note: They are simply factually wrong on “lesbian” and related terminology.] The period covered by this book (1100-1800) had sex, but no “sexuality” in the sense of orientations and identities. Foucault is cited in connection with this. [Note: At the same time, the book notes pre-1800 examples of descriptions reaching toward the concept of masochism and other “perverse” sexualities.] One should not use the words “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “pornography” for anything before the late 19th century, as the use of the words will distort understanding of the topic. Historic theories must embrace a clear pre-modern/modern separation. and any sort of “continuity” position with regard to sexual identities is suspect.
The rest of the introduction is a summary of the contents of the book. There is a survey of the major schools of thought regarding the history of sexuality. They don’t hold to a black-and-white “acts vs identities” position, and acknowledge the pre-modern conception of identifiable sexual preferences, but only object to applying modern names to these preferences. That it is the idea of connection between pre-modern/modern preference concepts that they object to. Pre-modern people should not be “forced” to occupy our modern categories retrospectively. They also have issues with defining “sex” [acts] and whether any sort of erotic behavior is included under “sex.” Within this context, they point to contemporary shifts in some cultures away from organizing around “identities” to focusing on “tastes.”
They note that the focus of the book is on Western Christian culture from 1100 to 1800, more or less excluding the colonies. They also prefer to avoid organizing around a medieval/early modern divide around 1500.
Chapter 1: Sin
This chapter discusses the history of the association of sex and sin--how the allowances for sex were hierarchically related to acceptable procreative sex within marriage. There are many details about what acts are better or worse than others, revealing the underlying value systems. The context of the discussion is from laws, penitentials, and popular culture.
Chapter 2: Before Heterosexuality
“The power of heterosexuality resides in a strange combination of ubiquity and invisibility.” The authors object to historians pointing out that heterosexuality, in being considered the silent default, thus “owns” history, claiming that this is an invalid take as it assumes a concept (heterosexuality) that didn’t exist. They critique historians who treat heterosexuality as a historic constant while discussing nuances of homosexuality.
[Note: While I agree in principle, I think we can’t escape the influence of modern assumptions of the fixed universality of heterosexuality.]
The authors discuss how the language of desire didn’t necessarily distinguish the sex of the desired object, but used similar terminology for all. Varied terms were used for different types of love, not for different objects. Homoerotic or homosocial bonds were considered of no consequence, even when using similar vocabulary to heteroerotic bonds. Marital affection was not automatically equated to “amor”. But at the same time, people accepted the centrality of marriage and procreation to society.
There is a discussion of types of illicit male-female sex, of marriage patterns, and of acceptable types of pre-marital sex. Marriage was considered “normative” even in contexts where there were significant numbers of never-married adults. There is a discussion of theories of differences between men and women in the experience of sexual pleasure.
In differentiating categories of sexual objects, female domestic servants were treated as naturally “available” to dominant men. There were double-standards for the sexual activity of unmarried men and women (men expected to be active, women expected to be not). Legal systems demonstrate how adultery was treated as a “property” crime as opposed to a form of fornication.
Chapter 3: Between Men
The authors ask the question, If all men are considered to potentially engage in male-male sex as an ordinary thing (even though certain acts might be proscribed) how can it be considered a distinct identity/orientation? They make a clear distinction between male-male sex as a functional category and sodomy as a historic concept (especially when defined narrowly as anal sex between men). But the complex history of the concept of sodomy makes the equation of the two problematic. There is a detailed discussion of how “sodomy” was defined and used across the centuries. This chapter focuses on how the ability of elite men to take sexual pleasure with objects of all types cannot be equated with a particular sexuality as an orientation.
At the same time, examples throughout the centuries are offered of men clearly expressing a preference for male partners. And male-male sex might be ignored by the community if no other factors were involved. There was a geographic distinction to some degree between the south/Mediterranean patterns where age/power-differentiated male-male sex was considered normal, and the north where all types of male-male sex were condemned equally.
Close male-male friendships might have an erotic component without being sexual, but examples are given of parallel erotic language used between men and from men to (non-sexual) female friends. On the other hand, the intersection of close male friendships and sex was a site of anxiety.
Evidence in the 18th century shows that language and concepts for preferences for male-male sex were commonly available. Yet the authors maintain that this was all processed under the concept of “personal taste” not identity.
Chapter 4: Between Women
[Note: As I summarized this chapter, I mostly found myself writing up a catalog of historic fact-lets and persons mentioned briefly in the text, all of which are covered in more detail in other publications. I’ve listed them briefly in the context of the topics of discussion, but for details use the topic links.]
There is general agreement on a progression in the early modern era from increased representation of female-female desire, to the “female husband” phenomenon, to romantic friendship. While the word “lesbian” was used in pre-modern times, it was not used to identify a stable sexual orientation. The authors discuss various strategies that historians have used to refer to f/f desire to get around an anachronistic use of “lesbian”.
Traub demonstrated a proliferation of f/f erotic representation that disproves the claims of medieval “silence” on the question of f/f erotics, but the topic is a contested site with questions of definitions and boundaries. Is “genital sexuality” the sine qua non? How do passionate friendships fit in? Do we reach for a concept that encompasses all situations of women outside of relations with men? Or do we start from the premise that heterosexuality “far from being compulsory, did not exist”?
Thirteen cases of “female sodomy” are discussed in Bennett, Crompton, Boone, but examples are few compared to records of male sodomy. (Examples: Bertolina/Guercia, Katharina Hetzeldorfer, Jehanne & Laurence)
[Note: in reading the discussion here on how to discuss “sex” if what you really mean is “penetrative sex acts” it occurs to me that maybe the authors could provide clarity by simply saying “fucking.”]
More sources of data on f/f erotics: penitentials, the medical texts of William of Saliceto, poem by de Fougeres, treatise against sodomy by Peter Damian, Benedetta Carlini, the two erotic poems between nuns in the Tegernsee manuscript, the writings and personal relationshps of Hildegard of Bingen, passionate friendships among the Beguines, the troubadour poetry of Bieris de Romans, the romances of Yde and Olive, and Silence.
The Renaissance added new f/f tropes to medieval performative mascuinity: female husbands, tribades, hermaphrodites, passionate friendship, Sapphists. We see the rise of “warrior woman” and cross-dressing ballads, but these typically depicted women who ended up in relationships with men. Gender disguise/transgender performance becomes a context where records focus on the use of a dildo for sex, and where f/f erotics were viewed as a vice that was potential in every woman: Amy Poulter & Arabella Hunt, Comical News from Bloombury, Fielding’s Female Husband, Catherine Vizzani.
There are few court records focusing on sex between women. Cases of “female husbands” generally involved charges of vagrancy [note: also “fraud”]. In a set of Dutch prosecutions involving sex between women it can be hard to determine what the actual charge was. Sex between women was often imagined in terms of “hermaphrodites,” suggesting a physiological cause for f/f desire. This is often connected to the 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris. As an analogue of the penis, the clitoris became the emblem of female erotic transgression and was merged with the image of the tribade such that the latter word came to be associated with clitoral penetration rather than the original sense of “rubbing.”
The use of “Sapphic” and related terms for f/f sex did not arise until the late 19th century despite the popularity of the image of Sappho in the Renaissance.. [Note: wrong. This vocabulary range can be documented in the later 18th century.] Art was a significant site of f/f eroticism, especially in the context of mythic images that incorporated the figure of a disguised or transformed man. The use of “Diana and her nymphs” as a context for depicting f/f erotics appears as early as the late 14th century.
Pornography--or professional literature that was barely distinct from pornography--was another site for depicting f/f erotics. Examples include: Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditus, Venus in the Cloister, Satyra Sotadica, Brantôme, and political pornography about Marie Antoinette.
Female friendship is rarer in the sources when compared to literature about male friendship. An early exception is the writings of Katherine Philips. Women adopted the discourse of male friendships but the topic was most commonly expressed in private correspondence rather that public documents. Convents expressed concerns about “particular friends.” The Maitland Ms poem XLIX uses a list of famous m/m friendships to frame desire between women. Anne Lister is discussed in this context as an outlier in being overt about her search for a “wife” rather than a “friend.” She recorded her suspicions about the sexual nature of the Butler/Ponsonby friendship, as well as her negotiations of sexual knowledge with her lover Mrs. Barlow. Lister’s sexual vocabulary for f/f activities was eclectic and extensive. The authors suggest that because Lister framed her desire for women in masculine terms, her relationships were not truly “same” sex relationships, and that Lister did not have the same sexual preference as her partners--that they had qualitatively different experiences.
There was a shift from attributing the cause of f/f desire to deviant physiology to attributing it to deviant gender (i.e., masculinity). The authors assert that it is anachronistic even to use the term “sapphist” for Lister as the word wasn’t used in that sense at the time. [Note: This is simply inaccurate. Hester Thrale described Butler and Ponsonby as “damned sapphists” in a context where the meaning is quite clear. And all of them were contemporaries of Lister.] Lister herself used the adjective “sapphic” in a context where it seems she associates it specifically with the use of a dildo (which Lister disdained).
A distinction is made for “situational homosexuality” (a woman who prefers men but is open to sex with women). [Note: this section of the discussion entirely erases the concept of bisexuality and ignores social pressures for m/f marriage regardless of personal identity/preference.] An example is given in the play The Antipodes where f/f sex is a “made do” when men fail.
In summary, there were actual pre-modern women who desired each other and acted on it. But the authors claim that none of these specific examples can be identified as “lesbian” under the definition of: a woman who has an exclusive desire for men, where there are no elements of trans-masculinity, and where neither partner has been involved sexually with men. [Note: It can easily be noted that under this definition a great many modern people who identify as lesbians would not meet the bar. In which case, are we actually comparing pre-modern cases with a “modern lesbian identity” or with a straw-women definition?]
The chapter concludes by claiming that only by renouncing all category labels and categories can “lesbian” desire be properly situated in a historic context.
Chapter 5: Before Pornography
[Note: Ok, at this point, I’ve rather lost my patience for summarizing this book in detail.]
This chapter continues the approach of “Topic-X did not actually exist in the pre-modern period because it doesn’t exactly match the way in which we, the authors, are going to define it. Also: history is complicated and we’re looking for a simplistic definition that doesn’t exist. But they have some valid points about how bawdy literature in pre-modern times had a different social purpose than the modern understanding of “pornography” as media intended to create and satisfy sexual arousal in the consumer.
Epilogue: Sex at Sea?
The epilogue discusses colonial encounters with non-Western cultures who had entirely different approaches to sexuality and how Westerners recorded their reactions to those encounters.