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Saturday, August 8, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 49b - Reprise - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/08 - listen here)

This episode is a reprise of a show that originally aired two years ago. This month I’m doing a series of shows around the theme of the mythic Artemis or Diana and how her sexuality has been portrayed, both in historical contexts and in modern fiction. The theme was inspired by a wide-ranging conversation on twitter discussing what I see as an entirely unnecessary conflict between works that represent Artemis as lesbian and ones representing her as asexual. But I’ll save that discussion for the week 4 episode. For now, let’s revisit the rather complicated and sometimes problematic story of Diana and Callisto.

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The search for representation in history and historic art and literature is, in one sense, always doomed to failure because our identities are a complex product of a specific historic and cultural context. We can find echoes of individual details of our identities, but never the exact whole. And sometimes, to find those echoes, we need to excavate the features we identify with from a pit of stereotypes, disapproval, and hostility.

Today’s show looks at a topic that offers both some surprising examples of representation and some uncomfortably problematic features of how that representation was framed.

Ovid, Diana and Callisto, other mythic themes

The Roman goddess Diana (and her Greek counterpart Artemis, as well as other divinities treated as equivalent or related) is a complex figure with several prominent attributes. She is associated with the moon (corresponding to her brother Apollo’s association with the sun). She is associated with hunting and with wild spaces. She is associated with virginity or chastity and famous for harsh treatment of male intrusions into her all-female circle of followers, which makes it interesting that she was also associated with childbirth and was petitioned to assist both with becoming pregnant and with an easy delivery. Diana was often depicted in male-coded hunting garments, wearing a short tunic and boots, while carrying a bow and quiver and accompanied by hunting dogs or by a deer.

The artistic and literary treatments of Diana that had the most significant presence in later Western culture revolve around two stories, both of which are relevant for Diana as a lesbian icon. One is the story of the hunter Acteon and his fate. Acteon was out hunting and came across Diana while she was bathing naked. In punishment for this transgression, she changed Acteon into a stag and set his own hounds on him to hunt and kill him. This is part of a continuing theme depicting Diana’s band of followers as constituting a women-only space and enforcing that requirement with harsh penalties.

The other story, about Diana and Callisto, is more complex. In brief, Callisto was one of Diana’s followers, one of a band of nymphs who were sworn to reject men just as Diana herself had. Jupiter had the hots for Callisto--as he did for so many women in classical mythology--but there was no way to get close to her because of Diana’s big sign on the clubhouse saying, “No Boys Allowed.”

So Jupiter got around this problem by disguising himself as Diana. A number of the medieval and early modern versions of the story go into great detail about how Callisto became persuaded that a sexual relationship with the goddess Diana was not only ok, but was a great idea, though other versions depict her as being more consistently reluctant about it. At some point, of course, Jupiter revealed himself, but it was too late for Callisto to protest at that point. She became pregnant as a result, and although she tried to conceal the fact, her condition was discovered one day when the nymphs were bathing together. There’s that “naked nymphs bathing together in the woods” motif again. Callisto was expelled from Diana’s band and transformed into a bear, although the details of just who performed the shape-change vary depending on the version of the story. In any event, we aren’t so much concerned with that point.

The key aspects of these two stories that created resonances through the medieval and Renaissance periods were the following. The goddess Diana rejected romantic and sexual interactions with men and expected her followers to do the same. Both stories involve scenes of women bathing naked in wilderness settings. And Jupiter’s seduction of Callisto assumes a context in which Callisto responds positively to what she believes is same-sex desire. These motifs combined to create an unusually public culture of depicting female homoeroticism in a context where, if not exactly approved of, it was safely removed from everyday life enough to be acceptable.

It is undeniable that the popularity of artistic depictions of the story were, in large part, driven by the male gaze and an appetite for female homoerotic scenes created for men’s consumption. But at the same time, the depiction in both art and literature of a separatist society of women who resisted marriage or any other relations with men and who openly embraced physical affection and pair-bonding between women, created a conceptual space that welcomed women who desired women not only as consumers but as producers of those stories and images.

The concept of chastity and heteronormativity

A key feature to understanding the reception of Dianic art and literature is the shifting interpretations of the concepts of chastity and virginity. Diana was a virgin goddess and one whose followers were sworn to chastity, but for much of western culture these concepts were understood within a heteronormative framework in which “sex” was defined as what happened between men and women. During many historic eras in the west, erotic activity between women was not seen as threatening to society because it wasn’t categorized as “sex”.

Within this framework, there was no inherent conflict between Callisto swearing to be chaste and Callisto accepting the erotic advances of someone she believed to be a woman. This position is laid out explicitly in texts based on the Diana myths. For example, in William Warner’s poem Albion’s England written in 1586 Jupiter’s assault on Callisto is described as follows:


And Nymph-like sits him by the Nymph, that took him for no man,

And after smiles, with nearer signs of Loves assault began.

He feeleth oft her ivory breasts, nor maketh coy to kiss;

Yet all was well, a maiden to a maiden might do this.


From a similar era, Thomas Heywood’s play The Golden Age, lays out the expectations for the women in Diana’s band. When Callisto arrives begging to join them, Diana asks the hero Atalanta, “Is there no princess in our train as yet unmatched to be her cabin fellow and sleep by her?” And Atalanta answers, “Madam, we are all coupled and twinned in love, and hardly is there any that will be won to change her bedfellow.” So Diana tells Callisto, “You must be single till the next arrive: she that is next admitted of our train must be her bed-companion; so ‘tis alotted.” It is this uncoupled state that leaves her vulnerable to Jupiter’s advances when he arrives pretending to join Diana’s band. There’s an ironically humorous scene where Diana lays out the rules for her followers, which the disguised Jupiter has no problem promising to:


You shall vow chastity.

You never shall with hated man atone,

But lie with woman, or else lodge alone.

With ladies only you shall sport and play,

And in their fellowship spend night and day.

Consort with them at board and bed,

And swear no man shall have your maidenhead.


But despite this talk of bedfellows and sporting with the ladies, Callisto takes some convincing when the false maiden gets her alone and begins kissing and fondling her, asserting, “so a woman, with a woman, may.” This type-scene of a man in disguise working to convince a woman that same-sex erotics are perfectly acceptable also shows up in works not directly involving Callisto or the goddess Diana, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia.

In an expansion of the specific myths involving Diana’s maintenance of an all-female band, she became a key symbol of marriage resistance in general. There are many literary examples of women being depicted as being “followers of Diana” in the context of rejecting marriage as a life path. For example in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Knight’s Tale, the character of Emily prays to Diana for help in avoiding marriage to either of the two men competing for her hand. Chaucer took this tale from Boccaccio--or at least from the same source as him--who also feature Diana as the patroness of marriage resistance. The same story shows up in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, and in several plays Shakespeare’s characters make regular references to Diana as a symbol of a voluntary unmarried state. But it is a state in which love and even physical affection may flourish as long as only women are involved.

The problem of Callisto-type stories for transgender representation

The myth of Diana and Callisto and they ways in which it was represented in medieval and early modern culture--as well as other stories with similar tropes, such as The Convent of Pleasure and the Arcadia--highlight two examples of the pitfalls of reaching into history to find representations of modern identities. One hazard is illustrated by viewing the Callisto story through a transgender lens, the second hazard comes from recognizing the key role of male objectification in depictions of female homoeroticism.

In looking through western history for transgender representation, it is inescapable that pervasive misogyny makes examples of transfeminine representation far more problematic than examples of transmasculine representation. Female-bodied persons who took on a masculine presentation were, historically, treated as admirable. Both in medical theory and in literary representation, the motif of the spontaneous change of physiological sex is nearly always from female to male, and philosophers argued that this was as expected because nature would only support a change from less perfect to the more perfect--that is, from female to male. In contrast, western literature treated male-bodied persons who take on a feminine presentation almost invariably as engaging in deceit, often for the purpose of sexual predation, with the exceptions to this generally being when the feminine presentation is either done for comic effect or as humiliation.

This is an expected consequence of a cultural context in which being female is considered lesser than being male. There was no framework in western culture prior to the 20th century in which to view a transition from male to female as a positive and desirable thing. Therefore when done deliberately, the assumption was that it was from ulterior motives.

Plots and motifs like these were considered edgy and amusing in early modern literature, but they are problematic when viewed from the point of view of modern audiences. And since the organizing principle of this podcast is to look at history and literature as inspirations and sources for modern historical fiction, we need to deconstruct this motif a bit more deeply to map out the minefields.

Within the historic context, gender-disguise stories--whether of a woman disguised as a man or a man disguised as a woman--could create a context for imagining and visualizing homoerotic relationships, but with a “safety valve” in which they normally resolved into heterosexual couples at the end. Occasionally, this safety valve was in the form of a magical sex change, as in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe and its many descendents such as Yde and Olive or the play Gallathea. But at the heart of these motifs lies the erasure of the reality of queer experiences. Female couples were allowed to achieve a happily-ever-after ending, but only if one of them became a man. However much a story like Gallathea may tease the audience with the possibility of a committed romantic relationship between two women, in the end it erases the validity of that possibility to restore mandatory heterosexuality. But just as importantly, such stories erase the validity of the transgender experience even while appearing to support a transgender reading of the story.

A magical physiological sex change may have resonances with modern hormonal and surgical approaches to addressing gender dysphoria, but the motif doesn’t address the realities of trans experience any more than stories about miraculous cures of the blind and lame address the realities of people’s experience of disability. Characters such as Iphis, or Yde, or Gallathea and Phyllida, or Blanchandine in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil do not express gender dysphoria prior to their physiological transformations. Iphis and Ide and the dual protagonists of Gallathea express frustration at not being able to imagine how to successfully carry out their erotic desires within a same-sex relationship. And Blanchandine is looking for an escape from the predicament that gender disguise has led her into precisely because her desires are heterosexual and because she experiences life as a woman, whatever her outward appearance. Conversely, the few female-bodied characters who are described in terms that suggest gender dysphoria, such as the knight Silence in the romance of that name, have their stories resolved by being maneuvered back to living conventional female lives and, as always, being married off to men.

So just as there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for lesbian identification, there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for transgender identification, but in neither case do the motifs, the character motivations, and the story resolutions align for fully satisfactory representation.

I should emphasize that I’m talking specifically of self-consciously fictional representation here. There are plenty of real life biographies involving cross-gender behavior that evoke transgender interpretations--lives such as Catalina de Erauso or Eleno de Céspedes. But literature took a less nuanced and less ambiguous approach to the question because it was concerned with making the characters make sense within the social framework of the times.

In considering transgender intersections with characters and themes that have lesbian resonance, I’m almost always talking about transmasculine figures. When physiologically male characters appear in literature presenting themselves as female, it is almost universally within one of two contexts: for the purpose of humor, or for the purpose of gaining illicit sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society.

These two contexts not only erase the validity of transgender identity but reinforce two of the most hurtful myths about trans women that are present in modern culture: that transfeminine identity is inherently ridiculous, and that claims of transfeminine identity are made by cis men in order to sexually assault women in gender-segregated spaces. In other words, Jupiter’s rape of Callisto is the defining myth of the modern “bathroom panic” issue.

In searching through history and literature for scraps of identification and representation, I can get a bit numb to the stuff one has to slog through in order to find those scraps. But I think it’s important to examine the question of representation from many angles. Not just looking at motifs both from the context in which they were produced and from the context in which we are now examining them. But also looking at them from all the different angles of potential identification and representation.

Even though pre-modern literature could accept that a “chaste Diana” might engage in same-sex erotics, chastity most often implied an avoidance of all erotic activity. The fact that images of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto offer a superficial representation of lesbian desire doesn’t negate the fact that they also reinforce a pernicious stereotype of transgender motivations.

The same contradictions and ambiguities that offer the fleeting chance for identification for some readers and viewers, can remove the chance for identification for others. I don’t have any answers here, only the reminder that not only is history never neutral, but the study of history is never neutral. If I often seem to embrace only interpretations that address lesbian representation in history, it’s because this project was never intended to be a neutral presentation of historic fact. If, indeed, there is such a thing as a neutral presentation. But I will regularly acknowledge the specific filters I bring to this topic and remind my audience of other possible ways of engaging with the same material.

Female homoerotic art and the male gaze

This same honesty requires me to acknowledge that pretty much all the female homoerotic art we have from the medieval and early modern period was inspired by the fact that some men get off on seeing two women getting it on together.

Depictions of the goddess Diana and her followers in art can be found in a variety of standardized genre scenes, but by far the most popular were those that included the two bathing scenes: Acteon coming across the bathing Diana, and the pregnant Callisto being found out when the nymphs were bathing together. These scenes dwell lovingly on the revealing of naked female bodies in a public space, showing the women embracing or tending to each others’ physical needs. The scenes invite the viewer to become Acteon in his forbidden act of spying on the virgin goddess, without invoking the fatal penalty that was imposed on that figure.

Given the economics of artistic patronage in the medieval and early modern periods, when the majority of professional artists and the majority of those paying for their work were male, it’s an inescapable conclusion that these two scenes were popular mostly for their pornographic appeal. Not that artists necessarily needed much of an excuse for depicting naked female bodies.

Scenes from the Callisto myth can be found in western art beginning as early as the 14th century, in illuminated manuscripts that re-told stories from Ovid with commentary that gave them a Christian moralizing spin. Due to this moral angle, the illustrations often focus on the disgrace of Callisto’s pregnancy and her expulsion from Diana’s company, but there are also images of Jupiter’s seduction of her that provide the superficial appearance of two women in erotic embrace. In addition to kissing and embracing--which could be depicted without erotic intent--often the figures are shown with the disguised Jupiter holding Callisto’s chin--a formalized symbolic gesture known as a “chin-chuck” that always indicated romantic or sexual desire.

[Image: Woodcut in Giovanni dei Bonsignori's Ovidio Metamorphoseos vulgare (1497). Br. Lib. IB.23185]

Myth of Callisto - 1497 woodcut from a commentary on Ovid

In contrast to Rennaissance depictions, often the pair are clothed during these seduction scenes, while the bathing scenes involve nudity. Book art was not the only context for depictions of the Callisto myth. It seems to have been a popular topic for decorating Italian wedding chests in the 14th and 15th centuries.

As we move into the 16th through 18th centuries, the seduction scenes are depicted with more overt eroticism. In 1613, the painter Peter Paul Rubens--who gave his name to the lush depiction of curvaceous women as “rubenesque”--shows a naked Calliso receiving the embrace of a semi-clad false Diana who uses the same “chin-chuck gesture” used in medieval art to convey eroticism.

["Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. From Wikimedia.]

"Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens 1613

François Boucher, working in the mid 18th century, painted several versions of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto, including the one used as a logo for this podcast. The figures are either nude or semi-clad to expose torsos and legs, and lie entwined on draperies in a natural setting. In one of Boucher’s paintings, Diana again uses the chin-chuck gesture to make the sexual nature of the interaction clear.

["Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743, from Wikimedia]

"Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743

Even when painters of the early modern era are depicting the bathing scene where Callisto’s pregnancy is discovered, the homoerotic context is shown in how Diana and the other nymphs are in close flesh-to-flesh contact, draping arms across shoulders, or washing and drying each others’ naked bodies. Some of the famous artists depicting these type-scenes include Titian in the 15th century and Rembrandt in the early 17th century.

["Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556, from Wikimedia]

"Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556

It’s hard to talk about artistic depictions on a podcast, but if you’re really interested, I’ve included a selection of examples in the transcript of this podcast on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. Follow the link in the show notes to see them.

Diana as lesbian literary symbol

As noted earlier, references to being a follower or worshipper of Diana were sometimes used in early modern literature to indicate a disinterest in marriage or even active resistance to marriage as a life path. Continuing through western literature, Diana becomes a code-word for love between women that is exclusive of men--either using a clear reference to the goddess, or simply by the use of the name.

Jorge de Montemayor’s romance Diana from the mid 16th century uses the goddess’s name to set the stage for a Callisto-like tale of desire between women in a pastoral and mythic setting and gender disguise, but with the twist that this time the seduction really is between two women, but where one of them later claims to have been a man in female disguise in order to play a trick on the other.

Several 19th century works pair the name Diana with motifs of separatist female households. The novel Diana Victrix, published in 1897 by Florence Converse, has an unusually happy ending for two women engaged in a Boston Marriage--as the author herself was. Neither protagonist in the story is named Diana, so the “victorious Diana” of the title may be understood as the goddess’s ideal of a women’s separatist society. Louisa May Alcott’s unfinished story “Diana and Persis” may be making this allusion as well, telling the story of two women artists who pledge to support each other in ways that a heterosexual marriage never could. But while the story’s Diana remains unmarried and dedicated to her work, Persis succumbs to a man’s proposal and even though he promises not to interfere with her artistic career, the daily grind of marriage and motherhood leads her to abandon her art. A similar story of two devoted and loving friends whose happiness is destroyed by the intrusion of marriage occurs in George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.

And, of course, the choice of the name Diana for the superhero Wonder Woman is an obvious reference to her origins within the women-only Amazonian society of Themyscira.

Despite some of the uncomfortable aspects of the use of the goddess Diana as a symbol of marriage resistance, of a female separatist society, or of same-sex erotics between women, she has remained an enduring symbol across two millennia, standing beside Sappho as an icon of lesbian possibilities, even when those possibilities were otherwise hard to imagine.

Publications and Links

The following topic tags are the most relevant to this episode. I haven't listed tag-links to all the specific works mentioned in the episode.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - 14:00

As the saying goes: what even is time? I was on New Zealand time for most of last week, and I'll blame that for being discombobulated on Monday and forgetting to post this blog. But better late than never.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.

I pulled this article in part to see if it had lesbian-relevant content (it does) but even more as deep-background research for my Franco-Egyptian character in Mistress of Shadows (Alpennia #5, in process). Triangulating on the everyday material and behavioral culture of an unmarried working-class Egyptian woman, living in a very mixed-culture Franco-Egyptian community first in Marseilles and then in Paris is proving to be quite a challenge. So every bit of research I can find that speaks to various aspects of her identity is valuable. For this reason, the summary of this article covers more details outside of sexuality than I might ordinarily cover because it’s doing double-duty.

Hatem looks at systems of institutionalized male control of female sexuality in 18-19th century Egypt, considering issues of class and ethnicity, as well as large-scale political shifts and disruptions. Moreover, patriarchal systems are not only about relations between men and women, but about how relations among women and relations among men support or resist power structures.

Although patriarchal cultures present themselves as idealizing heterosexuality, and engage in varying degrees of homophobia, the dynamic structures are more complex. Moreover, close relations between men are crucial to maintaining patriarchal control, but that doesn’t mean that such relations necessarily involve genital homosexuality. Even rivalry between men can be a form of homosocial bonding that includes as its purpose the maintenance of male solidarity.

On the female side, patriarchal structures are often designed to disrupt and undermine alliances among women, often by fracturing them along class lines and requiring women to compete with each other for localized power and security.

As a social system, patriarchy can be understood to have two primary concerns: the ideal of heterosexual intimacy, and the domination of one sex (women) by the other (men). These concerns are in constant tension.

Hatem’s study here uses this understanding of patriarchy to discuss and compare various types of patriarchal systems in 18-19th century Egypt, focusing on three distinct periods: 1760-1798, the French expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801, and the post-expedition era from 1805-1860. (The period immediately following the French departure was marked by chaotic transition and so is excluded.) Within this framework, Hatem identifies one possible interpretation of the social and sexual dynamics of women’s lives in Egypt.

18th Century Egypt

18th century Egypt had a sexually segregated culture that dated back in some form to pre-Islamic times, though the segregation is often associated in popular imagination with Islam specifically. But segregation was largely a feature of the sedentary parts of society, while the more mobile tribal groups featured less segregation, in part for practical reasons. The need for freedom of movement and for greater cooperation between the sexes for communal work made strict segregation unworkable. In addition, both women and men were viewed as identifying primarily with the larger clan, rather than smaller family groups, which meant less direct and individual control of women by immediate male family members.

As societies became more settled, responsibility and control of families was taken over by individual male heads of household, with women understood as belonging to them. In this context, segregation was a more practical and inexpensive means of controlling women as well as protecting them. Under traditional Islamic law, the family patriarch had legal control over family members and women’s modesty was emphasized.

Although this sexually segregated system still held in 18th century Egypt, it was also shaped by economic and social forces. Several identifiably distinct parts of Egyptian society experienced patriarchal control in different ways. These divisions included a significant agricultural peasant population, an Arab mercantile class integrated with broader regional trade networks, and the de facto ruling class of Mamluks, who managed the military and administrative functions of Ottoman rule.

These divisions involved distinctions of ethnic origin that affected sexual dynamics. The Mamluks were Turco-Circassian in origin, originally freed slaves, who operated as a military caste and worked to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness. Urban centers were dominated by an ethnically Egyptian merchant class which also was the primary source of scholars and intellectuals. As Egypt re-focused its economy on export and the provision of tribute to the Ottoman Empire, an alliance was formed between the Mamluks, merchants and intellectuals to implement and maintain control.

Gender segregation was affected by these divisions, as the political balances meant that social and sexual control was largely devolved onto individual family heads, including those in the large peasant class. Different structures and patterns of gender control manifested in the different social divisions.

Three gender-related institutions cut across these class lines to cement patriarchal ties: family, slavery, and sexual segregation. Segregation and the seclusion of women was, in theory, universal, but was more strictly practiced by the upper and middle classes.

The Mamluks originally came to Egypt as an enslaved military caste that was racially distinct from the Egyptian population. To maintain this distinction (Mamluk men who married Egyptian women lost their status), there was a constant influx of Turco-Circassian slaves, generally brought in as children. Men were given military training while women generally joined the harems of high-ranking Mamluk men and were only freed if taken as wives or when they bore children. While the wives and upper-class concubines of Mamluk men were generally of Turco-Circassian origin, their households also included Ethiopian and African slaves.

The position of women in these households was mobile and depended on their relations to men. Divorce was easy (for men) and might be used as a means of control, as well as creating power struggles among women. Generally if a woman bore a son for her owner she would be freed, and often would become a wife, whereas concubines who had not borne children had fewer rights. This made sexuality a political matter within households: a concubine was motivated to do anything possible to become pregnant, while men were motivated to avoid producing children except by their wives, to reduce their financial responsibilities.

Slavery was another context where sexuality was a source of conflict. Slaves could marry, and enslaved women could even marry free men, though their children would remain enslaved. This meant that multiple men might be involved in negotiations around the welfare of an enslaved woman and her children.

Men’s role within household dynamics was minimal, but the women of the household related to each other in hierarchical ways that often put their priorities in conflict, undermining potential sources of solidarity. At the same time, connections between the women of extended families created a large, female-dominated social world in which women were expected to be each other’s primary emotional and social support. Sexual segregation created incentives for same-sex relationships among both women and men, although homosexuality was, in theory, condemned in Islamic society. [Note: as other papers on this topic show, “condemnation” is a vastly oversimplified understanding of the multiple dynamics.]

Women’s same-sex relations were threatening to patriarchal control (to the extent that they had the capability of subverting heterosexuality). There are a few historical accounts of lesbianism within Mamluk harems of the 14th century which are instructive (though well removed from the time period of this article). [Note: I’ve seen references to this topic before and have identified the reference cited for further follow-up.]

Hatem has a discussion here of the ability of lesbians among the Mamluk harems to disrupt patriarchal structure by refusing the participate in the male traffic in women to create ties. But her discussion here seems to assume two things: that such women would necessarily have exclusively lesbian identities (i.e., that they considered their interest in women to exclude the possibility of accommodating heterosexual power dynamics), and that they had the agency to refuse to participate in such structures. I don’t know that either of those requirements has been demonstrated in this thought-experiment. In any case, Hatem identifies this as a potential cause for why male homosexuality was accepted among Mamluks and the Egyptian middle class, but lesbianism “remained underground and was viewed with contempt.” [Note: as if misogyny alone couldn’t account for the distinction? I think this is another case of “not proven.”]

Mamluk society involved a great deal of internal instability due to the mechanisms by which power was acquired and passed on. One practice addressing this was for Mamluk men to legally transfer property to their wives to protect it under law, which became a means for women to amass economic power. It also meant that women were drawn into open political maneuvering that had previously been the domain of men (with women participating in more indirect ways). This experience later became useful during the French expedition when Mamluk women were involved in direct negotiations with the French.

Middle class Egyptian households were comparable in size and internal dynamics to the Mamluk households, at least at the upper end. The dynamics of wives vs. concubines and the use of marriage and divorce to exert power over women were similar as well.

Veiling and seclusion were other practices where Mamluk and middle class Egyptian practice aligned. For female slaves in wealthy households, veiling was justified as protecting valuable property, but for free Egyptian women it was rationalized as an expression of modesty. Veiling and seclusion were associated with the need to protect women’s chastity and thereby the honor of the men responsible for them.

Cross-class cooperation among women included interactions with working class women outside the household that supplied essential services (mystics, matchmakers, beauticians, messengers, or peddlers of luxury goods). These women, in turn, used access to upper class women in order to obtain political favors or services for their families.

Among wealthy middle class families, women might be privately educated and have access to religious lectures. Inheritance rights of women in this class were respected due to the use of dowries in marriage negotiations. And there is evidence that some women managed their own property, or even in some cases their husbands’ property.

Accounts of working class women’s lives are scarce in the 18th century, but there is evidence that they did not follow the same rigid requirements for veiling and seclusion as the other classes. Peasant women did agricultural labor as well as household crafts. On the other hand, they had less control over personal property and marriages were generally arranged within the extended patrilineal family to maintain control of resources.

In general, working class women interacted more freely with men and leveraged legitimate reasons for mobility, such as religious festivals, to stretch the bounds of control. Urban working class women had even more mobility and engaged in occupations that made them key elements in larger women’s social networks--occupations such as midwives and entertainers, as well as those mentioned previously. In these roles, they had contacts with more secluded middle and upper class women and expanded their social networks by that means.

The French Expedition

Napoleon’s presence in Egypt was relatively short in objective terms--only three years--but is seen as a turning point in Egyptian history due to the disruption of the existing political systems. The successful French invasion not only disrupted the Mamluk military system directly, but undermined its authority as a bulwark against Christian power. The French introduced a new administrative structure that was inherited by the state introduced after their departure by Muhammed ‘Ali. But some historians argue that this phase may not have been the causal factor in the observed changes, only perhaps an accelerating one.

With regard to sexual dynamics, the French presence was disruptive while not being feminist in any meaningful sense. The requirement to billet French soldiers in private homes resulted in social mingling of the sexes and both formal and informal relations between French soldiers and Egyptian women had lasting consequences, including a violent, conservative backlash against women following the French departure.

During the course of the occupation, the Egyptian society incorporated French participation in patriarchal structures, with some French officers converting to Islam to marry women from prominent middle class Egyptian families. On other points, the culture clash was notable. French husbands expected their Egyptian wives to unveil in public, but that didn’t mean they supported women’s independence, and there were other aspects of sexuality where the French felt Egyptian women took liberties.

The French presence affected women of different classes differently. Some middle class women saw French interactions with women as encouraging greater freedom and social mobility and (vainly) petitioned Napoleon to support women’s interests. Upper class Mamluk women turned their political experience to direct negotiations with the French to support their families’ interests--to some extent, an extension of pre-existing dynamics made more overt--but as part of the older establishment they did not see the French as allies. Working class women clashed with, or benefitted from the French presence in a variety of contexts.

The 19th century

The French presence in Egypt ended rather abruptly with a British naval blockade. In the aftermath, there was a strong backlash against women who had “collaborated” which resulted in a conservative social climate in following decades. Women were executed for associating with the French and the threat of this violence helps explain why social segregation continued even as the practical basis for it eroded under the half-century of rule by Muhammed ‘Ali. [Note: the political dynamics of post-Napoleonic Egypt are complex and should be reviewed if you really want to investigate this era.]

The administrative and economic systems were overhauled in ways that affected all levels of society and all genders. Skimming over the details, some results included extended geographic separation of men and women due to economic dynamics, which resulted in raising the age of marriage for women, creating new hazards for women’s chastity before marriage, failed attempts to improve public education for girls and an accompanying interest from upper class women in private schools run by missionaries.

But overall, the patriarchal power systems were resistant to change and resilient. In shifting ways, women were defined as essentially sexual creatures, and that theme colored every social change.

Time period: 
Saturday, August 1, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 49a - On the Shelf for August 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2020.

We’re all allowed the occasional frustrated regrets of quarantine. I was supposed to be in New Zealand right now, attending the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ve still been attending it through the magic of online media, but believe me, it isn’t the same. I really enjoy using the peripatetic nature of Worldcon as an excuse to travel. Last year in Ireland, three years ago in Finland, and this should have been my first visit to the southern hemisphere.

But there are other things to celebrate. August means the turning of another year of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. We’ve finished up four years now, which is a quite a while in podcast-years. Every year I’ve added or changed something about the show: whether it’s expanding to weekly or adding the fiction series. There are definitely some changes coming down the pike, but it’s a little too soon to talk about them yet. I’m always interested in hearing what listeners most enjoy about the show, or what you’d be interested in having me add.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog was all over the map in July, quite literally, starting with a 17th century Armenian astrological illustration of two women having sex, then a brief look at a sourcebook of texts on the history of sexuality designed to be readings for a college course. Next there were two articles venturing outside the usual western European stomping grounds of the blog, with a set of case studies of lesbians in 19th century Russia, and a study of women’s same-sex relationships in 1930s Japan. This theme continues in August with an article on sexuality and gender in 18-19th century Egypt, which I confess is more deep-background research for a character in the next Alpennia book than strictly for the blog. Then we go to India for another of Ruth Vanita’s fascinating articles on women’s same-sex relations within the context of historic patriarchal systems. And then...oops, I realize that I’ve come to the end of the material I already have written up for the blog and I’m going to need to hit the books again!

Book Shopping!

No exciting history book acquisitions for the blog this month, alas. The only things that have arrived on my doorstep in the last month are a couple of collections of papers on medieval textiles and clothing, and more closely related to my writing projects, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833by Daniel Livesay. I’ve made a personal pledge that, when writing historical fiction, I will strive to make my casts and settings diverse. But diversity can’t just be tacked on -- it has to come from familiarity with the historic realities of marginalized people. So I often pick up books like this with the purpose of populating my imagination with just who the non-white people in my settings were, how they got there, and what they were doing. That way the characters will be there waiting for me when the story strikes.

Author Guest

I didn’t have an author guest lined up for this month, so when inspiration struck for my essay topic, I decided to work backwards to set it up.


My essay inspiration was some discussions on Twitter on the theme of artificial scarcity of representation and how it’s possible to write fiction based on historic persons or characters from historic literature that explores one interpretation of their identity without that being an erasure of other equally valid interpretations.

One of the threads that sparked this topic was interpretations of the Greek goddess Artemis variously as asexual or lesbian. It would be lovely if I could make it a roundtable with a couple of guests. That’s very hard to pull off when I don’t have anyone specific in mind to ask, but I can dream.

So to set up the topic, I plan to reprise my show on the myth of Diana and Callisto, and then follow it with a book appreciation show on books with mythic Greek and Roman legendary settings, especially featuring Artemis or Diana. Then the discussion of representation will finish it off.


It’s a month with five shows, so the end of August will feature another piece of original fiction. This time it’s “Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink” by Jeannelle M. Ferreira. Jeannelle was a guest of the podcast two years ago, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for the promised sequel to her Regency romance The Covert Captain. But I’m happy to have some short fiction to fill in the waiting.

Remember that in January we’ll be open for fiction submissions again. It’s never too soon to start looking for inspiration. There’s a link in the show notes to the call for submissions with all the details on what we’re looking for.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The recent, new, and forthcoming book list is very short this month. Only four titles! Surely there must be more? If so, I hope they turn up in my search next month before they miss the window for inclusion. I’m always adding older books to my database when I find them, but this podcast segment focuses on publications that have come out within the last few months.

There’s one additional July book: The Miseducation of Evie Epworthby Matson Taylor from Scribner UK. The cover copy only hints a little at the queer content promised by the Amazon keywords. A couple of Goodreads reviews confirm it’s there, though vaguely enough that I’m not sure that the title character is the queer rep. This evidently is a BBC radio book club pick, so I suspect you should expect a story on the literary side.

July, 1962 Sixteen year-old Evie Epworth stands on the cusp of womanhood. But what kind of a woman will she become? The fastest milk bottle-delivery girl in East Yorkshire, Evie is tall as a tree and hot as the desert sand. She dreams of an independent life lived under the bright lights of London (or Leeds). The two posters of Adam Faith on her bedroom wall (‘brooding Adam’ and ‘sophisticated Adam’) offer wise counsel about a future beyond rural East Yorkshire. Her role models are Charlotte Bronte, Shirley MacLaine and the Queen. But, before she can decide on a career, she must first deal with the malign presence of her future step-mother, the manipulative and money-grubbing Christine. If Evie can rescue her bereaved father, Arthur, from Christine’s pink and over-perfumed clutches, and save the farmhouse from being sold off then maybe she can move on with her own life and finally work out exactly who it is she is meant to be.

The August books start with another literary book: All Men Want to Knowby Nina Bouraoui (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) from Viking. The book traces a fictionalized account of the author’s childhood:

...a blissful childhood in Algeria, a wild, sun-soaked paradise, with hazy summer afternoons spent swimming, diving, and driving across the desert. Her mother is French, her father Algerian; when racial tensions begin to surface in their neighbourhood, her mother suffers an unspeakable act of violence that forces the family to flee the country. In Paris, eighteen-year-old Nina lives alone. It's the 1980s. Four nights a week she makes her way to The Kat, a legendary gay nightclub, where she watches women from the sidelines, afraid of her own desires, her sudden and intoxicating freedom. In her solitude, she starts to write - and finds herself writing about her mother. All Men Want to Know is a haunting, lyrical international bestseller about mothers and daughters, about shame and sexuality, about existing between two cultures and belonging to neither. A phenomenon in France, this is a defining portrait of womanhood from one of Europe's greatest living writers.

The other two August books fall more solidly in the traditional historic romance genre. Guarding Heartsby Jaycie Morrison from Bold Strokes Books, part of her World War II series.

Sergeant Bett Smythe and Lieutenant Gale Rains are building a life together, despite the risks in the tightly closeted world of the Women’s Army Corps. When another couple, Captain Kathleen Hartley and Lieutenant Victoria Whitman, invite Bett and Rain to a dinner party, they’re introduced to the lesbian underground on the base. Kat and Whit have had a turbulent relationship, and as a budding friendship deepens, Kat’s attraction to Rain threatens both couples’ futures. When Whit’s friend is accused of sexually assaulting a recruit, the ensuing investigation impacts them all, professionally and personally. As the Battle of the Bulge rages overseas, the bounds of love and friendship are tested. Whit will do almost anything to preserve what she has with Kat, but who is the real threat? And can Bett protect her relationship from the very real dangers close to heart and home?

And in a grammatical coincidence of titles,Guarding Heartsis followed by the last August book, Keeping Secretsby McGee Mathews from Sapphire Books, also set during wartime, but the Civil War in this case.

What would you do if, after finally finding the woman of your dreams, she suddenly leaves to fight in the Civil War? It’s 1863, and Elizabeth Hepscott has resigned herself to a life of monotonous boredom far from the battlefields as the wife of a Missouri rancher. Her fate changes when she travels with her brother to Kentucky to help him join the Union Army. On a whim, she poses as his little brother and is bullied into enlisting, as well. Reluctantly pulled into a new destiny, a lark decision quickly cascades into mortal danger. While Elizabeth’s life has made a drastic U-turn, Charlie Schweicher, heiress to a glass-making fortune, is still searching for the only thing money can’t buy. A chance encounter drastically changes everything for both of them. Will Charlie find the love she’s longed for, or will the war take it all away?

What Am I Reading?

So what am I reading? I’m still mostly in my reading slump. I read a short story in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series that circles back to Janet’s youth via her love of journaling. It’s always fun to see the roots of a favorite character before they hit the crises that will change them forever.

Since my coping mechanism has shifted over to Netflix and Needlework, I’ve seen a couple of shows with queer female interest. The violent thriller The Old Guard, featuring Charlize Theron as leader of a near-immortal mercenary squad gives us some glimpses of historic settings and Theron’s character Andromache fighting side by side with another female immortal with a very strong girlfriends vibe. The show is definitely more focused on extended fight scenes than I tend to prefer, but the character actions in between are definitely worth it. And given that two other characters are very much openly a male romantic couple, you know that wherever they go with the show if it continues, they won’t shy away from queerness.

My other delightful Netflix surprise was in Anne with an E, the most recent and rather loose interpretation of Anne of Green Gables. While female friendship is a core element of the story, one of the additions in this interpretation is a clearly signaled Boston Marriage type couple involving the spinster aunt of Anne’s friend Diana. We see it only after the aunt’s partner has died, but not only is the nature of their lifelong partnership clearly laid out for the viewer, the aunt discusses it with Anne and gives her some broader ideas of possible life paths. It was very sweet and feminist and utterly unexpected.

What have you been reading or watching lately that gave you a window on queer women in the past?

Notes and Links

  • Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
    • Armenian astrology text (British Library Ms. Or. 6471)
    • Kuefler, Mathew (ed). 2007. The History of Sexuality Sourcebook. Broadview Press, Ontario. ISBN 978-1-55111-738-6
    • Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.
    • Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.
    • Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.
    • Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5
    • TBD
  • This month we have a theme focusing on the mythological figure of Artemis/Diana:
    • Reprise: Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation
    • Book Appreciation: Stories involving Artemis/Diana
    • Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana: Artificial Scarcity and Representation
  • Original Fiction: “Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink” by Jeannelle M. Ferreira
  • New and forthcoming fiction
  • Call for submissions for the 2021 LHMP audio short story series. See here for details.

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

Major category: 
Monday, July 27, 2020 - 16:00

What even is time? I have entirely lost track of it being Monday, today. A large part of that is because I'm attending the virtual Worldcon in New Zealand where it's tomorrow already. My entire week is going to be like this.

I've been keeping my eye peeled for data in my reading for the blog that might be useful to readers, but that doesn't fit well into the blog format. I want to find more "bonus content" to provide for my patrons on Patreon, and this type of information seems to fit. So Patreon members will have access to a vocabulary list of Japanese terms relating to same-sex relations and relationships, as extracted from Robertson's article. If you'd like to become a patron of the blog and podcast, you can sign on here.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.

When I was originally sorting out the current crop of journal articles into thematic groups for scheduling purposes, I’d put this one (like last week’s) into a “tragedy and crime” group. But in each case, once I started reading, I realized that those aspects were the smallest part of the thematic content. My planned “tragedy and crime” grouping has evaporated, while the “non-European topics” group has benefitted. I feel like that isn’t entirely coincidental. There’s a message in there somewhere about the intersection of sexual, social, and cultural othering. Maybe about how we are most likely to hear about marginalized identities when the people behave in what are considered antisocial ways? Or that no matter what marginalized people do, they are only considered worthy of note if they can be framed as antisocial? Or that we are most likely to have access to information about marginalized people in non-Western cultures when their own cultures consider them to stand outside normativity? Or just perhaps, it was my own knee-jerk stereotypes that interpreted suicide as falling within a tragedy/crime theme rather than a “culturally significant behaviors” theme? In any case, the present article wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

[Note: I was a bit concerned when I started reading about an author with a non-Japanese name tackling a subject as culturally fraught as suicide in Japan. But my impression is that Robertson is aware of those hazards, and the variety of resources listed in the bibliography gives me confidence that this isn’t a drive-by lookie-loo approach. In fact, she starts off by quoting another author stating, “To mention suicide and Japan in the same sentence is to bring to bear a set of stereotypes that continue to shape Western perceptions of non-Western culture.” At the very least, there’s a self-awareness of the pitfalls.]

The article is centered around a relationship between two women in Japan who planned a double suicide to address what seemed like unresolvable problems in their lives. Both survived the suicide attempt and appear to have continued their relationship more successfully afterward. This study also focuses on the various popular culture and media responses to the suicide attempt, to “love suicides” in general, and to the question of women’s same-sex relationships in Japanese culture.

The article opens with a number of satirical and mocking commentaries on the women’s suicide attempt, illustrating the deep and complex cultural context for the event, and then moves on to the cultural and historical context of 1930s Japan and how it contextualizes the event.

Early 20th century Japan was in the midst of a cultural crisis around positive and negative attitudes to, and effects of, Westernization. One way in which those conflicts were balanced was to gender Westernization as belonging to men, while women were assigned the role of maintaining traditional culture. Thus the same issues prevalent in the West around the “New Woman” (emancipated, pushing for full citizenship and voting rights, rejecting or renegotiating marriage) were also overlaid in Japan with this burden of preserving traditional culture against the Westernization that men and the national economy were embracing.

Saijo Eriko was a performer in an all-female revue company, taking “feminine” roles in the context of theatrical presentations where women played both the male and female roles. Masuda Yasumare (her chosen name) was from an upper class family and sported male-coded clothing and hair styles. Masuda initially began courting Saijo as a “fan” of her performance and this moved on to a romantic relationship.

We digress now for a lot of cultural background.

Double suicides of heterosexual couples were an accepted motif, inspired not only by Japanese attitudes toward suicide as a form of social protest but also by a culture of arranged marriages and generational obedience. If marriage was impossible, then suicide together was viewed as the ultimate proof of love. Female couples, however, were not granted the same acceptance or praise for such a choice. In the Saijo/Masuda suicide, Masuda was portrayed as being the casualty of a broken and disfunctional family, and Saijo as the victim of an overzealous fan obsession on the part of Masuda.

Robertson provides a detailed background on intersections of gender and sexuality in Japanese culture, including both traditional Japanese, and borrowed Western, terminology for different types of identities and relationships. [Note: I’m not going to list the terminology here because individual terms should be understood within a much more complex web of social nuances that it’s possible to explore here. But this article looks like a rich source of leads for understanding coded language as well as those with more literal use. For those who are interested, a fairly simple vocabulary list drawn from this article is available on Patreon.] There was a recognition that gender and sex were linked but separate axes, but reactions to those who crossed gender lines varied depending on context and sex.

Among the social changes with the shift to the Meiji era (1868-1911) and later was a developing understanding and vocabulary for women’s same-sex relations, which were considered distinct from men’s same-sex relations for which there was a longer history of acceptance. With the introduction Western sexological ideas, there was conflict over how those might be interpreted with respect to the long tradition of male-only theater in which men played women’s parts.

As it fell out, those were “grandfathered” as part of Japanese traditional culture, while the growing visibility of women’s same-sex relations and “masculinized” modern-leaning women were viewed as the embodiment of destabilizing Western depravity. “Traditional Japanese womanhood” was in the process of being invented as part of the stabilization of Japanese national identity, and these women represented the most extreme rejection of what was considered women’s proper role. Gender ambivalence was discouraged on a state level and increasing militarization also pushed for a distinct separation of gender roles. Women were the primary targets of this gender-policing.

Within this context, Western and European cultural influences were framed as “feminizing” in a negative sense (i.e., in their influence on men) even as the “feminine” was equated with positive aspects of Japanese tradition.

Robertson now turns to a discussion of the place of suicide, and especially double suicides, within Japanese culture. Within the context of relationship-driven male-female double suicides (which were considered noble and admirable--as a vast oversimplification), for female couples to enact “love suicides” was seen as a “public claim for sexual citizenship”. It was in this context that such actions were sensationalized and mocked, as a rejection of that claim.

There is a detailed exploration of the history, context, and dynamics of “love suicide” as well as other multi-person suicide pacts. General cultural anxieties in the 1930s are a possible driver for a general increase in both solitary and paired suicides in Japan, and the prominence of female couples engaging in “love suicide” is to some extent only a special case of the general trend.

We return now to the specific case of Saijo and Masuda. The press treated Saijo more leniently, not only because she was the “female-presenting” member of the couple, but because, as a professional entertainer, there were lower expectations for her sexual behavior. Masuda, in contrast, not only was viewed as more transgressive and threatening as the “masculine-presenting” member, but was blamed for breaking the social rules for an upper class woman, whose assigned role was the be a traditional “good wife and mother.”

Their initial courtship in the context of Saijo’s theater performances gave rise to a passionate correspondence, and then to traveling together as a way of spending time alone and enjoying a sexual relationship. When Saijo pressed to return home, Masuda became increasingly anxious and shared the story of her unhappy family life. Saijo became ill, which concluded the struggle between then, but on returning to Tokyo, Masuda began discussing suicide, initially as an individual intention.

Meanwhile, Masuda’s mother had hired an investigator to find them, viewing Saijo as a gold-digging instigator of the relationship, and this along with public interest in Saijo as an entertainment figure brought the attention of the press.

Their families separated them, but they arranged by phone to meet at a hotel and there (as is indicated the resulting events) took sleeping pills together to attempt suicide. Masuda left several suicide notes for various parties (as was typical for love-suicide events). It appears to have been the intrusive interest of the press that interrupted the attempt and brought medical help.

In the aftermath, Saijo wrote a personal (and somewhat self-serving) account of the relationship and suicide that disavowed romantic investment on her part--she was “just looking after her friend”--although it’s clear that she also took the sleeping pills. And once the dust had settled, Saijo negotiated with Masuda’s family to allow her to set up an independent household (as if she were a man). Saijo left the live revue to become a film actress and continued with a successful (but lower profile?) career.  [Note: the article is unclear on whether they continued as a couple. Saijo vows  to “keep a close watch” on Masuda, which could imply cover for a continuing romance.]

Robertson discusses Japanese familiarity with, and use of Western sexological literature. As in Western interpretations, it was not the fact of a relationship between women that was seen as problematic, but the usurpation of a masculine social role by one of the women, or the way in which such a relationship might interfere with expectations for marriage. Relationships between feminine-presenting women that were considered transitory or life-stage were not treated as deviant. But also, in Japanese engagement with sexological studies, there seems to have been a certain intentional overlooking of practices that were felt to be at odds with the image Japan wanted to project. When Japanese researchers claimed not to be aware of any female homosexuals, they may have been classifying familiar practices in ways that avoided that category.

Robertson presents a survey of other well-documented cases of female “love suicides” in the early 20th century, showing a variety of backgrounds and interpersonal dynamics. In one case, one suicide survivor published an autobiographical account that not only pushed back against the sensational versions of her story that had appeared in the press, but argued for the validity of women forming independent households together, and against the tendency to assign a “man’s role” to one participant. Robertson comments on how the “cultural intelligibility” of suicide in Japanese culture created an effective means to make such arguments as part of public discourse.

Time period: 
Saturday, July 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48d - Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/07/25 - listen here)

Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality.

Today’s topic explores two fields in which people in Western history and adjacent cultures expressed ideas that connect in some way to our modern idea of inherent sexual orientation. But the ways in which those concepts in the past differ from our ideas about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are just as fascinating as they ways in which they overlap.

These two topics certainly aren’t the only theories that Western people have had about sexual preference--they appear side by side with theories based on anatomy, moral concepts, among many others. But the fields of humoral theory and astrology intersect in interesting ways. Besides which, it’s hard to resist an alliterative title.

Both astrological and humoral theories of sexual desire arose within an understanding of sexual categories often called the “one-sex theory”, that is, a framework in which male and female existed on a continuum rather than being discrete categories, and where one’s gender identity could exist anywhere within that continuum or could shift within it. While this may sound very modern and progressive, we shouldn’t mistake it for an understanding of gender as subjective and value-neutral. At the same time that the one-sex continuum was an established philosophical concept, people were also quite certain that male and female were qualitatively different things, that male was better than female, and that stepping outside the part of the gender continuum one had been assigned to was a Bad Thing.


I’m going to tackle astrology first because it’s likely to be more familiar to my listeners. I would make a guess that most of you know the basics of astrology. It’s still common for newspapers and magazines to have a regular feature with simple advice or predictions based on the zodiac sign one was born under. And you’ll hear a lot of perfectly rational people talk about personality types associated with zodiac signs with sincerity--if not always actual belief. The basic idea is that the relative positions of the stars and planets at the exact time of one’s birth--sometimes also at the time of conception--will have an influence on one’s character, one’s strengths and weaknesses, and one’s life path. Apparent contradictions in the reading can generally be explained as secondary influences or conflicting forces: rising signs, waxing and waning planetary influences, and so forth.

For someone who takes astrology seriously -- and many people throughout history have done so -- it would seem fairly obvious that the alignments at one’s birth could influence what type of person one would desire sexually, or what type of sexual activity one would most enjoy. What is less obvious is what forms that influence would take.

Types of Astrological Influence

As an example of the sorts of topics that might be considered relevant, here’s a passage from a 4th century astrology manual by the Roman author Firmicus Maternus which shows the complicated web of factors that were considered to affect one’s life. One should understand that the default client indicated in these texts is male unless otherwise specified and when the text references a “native” it means the person whose nativity--whose birth--is being analyzed.

“Those who have Venus in [the second] house by day will have great reverses of fortune and also late marriage; they will have lawsuits over another woman. Some will be several times widowed. If the Sun or Saturn are in opposition, square aspect, or conjunction with Venus the natives will be sterile, never successful in sexual activity, will never marry, and always be lovers of boys. The misfortunes are less if Venus is in the house or terms of Saturn, Mars, or Mercury.”

That’s quite a variety of different effects that don’t have an obvious connection. But if we can understand the connections that the authors saw in these systems, then we can gain a key to how they structured sexual experiences within their societies.

The reference to a man being a “lover of boys” is set in parallel with being sterile or impotent, not marrying, or perhaps marrying late, or being widowed multiple times. These are all disruptions of the social ideal of a successful male life. Note that loving members of the same sex--which we might consider a sexual preference--is set in parallel with being sterile (which we would consider a medical condition), or with not marrying, which might be due to economic circumstances. And these are all identified as “misfortunes.”

In a different passage, still focusing on men, a particular conjunction “often makes them lovers of boys or of women from the stage, or they become manager of houses of prostitution.” Again, we see that the categories don’t align simply with gender of the sexual partner but follow an entirely different common thread, perhaps having to do with sexual options that are incompatible with marriage, or a desire for partners from a specific occupational class.

When Maternus addresses how women are affected, there is less complexity in his description. “If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love impurely and unchastely to other women.” Or, for a different conjunction, “If a woman has this combination she will always imitate the behavior of men,” a description that can imply sex with women, although it can also imply other male-coded behaviors.

The earliest astrology manuals we have are from an era when the practice was already long established, and it’s clear that each era interpreted and framed the material according to its own culture. Astrology manuals in circulation in Europe during the middle ages had often made their way from classical Greek and Latin origins through the Arabic tradition, picking up interpretations along the way. And classical texts were translated, adapted, and republished in the Renaissance and later. So as we take this tour through some interesting passages, we shouldn’t treat them as belonging to a unified, coherent, logical system, even though they all operate within a relatively continuous tradition of practice.

Stars that Make a Woman Masculine

Astrological alignments that cause women to “act like men” sometimes indicate pursuing sex with women, but sometimes it is a more general comment on assertive and dominant behavior. Such as: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men.” But also, “Mars and Venus in conjunction in a morning rising and in a masculine sign make women viragosand sterile.” That is they are made unfeminine in personality, but without necessarily pursuing women sexually.

If a variety of references to same-sex behavior are analyzed together, we see that there isn’t really a unified concept of homosexuality being expressed, but something more like a notion of fixed gender roles that include expected sexual behaviors for that role. Women’s same sex desires are most often discussed in a context of being masculine in behavior, which can include desiring women as a sexual partner and taking an active role in sex--both traits that were coded as male. In contrast, influences leading to men’s same-sex activity fall into two distinct groups: men who desire to be the passive partner in sex, and men who prefer partners not suitable for marriage, which can include both male partners and women of an unsuitable class or occupation. These are key factors in understanding some of the differences from a modern concept of sexual orientation.

The Arabic Tradition

While texts in Greek or Latin or the later European languages often refer to sex between women only in terms of one partner “acting like a man”, Arabic texts had a more specific vocabulary available that didn’t necessarily imply masculinity.

A medieval Arabic translation of Dorotheos of Sidon, who originally wrote in the 1st century, translates whatever language he used with the completely unambiguous word sahaqato mean a woman who has sex with women. He writes that when Venus and the Moon are in a particular location, the female subject will be a sahaqa, while men with a similar conjunction will be “desirous of males”. But in another passage, Dorotheos discusses astrological causes of excess lust in women, giving the conjunctions that lead to adultery, to “perform the act of men with women”, or to simply to excessively indulging in sex with men. Here we see another historic view of sex between women: that it results from an excess of desire that may be expressed in a variety of ways, where the gender of the partner is simply one type of inappropriate context.

Influences other than Gender of Partner

The choice of partner isn’t the only sexual factor being influenced, not even the choice of an active or passive sexual role, which is often a more accurate way to interpret these descriptions. The stars can affect your preference for sexual partners of a specific age, social status, or race. It can cause you to prefer specific sexual positions, as in a text by Guido Bonatti that claims that if a male child is conceived with Venus in a certain position, he will later participate in sex with the woman on top.

The stars also determine whether you will pursue illicit sex secretly or openly, which is one of the factors discussed in the following passage by Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in 2nd century Egypt. He also combines discussions of astrology with humoral theory, a common feature in the early texts, as the planets were often thought to have their effects through changing one’s humoral balance. But more on that in a moment.

We see in Claudius Ptolemy’s system that conjunctions that reinforce “natural” sexual behaviors in men are thought to cause unnatural behavior in women because they have caused her to be more masculine in nature, and vice versa. “If the luminaries are unattended in masculine signs, males exceed in the natural, and females exceed in the unnatural quality, so as merely to increase the virility and activity of the soul. But if likewise Mars or Venus as well, either one or both of them is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the female are lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades, for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, [they do them] without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’.” 

Your stars may affect your personality, or your behavior, or your body. So it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly on the passages that talk about same-sex interactions as if that were the most salient feature of the astrological influence. Astrology couldinfluence you to prefer partners of a specific type, or to prefer certain types of sex acts, but gender was only one of many possible features involved, and even when gender was involved, it might be as part of a gender system that considered age and social class to be categories as important as male versus female.

Astrology in Other Texts

So were astrological explanations of sexual preference purely an intellectual game? A literary genre? Or simple superstition? Evidently not, because we can find astrology offered as a possible cause for desire between women in specific cases during the middle ages and later. The 16th century German Zimmern Chroniclerelates the story of a young working class woman who courted and loved other women. The chronicler considers several possible reasons for her behavior, working through popular theories of the time. Perhaps she had masculine-leaning physiology and that caused her to desire women? No, the local women checked her out and found her to conform to expected female norms. Perhaps she was born under a “perverted, unnatural constellation”? Or perhaps her desire was just something that happened sometimes given that “according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans.” Though the Zimmern chronicler comes to no solid conclusion, he considers the stars to be a possible causal factor alongside the others.

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There wasn’t a bright dividing line between how humoral theory affected human lives and the effects of astrology, for the latter was sometimes described as operating by changing the balance of heat and cold, wet and dry.  Unlike astrology, humoral theory has largely fallen out of popular familiarity in modern Western culture, though its roots were just as long and deep. Westerners today may be more familiar with the basic principles via similar philosophies in various Asian traditions. The last trace of the Western Galenic tradition of humoral balance that people are likely to have heard of is the medical practice of blood-letting, either by direct bleeding or through the use of leeches. But the philosophy was far more complicated than that.

Most later writing on humoral theory traces to the works of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen, although he simply codified ideas that were in common circulation at the time, including a large body of work attributed to Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. And humoral theory was only one part of a larger philosophical system that focused on the principles of balance and imbalance, moderation, and characteristics that existed in polarity. Hot, cold; wet, dry; living, inert. Specific combinations and gradients of these factors defined the nature of everything in existence. These principles applied in chemistry, where a specific balance of principles determined the nature of the elements. But of more immediate interest today is the application of humoral theory in biology and health.

In this context, “Humoral theory” visualizes the two binaries of hot/cold and wet/dry in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Each living being also had an inherent humoral balance depending on their nature, as can be seen in the alternate names for personalities reflecting the humors: sanguine, phlegmatic, choloric, and melancholic. Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, and by behavior and activity. Health, well-being, and proper function according to one’s nature come from having the humors in the proper balance. Medicine is designed to correct an imbalance. 

In addition certain humoral balances were associated with the genders, with life-stage, and with many other human characteristics. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this supposed “fact.”

So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. Humors were generated by the body’s metabolism and could change in nature. For example, blood could be converted to milk when a woman was nursing, which provided the explanation for why lactation suppressed menstruation and fertility.

Humoral Theory and Sex

Fertility--and of course, sex--were always of interest when considering health. The general theory of humoral dynamics during sex goes something like this. The constant accumulation of certain humors in the body increases heat in the genitals, which causes irritation and draws moisture. This irritation motivates a person to engage in sex to relieve it, which results in the entire body heating up, which transforms the residues into semen. The expulsion of seed during orgasm then removes the surplus of heat and moisture and--if conception occurs--provides nourishment for the fetus. One interesting feature of medical theory at the time was that both sexes ejaculated seed at orgasm and therefore women’s sexual satisfaction was necessary for conception.

This cycle was considered to contribute to proper balance and good health, but sex was not the only means of achieving that balance. The accumulation of the humors that caused desire (and therefore the degree to which the body desired sex to expel them) depended on diet, as well as other personal factors. The sex of a resulting child depended on the mixing and strength of the seed of both parents, the woman’s being more cold and wet and the man’s being more hot and dry.

One Italian medical treatise of the 13th century shows the detailed and convoluted reasoning by which humoral theory was thought to cause particular sexual habits. It describes how virginal women are continually aroused, because the narrowness of their womb prevents emission of their seed, therefore they can’t rid themselves of excess heat in this way. The heat drives them to stimulate themselves, which draws moisture to the genitals, but cannot be expelled and they are in a constant state of frustration.

Humoral Influences on Same-Sex Desire

But how do same-sex activities come into the question? Now we get a diversity of answers. The theories for why certain imbalances of humors might cause a man to get pleasure from being the passive partner in male-male sex are fascinating, but not relevant to this essay. And note that no argument was needed for what motivated the insertive partner in a male couple because the dynamics followed the usual expectations for male metabolism.

The most straightforward explanation for how humors could drive a woman to same-sex love is simple lack of satisfaction with a male partner. If the women is not brought to orgasm, her humors remain out of balance causing continued irritation and, as Avicenna argues, they may “have recourse to rubbing with other women in order to achieve amongst themselves the fullness of their pleasures” and rid themselves of the build up of seed caused by arousal.

Indeed, some medical manuals, such as that of Nicholas Fontanus in mid-17th century England, prescribed that if a woman suffered from an “abundance of the spermatick humor” and has no husband to help relieve her, balance might be restored by “the hand of a skilfull midwife and a convenient ointment” rubbed into the genitals to achieve orgasm.

Humors and Gender Identity

But outside of this situational desire, humoral balance was considered to affect desire through a heteronormative model of innate nature. As with astrology, the effects of the humors on sexual behavior were often interpreted as being due to their influence on one’s gender expression. Men were considered to have a more hot and dry nature, women tended to be more cold and moist. As a high degree of sexual desire was considered to be a masculine characteristic, excess sexual desire in women was associated with conditions that made them more “hot”, and this was thought to result in a variety of male-coded characteristics. For example the medieval author Michael Scot claims that a woman with a hot nature, as well as being more lustful, will have small, hard breasts, smaller periods, and an excess of pubic hair.

If a woman had more of a hot, dry nature than was typical for women -- a more masculine nature -- it would affect both her ability to conceive and her personality with regard to sex, making her more bold and aggressive and inclined to take a masculine role in sex with other women. European texts are less obsessed with a precise mechanism of how this would work than they are for what might motivate a man to desire a passive role in sex.

But one exception is a 16th century Spanish text by Juan Huarte de San Juan who discussed how, if a fetus that began as one sex was subjected to the temperature that caused the other sex early in development, it could result in a contrast between nature (based on conditions at conception) and body (influenced by conditions during development). So a female fetus influenced by heat to develop male physiology, would still have a feminine personality and desire for sex with men, while a male fetus subjected to cold would develop a female body but have masculine behavior and desires, including sexual desire for women. In modern terms this description fits more with how transgender identity is envisioned, but this sex-change version isn’t the only process that can result in same-sex desire. Elsewhere Huarte discusses how a woman whose humors tend toward the hot and dry (that is, a masculine balance) will have an assertive personality, a low voice, will be more muscular, and will have difficulty becoming pregnant. (Though, in this passage, a tendency toward same-sex desire isn’t mentioned.)

Same-sex Desire Unrelated to Gender Identity

Although discussions of the influence of the humors on sexuality in the European tradition tended to be relatively value-neutral to the extent that they approached it as a medical topic, Arabic texts could be even less judgmental about sexual matters, as well as being more explicit.

The 9th century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote, “Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolves and becomes cold through friction and orgasm. When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.”

As a mathematical equation, this explanation requires a premise that female same-sex desire is a different physiological process than a woman’s desire for a man. Arousal makes her hot but orgasm results in the production of a cold liquid that cools the heat, whereas a man’s orgasm produces a hot liquid that cannot cool her. (Presumably heterosexual sex included some other means of balancing the woman’s hot/cold nature.) Al-Kindi’s explanation was quoted in the 13th century by Tifashi, who included it among a longer list of reasons why a woman might prefer sex with women over men.

But humoral explanations are not always consistent. A 12th century Arabic writer, al-Maghribi--again, among other unrelated reasons for preferring same-sex love--claims that a woman “whose womb is dominated by coldness” finds more pleasure in sex with women because the friction increases temperature, which evidently sex with men didn’t, in his system. Don’t be too distracted by apparent conflicts between texts regarding the underlying principles. A strict logical consistency was not always a feature of humoral literature.

Advice from Health Manuals

Health manuals based on humoral theory offered extensive catalogs of the nature of items in everyday life that could affect one’s humoral balance, from food, to activities, to clothing, to sensory experiences. Eating cherries is cold and wet in the first degree. The season of summer is warm in the third degree and dry in the second. Roses, gathered for their scent, are cold in the first degree and dry in the third. Linen clothing is cold and dry in the second degree while woolen clothing is warm and dry.

In addition to sexual appetite being influenced by one’s humoral balance, the sex act itself could change one’s humors, as discussed previously. Sexual arousal increased heat and orgasm took heat away. Therefore, both abstinence or excessive sexual activity could cause a harmful imbalance. One health manual notes that it may be harmful to those who are cold and dry.

The goal in changing one’s diet and habits was to achieve the balance proper to one’s nature. An imbalance could cause disease or inappropriate behavior. But that “proper balance” wasn’t the same for all people. As discussed previously, gender was considered to be a byproduct of different humoral balances. But further than that, the desired humoral profile for a military leader would be different from that of a clergyman, the proper balance for a young unmarried woman who was expected to be chaste would be different than that of a married woman hoping to conceive a child. The use of sexual pleasure to adjust one’s humoral balance could be considered a type of medical treatment, even when it didn’t conform to accepted moral principles.

Humors and Horoscopes in Historical Fiction

How do the topics of astrology and humoral theory speak to queer historical fiction? It is always tricky to represent how a character in a historic novel understands their own nature and desires, or how those around them perceive them. The models that people in history had for understanding themselves were far more complex than the image of sin and immorality one finds in Christian literature, or the psychological model we’ve inherited much more recently from the sexologists. While not everyone had access to the learned texts that I’ve quoted in this essay, the basic principles were part of popular culture and familiar to people at all levels of society. Within those complex and contradictory models, there can be room for a fictional character to understand their same-sex desires as being an innate and predetermined feature of their personality, even if that understanding differs in significant ways from modern ideas of orientation and identity.

References and Links

Books used

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Monday, July 20, 2020 - 19:00

I'm always delighted to get my eyeballs on material from outside western Europe and Anglophone cultures. This article is particularly interesting for letting us into the everyday details of language and domestic arrangements around female couples. One does, however, need to filter out the judgmental commentary, even though it's milder than what we might see in western European sources.

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Full citation: 

Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.

While the study of homosexuality was developing in Europe in the later 19th century, theories and publications on the topic made their way to Russia, but did not necessarily shape how Russian culture and medical/psychological professionals viewed people in same-sex relationships. Direct evidence about female homosexuality in Russia is scanty, but a collection of three case studies were written up by a Russian gynecologist in 1895, based either on direct contact or on documentary evidence.

This article summarizes those cases and notes ways in which the Russian attitudes revealed in the document differ from those of Western Europe. In the few 19th century Russian texts that discuss homosexuality (e.g., in a criminal context), references to lesbianism are even rarer than they are in Western texts. The Russian commentaries (including these case studies) appear to discount the idea of connections between lesbianism and criminality that are made in European studies. The case studies also make a significant point of excluding either physical, intellectual, or psychological abnormalities as being associated with the specific individuals being discussed. The case studies make a point that homosexuality is found among all social classes and that the women engaged in it were “normal” by all other measures. One peculiarly Russian attitude that he contradicted was the idea that the “common people” were free of sexual excess or “corruption” that was thought to be characteristic of the urban elites, influenced by Western (foreign) values.

This is not to say that the doctor approved of the women he described. His attitude is inconsistent in some areas, considering homosexuality to be “abnormal” while a the same time emphasizing the normality of his subjects. Engelstein notes that the resistance to overtly stigmatizing homosexuality may be due to a discomfort among Russian medical professionals to being co-opted as part of authoritarian practices by the government.

Case 1: the peasant Shashnina (1886)

[Note: the narrative is somewhat circuitous and follows the revelations of the legal investigation, but I’m going to reorganize it somewhat for brevity.]

In a rural community, Mariia Pavlovna Shashnina was popularly known to be “double-sexed” or “double-rigged” (dvukhpolaia, dvukhsbruinaia), i.e. with both types of sexual organs, and that she associated only with girls and avoided men. She had some masculine habits, such as smoking, and resisted the authority of her mother and brother. She engaged in sexual relations with women by tribadry (techniques are discussed in detail) and several of her lovers testified that she had penetrated them with a sexual organ similar to a penis.

Shashnina had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple women, including one named Ekaterina prior to the latter’s marriage and Ekaterina testified that she had lost her virginity to Shashnina by means of “something resembling a male member”. After Ekaterina’s marriage, Shashnina began encouraging her to poison her husband, arguing that she was a better partner because she would never get Ekaterina pregnant, as well as being richer and more clever than the husband. Together they procured poison and killed him.

While in prison for this crime (or maybe before trial?) Shashnina began a love affair with another prisoner, courting her with gifts and pledges of affection. This led to a physical examination in the prison hospital, which was one of several examinations recording contradictory evidence, meant to determine if there were some physical explanation for her behavior. Although the various examinations differed on some details (such as whether Shashnina was a virgin), they all concluded that there was no evidence of abnormal genitalia, in particular no penis analog as described by her lovers. In view of these conclusions, she was released from the hospital. [There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of her legal fate, but that may not have been of interest to the author.]

Case 2: the prostitute (1888)

[Note: again, I’m condensing and rearranging the case study from it’s original rambling structure.]

Pelageia Kuritsyna was living in a brothel run by a man named Neiman in the area of St. Petersburg, accompanying her friend Ida Chernova. (There seems to have been a form of debt-servitude involved.) The two women were discharged shortly thereafter due to complaints that the two were lovers and were neglecting their clients in favor of each other, with Pelageia playing “the man’s role.” [Note: the text says that the two were called koshki, she-cats “as such women are usually called.” I believe this is an ordinary term for a cat, so the slang term may not have been overtly vulgar.]

While Pelageia was employed at the brothel, Nikolai Krasavin (one of the clients?) fell in love with her. When she was discharged, he paid her debt to Neiman and installed her in his apartment until, a year and a half later, he decided to marry her. The marriage broke up shortly thereafter and Pelageia returned to one of Neiman’s brothels, this time as a housekeeper. In her initial position, the tried to initiate a relationship with some of the other prostitutes unsuccessfully, but after being transferred to a different location, she began a sexual relationship with a prostitute there named Mania. Evidently her erstwhile husband, Nikolai, was still visiting her there and the other women said that Pelageia would pay them off to entertain him while she spent her time with Mania. This was all reported to Neiman who fired her, after which Mania quit as well.

Nikolai seems to have been in denial about his wife’s sexual preferences, despite the fact that Pelageia and Mania had moved in together with one of Mania’s relatives. But he became convinced when he intercepted letters between the two which “were filled with tender names and expressions of love.” [Note: I wish we could have transcripts of the letters, which were later presented as legal evidence. But I get ahead of myself...] Pelageia offered to earn money for her husband by renting an apartment and taking in some coincidence including Mania and another prostitute. Nikolai would visit her there and sometimes spend the night until, suspicious of how his wife would go to bed with Mania (and not him) he spied on them and saw them engaged in sex.

Nikolai thereupon decided to murder his wife and--after bolstering his intent with significant amounts of alcohol--stabbed her to death, also wounding Mania which she came to Pelageia’s defense.

Pelageia was autopsied as part of the investigation and a detailed description of her physiology and sexual organs is included, pronouncing her anatomy to be that of a normal woman. The author adds his commentary that she “was not a stupid woman but crafty and completely in command of her mental faculties... All her actions...were entirely expedient and rather well thought out.” That is, he concluded that her homosexuality was not due to anatomical, mental, or psychological defects.

Case 3: the widow and her lover (1889)

[Note: Based on the description of the behavior and reactions of the person identified as N, I would suggest that N might identify today as a trans man, rather than a lesbian. Or perhaps not, if N had access to other social models for their experiences and identity, though I think the transgender case is much stronger. The Russian author of the original account, and the author of this article use female language to refer to N. I am going to follow the practice I have been developing and use they/them for N in order to highlight the uncertainty. But read my summary with the understanding that I am both misrepresenting the text and probably misrepresenting N’s gender with this compromise. As with the previous two cases, I’ve rearranged the narrative somewhat.]

The doctor met this couple through V (N’s partner) who came to him for treatment of a gynecological issue. The case study of V (at the end of the article) describes her as a “passive tribade” who had always presented in a feminine manner. At school, she had fallen in love with a number of girlfriends, and at age 15, one of those girlfriends had "taught her to masturbate” [note: a common way that f/f sex was described in historic literature] V was attracted to N at their first meeting and soon fell in love. V has also been attracted to men and felt that she was capable of falling in love with a man and getting married, but since she is completely happy and satisfied with her relationship with N, she has no intention of doing so. V saw the doctor (author) for an infection of the vulva. When he suggested that it might be due to masturbation, V became embarrassed but was eventually pursuaded to answer questions about it in writing, explaining her relationship with N.

The doctor procured an introduction to N and treated them for a non-gynecological issue, then pursuaded N to write a detailed autobiography in response to questions. The doctor notes that N is “well-educated, sensible, dependable, and serious,” that they are feminine in appearance but has some mannerisms that are considered masculine. Later in the article, the doctor notes that he was able to examine N’s external genitals and found them small but otherwise normally female. N refused to allow any more invasive examination. [Note: Good for N!]

The rest is based on N’s reported autobiography. N enjoys reading and literature and attending the theater and opera, but doesn’t care for needlework or attending public balls, though they enjoy private dancing among friends in which they always take the male role. N dresses in feminine garments but doesn’t follow stylish fashions and chooses garments that have slightly masculine overtones in style.

As a child, N preferred the society of boys and active play. They disliked dolls and thought girls were timid and listless. When N was 9 their mother died, leaving three children: N and two younger boys. After this N’s father included them in masculine activities such as riding and hunting and N acquired the masculine nickname “Misha” rather than feminine “Masha”. [Note: “Misha” is a nickname for Mikhail, “Masha” for Maria. The doctor’s shorthand of N is presumably from their surname.]

N was then sent to boarding school and attached themself to an older girl who had a reputation for daring active escapades. Later N acquired a girlfriend who enjoyed kissing and caressing, which N found pleasant and reciprocated such that they became known as “the inseparables.” Their affection evolved into sexual activity, but the girlfriend developed emotional problems and was taken home by her parents. N enjoyed relationships with several other girls after that and began wondering if they might be a man.

While N was at school their father and brothers died within a short period and N went to live with their aunt. At first N’s girlfriend visited and they shared a bed in a separate room, but N was inconsolable when the girlfriend had to leave. N met another young woman and fell in love again. (This was V.) N’s aunt encouraged the relationship as N’s emotional outlook was much improved and V was encouraged to join their household.

N’s aunt tried to encourage male suitors for N but N rejected them. One refused to be put off and gained the friendship of N and V over conversation and intellectual pursuits. When N’s aunt began a fatal decline she urged N to marry the man in order to stabilize her future, as life for a wealthy unmarried woman would be precarious. N initially disagreed but then concluded it was good advice. N laid out the necessary conditions: it would be a friendly relationship but not sexual. N and V would continue to share a bedroom and N’s husband would have a separate bedroom and study.

N’s husband agreed and the marriage proceeded, but he soon began initiating physical affections which “enraged and irritated” N who was frustrated that the situation had become dissatisfactory. Then one evening N’s husband accidentally(?) walked in on N and V in the middle of making love. He withdrew in embarrassment and confusion. N and V spent that night discussing the situation and concluded the only answer was for them to leave. But on rising, they found that N’s husband had committed suicide, leaving a note for the police and a separate note telling N “I was convinced that my happiness was impossible; I am removing myself in order not to interfere with yours.” Now N was a (wealthy) widow and free to continue life with V.

N dicusses their gender identity. [Since this is a direct quote, it uses female pronouns.] “When only fifteen she first became aware that she was made to be a man, though mistakenly endowed by nature with female sexual organs. She experienced a man’s attraction for girls and women but none at all for men, whom she merely found pleasant and intelligent to talk to. She long ago recognized her peculiar condition, as she calls it. Though she realizes she does not resemble other women, she does not consider herself a monster but only an error of nature. All her feelings are exclusively masculine; she unconsciously, instinctively does everything in a masculine way. She would very much like to dress as a man and restrains herself only for the sake of propriety. She does not wear her hair in a feminine way and always dreams of herself as a man, sometimes even with whiskers. In the company of women she knows well, she feels entirely manly and is always in excellent spirits. In the company of men, by contrast, she feels shy and constrained, like a school child in the company of preceptors and teachers.”

N notes that all their acquaintances are women, though she only feels love for some of them. Since their husband’s death, they interact with men rarely and only for business. “She has tried several times to imagine herself involved with a man, in particular with her late husband, but is seized each time by a horrible, repulsive, unbearable feeling of disgust.” When asked whether they wanted to be “liberated” from their condition, N answered, “What for? I am happy the way I am. Transformed into an authentic woman, I might not be as happy; indeed that would be impossible. To change in that way, I would have to be reborn in either body or soul.”

Time period: 
Saturday, July 18, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48c - Book Appreciation with Luci Dreamer - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/07/11 - listen here)

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Luci Dreamer Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Monday, July 13, 2020 - 07:00

I should probably set up a topic-tag for the LHMP for books that are intended either as textbooks or general reference works (e.g., encyclopedia-type texts) because I'm starting to get a number of them and it seems like a category that people might find useful. Not sure how to handle that, because it doesn't really fit with the types of tags I already have set up. But, hey, I can just add it to the "topics" list and sort it out later if I decide to do it differently.

For me, personally, this sort of basic reference work isn't very interesting at this point. I'm always looking for new ideas and new information that I haven't encountered before. But for someone who wants to get a basic grounding in the structure and source materials available for the history of sexuality? This sort of reference may be just the thing.

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Full citation: 

Kuefler, Mathew (ed). 2007. The History of Sexuality Sourcebook. Broadview Press, Ontario. ISBN 978-1-55111-738-6

This book would make a good companion to Crawford’s European Sexualities, 1400-1800, covered a couple weeks ago. While Crawford offered an analytic textbook on sexuality in history, Kuefler provides a collection of readings of historic texts (though covering a larger geographic and chronological scope) that demonstrate how sexuality was described, experienced, and managed. Note that, as with Crawford’s work, this is “sexuality” in the broadest sense, encompassing all types of desire and activity, and not “sexuality” in the narrow sense of sexual orientation.

This is an encyclopedia-style collection of texts that speak to specific topics in the history of sexuality. It is far from exhaustive, either in intent or execution, but rather picks specific works to use as discussion or thinking points. It was compiled for use as a set of study texts for a college course on the history of sexuality and that purpose can be seen in the inclusion of study questions after each text.

This summary will note the texts that include content relevant to the LHMP, but I won’t discuss those texts in detail. (Most of them have been covered in other entries in a more analytic form.)

#19 - Plato (5th c BCE, Greece): Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium that includes the “two halves seeking their other part” model of desire that includes same-sex desire.

#30 - Sappho (7th c BCE, Greece): Several fragments of poems, especially those expressing desire for women.

#68 - Penitential manual (7-8th c CE, England): Examples of penances for fornication, including ones from same-sex activity.

#83 - Bieiris de Romans (12-13th c CE, France): Troubadour love song apparently by a woman to a woman.

#115 - Misc. (19th c France): Medical case studies on the theme of masturbation, including same-sex activity classified as masturbation. Medical interventions to prevent masturbation, including genital mutilation and torture.

#116 - Misc. (19th c France): As a counterpoint to the preceding, recommendation of sexual stimulation to orgasm (including use of a vibrating dildo) as a treatment for “hysteria” in women.

#119 - Krafft-Ebbing (19th c Germany): Case studies of psychological issues attributed to sexual history or to family history of “nervous taint.” The examples include references to cross-dressing, female same-sex desire, and transgender feelings.

#160 - Rekhti erotic poetry (17-18th c India): Excerpts from a genre of erotic poetry describing female same-sex love by traditionally written by male poets.

Saturday, July 11, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48b - Interview with Luci Dreamer - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/07/11 - listen here)

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Luci Dreamer Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

Major category: 
Tuesday, July 7, 2020 - 07:00

The year is half past and it's not too early to start thinking about next year's fiction series. The call for submissions is essentially identical to the one for this year's series. You are encouraged to publicize this Call widely. My goal is to have so many excellent submissions that it breaks my heart that I can only pick four.

Full details on the Call for Submissions can be found here (and will be prominent on the drop-down menu for the duration).

I hope to see even more wonderful story submissions in January than I did last time!


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The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2021 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.

Technical Details

  • We will accept short fiction of any length up to 5000 words, which is a hard limit. We will be buying a total of four stories. (If we get some really great flash fiction, there’s the possibility of more.)
  • We will be paying professional rates: $0.08/word.
  • The contract will be for first publication rights in audio and print (i.e., the story must not have appeared in either format previously) with an exclusive one year license. (Exceptions can be arranged by mutual consent for “best of” collections within that term.)
  • Instructions on how to submit are given below. NO SUBMISSIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED OUTSIDE THE SUBMISSION PERIOD OF JANUARY 2021.

What We’re Looking For

  • Stories must be set in an actual historic culture--i.e., a specific time and place in history--and the plot and characters should be firmly rooted in that time and place. (No time-travel or past memories, please.)
  • Stories may include fantastic elements that are appropriate to the historic setting. For example, they can include fantastic or supernatural events or beings that people of that era considered to be real. Or stories may be modeled on the fantastic literature of a specific historic era and culture. The limits to this will necessarily be subjective.
  • Stories must be set before 1900. We’d love to see stories that reach beyond the popular settings of 19th century America and England unless you do something new and interesting in them. [Also: see sensitivity note below.]
  • Romance is optional, and romance stories should have some other significant plot element in addition to the romance.
  • We are not looking for erotica. Sex may be implied but not described. (It’s difficult to include both erotic content and a substantial non-romantic plot in short fiction. I’d rather that stories focus on the plot and characters.)
  • Stories should feature lesbian-relevant themes. What do I mean by that, especially given the emphasis the LHMP puts on how people in history understood sexuality differently than we do? This is where we get into “I know it when I see it” territory. The story should feature protagonist(s) who identify as women, whose primary emotional orientation within the scope of the story is toward other women. This is not meant to exclude characters who might identify today as bisexual or who have had relationships with men outside the scope of the story. But the story should focus on same-sex relations. Stories that involve cross-gender motifs (e.g., "passing women," "female husbands") should respect trans possibilities [see sensitivity note below].
  • Stories need not be all rainbows and unicorns, but should not be tragic. Angst and peril are ok as long as they don’t end in tragedy.
  • Authors of all genders and orientations are welcome to submit. Marginalized authors are strongly encouraged to submit, regardless of whether you are writing about your own cultural background.

Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.

Submission Information

  • Do not send submissions before January 1, 2021 or after January 31, 2021. Submissions sent outside this window will not be considered (with allowance for time zones).
  • Send submissions to
  • Submit your story as an rtf or doc(x) file attached to your email
  • The file name should be “[last name] - [story title, truncated if long]”
  • The subject line of your email should be “LHMP Submissions - [last name] - [story title]”
  • There is no need to provide a synopsis or biographical information in the cover letter.
  • By submitting your story, you are verifying that the material is your own original work and that it has not been previously published in any form in a publicly accessible context.
  • Submissions will be acknowledged within 2 days of receipt. If you haven’t received an acknowledgment within 5 days, please query.
  • Based on previous years, I will generally have the submissions read and responded to within the first week of February. If you haven't received a response by mid-February, please query as the email may have gone astray.


Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:

  • In addition to word count, please provide the date/era of your setting and the location/culture it is set in. (These can be in general terms, but it helps for putting the story in context, especially if it uses a very tight point of view where the time/place are not specifically mentioned in the story.) If you are including fantasy elements and think I might not be familiar with the historic background for those elements, a very brief note in the cover e-mail is ok.

If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here are the minimum essential elements it should have:

  • Use courier or a similar monospaced serif font, 12-point size
  • Lines should be double-spaced with paragraphs indented. (Use your word processor’s formatting for this, do not use tabs or manual carriage returns.)
  • Do not justify the text, leave a ragged right margin.
  • Margins should be at least 1-inch or equivalent all around
  • On the first page, provide the following information:
  • Your name (legal name, the name I’ll be putting on the contract)
  • email address
  • (standard formats generally require a mailing address but I don’t need one at this point)
  • word count (please use your word processor’s word count function, rounded to the nearest 100)
  • date/era of story
  • location/culture of story
  • Centered above the start of the story, include the title, and on the next line “by [name to appear in publication]”. This is where you may use a pen name, if you choose.
  • Please use actual italics rather than underlining for material meant to appear in italics.
  • Please indicate the end of your story with the word “end” centered below the final line.

As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)

Notes on Sensitivity

I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid "exoticizing" the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"

What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.


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