Skip to content Skip to navigation


Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 07:00

Sometimes the volume of my interspersed commentary in an LHMP entry is an index to how much I disagree with it. But sometimes--as in the present case--it's because I find the content so challenging and engaging that I was to become part of the conversation. I want to discuss the subject, to dig deeper, to bring in additional angles, to talk my way through the process of integrating the ideas into my own global understanding. I'm not in the position of having those conversations with the authors. And I don't know if there would be enough interest for a book discussion group (even if I had the time and energy to lead one). So I hold that conversation in square brackets within my summaries.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 2: Perverse Presentism: the Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband, and Other Pre-Twentieth-Century Genders

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

While Halberstam reaches into the 19th century to explore the historic background of female masculinity, I think the topic is done a disservice by not including a much deeper timeframe. As studies of classical and medieval theories of sex and gender--such as Laqueur and Cadden--demonstrate, the idea that certain characteristics are inherently masculine or inherently feminine, despite appearing in persons of any bodily sex, is long-standing. Latin had a word specifically for their understanding of female masculinity: virago. And medieval and early modern concepts of hermaphroditisim (when not being a framework for addressing intersex bodies) speak directly to the idea that gender identity and gendered performance will not always align.

Although Halberstam’s book focuses primarily on visible signifiers of masculinity and sexual behavior, there is a more general problem with the question of female masculinity, both in the historic context and today. When socially-valued characteristics are arbitrarily assigned to the category of masculinity, it means that women who embody those characteristics will tend to be read as masculine, regardless of all other gender performance. What are some of the valued characteristics that have historically been treated as masculine? Intelligence. Bravery. Leadership. Rationality. Morality. Robust health. Desire for women. This is the flip side of the problem.

Halberstam touches briefly on how women with intellectual interests, women in positions of social or political power, and so forth either have been subsumed into the category of “masculine persons” or have been derided as “unfeminine”, but I the topic presents a more complex problem in the earlier centuries that H doesn’t investigate in as much detail. And that problem is particularly relevant when trying to interpret what the label of “masculine woman” meant in the past, either to society or to the woman in question. If one is told that one’s interests and activities are signs of masculinity, how does one reconcile that  with identifying as a woman? How does it affect one’s relationship to womanhood or to femininity? Do you accept the label or challenge it? Do you decide you aren’t actually a woman after all (because society tells you that you aren’t behaving like one)? Do you begin to despise “femininity” because you consider it incompatible with your life? Or do you push back and argue for the right of women to do and be things that have been labeled masculine without losing their gender identity? Women have done all these things, varying both individually and based on shifting social attitudes.

The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]

Queer historians have tended either to pursue untheoretical historic surveys, or to theorize ahistorical models. [Note: let me unpack that -- there’s a tendency either to collect up “catalogs” of some particular queer identity without understanding those instances within the larger historic framework, or to focus on creating a theoretical historic framework that carefully sidesteps the messy historic realities that would contradict it.] This results in seeing either ahistoric universals or discrete identities bound to a specific historical moment.

To counter this, H looks at two examples of female masculinity from the 19th century to show how masculine women played a large part in constructing modern masculinity. Further, one can’t simply assume these earlier examples of female masculinity represent early forms of lesbianism. That erases their specific existence as well as erasing other early forms of same-sex desire. It turns them into sexual deviance rather than gender variance.

Halberstam puts forth two propositions:

1. Women have made their own unique contributions to what we call modern masculinity which go unnoticed in gender scholarship.

2. Female masculinity is actually multiple masculinities that proliferate as we examine them.

Having a small number of categories forces diverse behaviors and identities into a single concept, erasing the variety and distinctions that are most interesting. Related to this, in the next chapter Halberstam will re-visit the rigidly binary categories of Havelock Ellis and other sexologists. [Note: H describes the data discussed here as “the few examples of same-sex desire between women in the 19th century that are readily available to us.” But either “same-sex desire” or “readily available to us” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this claim. Even at the original publication date of this book, there should have been a lot more examples easily available for consideration.] Rather than seeing all 19th century examples of same-sex desire as “lesbians”, what do we gain by looking individually at tommies, tribades, female husbands, fricatrices, and inverts?

H associates the same forces that gave rise to modern masculinity with other upheavals such as the transition from affiliation marriages to romantic marriages, the development of the women’s rights movement, the social upheavals of WWI, and the rise of sexological models. [Note: but many of these have clear roots much earlier than the 19th century. So again I think the picture will be distorted by viewing that date as some sort of firewall.]

Many historians focus on the parallel development of concepts of masculinity with nations, class, or male patterns of sociality, and see female masculinity as a counter-irritant to that, rather than a contributor.

Examples are given of how “manliness” was constructed as a white middle-class ideal, responding to challenges from its opposites. H frames lesbian historians as classifying 19th and early 20th century desire as either an asexual romantic friendship or a sexual butch-femme dynamic. But there is an acknowledgement that it probably worked via many other models of same-sex desire. Contemporary lesbians, H asserts, have a hard time shedding present forms and identities to understand other modes in earlier times.

There is a focus on labels that a late 18th/early 19th century “mannish woman” who desired other women might have been called/identified as: a hermaphrodite, tribade, or female husband. A Foucaultian framing (which H points out is more relevant to men than women) asserts that “lesbian” applies only to a form of desire produced in the mid to late 20th century, within the context of feminism and homosexual identity. If so, then “lesbian” cannot be used to cover all same-sex desire through the ages. Some historians have abstracted “lesbian” as a more general label, but H argues this erases the more specific connotations of many other terms. Further, those more specific terms might encompass gender expressions that do not include desire for women.

[Note: This is a valid objection, except that the point about “gender expressions that do not include desire for women” can be applied to the term “lesbian” just as much as any other term under consideration if you go back far enough. If we exclude any word that has ever had a contradictory or more specific meaning from being used as an umbrella term, then we’re forced into inventing an umbrella term that has no pre-existing denotative meaning at all. One thing that keeps poking at me in discussions of historic terminology for gender and sexuality categories is that, given the inevitable need to use words to talk about people and practices, why do some words get scrutinized so heavily while others get a free pass? In this book, as in many similar studies, there is a great deal of scrutiny given to when, where, how, and why it is appropriate or inappropriate to use the word “lesbian”, especially on the basis that it is anachronistic when used as an umbrella term, while similarly anachronistic umbrella terms like “homosexual” or “same-sex desire” are treated as neutral? The special scrutiny on “lesbian” is even more curious when you realize it is objected to both for being too narrow in meaning and for being too general.]

“Tommy” is one such term that could include uses that did not imply same-sex desire. Tracing “tommy” from implying loose sexual behavior--women outside of the marriage economy--to becoming synonymous with inversion or lesbian shows how not all identity strands fall within a “lesbian history.”

Within these various gender identities, Halberstam focuses on two specific close readings of female masculinity rather than a general history of pre-20th century same-sex desire. These examples represent two categories of embodied female masculinity: tribade and female husband.

H discuses the dynamic of how some view historical models as being replaced/superceded with little overlap or contradiction, whereas others (referencing Sedgwick) argue for destabilizing what we think we understand homosexuality to be today. If we acknowledge multiple models of contemporary female masculinity, not all of which align with lesbianism, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that potential in the past?

Halberstam reviews the context of scholarship and theory around queer/lesbian/gender history. There are debates over the definition and usefulness of the label “lesbian”. Some historians H asserts, like Terry Castle, “seek only to find what they think they already know.” Trumbach’s “2 genders, 3 bodies” theory, downplays the sexual component of cross-gender identities. The macro-clitoral hermaphrodite was never more than a theoretical construct. And there are debates on the relevance of sexual desire within same-sex relationships. Vicinus critiques the energy spent on pitting romantic friendship against butch-femme models based on relative availability of evidence for sex. But at the same time, “proof” of sexual activity should not be dismissed as relevant when it does occur.

The masculine woman is inevitably visible while the “apparitional” lesbian (using Terry Castle’s term) is so because she can be denied. Yet the desires and sexual acts enjoyed by different categories of same-sex couples may be different, so are even sex acts really a unifying feature for a common category (that may or may not be usefully labeled “lesbian”)? One could reasonably view “lesbian” as a sexual identity and masculine woman as a gender identity, with all possible combinations thereof. Yet another gender category, the androgyne, is distinct from the masculine woman.

There is an entire history to be told of solidly heterosexual masculine women, though it’s outside the scope of this book. [Note: this is an interesting point--and interesting that H considers it outside the scope of the book. The existence of heterosexual female masculinity is, to some extent, what provides cover for the establishment of cultures of homosexual female masculinity.] As an example of heterosexual female masculinity, the “cowgirl” whose physical activities argue against conventional femininity and embrace the image of a “natural” active presentation that partakes of masculinity by contrast. There’s also the contradiction of the female athlete who draws homophobic suspicion and therefore feels pressure to perform conventional femininity to “prove” her non-deviance.

The Tribade

This section of the chapter looks specifically at the conceptual category of the “hermaphrodite tribade”--the woman who was supposed to be drawn to same-sex sexual activity and to be able to please a female partner by virtue of having a larger-than-typical clitoris. [Note: this is far from a standard definition of “tribade”. The word was used in a variety of both general and specific ways across the centuries. And the preoccupation with macro-clitoral sex emerged only in specific eras.] The act of giving sexual pleasure through rubbing vulvas was seen as masculine due to its similarity to m/f sexual positions and actions, regardless of actual anatomy.

Around the 17-18th centuries, the idea of a physiological third sex emerged to “explain” same-sex behavior. See Laqueur for the historic development of this concept. In the earlier one-sex model, a hermaphrodite is a transitional state between two ends of a single sexual continuum, whereas in the two-sex model, she is a “monstrous” woman. But in either model, the hermaphrodite’s relations with women doesn’t fit neatly into a concept of “same-sex” desire, given that the hermaphrodite stands outside the sexual category of “woman.” This model identifies the body as the site of desire for women. The “discovery” of the clitoris helped drive the two-sex model because it shifted the identification of a penis-analogue from an inverted womb to an entirely separate organ. The clitoris became identified with non-reproductive sex and raised anxieties about the ability to penetrate without an artificial instrument. As such, it became inextricably linked to same-sex desire. In linguistic origin, the tribade was a female penetrator (of either women or men) not specifically a participant in f/f sex. [Note: I’d argue against calling this “linguistic” origin, because the etymology of the word simply indicates rubbing, not penetration. I think H is referring to the context of use within the Roman sexual system, where the functional roles of penetrator/penetrated were more salient than the sex partner’s gender.]

But if the tribade is not a (modern definition) lesbian, she is part of the history of masculinizing certain female seuxal practices. It is curious that, despite its popularity among (modern) lesbians, tribadism as a sexual act has not become part of the pop culture iconography of lesbianism.

As the 19th century example of tribadism, Halberstam explores the court case of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie versus Dame Cumming-Gordon, in which two Scottish schoolteachers were accused of having a sexual relationship (involving tribadism) by a student, and sued the student’s grandmother/guardian for slander. One significant feature of the teachers’ defense boiled down to “we understand that these activities are done in less civilized cultures (the student was biracial with an Indian mother) but it is unacceptable to propose that they would be practiced by proper British women.” That is, not that it was impossible, but that it was unthinkable.

The Female Husband

The second archetype Halberstam explores via a specific biography is the “female husband” in the person of Anne Lister. [Note: I don’t see Lister as being at all typical of the category of female husband, which normally refers to someone who is consistently read as male. So I’m a bit confused by this conjunction of example and label.] Lister’s diaries show some of the diversity of sexual activity between women and how certain activities were linked to female masculinity -- that Lister did not view all forms of f/f sex as part of the same experience and identity.

Halberstam begins by challenging historians’ easy acceptance of Lister as representing lesbian identity and desire. Lister’s experience is one of unequal desire, distinct sexual and gender roles, and a rejection of sexual sameness -- in contrast to the usual image of romantic friendship. Lister’s diaries -- with the key passages written in code -- become a metaphor for the obscuring of alternative sexual identities. [Note: in several places, Halberstam seems fixated on enforcing a narrowly specific understanding of the category “lesbian” in order to set it up as not overlapping  the masculine identities under discussion.]

Lister explicitly contrasts her “natural” desire with “sapphic artifices that create distance,” by which circumlocution we are to understand the use of a dildo, as opposed to Lister’s preferred tribadism. Lister consistently framed her desire in terms of seeking a wife, understanding herself as a husband. H argues for the use of the term “female husband” despite the absence of cross-dressing, because she (Lister) thinks of herself using that word. Lister’s place as a  masculine woman gives her a woman’s access to other women without the social consequences of being a seducing man. Lister revels in performing a male sexual role better than men, as when she digitally penetrates her married lover Marianne and appears to have been the first to break her hymen, demonstrating the sexual insignificance of Marianne’s marriage. Lister sees herself, not as a substitute man, but as surpassing men in her masculine sexual prowess. Lister is regularly commented on as appearing masculine in dress and even (apparently) being mistaken for a man, despite always wearing skirts. This creates a conflict for Marianne who is embarrassed by Lister’s presentation while also being aroused by it.

Lister’s wealth and social status protected her from most of the social consequences of her obvious masculinity, but she ran into limitations on that protection and experienced snubs and insults directly related to her masculinity. Lister’s differing relationships with various women explore the variety of sexual possibilities, along with her observations on other women’s relationships. Her relationship with Isabelle Norcliffe and her interactions with another masculine woman named Miss Pickford illustrate gender roles between women. Lister rebuffs Pickford, and ultimately rejects Isabelle, due to their own masculinity. She is overtly drawn to feminine women and pursues them at length, as with Mrs. Barlow in Paris. Lister sometimes fantasizes about the convenience (or inconvenience) of a penis, but sticks to tribadism and manual stimulation in bed. She refuses to let her lovers stimulate her in turn, saying it would “womanize” her. This isn’t “same” sex activity, but two distinct sexual roles. [Note: or should we make a distinction between “same-sex” and “same-gender” activity?]

All this may shed light on how Lister understands the “sapphic regard” that she rejects. [Note: this sheds an interesting light on the perception that the term “sapphic” was viewed as an upper class marker in the 19th century (I’m failing to remember who discussed that). Was Lister’s perception of “sapphic” as meaning dildo-based  sex a general understanding? And if so, was it class based? Or is this Lister’s idiosyncratic labels? Or did the shift to a class marker happen later?]

Mrs. Barlow seems to expect f/f sex to be mutual, given her attempts to initiate reciprocal stimulation of Lister. [Note: Halberstam rejects this interpretation, suggesting that Barlow is simply naive about the understood rules and roles for f/f sex. But this strikes me as H being a bit fixated on her theory of roles. The simpler explanation--supported by other examples from the era--is that one popular experience of f/f  sex was mutual and not role-based, and that Barlow was familiar with that version and enjoyed it.]

Halberstam engages with Castle’s claim that Lister is “proof” of lesbian sexuality existing before the sexologists labeled it, but H suggests that Castle ignores the gendered aspect of Lister’s sexuality. Lister did not simply adopt masculine habits as a “make do” but from an inherent identity. In this context, H argues against the concept of an abstract “lesbian desire” apart from specific modes and roles in which it manifests.

[Note: Halberstam, in turn, discusses gender-similar relationships (romantic friendships) as assumed to be “asexual”. While I agree with H that Lister’s sexuality is clearly based on the performance of a form of masculinity, the book often seems to reject the possibility of a pre-modern non-gender-contrasting f/f sexuality existing alongside the gender-contrasting form. H proclaims, “Although turn-of-the-century sexologists would later try to classify all lesbian activity as inversion, in the early nineteenth century, it is obvious, sexual activity between women flourished in spaces where the masculine woman trespassed on male sexual privilege and created not ‘a female world of love and ritual’ [quoting Smith-Rosenberg] but an exciting sexual landscape dominated by the female husband and the tribade.” It’s hard not to read this as rejecting the possibility that there was also an exciting sexual landscape within that “female world of love and ritual” known as romantic friendship. There’s a sense of territoriality going on in this book where exploration of the specific history of f/f desire in the context of female masculinity seems to require the negation of parallel experiences of f/f desire between two feminine women.]

Time period: 
Monday, May 11, 2020 - 21:00

Lots of thinky thoughts on this book, but they're all in the commentary below. Due to length, I've split this entry up into several parts, though my coverage of the chapters is uneven so I've clustered the shorter ones together.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Prefaces and Chapter 1

I put some thought into how to refer to the author of this book in my write-up and my choice may not please everyone. But the subject of the author’s gender is not one that can be side-stepped or easily handled following standard practices. Back in the 1990s, when writing this book, Halberstam declared “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” Halerstam explicitly claims the identity of butch lesbian and descries writing out trans issues as an outsider. These identities are intrinsic to the subject matter of the book, to Halberstam’s personal authority in having tackled it, and to the reason the book was written at all.

Female Masculinity was written by Judith Halberstam. The author is now Jack Halberstam. Halberstam’s Wikipedia article doesn’t specifically address the chronology of transition, but footnotes to the article that include the author’s name suggest the name and pronoun change came between 2012 and 2013.

This puts me in something of a quandary, because I am reviewing and summarizing a book whose content is inextricably connected with the author’s gender identity as expressed by that author at the time of writing. To the best of my ability I’ve been following the principle of using an author’s preferred name and pronouns. But I can’t help feeling that it would be a betrayal of Halberstam’s intent in this book to write “...he proudly claims the identity of butch lesbian.” I don’t think this is me holding tight to gender essentialist notions. What I want to do is to honor the identity that Halberstam was writing from. The identity that Halberstam inhabited so solidly that it inspired the very existence of this book. And yet it feels inescapably rude to refer to “Judith” and “she” in this write-up. My best approximation is to side-step the issue by using Halberstam’s surname whe I want to reference the author, making liberal use of the abbreviation H to reduce the awkwardness, and writing around the need for pronouns. This is not intended as a political statement or a judgment on Halberstam’s identity. It’s simply the approach that feels like it least betrays the author’s identities, past and present.

As I read Female Masculinity, it occurred to me that in our present moment of socio-political time, Halberstam’s personal history may provide a unique authority to address this topic. In the 1990s, a butch lesbian could write a serious study that tackled the “Butch/FTM Border Wars” as chapter 5 labels them. But in the 2020s, a study on that topic from a self-identified butch lesbian would face skepticism and criticism. Conversely, I don’t think anyone except a butch lesbian could have done justice to the book’s topic with such loving detail.

I could wish that in the new preface to this “Twentieth Anniversary Edition” Halberstam had spoken personally to that change in point of view. H does discuss some more recent popular culture images of butch identity, such as in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (both the graphic novel and the musical). That discussion embraces the continuing relevance of butch identity, even within the expanded scope of options for those with female bodies and masculine identities. But I was disappointed that H didn’t directly take advantage of experiencing masculine identity from a different angle, and discuss that aspect in the new preface. If anyone is aware of Halberstam having addressed that topic, I’d be interested in following up on it.

Every once in a while I read a book for the Project that adds a particularly sharp-edged tool to my toolbox for thinking about historic genders and sexualities. The tool that Halberstam adds is a demand to think about gender and sexuality in a much broader spectrum than gay/bi/straight or LGBTQIA+. Halberstam doesn’t believe in a single unified theory of sexual identities. And coming out of reading this book I realize that it isn’t quite enough to reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity across time, but to also reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity at any one point in time.

When trying to reconstruct the range of lesbian-like identities in the past, we’re already hampered by having to rely on atomized examples. Working from the position that the very identities we’re trying to reconstruct are multiple and even discontinuous makes the job even harder. Some identities are more visible than others, and some aspects of identities are more visible than others. Femme invisibility is a thing in the past as well as in the present. And while this book has an overt focus on butch identities, there are some places in the text where that focus does stray into erasure, as if butch identities in history are the only genuinely queer ones (while at the same time, but author hints at a position that “butch” is a separate and non-overlapping category from “lesbian”, but I think that may be imprecision in the writing rather than a theoretical position).

Halberstam’s choice to focus only on the 19th century and later distorts an understanding of the changes and cyclical and overlapping understandings of gender and desire across a larger time-span. Any small enough scope will give the illusion of teleological development in some direction. Two points define a line. I’ve pointed out several places where the text might come to different conclusions if a deeper set of historic data had been considered.

But overall, I found this book much more fascinating and more valuable to my thinking than I had expected. The ways in which f/f historical fiction handles gender-crossing identities can be problematic, especially when it projects backwards from a narrowly specific model of modern lesbian identity. Female Masculinity suggests that the first step in addressing that issue may be to revise our understanding of the wealth of models for modern identities, so that even when we project them back in time, we have a more realistic variety to choose from.

New Preface

Halberstam takes as a subject the concept of a “masculinity” that is distinct and separate from people born male, comparing it to the long tradition of studying “male femininity” from the Greek kinaidos through early modern molly houses and up to the present. When first written in 1998, similar histories had not been written for women. [Note: I think this is overstating the lack a little bit.] Yet there have been many modes of lesbianism that involved the evocation or claiming of “masculinity.”

Halberstam takes a quick survey through the many different modes and images belonging to the category “woman”. There is a long tradition of associating lesbianism with female masculinity, and female masculinity with ugliness. This linkage is used as a specter to keep women in line. What happens when this association is turned on its head, and female masculinity becomes a site of desire?

In the 20th century, the demand for female emancipation was repeatedly tied to female masculinity, either in positive or negative ways. “Great women” have repeatedly been claimed to be masculine in essence. This association is inherently misogynistic. It created the image that a successful or powerful woman was always inherently masculine, and a masculine woman was -- at least latently -- homosexual. Where did this leave feminine women? Still at the bottom and considered not worthy of higher things.

Forces hostile to both feminists and to masculine women set them up as being in conflict -- a conflict that is unnecessary but continues to this day. In popular media, the image of the masculine woman -- the tomboy, the butch -- has swung wildly in visibility and interpretation. Butch identity crosses between the genders: both and neither. [Note: this book was written at a time when non-binary gender had not become a significant part of the conversation yet.]

Original Preface

Halberstam points out the popular preoccupation with male femininity, but the near absence of discussion about female masculinity. As context for writing this book, H states “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” That identity was the inspiring force in writing this study. (The remaining preface covers similar territory to the updated one.)

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men

What is “masculinity”? This isn’t an easy question if the answer is not simply “the expression of maleness.” Female masculinity provides a lens on how masculinity is defined. Female masculinity must be framed as second class in order for male masculinity to be defined as “the real thing.” This chapter is a catalog of myths and fantasies about masculinity, as well as alternate forms of both male and female masculinity.

H points out how female masculinity has been ignored, both by culture and academia. Masculinity is defined by power and privilege, but also in terms of class, race, sexuality, and gender. You can’t understand masculinity until it is separated from the white male middle-class body.

The tomboy is viewed as an “extended childhood performance of female masculinity.” She is considered both common and unproblematic, compared to gender cross-identification in boys, which provokes strong reactions. But can you actually measure relative tolerance this way?

The tomboy is considered to be expressing a “natural” desire for male freedom and independence. She is only punished if female identification is actively rejected, or if the “phase” doesn’t end as expected at pubescence. Can the identity of tomboy be considered “tolerated” if one is required to leave it behind and embrace femininity? With no adult models of female masculinity, tomboyism can be framed as a rejection of adulthood, rather than a rejection of femininity. The increasing visibility of lesbian communities made it more possible for girls to envision maintaining masculinity past puberty.

Halberstam looks at the genre of “tomboy movies” in chapter 6 and the inadequacy of available gender categories for discussing them. The traditional tomboy narrative offers no way to retain masculinity and yet become a fully realized adult. It offers no approved forms of desire and so suppresses desire entirely. H’s goal is to identify existing taxonomies that recognize and offer that approval to female masculinity.

[Note: This book can only be properly understood if the reader fully internalizes the distinction between male/female and masculine/feminine. That the latter are artificial social constructs arbitrarily attached to the former.]

Female masculinity is a productive topic for study because it is scorned by both heterosexist positions and by feminist ones. [Note: Feminism is, of course, not a monolith, and one must consider that H was responding to the dominant feminist discourse of the time the book was written.] In contrast to the somewhat ritual function of male femininity, female masculinity is viewed as maladjusted and a longing to be something impossible. But there is not only a single version of female masculinity, nor does it exist to subvert or oppose masculine power, but to create new categories that are indifferent to male masculinity.

This chapter spends some time discussing the book’s methodology. It explores the relatively new (at the time) field of masculinity studies, which has largely ignored masculine women. H considers other studies of masculinity flawed if they assume that masculinity equals men.

In the section titled “the bathroom problem”, the text’s date of writing is most apparent in asking why the available gender categories have not been expanded beyond the binary. H considers how even given the flexible standards for gender presentation, few people are not easily readable as male or female, so “unreadable” people are viewed as deviant or forced into the binary. The “policing” of binary bathrooms (sometimes literally) shows how this institution forces category analysis. Masculine or androgynous women are particular targets of bathroom policing. Whereas gender-ambiguous people using a men’s bathroom are rarely challenged.

For those whose identity crosses sex/gender categories, the idea of “passing” as one or the other is not an acceptable strategy. [Note: given the focus of the book, the “bathroom problem” discussion revolves around the masculine cis woman rather than the trans woman.] The bathroom problem contradicts the assertion that masculine women are tolerated and even praised, while feminine men are despised. Rather, it suggests that femaleness is harder to achieve and more narrowly defined than maleness.

In media, female masculinity is protected from suspicion so long as heterosexuality is unambiguous. When combined with lesbian desire, it becomes less acceptable. Because of this enhanced effect, Halberstam focuses primarily on queer female masculinity rather than heterosexual female masculinity. Another destabilizing context is the varieties of gender specifically associated with minority cultures.

There is a long discussion of artistic (semi) nude photography that challenges gender expectations. The chapter ends with a summary of what the book will cover: 19th century examples, the early 20th century “invert”, the “stone butch” archetype, the border between “lesbian butchness and transsexual maleness”, cinematic representations, and drag kings. [Note: my summary will focus primarily on the historic sections.]

Time period: 
Saturday, May 9, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46b - Interview with Janet Todd - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/05/09 - listen here)

A transcript for this show is pending.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Janet Todd Online

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

Major category: 
Monday, May 4, 2020 - 09:00

While this book does provide some useful analysis of pre-20th century practices and attitudes around cross-dressing, it is even more enlightening on how much has changed around the topic in the last two decades. Readers today may find some of Garber's discussions as alien as a 100-year-old book would be.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Garber, Marjorie. 1992. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91951-7

This book was originally written in 1992, though regularly reprinted since then. This is relevant, as the use of terms like “transvestite” or “transvestism” in the sense they are used in this book are likely to strike the contemporary ear as odd. Even more, the handling of transgender identity, and language around it, is extremely dated and does not follow current practice. Consider this a content notification--perhaps even a content warning.

I found this book simultaneously detailed and fascinating...and hopelessly outdated to the point of being more of a museum piece for late 20th century attitudes than a resource for social analysis. The ways that clothing and gender are understood, categorized, performed, and discussed today have changed so drastically that Garber’s content may have as little relevance as works published in the first half of the 20th century.

One of the reasons I chose Vested Interests to blog is because I’m working on expanding a paper I presented on medieval cross-dressing narratives for publication, which means being familiar with the literature in the field. But as a resource for the writing of historical fiction, I see this work as being very limited in value (unless the historic era being written about is the last quarter of the 20th century).

In one way, it makes sense to consider all the varieties of cross-gender presentation as a whole, as Garber does. But the book does not always draw clear lines between gender presentation as an expression of gender identity, shifts in popular fashions that trade elements among genders, the use of gender-coded clothing to signal group membership, cross-gender dress in serious theatrical contexts, “drag” as satire or mockery, “drag” as performance art, cross-dressing as a sexual fetish for those with no transgender identity, or any of the other possible contexts. Further, medical/surgical issues around transgender identity are both conflated with clothing and reflect the era when medical transition and strict adherence to gender stereotypes was an expectation rather than one of various options.

In content, I found the book to read like a loosely-connected series of topical essays (especially in the later chapters), as if it were a patchwork of publications with a thematic connection but without necessarily having an overarching thesis.

All of this is to say that I would advise only reading this book if you have an existing historic context for language and attitudes that would be considered offensive today, and if you are in a solid emotional place to translate and filter the content for your own use.

In my summary, I have “translated” a lot of the terminology Garber uses to current idioms in order to try to filter out some of the problematic verbiage, so be aware that my summary is not a good guide to how the text may strike the reader. In other cases, I’ve retained Garber’s terms because “translating” them would change the scope of her intended meaning. This particularly applies to her use of "transvestism" for a variety of contexts that would be unlikely to be conflated today.

* * *

Introduction - Clothes Make the Man

 Garber opens with a brief history of gender coding or lack thereof in children’s dress, shifts in the pop-culture color-coding associated with homosexuality, and their relationship to both the practice of cross-dressing and popular fascination with the topic. She reviews medical discourse, both in the context of transgender issues and of viewing cross-dressing itself as representing mental illness. She notes that regardless of motivation, these distinctions are unimportant to those who want the ability to find clothes in their desired styles and sizes without being stigmatized.

The history and culture of cross-dressing is inseparable from the history of homosexuality, even when clear distinctions between the two topics are desired. Cultural anxieties around cross-dressing almost always invoke the specter of homosexuality. There is a detailed discussion of the movie Tootsie as an illustration of these issues and concerns.

Academic study of the history of cross-dressing often looks “through” the phenomenon to explore the arbitrary construction of gender, rather than looking “at” the people involved. [Note: another distinction--which seems to be overlooked in this work--is between analyzing cross-dressing and cross-dressers from the outside and presenting a participant’s understanding of the phenomenon.] Cross-dressing is of interest in how it represents a “third sex” outside the gender binary (even when intended to be read as one of the binary genders). The iconographic use of specific garments to represent bodily sex (or gender identity) can be seen in bathroom signs that use pants/skirts to separate bodies by (presumed) anatomy, not by clothing preference or appearance, even as they assume a correlation between appearance and gender.

This book is organized in two sections, roughly distinguishing how transvestism creates culture and how culture creates transvestites. [Note: I would describe the division more as “the performance of transvestism” and “the representation of transvestism”.] Overall, the book revolves around how cross-dressing creates a “category crisis”--the cultural inability to draw clear dividing lines between distinct social groups. Garber notes how often in cultural productions transvestism parallels other category contrasts and crossings (race, ethnicity, class).

Part I - Transvestite Logics

Chapter 1 - Dress Codes

Cross-dressing is analyzed in the context of sumptuary codes (both historic codes and modern laws with similar effect). Sumptuary codes assume that clothing both reflects and shapes social behavior. “Correct dress” is both a shibboleth and a regimen. Medieval and Renaissance sumptuary codes attempted to make category distinctions legible. They largely focus on class, but also on religious categories (e.g., identifying non-Christians). In Elizabethan England, clothing statutes also addressed gender confusion, but the concept of “effeminacy” when applied to dress was more about the concepts of excess and luxury than gender identity. Men are accused of “effeminacy” for excess in clothing, while women are similarly chastised for excess but not using the language of effeminacy.

The prohibition in Deuteronomy on cross-dressing was invoked against cross-gender clothing, especially by women, but also to denounce theater in general (as a site of cross-dressing). Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses is cited, which singles out women. Male cross-dressing was also condemned as leading to or enabling homosexuality, either by creating attractive objects (cross-dressed boys) or because putting on “feminine” clothing creates fetishistic desire in a man.

Cross-dressing was also associated with criminal status in both men and women. Cross-gender clothing motifs were also tied, in curious fashion, to Protestan-Catholic conflicts.

Under King James I, popular unisex fashions drew on styles taken from both genders, even though James himself argued against “masculine” women (see the tracts of this era Hic Mulier and Haec Vir).

Cross-dressing on stage was a focus for those opposed to theater in general. The text digresses for a while into eulogizing the career of Laurence Olivier and discussing his cross-gender roles. This leads into a discussion of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies and the general use of clothing as category markers. In modern theater, the use of women in male roles in Shakespeare is seen variously as a gimmick or as portraying some underlying gendered nature of the characters. Garber emphasizes the long embedded history of cross-gender performance on stage and how it relates to the concept that “all gender is performance.” [Note:  this book comes back regularly to cross-dressing in the context of performing arts in general. It appears to be a central research interest of hers.]

Chapter 2 - Cross-dress for success

This chapter starts with the conflict between women wearing “masculine” clothing to blend in / dress for the job in male-dominated fields, versus pushback that sees this as carrying unwanted messages. Women in male-coded clothing may be interpreted as inherently “sexy” (according to male business “experts”).

But this prescriptive approach to women’s presentation in the workforce is eroded by the continuing deployment of male-coded clothing by women and new associations with assertiveness and authority. Local norms in professional clothing can send mixed gender/sexuality signals when used in other contexts, regardless of the specific gender coding.

But prescriptive dress advice--enshrining inherent prejudices--can be useful for transgender people trying on new styles to be read in particular ways. Existing prejudices can be worked to advantage.

There is a discussion of distinctions between “fetish” cross-dressers who are aroused by wearing clothing of a gender they don’t identify with, and “transsexuals” (Garber’s term) wearing clothing to be read as the gender they do identify with. There is a confusing discussion of opinions prevalent at the time that female “fetish cross-dressers” were rare, but the text then seems to challenge this. Garber cites advice manuals on breast-binding and crotch-stuffing, but it’s unclear which functional category these fall in. [Note: although “butch” fashion and identity is discussed later in the book, there are many places in these early chapters that appear to be unaware that such a thing exists, or at least how to categorize it.]

There is a general discussion of “passing advice” literature, primarily aimed at trans women. [Note: “trans women” in the current definition of the term. The quoted literature of Garber’s era regularly uses “transgender/transsexual X” to mean “assigned X at birth but now identifying otherwise.” The terminology “assigned X at birth” was not in currency at the time this book was written, so any use of it in this summary is my translation.] Garber points out how relentlessly normative this literary genre is and the literal “construction” of gender it recommends. “Passing advice” literature overwhelmingly was written for those wanting to be read as female, rather than those wanting to be read as male. There is a suggestion that the behavioral gender stereotypes of women and men reinforce this skewing, with feminine-presenting people looking for community support and sisterhood, while masculine-presenting people expecting (or expected to express) individualism and a solitary experience.

The chapter moves on to the carnivalesque use of obvious male-to-female cross-dressing for entertainment purposes, where the performer is meant to be read as “crossing” not as passing. There is a long history of privileged men openly cross-dressing, either as humorous entertainment or as personal idiosyncrasy (more rarely). At the same time, powerful men may be caricatured as cross-dressers to “un-man” them. Powerful women, on the other hand, are more likely to be accused of “really being men” (i.e., of also being “men dressed as women,” but this theme isn’t followed up on in the text in the same way that the male topic is).

Drag shows in military or nautical contexts could be a way of defusing the homoerotic potential of all-male cultures. Cross-dressing theatricals in such contexts could re-affirm male privilege and solidarity, creating misogynistic caricatures of the feminine roles being portrayed, as well as mocking the underlayer of m/m eroticism. Such theatricals were also popular in all-male privileged institutions such as colleges and men’s clubs. The theatricals negotiated the boundaries of gender even as they blurred them. Institutions might go through phases of suppressing humorous non-normative dress, as Harvard did in the 18th century, later returning to the “norm” of embracing such gender play. In the early 20th century, male collegiate institutions dismissed the idea that cross-dressed theatricals either reflected or caused “unmanliness.”

Chapter 3 - The Transvestite’s Progress

This chapter begins with a reference to long-term gender crossing, especially AFAB read as male, most of whom would be understood as transgender rather than transvestite today. Billy Tipton is noted as being far from a rare example, even for the 20th century. Examples of AMAB read long-term as female are also noted.

Given the relative frequency of such individuals, why was Billy Tipton’s story singled out for fame? In part, because the story dodged topics of anxiety. Tipton allegedly crossed for economic reasons (musical performance in a male-dominated field) and his marriage was reported as non-sexual, using the excuse of a “medical condition” that allowed Tipton’s wife plausible deniability. Tipton was thus a “safe” example that didn’t invoke the specter of homosexuality.

The “progress narrative” where cross-dressing is for professional or social advantage is popular in film and stage. And these fictional narratives often reinforce heteronormativity by bringing in a m/f romance that is hindered by the cross-dressing (see, e.g., Victor/Victoria). But in real life, this “progress narrative” is problematic. It erases the complex, interacting motivations and reinforces the idea of a clear gender binary.

There is an extensive exploration of fictional cross-dressing narratives, especially in the Early Modern period. More recent fictional examples are Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, Barbara Streisand’s film Yentl. Garber discusses the relationship of the motif to the “changeling boy” motif.

The gender-crosing nature of Elizabethan actors and its homoerotic potential is compared to Vecellio’s description of Venetian prostitutes and courtesans wearing masculine-styled upper garments (and even breeches under their skirts).  Aretino describes a courtesan willing to interact with clients either as a woman or as a man. This context could add to the fictional trope of “respectable” women being embarrassed by the need to cross-dress in a “progress narrative.” [Note: this chapter is one of the ones that feels structured like an independent research paper that has been stitched into a larger narrative.]

Chapter 4 - Spare Parts

This chapter addresses the cultural context of how gender is “made”, especially focusing on the asymmetry in which only masculinity needs to be actively constructed, whereas femininity is either passively acquired or is imposed on one. One may “become” a woman but one must be “made” a man. Even in a sexual sense, “making a woman of her” is something that is imposed on the woman by her partner, rather than being an active achievement.

Within this context, cross-dressing and transgender lives test the limits of gender construction. The ways in which masculinity and femininity are treated differently in this context test the conflict of gender theory and practice. Garber discusses the phallocentrism inherent in the boundaries of male and female. Male-bodied “fetish” cross-dressers, may be reassured of their masculinity by the possession of a functional penis, while AMAB trans women find the possession of a penis traumatizing. The experiences and perceptions of early post-surgical trans women re: psychological implications of surgery go beyond hormonal changes. But for both groups, the penis is essentialized as the marker of maleness.

For assigned-female people, the question of essential symbols of gender is reversed. But even the context is asymmetric: the desire for “masculine” authority and power is seen as “natural” with no need for justification. Some authors, in fact, denied the existence of assigned-female “fetish” cross-dressers at all, as this desire for masculinity was considered an expected condition rather than a psychosis. The dividing line between trans men and the “natural” desire for male subjectivity is the question of whether one desires to possess a penis. [Note: This analysis seems to entirely exclude butch identity, or to set it aside as having nothing to do with cross-dressing.]

There is a discussion of psychological issues around surgery and its place in gender identity treatments.  It is claimed that sex reassignment (or in more current terminology, gender-affirming) surgery is less popular among trans men than trans women due to the greater difficulty in achieving a “satisfactory” result, i.e., a functional penis.

Garber considers the blending of anatomical and stylistic markers of gender in the context of transition, and the emphasis on behavioral performative gender to achieve the desired status. The transgender discourse of the book’s era essentialized anatomy as the key attribute defining gender, but there was a shift to medical markers like hormones and genetics as more “test cases” emerged. [Note: this is not specifically in the context of transition, but rather in determining what someone’s “true” gender was. That is, as gender-affirming surgery became more available, anatomy could no longer be used by those who wanted to define “true” gender.]

Garber points out the contrast that the public imagination is fascinated with trans women while they are alive, and with trans men after they are dead. She connects this to the tradition of literary/artistic fascination with womanhood as either dead or culturally constructed.

As transgender stories began to be depicted in cinema, there was a focus on pathology that revolved around the desire for and the trauma of surgery.

Chapter 5 - Fetish Envy

This chapter looks at “the phallus” as a concept in contrast to the penis as a biological organ. It discusses the historic position that women did not engage in fetishism -- that “penis envy” was not a fetish but a displacement of a natural desire for male power. Garber discusses the relationship of lesbians to straight women with respect to phallus-envy. She uses Nancy Friday’s survey of women’s sexual fantasies in My Secret Garden as evidence against the position that women don’t have fetishes.

There is a discussion of the use in Renaissance theater of the codpiece as a site of humor as a clearly constructed extreme signifier of masculinity that can be appropriated by women.

Chapter 6 - Breaking the code, transvestism and gay identity

This chapter discusses the evolution of an understood distinction between cross-dressing as a practice and homosexuality as an identity. There is conflict in gay (male) culture over “drag” representing effeminacy, and “drag” cross-dressers as distinguished from transgender identity. Advice columns and talk-shows of the time (Phil Donoghue, Girealdo Rivera, etc) had a fascination with this nexus. Mainstream culture tends to inextricably conflate gay men and cross-dressers, seeing each as implying the other. There is an emphasis on “legibility” -- difference should be visible, and visible otherness should be meaningful.

Compare Alan Bray’s look at (male) cross-dressing in various pre-modern eras in Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Did the cross-dresser want to be “read” as the visual gender, or to use cross-gender appearance to signal sexual identity?

Garber discusses the vast array of motivations for cross-dressing and the history regarding which were recognized by sexological scholarship in the field, starting with Magnus Hirschfeld. [Note: One key feature that is almost unremarked here is the driving need to classify and categorize -- to draw clear distinctions and boundaries between types of people and behaviors. This ties in with some of Foucault's observations about the drive to distinguish and categorize sexual deviancies.]

Attention shifts to the development of pathologizing “masculine” dress on women as representing gender identity. Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is contrasted with Woolf’s Orlando. This pathologizing creates the female “invert.” There is a discussion of how one era’s “pathological” appearance/presentation becomes another era’s fashionable ideal.

Garber looks at the inherent misogyny in differential attitudes toward cross-dressing, even among those who participate in it. And finally we get a discussion of butch-femme culture in the context of cross-dressing.

There is a discussion of the long history of using marriage ceremonies as a context for cross-dressing (either for one participant or both, as a temporary or permanent practice). Wedding dresses are the ultimate female object. This interacts with internal conflicts in the gay (male and female) community over the extent to which marriage as an institution is inherently heteronormative. [Note: keep in mind that when this book was written, marriage equality was barely imaginable.]

There is a long history of associating “mannish” clothing worn by female couples with suspect sexuality, as with the habitual fashions of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby as commented on by their contemporaries. But here, styles such as Gertrude Stein’s distinctive non-normative dress can be contrasted with truly “mannish” outfits like that sported by Radclyffe Hall. The Parisian lesbian set played with gendered clothing but did not adopt uniformly male styles.

Finally, the text takes on butch-femme as a topic: the conflict over whether it counts as “cross-dressing” and how class affects its reception. (E.g., compare the upper class “stylish” butch look of Natalie Barney with the working class butch look of the mid-20th century bar scene.) The changeability of the precise features of fashion signals the distinction between butch-femme as identities and the gender-coding of clothing. There is a comparison with “drag” as performance and in other contexts.

Garber takes a close look at two lesbian-coded accessories in the post-WWI era: the monocle and the cigarette holder. Parisian lesbian culture revolved around the images of tuxedo, cigarette, cropped hair, and monocle. These all derived from the male “Dandy.” They were class markers, whose use by upper class lesbians marked their privilege to transgress social and legal prohibitions against cross-dressing. (Legal prohibitions were relevant in France, more subtly in England and America.)

Havelock Ellis asserted that female “inverts” had a tendency to wear male dress, engage in athletics, and to smoke. But are these symptoms? Or are they deliberately adopted as signs? (And did Ellis simply ignore women who didn’t fit his stereotype?) There is a discussion of the social politics of smoking and images of how cigarettes were marketed to women.

Gender-crossing styles “flow” between genders and communities. Visible “lesbian fashion” undergoes shifts in how specific styles are interpreted. The use of lesbian-associated fashions by celebrities dance around making their (queer) identity public. There is a consideration of the “sex appeal” of cross-gender fashion.

Part II - Transvestite Effects

This half of the book looks at how cross-gender performance and appearance are integrated into various pop culture themes and motifs. The chapters read like independent papers revolving around the general topic. The popular culture aspects are, in general, quite modern (20th century) and I have skimmed this part of the book much more lightly.

Chapter 7 - Fear of Flying, or why is Peter Pan a girl?

This chapter revolves around the traditional casting of a female actor in the character of Peter Pan. In part, this is a practical trick to enable the use of adult actors for all the child roles. The traditional cross-gender roles in English pantomime are discussed.

Chapter 8 - Cherchez La Femme - Cross-dressing in detective fiction

Disguise in general, and cross-gender disguise in particular are used in detective fiction (starting with Sherlock Holmes) to enable the detective to identify the “subtle wrongness” that gives away the suspect. Disguise is always “legible” to the skilled observer.

Other tropes that reveal disguise are “only one bed” which is popular in fiction in comparison to the more prevalent real-world revealing context of doctor/undertaker. Cross-dressing narratives also indulge in “mirror scenes” to reveal identity, both in fiction and biography.

Chapter 9 - Religious Habits

Christian (male) ceremonial garments have long been coded as “feminine” due to their inherent conservatism combined with shifts in gender coding of garments. But the ceremonial “performance” aspect carries over into “drag” performers characterizing their stage clothing as “robes, vestments.” This is not the only context where “othered” religions’ ritual clothing is feminized. Christian society has regularly feminized styles associated with Jewish culture, and more recently the image of the hippie “Jesus freak” is strongly feminized.

The shift over time of gender signifiers and the tendency of ritual clothing to be static can create a mismatch of readings. Another interesting case is the gendering of fashions in wigs (see, e.g., the retention of wigs for men in British legal culture, harking back to the 17/18th centuries).

The legends of transvestite (female) saints are more a site of male fantasy than female reality, including the repeating motif of accusations that the (disguised) woman had fathered a child. Joan of Arc falls somewhat in this tradition but cross-dressed openly. Joan is commonly used as a lens for theorizing about gender and presentation.

More than clothing was involved in the feminization of Catholic priests, whose status set them apart from secular men, in ways that could superficially align in responsibilities and image with secular women. With the Reformation, anti-Catholic fantasies, combined with attitudes toward the gender segregation of Catholic religious institutions, not only created the image of the feminized priest but focused on the nun as the subject of transvestite mockery. In cinema, men cross-dressed as nuns are popular comic figures.

Anti-semitic stereotypes conflated Jewish (men) with both women and homosexuals.

Chapter 10 - Phantoms of the Opera

This chapter is a loose survey of “famous” transvestites who were actors, diplomats, and spies. Garber discusses the real life story behind M. Butterfly, which combines Orientalism and cross-dressing theater. The gender presentation/interpretation of operatic castratos is discussed. Among famous spies who changed gender presentation are the Abbé de Choisy and the Chevalier d’Eon.

Chapter 11 - Black and White TV

This chapter looks at the intersection of cross-dressing and “blackface” performance, including the feminization of black men. But it also considers black women whose cross-dressing performance was an expression of their queer sexuality. Other racial gender disguise motifs are considered, such as the real life slave narrative of Ellen Craft in which she posed as a white man to escape to freedom with her darker-skinned husband presented as “his” slave.

Chapter 12 - The Chic of Araby

This chapter reviews several contexts in which the traditional dress of Arab men is reinterpreted as a type of cross-dressing (both gender and cultural). Examples include Lawrence of Arabia (both the movie and the historic figure), who embraced the ability of his use of Arabic dress to unsettle British compatriots, also various interpretations of that clothing as reflecting his “sexual ambivalences.”

Another cinematic example is Valentino’s role in The Sheik, which retains the cross-cultural as well as cross-gender themes, not only in the use of a non-Arabic actor for the role, but in that the character is revealed to be a “lost aristocratic heir,” thus preserving his “exotic” allure without the threat of miscegenation. At the same time, the female lead of the movie is masculinized, wearing pants and wielding a pistol, expressing feminist positions but “converted” to conventional femininity by her desire for Valentino’s character.

The female associations of trousers in Middle Eastern culture are played on in Woolf’s Orlando, but also historically, as for Lady Mary Montagu who adopted Turkish trousers in the 18th century after spending time at the Ottoman court. In the 19th century, western women used Turkish trousers as a jumping-off point for “reform” clothing that bridged the gap between skirts and pants. This resulted in some complex interactions. When Flora Tristan--enraged that women were not allowed in the House of Commons--approached various male acquaintances to borrow men’s clothes to get in, she was refused except by a Turkish diplomat who enthusiastically supported her and provided her with an outfit. Despite wearing (Turkish) male clothing, she was easily read as female during this escapade.

There is a discussion of how Byron and his friends, when guests of Ali Pasha, were entertained by transvestite male dancers, and the linking of cross-dressing and homosexuality in that context. There were multiple threads in Byron’s life linking him with women dressed as young men who were serving as a man’s companion or lover. On one occasion, Caroline Lamb disguised herself as a male servant to visit him.

Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights reinforced themes of cross-dressing in “Oriental” contexts. He adopted Arabic clothing during his travels and continued wearing it by preference afterward. Compare this with his countrywoman Gertrude Bell who wore English style clothing in her travels in order to retain foreign privilege, as she wouldn’t have the same freedom and access as a man would if she “went native.” In a sense, by not passing as an Arab, Bell was able to claim “male” privilege as someone outside the rules of local society.

The chapter concludes with an assortment of other examples of combining cross-gender and cross-culture performance, such as the use of veiling (by both men and women) as a means of gender-crossing. Marlene Dietrich’s cross-dressed performance in the film Morocco adapted the existing association of cross-dressing with Arabic culture. The motif of wearing/removing veils in the Biblical story of Salome became an icon of Oriental femininity but was regularly chosen to be interpreted by male performers, especially in the context of an “unveiling” dance with a gender reveal.

Chapter 13 - The Transvestite Continuum

Garber argues the position that transvestism is essential for the creation of culture as it defines the distinction between the symbolic and the “real”. Her focus here is on open, performative transvestism and how it relates to definitions and boundaries of “masculine” and “feminine.” There is an extensive exploration of the “flamboyant” though not strictly “transvestite” stylings of Liberace, Valentino, and Elvis to explore this question.


The book sums up with some fairy tale analogies, anecdotes from Freud, and a brief summary of the work’s themes.

Saturday, May 2, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46a - On the Shelf for May 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/05/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May in the Year of the Great Quarantine.

How are you-all holding up?

It’s a bit funny: on a day to day basis, the quarantine doesn’t make that much difference in my life. I don’t get out to do a lot of face-to-face socializing. It’s just me and the cats at home, although the cats have gotten a bit friendlier now that I’m in their face all the time. My day job and the podcast are still going full speed--I’m just doing it all out of my living room. The one thing that’s noticeably different is that I’ve had time to tackle a lot of garden chores and now that summer is descending on California, I’m having a chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor--literally, as soon as the berries start ripening.

But May is the month when I normally travel to a couple of conferences, so this is when things start feeling very different. One of my May conferences was postponed until the fall--and who knows where we’ll be in the fall. One has become an online event, which will be a challenge for me because it’s a conference I’ve never attended before. And while I know a lot of the people who will be there, I don’t have a sense of the normal rhythms of the event in the first place. I’m planning to take a week’s vacation around that conference even though I’ll be staying home. I need the change of pace.

The book world has been stepping up to the challenges of moving events online in a big way. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by all the opportunities. There are a number of ongoing “virtual conferences” and I hope you’ve had a chance to taste some of them. Curve Magazine has been running a virtual festival with panel discussions and readings and all sorts of things. My publisher, Bella Books, is hosting an ongoing series of author readings on their YouTube Channel. Bold Strokes Books held an online literary festival in April which, alas, is over already.

But there are also events of interest outside the genre fiction world. Catherine Lundoff tipped me off to this one. In England, Chawton House, associated with Jane Austen’s family and hosting an important library on women writers, is posting a blog series from their collections entitled  “Man Up! Women who Stepped into a Man’s World”, about 18th and 19th c women who challenged gender norms.

If you know of any other events of interest to readers and writers of f/f historical fiction, drop me a note so I can include them. Especially online events that are accessible to the entire listenership.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog shifts topics going into May.

In April we finished up a series of articles on the general topic of women’s friendships and the ways they overlap and intersect romantic and erotic relationships. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” looks at the general dynamics of gender-segregated socializing and the ways in which they created and supported specifically woman-centered cultures. Martha Vicinus describes one specific culture among those: the world of all-female boarding schools, in "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships." A short article by Lillian Faderman takes a look back at her foundational work Surpassing the Love of Men and discusses reactions to it, and Faderman’s reactions to those reactions. And Evelyn Gordon Bodek tackles another woman-centered subculture in "Salonières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism."

In May, I shift gears significantly and start a series of publications on “female masculinity” to use Halberstam’s terminology. We start with Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, a general and somewhat outdated study on cross-gender presentation both as identity and as performance. Next is Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (pubished originally as Judith Halberstam) which tackles the question of what masculinity means when separated from being a property of male bodies. After that there’s an interesting literary study of cross-dressing motifs in a selection of modern lesbian fiction: "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction" by Anne Herrmann. And to close the month, a study of Victorian media reactions to a sensational case: "Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London" by Katie Hindmarch-Watson.

Book Shopping!

This month’s book shopping is a big haul. Last month I mentioned that I’d decided to support Powell’s Books by combing through the “to do” list for the blog and seeing how many titles I could pick up. The answer was “six”. (My to-do list is a lot longer than that, but most of the items are either individual articles or older books that I’ll need to get from the library.)

First up is Katherine Crawford’s European Sexualities, 1400-1800, which is part of the serious wave of works on historic sexuality that came out around the first decade of the 21st century. (Somehow phrasing it like that makes it feel more historic.) As a general work, the content on lesbian sexuality is small and mostly already familiar from the blog, but what can I say? I’m a completist.

Continuing my interest in women who never married as a useful spotlight on lesbian possibilities, I bought Amy M. Froide’s Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. I focus on this topic regularly to counter the prevailing myth that historic societies didn’t have any place for women who didn’t participate in heterosexual marriage.

Even more relevant are two books on women’s same-sex relationships. Elizabeth Susan Wahl’s Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment looks at contrasting social models for women’s intimacy in the 17th and 18th centuries, whether depicted as sexual or as non-sexual. In the same vein is Betty Rizzo’s Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women, which examines female companions of all types.

I picked up two general works on homosexuality in the last couple centuries. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski is what it says on the cover. Neil Miller’s Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present primarily focuses on the US and England, though with brief discussions of gay liberation movements in other countries. The pre-20th century material is scanty in both cases, and I’m going to expect my past experience to hold true that male-authored books on the general history of homosexuality are likely to be severely lacking in lesbian content.

I bought two books for deep-background research for my historical fiction: Dress in the Age of Jane Austen by Hilary Davidson, and The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer. I find that pop culture approaches to historic eras, like the latter, can be a very useful basic grounding in everyday life, as opposed to more academic works that tend to focus on politics and social movements. As long as they’re written by knowledgeable people, that is. There are also many awful ones that only promulgate ignorant historic myths as clickbait. This one is subtitled “A Handbook for Visitors to the Seventeenth Century: 1660-1700” and looks to be of practical use for a historic author.

Author Guest

Last of all, I bought a book by this month’s author guest, Janet Todd, entitled Women’s Friendship in Literature which would have been nice to include as part of my April blog series. I’m sure the topic will come around again! I’ll be interviewing Janet Todd about her new novel Don’t You Know There’s a War On?. It’s an atmospheric psychological novel about the claustrophobic lives of a mother and daughter in the mid 20th century. And rather than a book appreciation show with my featured author this month, I also enticed Todd to talk about her work as a historian, specializing in women writers. We touch on the process of writing historical fiction as a historian, and the challenges of investigating and defining the sexuality of people in other centuries.


For this month’s essay, I thought I’d reprise the episode on 17th century poet, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn which cleverly ties together Janet Todd’s work--she wrote a definitive biography of Behn that formed much of the basis of my podcast--and the second story in this year’s fiction series.


 “Cardinal’s Gambit” by Catherine Lundoff is another story of pirates and spies in the 17th century that is part of the same world as “One Night in Saint-Martin,” the story that kicked off the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s fiction project back in 2018.

[Sponsor break]

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Time for the new and recent books! As usual, I found some recent publications that somehow slipped past my attention before release, and then six books coming out in May. I’m also relieved that I already have several June books in the spreadsheet to talk about next month.

There’s a February book that I had listed previously but without a clear publication date. Then when a date finally popped up in my search it turns out it was published several months ago. This is The Storyteller by Jea Hawkins from Wicked Hearts Publishing.

In 1982, Jane Ferris couldn’t care less that Northern Ireland is crumbling all around her. Life is about drinking, loving women, and dodging her father’s former IRA connections. Her mother begs her to hold the family together, but Jane only wants distraction from the real world and she almost finds it with American journalist, Nancy Wagner. Nancy is in Belfast with an assignment and a dream: make her mark on the world by getting to the heart of the Troubles with her reporting. As the college graduate goes where few women journalists have ventured before, Jane sets out to make her another notch on her bedpost, but instead finds herself acting as both guide and protector. Dangerous circumstances push Nancy into Jane’s arms. While Jane knows it can’t possibly last, she resolves to make the most of their tumultuous time together and finds herself living a life she never dreamed possible with the woman she can’t seem to forget as their worlds collide.

There’s also a March book I missed the last two times around, which looks to be part of a time travel-ish series? Mary, Everything (The Flapper Convenant #1) self-published by Cassandra Yorke.

Courtney is a lonely undergrad at secluded Braddock College in 2004, working a drowsy summer job in the Archives. Assigned to a new project, she becomes haunted by a college yearbook from the 1920s - filled with familiar faces and memories of times she never experienced. A chance encounter with a mysterious girl named Sadie - dressed in long-outdated clothes - alters her reality. But if you were never meant to be born, that reality can expel you like an infection - or kill you outright. While Courtney struggles against forces she cannot comprehend, a psychopathic stalker smells blood and closes in for the kill. Sadie, now in 1921, races against the clock to save her friend, joined by some remarkable allies - an American combat sorceress and veteran of World War I, an enigmatic professor who specializes in piercing the veil between realities, and two young women who insist they’re Courtney’s oldest friends - one of them even claiming to be her truest love. Time is running out for Courtney, and a terrifying wilderness - haunted by the dead from centuries past - may hold the key to her salvation. But none who enter have ever returned.

There are two April books I hadn’t spotted previously. The first is part of a series that I know I’ve mentioned before, although it says it’s book 4 in the series and I don’t think I’ve found them all. Pieces of You A Desdemona Valentina Mystery: * Femme Fatale * (Desdemona Valentina Mysteries #4) self-published by S.L. Freake.

Detective Desdemona Valentina's lover is in a coma - or is she? You can never be sure with any of the many faces of Eden Benedict - but more dire - torso pieces are all awash in London! The Thames is afloat with the bloated and capillary ridden stumps of the unidentified and whores alike while, Dez and Graham battle this and more against worthier adversaries and those who won't be caught. Desdemona can't help but believe she taints those she loves and sheds light on.

The other April book is The Necklace and the Flame self-published by Heather Donnelly. The cover copy is not very descriptive but I double-checked to verify that it falls within my scope.

A queer romance. In the 1920s an unhappily married woman must face her dark past and in the process discovers a new romance with an old friend. A book filled with magic, dangers and mishaps as well as a fair amount of romance.

The rest of the books are coming out this month, starting with our author guest: Don’t You Know There’s a War On? by Janet Todd from Fentum Press.

The Second World War is over. England is losing its empire, world status and old elite values. The Empire strikes back with mass immigration, while the government soothes its people with welfare, the NHS, televisions and refrigerators. At the centre of the novel is the contemptuous Joan Kite, at odds with all the changes imposed on the country in the post war period. Shut up in a house with her only daughter, she refuses to compromise and adapt, pouring vitriol on anyone who seeks to enter their lives. After years of frugality, patriotism, service and excitement, she is angry at the contracted existence she’s been delivered and at the manner in which her aspirations to upper-middle-class culture have been thwarted. When her daughter is threatened, she begins a diary to investigate her past before and during the war. In it she gives rein to a flamboyant imaginary life and to an energetic loathing for the reality of a diminished England. During the freak hot summer of 1976, as water is rationed and ladybirds invade their home, the intimacy of mother and daughter intensifies. Their lives unravel within the claustrophobia of their semi-detached house behind closed velvet curtains.

There have been a number of anthologies of new queer short fiction in the last few years. This is Saundra Mitchell’s second venture into the field, Out Now: Queer We Go Again! published by Inkyard Press. It covers many different queer identities and it isn’t clear what the historic content may involve, but it’s worth checking out.

A follow-up to the critically acclaimed All Out anthology, Out Now features seventeen new short stories from amazing queer YA authors. Vampires crash prom…aliens run from the government…a president’s daughter comes into her own…a true romantic tries to soften the heart of a cynical social media influencer…a selkie and the sea call out to a lost soul. Teapots and barbershops…skateboards and VW vans…Street Fighter and Ares’s sword: Out Now has a story for every reader and surprises with each turn of the page!

This next book is a bit out of my usual line because it’s a polyamorous romance with two women and a man. I always think a bit about the edge cases before including them, but you folks can make up your own minds. It also looks to be on the spicy side, and is tagged as including BDSM themes. The book is Scandalous Passions by Nicola Davidson published by Entangled.

Scotland, 1504. Lady Janet Fraser didn’t earn her reputation as Scotland’s most notorious sinner by following the rules. A former mistress of King James IV, she’s content to live her life from pleasure to pleasure. Even if those pleasures—and people—are forbidden. People like Sir Lachlan Ross, given the moniker The Highland Beast, a man as intimidating in battle as he is in size. A beast she discovers secretly wishes to be tamed and submit to her dominance. Or like her new ward, Lady Marjorie Hepburn, a convent-raised virgin with a desire to be taught all the sensual secrets of the marriage bed. Things that Janet is fully willing to teach her, again and again. There’s much for her to learn. And forbidden pleasures like the three of them together in one bed. But Lachlan and Marjorie both have ties to the king. As wicked lusts are indulged and affection unexpectedly grows into love, breaking the rules this time could mean all of their undoing…

The next two are 20th century stories set in the two world wars. The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong, translated by Kristen Gehrman, from Transit Books, was originally published in Dutch.

When Bea meets Erica at the home of a mutual friend, this chance encounter sets the stage for the story of two women torn between desire and taboo in the years leading up to the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Erica, a reckless young journalist, pursues passionate but abusive affairs with different women. Bea, a reserved secretary, grows increasingly obsessed with Erica, yet denial and shame keep her from recognizing her attraction. Only Bea’s discovery that Erica is half-Jewish and a member of the Dutch resistance―and thus in danger―brings her closer to accepting her own feelings. First published in 1955 in the Netherlands, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking work in its time for its frank and sensitive depiction of the love between two women, now available in a new translation.

World War I is the setting for While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie from Bold Strokes Books.

Johanna Lennox, a working-class Scottish nurse, and Ellie Winthrop, a Volunteer Aid Detachment recruit from a wealthy British family, are thrown together in a general hospital in France during World War I. When Johanna’s mother dies unexpectedly, Ellie is there to offer the comfort she desperately needs, and their feelings for each other grow into an attraction neither can deny. Johanna is convinced they can’t have a future together and throws herself into her work to escape her pain. She volunteers to serve closer to the Front and almost loses her life before being sent home. When Ellie refuses to give up hope and goes to find her, will Johanna be able to trust that a love born amidst the horrors of the Great War can survive in a post-war world?

And the month finishes out with one of the occasional non-English books that turns up in my Amazon searches. This one is in French, titled Insoumises (Rebellious) by Kadyan published by Homoromance Éditions. It sounds like it’s more in the older tradition of bodice-rippers than following more current trends in historic romance. I’ve included the original French cover copy in the transcript, but here’s my translation with the generous help of Google Translate.

In 889, the Vikings terrorized Europe with their relentless raids. Hethna, daughter of a Viking chief, took up arms to replace her fallen husband. What could be more natural, during a raid in Ireland, to enrich her holding of slaves with this fierce young novice? Aileen is only sixteen, but she is determined to conquer the heart of the mother superior of the monastery before her father forcibly marries her off. She does not imagine for a moment that her life will change in a few moments. Captured by those she considers savages, she refuses to submit to her fate as a slave. Within the rhythm of attacks and everyday life in the Viking village, the two women will discover an attraction beyond their status as mistress and slave. But will they be able to overcome jealousy and prejudice to sieze their happiness?

An 889, les Vikings terrorisent l’Europe par leurs raids incessants. Hethna, fille d’un chef viking, a pris les armes pour remplacer son mari mort au combat. Quoi de plus naturel, lors d’un raid en Irlande, d’enrichir son cheptel d’esclaves avec cette jeune novice farouche? Aileen n’a que seize ans, mais elle est bien décidée à conquérir le cœur de la mère supérieure du monastère avant que son père ne la marie de force. Elle n’imagine pas un instant que sa vie va basculer en quelques minutes. Capturée par ceux qu’elle considère comme des sauvages, elle refuse de se soumettre à son destin d’esclave. Au rythme des attaques et de la vie de tous les jours dans le village viking, les deux femmes découvriront leur attirance au-delà de leur condition de maîtresse et d’esclave. Mais pourront-elles surmonter les jalousies et les préjugés pour conquérir leur bonheur?

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading in the last month? My own reading is, alas, still fairly stalled at the moment. I did read Janet Todd’s Don’t You Know There’s a War On? And I keep meaning to find a place in the rhythms of my quarantine for more books, but at the moment I’m mostly treading water in terms of my reading. I hope you’re managing better than I am, because I have a lot of books stacked up on my iPad that deserve to get my love and I have a lot of sympathy for authors who are doing book releases in this time of distraction and stress.

Books and Links

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

Major category: 
Monday, April 27, 2020 - 08:00

The concept and legacy of the salon movement deeply unpins several character dynamics in my Alpennia series. Of the central characters, Jeanne de Cherdillac is the only one old enough to have been part of pre-French-revolution society. She was mentored by a prominent Rotenek salonnière and was expected to take up a similar role for herself, except for the intervention of the French occupation and personal tragedy. (But I have a story planned that touches on that part of her life.) This is the culture she hearkens back to when she begins mentoring Anna Monterrez to be an intellectual hostess.

Margerit Sovitre did not partake of salon culture--she had a private education at home, though a stronger one than most girls her age would have received. And her ambitions focused on the more formal realm of the male academy. But the path that leads her to founding her own academy for girls passes through a role that owes much to salon culture, though she expressed it in the form of public lectures rather than private gatherings.

In both France and England, the woman-centered nature of salon culture makes it a very fertile ground for stories that center women and their relationships with each other. The same female networks that populated the salons included many more individual relationships between pairs or groups of women that could be intensely emotional and even romantic. And they had a social context for envisioning the ways that women could support each other in challenging the limitations that men placed on their expectations.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Bodek, Evelyn Gordon. 1976. "Salonières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism" in Feminist Studies vol 3 no. 3/4 185-199.

Bodek does a compare-and-contrast study of the 18-19th century salon movements in France and England. It becomes apparent in the course of the article that the author has a decided sympathetic preference for the English “bluestockings” as opposed to the French salonières, but this needn’t undermine the usefulness of the article.

Salons emerged out of 18th century French and English reformist ideals of egalitarianism, especially around the question of women’s education. Those ideals failed to create any overall improvement in the situation of education for girls and young women.

Men of the gentry class in England could expect a university education, while their sisters had access only to more informal teaching that typically ended in their early teens. The official position of the patriarchal establishment was that educating women was pointless as their biology was not suited to the rigors of study. Too much education might undermine her health, drive her mad, or simply make her unsuited for marriage. Girls were encouraged to conceal their educational attainments and focus on domestic skills and artistic accomplishments.

Within this context, salons stood out as the one place women could enjoy and display their learning, even though they were often depicted simply as talented hostesses who created a context for learned men to shine. This wasn’t the case. Salons became, in effect, informal universities for women, where they had a chance to study and debate with the leading intellectuals of the day, and in many cases to display their own intellectual accomplishments. But the flavor of salons in France and England were different, due to differences in the social contexts of the day. The first part of this article looks at the historic context of that development.

French salons developed at a time when the official court of France was dealing with violence and turmoil and the rise of absolutist tendencies in the monarchy. Intellectual social life, rather than revolving around the royal court, developed in private spaces, led by hostesses who reigned over their own domains as absolutely as monarchs. The origins are credited to Madame Rambouillet whose frail health motivated her to bring society to her rather than venturing out herself.

Salons were ruled by women who selected the guests, decided on the theme and program, mentored other women (who might go on to found salons of their own), and could make and break careers by dint of careful introductions. The salons served as newspapers, literary journals, and university lecture halls. Invitations were sought after and behavior was strictly dictated. One firm principle was the equality of all within the circle of the salon, in theory including equality of the sexes.

The concept migrated to England in the wake of a general cultural exchange and a fondness of the English for all things French. Starting in the late 16th century, England served as a refuge for all manner of French emigrés, many of whom became schoolmasters and tutors for English children, just as young Englishmen traveled to attend French schools. By the 18th century, the vogue for things French became a passion and social conditions were ripe for the establishment of French-style salons.

In the mid 17th century, the English civil war had disrupted existing social patterns, and with the Restoration, public life and debate had moved out of private homes and into the (functionally exclusively male) coffee houses and clubs.

English women in the 18th century were, on average, better educated, had more social and legal freedom, and participated more in the public economy than French women did, as well has having had the recent example of a reigning queen (Anne). There was a long tradition of independent learned women in England, and upper middle class women looked to a middle class ideal, including the running of businesses, rather than an ideal of aristocratic leisure.

By the mid 18th century, English hostesses began to banish card games from their drawing rooms and to encourage learned conversation, leading to a particularly English style of salon, led by women who self-identified as “Bluestockings”. The term originally implied witty or learned people of both sexes, and ones who were focused on intellectual pursuits rather than fashion. (Blue stockings being considered a plain, unfashionable garment.) The term, however, later came to be used specifically for women and to mean a pedantic educated woman.

While French salons took delight in the enjoyment of pleasures, such as fine dining and artistic beauty, English salons considered such pursuits frivolous and preferred to focus on intellectual pursuits. A great deal of this divide can be ascribed to the social background of the two groups. French salons arose out of aristocratic court circles, while English salons reflected somewhat more puritanical middle-class values.

The educational background of their female participants differed as well. French girls typically had a convent education, famed for its deficiencies and rigid structure.  French salonières often began with a personal goal of improving their own education via their guests. English girls--especially those with intellectual interests--were often provided with personal tutoring, either by family members or hired tutors, and might be encouraged in their pursuits. The Bluestockings, as girls, were often very self-motivated and loved learning for its own sake, reading the classics and studying languages.

In spite of these differences, salon hostesses in both cultures played similar roles. They were hostesses, selected the guests, organized and directed the activities, facilitated discussions, and enforced standards. They were praised (or sometimes critiized) for the way they “played” the gathering like a musical instrument. Conversation and letter writing were considered essential skills and were specifically cultivated.

French salon hostesses were, to some extent, in competition with each other for guests and reputation, though it could be a friendly and supportive rivalry. Each salon had its own tone, and powerful salonières could even exert control over the formal intellectual academies through their male guests. They studied each other’s styles and practices in order to enhance their own. There was a sort of apprenticeship system in the salons, whereby a young woman would be taken on as a protegée and then later create her own salon. French salonières often wrote, but rarely published publicly, as opposed to within her circle of friends and admirers. They led conversations, but rarely put forth controversial opinions.

The English Bluestockings considered their French cousins to have limited horizons. While the French salon might be its hostess’s primary pursuit, the Bluestocking often ran  a business or an estate, might write and publish extensively, and even make a viable living as an author in some cases. The Bluestockings tended to view themselves as a community held together by friendship and mutual interests and beliefs, as contrasted with the French model of separate individual spheres. The English gatherings were less rigidly scheduled while French ones often had fixed schedules.

Bluestocking friendships went beyond sentiment and erased differences of personality, belief, age, and social status. The “economy” of intellectual exchange had room for those of all incomes and levels of influence. And the Bluestocking salons were not simply female-led but were female-centered. Men might be included in their gatherings, but were not treated as the main event in the same way they were in French salons. Eventually, the Bluestocking salons came to regard themselves as a women’s club to which men might be admitted as guests. They had a sense of group solidarity as women that the French salonières typically lacked.

The Bluestockings supported either other in publishing and similar accomplishments. This female self-sufficiency gave them a context for challenging gender roles and traditional roles for women. Their indifference to “pleasure” as a goal resulted in downplaying traditional artistic accomplishments such as drawing, dancing or musical instruments, except in the context of a general pursuit of excellence. They viewed the de facto differences between the sexes as due to differences in education. If girls were educated with the same freedom and rigor as boys, they held there would be no intellectual and moral differences between men and women. This did not lead them to reject marriage universally, but to view the ideal marriage as one between equal friends.

The salon is most often considered in a French context due to its longevity there and because of the way it stood out as the one institution dominated by women. In contrast, the Bluestocking salons are viewed as lacking in grace and refinement. But the majority of criticisms of the Bluestockings can be traced to misogyny and they ways in which they rejected traditional feminine roles.

The French salons evaporated in the wake of the Revolution, and the English ones in the wake of industrialism.

But were the Bluestockings “feminists”? Not particularly, except by contrast. They were as a whole conventional, conservative, and traditional. They did not call for radical reform of the place of women, particularly with regard to the working classes, nor did they demand political rights. They did, however, lay the intellectual foundations for those who would later do so.

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

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45d - The (Sex) Lives of Fair and Gallant Women - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/04/25 - listen here)

In the middle ages and even more so in the Renaissance, there was a genre of literature that cataloged biographies of notable women. The subjects might be virtuous, or infamous, or both. Generally there would be an attempt to cover the whole scope of human history, starting with mythical and biblical figures and work though the centuries up to the author’s own era. The intended purpose of each work might be different. Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies used examples of notable women of the past to argue that women should have equal respect and status as men. Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus or “Concerning Famous Women” claimed a moral purpose in urging readers to imitate the virtuous women in his collection and to take a lesson from the wicked ones. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of many later writers to take Boccaccio’s work as a model, though his poem The Legend of Good Women focused only on the praiseworthy ones.

But the 16th century French book, Vies des Dames Galantes by the courtier Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, though it also took the form of a catalog of biographies and anecdotes about notable women, falls more in the category of entertaining gossip rag than edifying treatise.

Brantôme was a soldier and courtier, and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies is his best-known work (or at least, the most notorious). The positive-sounding title is actually tongue-in-cheek. The text focuses on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of women cuckolding their husbands. (Because, of course, this being a male writer working within the patriarchy, sex outside of marriage is all the fault of the woman and only women’s sexual escapades are worthy of condemnation.)

Where does lesbianism come into it? There is an entire section of the book exploring the question of whether women having sex with women falls within the definition of cuckoldry. And although the discussion is framed with mockery and the assumption that sex between women could not possibly be as satisfying as sex involving a penis, Brantôme’s forthright and--let us go so far as to say pornographic--discussion of the subject provides evidence of beliefs about, and attitudes toward, women’s same-sex relations that would be hard to retrieve from other types of texts. For those interested in knowing what an educated 16th century person might know or believe about sex between women, Brantôme offers concrete evidence. Brantôme’s stories reflect the misogyny and ribald sense of humor of the male aristocratic elite of his day, but what makes his book interesting to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is his fascination with lesbian relationships and the colorful and frank language he uses in describing them.

The work is certainly not intended to be a sober sociological study of women's same-sex relationships in late 16th century France. The work is steeped in the male gaze, but at the same time, it presents an unblinking look--indeed, an outright stare--at both the attitudes of elite men of that era, and most likely some version of the reality of women's lives. We also get information on the everyday language of sexuality, including clear examples of the word lesbienne used as a noun for the author's contemporaries (not simply an ambiguous reference to ancient Greeks who might or might not have been interested in same-sex love), and slang for various sex acts described in clear detail, such as tongue-kissing and tribadism. This is a different level of evidence than one gets in the same era from medical manuals or regurgitations of classical authors (though Brantôme quotes those as well).

Brantôme’s memoirs were written toward the end of the 16th century but were not published until after his death--in the 1660s for The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies. English translations over the centuries have often been bowdlerized to varying degrees. The translations I include here are based on just such a bowdlerized version published by A.R. Allinson in 1922, but supplemented by other editions to return the direct and explicit content (or where Allinson modestly left the explicit language either in French or Latin). Particularly useful was Merrick & Ragan’s Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection, and in trivial cases I’ve done my own translation. Allinson seems to have considered that translations of Rensaissance texts required forsoothly language, so I hope you will enjoy the spirit of the thing.

Brantôme begins by introducing the question at hand and throwing some classical citations at it.

Now will I further ask this one question only, and never another, one which mayhap hath never yet been enquired into of any, or possibly even thought of, to wit, whether two ladies that be in love one with the other, as hath been seen aforetime, and is often seen nowadays, sleeping together in one bed, and doing what is called donna con donna (woman with woman), imitating in fact that learned poetess Sappho, of Lesbos, whether these can commit adultery, and between them make their husbands cuckold. Of a surety do they commit this crime, if we are to believe Martial in Epigram 119 of his First Book. Therein doth he introduce and speak of a woman named Bassa, a tribad, reproaching the same greatly in that men were never seen to visit her, in such wise that folk deemed her a second Lucretia for chasteness. But presently she came to be discovered, for that she was observed to be constantly welcoming at her house beautiful women and girls; and 'twas found that she herself did serve these and counterfeit a man. And the poet, to describe this, doth use the words, geminos committere cunnos (joining twin cunts). And further on, protesting against the thing, he doth signify the riddle and give it out to be guessed and imagined, in this Latin line: Hie, ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium, "a strange thing," that is, "that where no man is, yet is adultery done."

Although Brantôme introduces his anecdotes variously with “I knew” or “some say” or “I was told by so-and-so”, I think we can err on the side of caution and consider that the stories, while common gossip, need not always be taken for literal fact. Still, in the following anecdote, we see a snapshot of the sort of international culture he was dealing with. A Spanish courtesan living in Rome had a female lover who then married a servant of a French Cardinal (though perhaps also living in Rome at the time). Keeping this in mind, we need not assume that Brantôme’s observations apply only to French women.

I knew once a courtesan of Rome, old and wily if ever there was one, that was named Isabella de Luna, a Spanish woman, which did take in this sort of friendship another courtesan named Pandora. This latter was eventually married to a butler in the Cardinal d'Armaignac's household, but without abandoning her first calling. Now this same Isabella did keep her, and extravagant and ill-ordered as she was in speech, I have oft times heard her say how that she did cause her to give her husbands more horns than all the wild fellows she had ever had. I know not in what sense she did intend this, unless she did follow the meaning of the Epigram of Martial just referred to.

Brantôme returns to a catalog of classical sources. While the anecdotes themselves obviously aren’t commentary on his contemporaries, the passages do give us vocabulary that reflects 16th century France rather than ancient Greece or Rome.

Tis said how that Sappho of Lesbos was a very high mistress in this art, and that in after times the Lesbian dames have copied her therein, and continued the practice to the present day. So Lucian saith: such is the character of the Lesbian women, which will not suffer men at all. Now such women as love this practice will not suffer men, but devote themselves to other women and are called tribads, a Greek word derived, as I have learned of the Greeks, from  tribo, tribein, that is to say fricare. These tribads are called in Latin fricatrices, and in French fricatrices or those who do the fricarelle in the art of donne con donne, as it is still found at the present day.

This is the sort of context that confounds lexicographers who are trying to pin down early uses of the word “lesbian” to mean homosexual women. A conservative reading of this passage points out that “lesbian” is always used in a context where a literal reading of “belonging to the island of Lesbos” is possible. But at the same time, the text indicates a clear connection between women of that island being sexually oriented towards women.

When discussing various Roman authors on the topic of sex between women, Brantôme doesn’t have the nuanced understanding of Roman sexual attitudes that might sort out the difference between women having sex with women and women acting like a man in sex.

Juvenal again speaks of these women, when he saith: ...frictum Grissantis adorat (she loves the rubbing of Grissas) talking of such a tribad, who adored and loved the embraces of one Grissas. The excellent and diverting Lucian hath a chapter on this subject, and saith therein how that women do come together like men, coupling with lascivious, secret, monstrous instruments made in a sterile form. Moreover this name of tribad, which doth elsewhere occur but rarely as applied to these women, is freely employed by him throughout, and he saith that the female sex must needs be like the notorious Philaenis, who was used to parody the actions of manly love. At the same time he doth add, 'tis better far for a woman to be given up to a lustful affection for playing the male, than it is for a man to be womanish; so utterly lacking in all courage and nobility of character doth such an one show himself. Thus the woman, according to this, which doth counterfeit the man, may well be reputed to be more valorous and courageous than another, as in truth I have known some such to be, as well in body as in spirit.

As usual, issues of gender and sexuality get tangled up in this era, compounded by misogyny, resulting in a mocking “admiration” for homosexuality among women while condemning it among men. In this next passage, our forsoothly translator has declined to do his job entirely, leaving the whole passage in French, so we have a more modern rendering.

In another place Lucian presents two ladies chatting about this love, and one asks the other if so-and-so had been in love with her and if she had slept with her and what she had done to her. The other answered her freely, “First, she kissed me as men do, not only in joining her lips, but also in opening her mouth (this means like a female pigeon, with the tongue in the mouth), and although she had no virile member and was like the rest of us, even so she said that she had a manly heart, love, and everything else. And then I embraced her like a man, and she did the same to me, kissed me, and panted, and it seemed to me that she got pleasure beyond measure out of it. And she coupled in a certain way that was much more pleasant than with a man.” That is what Lucian says.

Although Lucian does indeed describe open-mouthed kissing between the women, Brantôme is the one who glosses it as “like a female pigeon”. From this we may interpret that “kissing like a pigeon” (here, “en pigeonne”, and in a later passage, [ok, excuse my French here] “s'entrebaiser en forme de colombe”) is 16th century French slang for tongue-kissing

Brantôme now turns to contemporary images from foreign lands, connecting love between women with severely gender-segregated societies where women are kept in seclusion from men. A European fascination with gender relations in the Ottoman Empire shows up in a number of 16th and 17th century texts. Note that this time when he uses the phrase “lesbian dames” it’s no longer possible to argue that it could simply men “women of Lesbos”.

Well, by what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such Lesbian dames, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places. And wherever the women are kept secluded, and have not their entire liberty, this practice doth greatly prevail. For such women, burning in their bodies, surely must, as they say, make use of this remedy to cool off a bit or else they burn all over. The Turkish women go to the baths more for this than for any other reason, and are greatly devoted thereto. Even courtesans, who have men at their disposal at all hours, yet have recourse to these fricarelles, seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard of sundry doing in Italy and in Spain. In my native France women of the sort are common enough; yet it is said to be no long time since they first began to meddle therewith, in fact that the fashion was imported from Italy by a certain lady of quality, whom I will not name.

Brantôme may decline to name her, but the reference is generally understood to be to Queen Catherine de Medici, who married Henri II of France in 1547 and so became queen of France. All manner of “foreign” practices were attributed to her influence, though many were viewed positively, such as her importation of Italian high cuisine.

[Sponsor Break]

And now we get to the salacious gossip part of the book, discussing women who were actually members of Brantôme’s social circles, though he is often coy about specifics.

I heard it told by the late Monsieur de Clermont-Tallart the younger, who died at La Rochelle, who as a young boy, having the honor to be the companion of Monsieur d’Anjou, later our king Henry III, in his study and studying with him customarily, whose tutor was Monsieur de Gournay, that one day, being in Toulouse, studying with his master in his cabinet and being seated in a corner by himself, he saw, through a little crack (in as much as the cabinets and rooms were made of wood and had been built quickly and in haste thanks to the cardinal d’Armagnac, archbishop of the place, to receive and accommodate the king and all his court better) in another cabinet, two very tall women, with their clothes all tucked up and their drawers down, lie one on top of the other, kiss each other in the manner of pigeons, rub themselves, caress each other, in a word, move their hips vigorously, copulate, and imitate men. And their sport lasted almost a full hour. They were so overheated and tired that they were worn out and were obliged to rest for as long. And he said that he saw this game played on several other days, in the same way, as long as the court was there. And he never again had the convenience of seeing this sport, in as much as the room facilitated it on this occasion and on the other occasions he could not see. He told me even more about it than I dare to write about it and named the ladies. I do not know if it is true, but he swore it to me and vouched for it a hundred times with sincere oaths. And, in fact, this is quite probable, for these two ladies have in fact always had the reputation of making and prolonging love in this way and spending their time so.

Several others have I known which have given account of the same manner of loves, amongst whom I have heard tell of a noble lady of the great world, who was superlatively given this way, and who did love many ladies, courting the same and serving them more than men do, and made love to them as a man does to his mistress. So would she take them and keep them at bed and board, and give them whatever they would. Her husband was right glad and well content thereat, as were many other husbands I have known, all of whom were right glad their wives did follow after this sort of affection rather than that of men, deeming them to be thus less wild.

This is a regular theme throughout Brantôme’s work--that men were tolerant of their wives’ same-sex adventures because they found them less threatening to their dignity than if their wives had taken male lovers. But Brantôme isn’t so sure they should take this attitude.

But indeed I think they were much deceived; for by what I have heard said, this is but an apprenticeship, to come later to the greater one with men. For, after they have warmed up and sent each other into heat, their warmth not decreasing on account of this, they must bathe in cool running water, which refreshes much better than still water. Thus I have it from reliable surgeons, and considering that, if anyone wants to dress and cure a wound well, he must not waste time medicating and cleaning around it or along the edge but must probe it to the bottom and apply a syringe and bandage to it well before that.

I can’t say that cleaning wounds is the most attractive of metaphors for sex that I’ve found! This idea shows up in a number of 16th century pornographic works: that sex between women would get them aroused but only sex with a man could satisfy that arousal. I’m sure it made the men feel better to keep thinking that. The motif is continued in another paragraph that I’ve omitted as not being to the point, although it does provide a clear example of French lesbienne as a noun referring to 16th century French women, not ancient Greeks.

Even Brantôme’s own anecdotes undermine his assertion that women would always end up trading women for men.

I have known in my time two very fair and honourable damsels of a noble house, cousins of one another, which having been used to lie together in one bed for the space of three years, did grow so well accustomed to this fricarelle that at the last getting the idea the said pleasure was but a meagre and imperfect one compared with that to be had with men, they did determine to try the latter, and soon became downright harlots. They confessed afterward to their lovers that nothing had corrupted them so much and incited them to it but this fricarelle, detesting it for having been the only cause of their corruption. And for all that, when they ran into each other, or with others, they always made some snack of this fricarelle and thereby always increased their appetite for the other with men. And this was the answer a very honourable damsel I knew did once make to her lover, when he asked her if she did never follow this fricarelle with her lady friend with whom she usually slept, "No, no!" she replied  laughing, "I like men too well."  but she nevertheless did it with both.

Another anecdote undermines the supremacy of male love even further.

I have heard of an honourable gentleman who, desiring one day at Court to seek in marriage a certain very honourable damsel, did consult one of her kinswomen thereon. She told him frankly he would but be wasting his time; for, as she did herself tell me, such and such a lady, naming her, ('twas one I had already heard talk of) will never suffer her to marry. Instantly I did recognize the hang of it, for I was well aware how she did keep this damsel at bed and board  for her pleasure, and did guard her carefully like a treasure. The gentleman did thank the said cousin for her good advice and warning, not without a merry gibe or two at herself the while, saying she did herein put in a word or two for herself as well as for the other, for that she did take her little pleasures now and again under the rose. But this she did stoutly deny to me.

Yet throughout all these anecdotes, there is a clear sense that--with regard to sex outside marriage--the gender of one’s partner seems to have been a matter of personal taste.

This doth remind me of certain women who have their own whores in this way and actually love these friends so dearly they would not share them for all the wealth in the world, neither with Prince nor great noble, with comrade or friend. They are as jealous of them as a beggarman of his drinking barrel; yet even he will offer this to any that would drink. But this lady was fain to keep the damsel all to herself, without giving one scrap to others.

One of the more intriguing anecdotes Brantôme offers, suggests that women who loved women may have kept pet ferrets as an advertising mascot. The basis for medieval mythology associating weasels with lesbian sex is complicated and obscure. And there are other unrelated reasons for the Renaissance portraits we see of women holding an ermine, or holding a zibellino, a fashion accessory consisting of a mink or weasel pelt with jeweled head and feet. But this passage sets the imagination going.

'Tis said how that weasels are touched with this sort of love, and delight female with female to unite and dwell together. And so in hieroglyphic signs, women loving one another with this kind of affection were represented of yore by weasels. I have heard tell of a lady who dabbled in this love} which was used always to keep some of these animals, for that she did take pleasure in watching her little pets couple in this way.

And now we get into Brantôme’s discussion of sexual techniques.

Here is another point: it is that these feminine loves are handled in two ways, some through fricarelle and, as this poet says, through uniting twin cunts. This way does not cause any harm, some say, unlike when one makes use of instruments made of [missing word], but which people have chosen to call dildos.

This suggests that the term fricarelle, which Brantôme has been using regularly as a general term for what women do with each other, has a specific meaning distinct from penetration with a dildo. The word for the latter in the French text appears only as an initial G. There is a later French term godemiché with the same meaning but I don’t know if it was in use this early. Referring to dildos, he notes:

I have heard it said that a great ruler, having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member. She was so surprised that she did not have a chance to remove it, so that the ruler compelled her to show him how the two of them did it. They say that several women have died from it, from engendering abscesses in their wombs caused by unnatural motions and rubbing.

It’s possible that the belief that dildos caused internal injury is mere hostility to an inanimate rival, but it’s not implausible that some of the materials used were a bit more abrasive than modern synthetics. Given the variety of sexual techniques discussed in these anecdotes, there is a suspicious fascination with penetrative sex between women. And the following story seems to take a perverse pleasure in the calamity that this activity brought down on the participants. This one is a bit icky, I’m afraid.

I have heard a story told, being then at court, that the Queen Mother having ordered an inspection one day of the rooms and chests of all those who were housed in the Louvre, without excepting ladies and girls, to see if there were any hidden weapons, and especially pistols, during our troubles [the civil wars], there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos, which gave everyone a good laugh and caused her a good deal of astonishment. I knew the gentlewoman. I believe she is still alive, but she never looked well. Such instruments, in the end, are very dangerous. I will tell yet this story about two ladies of the court who loved each other so much and were so ardent about their business that wherever they were, they could not keep or refrain from at least making some sign of toying or kissing, which discredited them very much and gave men much to think about. One of them was a widow, and the other was married. And when the married one, on a day of great sumptuousness, was very well adorned and dressed in a gown of silver linen, since their mistress had gone to vespers, they went into her cabinet and began to perform their fricarelle so roughly and so violently on her close stool [toilet chair] that it broke under them. And the married lady, who was the one underneath, fell backward in her lovely silver linen gown, flat down in the filth from the chamber pot, so that she spoiled and soiled herself so much that she did not know what to do but wipe herself off, as best she could, tuck up her skirt, and go with great haste to change her gown in her room, not however, without having been noticed and indeed smelled along the way, so much did she stink, about which some who knew the story laughed a lot. Even their mistress, who relieved herself as they did, knew that they did not wait for a suitable place and time without discrediting themselves.

If Brantôme can’t convince the reader that women will inevitably turn to men, he pulls out the mockery and ridicule. But reading between the lines, keep in mind that there is no indication that women’s same-sex relations were prosecuted through the courts or considered any more hazardous to one’s future and reputation than other sexual adventures might be. In fact, in the sections of this work that cover women’s adultery with men, there is an acceptance that a jealous husband might punish his wife by killing her, but this is not raised as a possibility regarding a female lover. Though, no doubt, this was because a woman was not considered a serious rival.

I’ll skip the passage that talks about how at least committing adultery with another woman isn’t nearly as bad as committing it with a man, on which basis Brantôme seems willing to excuse the practitioners.

He follows this by quoting a passage by Firenzuola on women’s friendships citing Margaret of Austria and Laodomia Forteguerra, which Brantôme embellishes with some rather more pointed speculations.

Monsieur du Gua and I were reading one day in a little Italian book, called the Book of Beauty, writ in the form of a dialogue by the Signor Angelo Firenzuola, a Florentine, and fell upon a passage wherein he saith that women were originally made by Jupiter and created of such nature that some are set to love men, but others the beauty of one another. But of these last, some purely and holily, and as an example of this the author doth cite the very illustrious Marguerite of Austria, which did love the fair Laodamia Fortenguerre, but others again wantonly and lasciviously, like Sappho the Lesbian, and in our own time at Rome the famous courtesan Cecilia of Venice. Now this sort do of their nature hate to marry, and fly the conversation of men all ever they can. Hereupon did Monsieur du Gua criticise the author, saying 'twas a falsehood that the said fair lady, Marguerite of Austria, did love the other fair dame of a pure and holy love. For seeing she had taken up her rather than others which might well be equally fair and virtuous as she, 'twas to be supposed it was to use her for her pleasures, neither more nor less than other women that do the like. Only to cover up her naughtiness, she did say and publish abroad how that her love for her was a pure and holy love, as we see many of her fellows do, which do dissemble their lewdness with suchlike words. This was what Monsieur du Gua did remark thereanent; and if any man doth wish to discuss the matter farther, well! he is at liberty to do so. 

I’ll skip the last passage in the section with brings in the Renaissance fascination with intersex physiology and how it could be categorized with regard to sexuality.

While keeping in mind the context of Brantôme’s writings on sex between women in 16th century France -- he was writing a scandalous and near-pornographic work on illicit sex in general -- we can find many traces of useful information for understanding sex between women at that time. We have discussions of techniques, of slang vocabulary; we get a sense of how women’s same-sex relations may have been viewed by their contemporaries; and if we read deeply between the lines, we see the likelihood that these relationships were not simply about physical pleasure but could include emotional bonds and the enjoyment of women’s company in a society where men’s company could be hazardous. It’s also interesting what we don’t see in Brantôme’s descriptions. Except for a few references to making love “like a man”--which might simply mean taking an assertive role--we don’t see an association of same-sex love with male gender performance. There are, of course, records of women living cross-gender lives at this time, sometimes partnered with a woman, but Brantôme doesn’t draw this as a connection. We don’t see the relationships being framed as like marriage, except perhaps in the case where a female bond was considered to get in the way of marrying a man. We don’t see same-sex love being treated as particularly sinful in comparison with other illicit relationships.

In all eras and settings, the forms and understandings of same-sex relationships have a shape specific to their context, even when motifs are shared across time and space. Brantôme gives us a glimpse into some of the specifics of 16th century French court life, even though the distorting filters of point of view. The resulting picture helps to expand our own understanding of that time.

Links & References

Major category: 
Monday, April 20, 2020 - 10:00

Every once in a while, a researcher thinks, "I'd really like to know what the author of this text thinks about it now." And sometimes--though rarely--that request is answered. I know that there are things I've written in the past, in the context of this blog, that I might word differently today, or look at from a different angle. Every sociological study is a reflection not simply of its content, but of the place where the researcher is standing at the time of writing.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1999. "Surpassing the Love of Men Revisited" in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 6.2 p.26.

Back when I was blogging Faderman’s 1981 book and expressing a certain amount of frustration with what I felt was an undue and overly sharp distinction between women who felt romantic love for each other and women who had sex with each other, I wondered if any of Faderman’s ideas on the topic had changed over the decades.

So I was intrigued to discover this article, published in 1999, that addressed that question directly. It’s still only a partial answer to my question, having been written 18 years after the book came out, while another 20 years have passed since then. And it’s rather different from the answer I expected. Because a large part of it sums up as “why did all these people misunderstand my book and think I was making a sharp distinction between relationships between women based on whether genital sex was involved?” To which I can only say, “I read through the book in great detail at two different times in my life and got that impression both times, so just maybe it was an understanding that was inherent in the text as written?”

But never mind. Here’s Faderman’s look-back.

Faderman’s book came out of several articles she wrote on the topic of love between women, how that love was expressed in literature and correspondence, how and when love between women became pathologized by sexological theory, and how self-conscious lesbian identity arose within that context. The work had come from a very personal place for her: entering the lesbian social world in the 1950s at a time when that identity was still heavily stigmatized and working through the process in the decades that followed of embracing lesbian identity as a positive force.

Having encountered expressions of romantic love between women in her study of 19th century literature, Faderman decided to tackle the question of how and why the phenomenon could shift from being universally condoned in Western culture, to universally condemned.

Faderman notes that when she wrote StLoM she could not imagine how much the world would change on the subject within her own lifetime, and admits that if she had it to write over again, she would do it differently. The following points are specifically noted as places where she now feels she erred.

She feels she did not give sufficient credit to the social and political work of the “homophile” organizations of the mid-century, only seeing them as conservative and old fashioned from the point of view of a ‘70s activist. She also regrets not being able to find any material on women of color to include in the book (and provides a number of references now available on that topic).

Faderman notes that the field of queer theory--which had not yet been developed when StLoM was written--now better engages with the historic fluidity and flexibility of sexuality and affectionality through history. That she had tried to present love between women across the centuries as a contradiction to a false homosexual/heterosexual divide. But that she feels the “queer movement” has the potential to uphold essentialist concepts and to continue to “other” people identified as queer, while her work had been intended to demonstrate a continuum. To point out that desire between women has been common in any era and culture that has not been actively hostile to same-sex love. While some of the subjects of her book she now feels would have identified today as “queer”, others would have rejected the idea that they were in any way distinct from the generality of women in their own culture.

One goal of StLoM was to demonstrate the extent to which the expression of sexual and romantic desire reflects the culture in which it exists. In eras that were friendly to the concept of love between women, it was virtually universal. In eras that were hostile, it was treated as abnormal and was pathologized. But that the underlying feelings were not different in kind.

Seeing the fluidity of people’s identities and affective connections within the context of the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, she felt validated in the conclusion that--when not suppressed--every woman was capable of experiencing desire for other women. But, she acknowledges, this was driven in part by that experience being a personal truth for her.

Faderman protests that her work was misunderstood by those who accused it of reducing to the question of “did they or didn’t they [have genital sex]?” While other critics felt that the book promulgated a false position of “no sex before 1900.”

[Note: here I will point out that if so many people--including me--took away this misunderstanding, perhaps the fault was in the text, not the reading.]

Faderman claims that her strategy was to take the position that whether or not we can “prove” genital sex between women, the demonstrable strength of their emotional and sensual attachments qualified them as progenitors of the later lesbian-feminist movement. That she was not denying the possibility of genital sexuality between women in the 19th century, only qualifying the impossibility of proving it except in very limited cases. She goes on to reiterate what she had intended to argue in StLoM:

  • That we cannot know whether specific historic women had genital sex with each other in most cases;
  • That we can know that many women had intense, passionate, and erotic relationships with women, and that these were common and widespread before same-sex relations were morbidified;
  • That it doesn’t matter for our purposes whether they had genital sex (even the sexologists didn’t make genital sex a prerequisite for identifying someone as lesbian);
  • That the most significant feature of lesbian relationships have always been intense, committed emotional bonds;
  • And that regardless of whether genital sex was involved, women in passionate committed relationships in the historical record can be considered “foremothers” of women in intimate same-sex relationships today.

Faderman admits that one driving force for her book was to create a “usable past” for contemporary women and hopes that, despite the book’s flaws, she was able to do that.

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45c - Book Appreciation with Tara Scott - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/04/18 - listen here)

Notes and Links

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Tara Scott Online


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

Major category: 
Monday, April 13, 2020 - 08:00

The "schoolgirl crushes" that form the subject of this paper for an excellent window not only on how same-sex passionate friendships were expected and received, but also on the greadual process by which they were co-opted, redirected, and eventually stigmatized. The phenomenon provides a good counter-example to the idea that public reception of homoerotic relationships has always moved in a single direction, from less to more acceptable. At the same time, it can be important to understand that the performance of these friendships--with its symbolism of romantic love and marriage--has two sides. Yes, it provided an opportunity for women to openly experience an accepted and recognized form of same-sex romance/eroticism, but it was also conventional and symbolic and should not uniformly be understood as depicting "lesbian" relationships in a narrow sense. It is both at the same time. For the purpose of creating historical fiction, this means that a relationship begun as a "rave" is an utterly typical experience (with adjustments for the specific forms and expressions, depending on era) and that fictional characters involved in such a relationship need not be shown as tormented by images of "forbidden desire"--though they might be tormented by other emotional hazards.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 1984. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships" in Signs vol. 9, no. 4 600-622.

If there is one weakness in this paper, I feel it is a failure to clearly distinguish between the dynamics of "raves" as experienced by those involve in them, versus the ways in which those relationships were interpreted and depicted by outsiders, and especially how they were depicted in retrospect when societal attitudes toward them may have shifted. There are some delightful glimpses from within rave culture from letters and diaries. But on several occasions I had a hard time sorting out the author's interpretation (or the interpretation of contemporary authorities) from what the subjects of her study expressed.

Vicinus begins the paper by placing it in the context of lesbian historiography in general and the focus on when same-sex emotional friendships came to be labeled “deviant” and looked askance. There is a conflict between the ability of labeling to enable self-identity and community formation, and the ways in which those labels had a spreading effect over practices and experiences that shared a context. Thus, the “morbidification” of women’s emotional friendships due to association with homosexuality had consequences for phenomena like boarding school friendships regardless of the actual nature of those friendships.

Those studying this shift face the difficulty of determining when sexological “knowledge” became widespread enough in the general public to affect the attitudes and experiences of those in the education sector. But this hyper-focus on “when it changed” has also left lesbian historians overly concerned with external labeling rather than with exploring what homoerotic friendships were actually like from the inside and how they functioned and were understood.

 This paper looks at only one specific aspect of the history of women’s friendship: the adolescent “crush” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of English boarding schools. The paper discusses the social origins of the crush, how it was performed both publicly and privately, and its impact on both the “crusher” and the “crushee.” During this specific historic era, shifts in women’s lives and expectations encouraged an age-differentiated idealized love, for which boarding schools were an especially fertile ground. [Note: It may be important to keep in mind that in this paper Vicinus is not looking at the entire phenomenon of schoolgirls’ homoerotic friendships, but specifically at a point in time when the understanding and performance of those friendship was changing due to external social shifts.]

It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these friendships (on either side) were conscious of a sexual aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke of them in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been so forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.

Women’s homoerotic friendships require certain preconditions. The women need to be at least somewhat freed from familial constraint (although some such friendships developed within the extended family). If a life together was desired, then a certain degree of economic independence was necessary. But more commonly, the evolution of such friendships did not involve sharing a household and existed in parallel with heterosexual marriages on the part of one or both women. It was common for friendships of this type to have begun during school years.

Beginning by the later 18th century, middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States might be sent to (gender-segregated) boarding schools. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family of birth. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards.

This increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools created a new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on and older student or a teacher.

The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from “gone on”), flame. Vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was the same, deriving from similar social conditions.

As the 19th century progressed, women were being trained for an expectation of new roles in society, with greater responsibility and independence, rather than being educated with the expectation of returning to the family and recapitulating the roles of the previous generation. The “smash” on an older authority figure was inspired by the need for emotional closeness, the admiration for a role model, and the balancing of intimacy and individuality. Emotional needs were attached to a more distanced object and the non-fulfillment of those needs was framed as providing the satisfaction of personal sacrifice, just as the girls were being trained for a life of professional sacrifice and service to others.

[Note: While reading this, I question whether these descriptions are emerging from data on how the girls themselves understood their experiences, or whether is it describing how “smashes” were framed and interpreted by external authorities.]

Love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was excluded from the model because it would have meant a failure of self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The object of the rave or smash might be better situated to understand the emotional urge as sexual, but acted to channel those feelings in emotional rather than sexual terms, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements.

In contrast to the older style of school friendships [see, e.g., Smith-Rosenberg 1975] these hierarchical raves tended to bring the schoolgirl into conflict with her mother and family, where connections to the family were displaced to the school and society at large. Girls might be advised to be aware of this and be attentive to family ties when at home, treating this temporary familial re-focusing as yet another form of virtuous self-sacrifice. Age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor.

“Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussion that normalized the practice and socialized new students in its performance. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provide to the target of devotion. These acts didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks there. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination.

The age-difference aspect of rave relationships--especially ones focused on a teacher--meant that they were inherently temporary as either a beloved older student or the younger “ravee” moved on from the school environment. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. Vicinus suggests instead that it was temporary only due to emerging from a particular set of circumstances: isolation, seeming powerlessness, and a willingness to devote oneself entirely to the experience. Some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling.

But the depth of feelings that raves engendered could tip the delicate balance between rousing feelings and subjecting those feelings to the desired self-control. As raves became a focus on psychological concern, school authorities might feel the need to speak out against raves as being disruptive and self-indulgent.

Some of those extremes of feeling are noted in the personal recollections of the recipients of raves, though they were rarely recorded in similar detail. Some considered that being the object of a student’s devotion was an opportunity to inspire and mentor them and guide them into a life of service or religious devotion. Indulgence or special attention to a particular girl might be regretted if it inspired emotional breakdowns or possessive behavior. Despite being in a position of greater social power, the target of devotion--especially if a teacher--had more to lose if the formalized emotional distance were broken down, as they were expected to have more emotional self-control.

Almost lost in this analysis are the examples--especially at the level of women’s colleges rather than boarding schools--of student-teacher friendships that then evolved into lifelong partnerships. Vicinus notes one example where a teacher who had to deal with a particularly problematic obsession from a student, was in turn the devoted romantic friend of her headmistress, with whom she used the language of marriage and spouses. The vocabulary of family relationships could help to sublimate concerns about the physical basis of such love. [Note: I’m once more being confused with the degree to which Vicinus is reporting the attitudes of her subject, versus describing her own interpretation of the dynamic.]

An example is given of an author who--much later--fictionalized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush in a novel. The novel adds a tragic finale in which a schoolgirl’s crush on a teacher, who is in something of a Boston marriage with another teacher, breaks up that relationship resulting the apparent suicide of the teacher-partner. Whereas the real life models for the incident did not involve any such tragedy and the two teachers continued to share their life and work. By the time the novel was written in the 1930s, attitudes and understandings of such school dynamics had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.

The emotions and passions of adolescent girls were to be appreciated, but controlled: channeled into self-sacrificing modes and sanitized with self-control. Their “raves” were not considered deviant, as such, but were treated as a passing phase. This left the system open to disruption when any of the parties failed to follow the rules--rules that were even explicitly laid out in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.

But just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting blurring of women’s roles with regard to the domestic and public spheres resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, either between teachers or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. [Note: I feel that Vicinus presents this section as received fact, rather than building it via evidence, but other writers such as Faderman present the process in more detail.]

This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were they regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.

Time period: 


Subscribe to Alpennia Blog