Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 39a - On the Shelf for October 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/10/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2019.
When you have a weekly podcast, the idea of taking a vacation becomes tricky. My schedule for the next couple months is jam packed, in part because of an extended vacation in October and in part because of my book release in November. Hey, did you know I have a new book coming out in November? Expect me to talk about Floodtide a whole bunch in November. But for now, I need a bit of a breather, so in place of the usual author interview and essay, I’m going to do a thematic group of reprised episodes on poetry for the rest of October. I’ll be re-sharing my shows on medieval love poetry between women, poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries, and a special Halloween show about Christina Rosetti’s “The Goblin Market.”
Once I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, I’ll be back to the regular format. I have a number of show ideas that are specifically aimed at creating characters and descriptions for lesbian-relevant historical fiction. I also hope to do some really fun shows centered around Anne Lister and the tv series Gentleman Jack.
And, as always, think about the 2020 fiction series. Submissions will be opening sooner than you know, and you don’t want to start writing at the last minute!
Publications on the Blog
In September, the blog finished up the collection of articles from The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. Then we moved on to start a series of foundational theoretical texts on gender and sexuality, starting with Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. These works are dense enough that I’m going to need to back off on doing an entire book each week so Joan Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages is going to get spread out over a few weeks and then I’ll move on to Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” That should probably cover most of October and I haven’t planned the specific reading schedule past those.
Book shopping recently has been entirely oriented around picking up the books for the theory series that I didn’t already have. So I’m sitting here looking at a stack of books that need to get logged in to my card catalog that include Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, Lochrie et al’s Constructing Medieval Sexuality, Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian, Garber’s Vested Interests, and Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval. Woah. That’s going to keep me busy.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
This month’s new and forthcoming book listings are pretty slim. Either we’re hitting an f/f historical slump or people are getting better than usual at hiding queer relevance in their cover copy.
In fact the first title is one that I almost left off, because even though it turns up in my Amazon keyword search, there’s no indication of anything other than cross-dressing in the cover copy. If this does turn out to have f/f content, let me know so I can add a note in my database.
Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand from Mulholland Books
In the sweltering summer of 1915, Pin, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a carnival fortune-teller, disguises herself as a boy and joins a teenage gang that roams the famous Riverview amusement park, looking for trouble. Unbeknownst to the well-heeled city-dwellers and visitors who come to enjoy the attractions, the park is also host to a ruthless killer who uses the shadows of the dark carnival attractions to conduct his crimes. When Pin sees a man enter the Hell Gate ride with a young girl, and emerge alone, she knows that something horrific has occurred. The crime will lead her to the iconic outsider artist Henry Darger, a brilliant but seemingly mad man. Together, the two navigate the seedy underbelly of a changing city to uncover a murderer few even know to look for.
We’re on more solid ground with the other two books. House of Bliss self-published by T.T. Thomas looks like it might be riffing off of Jack the Ripper motifs.
London, 1905 When ladies of the night begin showing up dead in the dark and bawdy alleys of Covent Garden, the victims are wearing House of Bliss corsets made by Sabrina Blissdon. Now the police want to know how and why Blissdon, the bohemian but successful upmarket corsetière, appears to be dressing the dead. Sabrina does know a few working women, from a time when she found comfort and solace with a couple of the occupants of a so-called tolerated house of London—boarding houses by day, brothels by night. But she is not eager to recall her youthful lusty pursuits—and dredge up memories of falling in love with Annabel North, a working woman who mysteriously disappeared three years earlier. All Sabrina wants is to focus on her work and enjoy her current romance—substantial respites from old heartaches…but the dead women wearing House of Bliss corsets and the ghost of love forsaken torment Sabrina’s restless soul. Old questions surface and new ones challenge. Did Annabelle disappear on purpose? Is she dead or alive? Is someone intentionally trying to ruin Sabrina’s reputation, or worse, accuse her of murder? Sabrina Blissdon is soon tempted into pursuing answers that could clear her name and save lives. What she discovers she may not be ready to accept when the evidence reveals the line between obsession and true love is often invisible to the blind spot in one’s heart.
And we finish up this month’s very short list with Flying Aces by Shiralyn Lee from Wicked Publishing.
A 1920s Drama set in Northern England and Germany. Within the valleys, rivers, and hills of the Yorkshire Dales, Tilly Foster has led an exceptional life alongside her father, a pilot who performs acrobatic tricks in his biplane. But as Tilly enters womanhood, a tragedy changes what she once knew as a simplistic lifestyle. Over the next few years her love of planes and showmanship provide her with everything she needs, and even the fairer-sex are drawn to her in ways only two women alone could identify. After a thwarted kidnap attempt on Violet Rose Burton, daughter of wealthy socialites, her parents arrange for her to marry a prosperous German and live in his homeland. Violet is naturally horrified at such a request, and her protests go unheard by those who are supposed to love her. But Violet’s fate had been sealed, and unbeknownst to the Burton family, her future is set to take a turn they weren’t expecting—she’s gone missing, or so they fear. This is where Tilly and Violet shall be thrown together in a quest, one that will have more than a rescue mission at hand.
I know I must be missing some new releases. It’s fairly common for me to run across a title that I learned about too late for the window to count it as a “new” book. If you have or know of an upcoming book that would fit in the nebulous category of lesbian-relevant historical fiction, make sure I know about it so I can include it in these listings.
What Am I Reading?
What have I been reading lately that might be of interest to the podcast listeners? I finished up Claire O’Dell’s The Hound of Justice, a near-future thriller inspired by Sherlock Holmes but re-envisioning Holmes and Watson as queer black women. I haven’t started a new book with queer relevance. I’m desperately trying to get caught up on my backlogged book reviews so in my gym reading time I’m reading some fun non-fiction that’s not at all related to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, especially Gretchen McCullough’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.
The next couple months on the podcast and blog are going to be a bit chaotic, but hang on tight and enjoy the ride!
I thought it might be time to put together a more-or-less official set of answers to freuqently asked questions about the Alpennia series, now that there's been enough time that I've heard plenty of questions. (Though sometimes the questions are implicit in comments rather than being asked directly.) I thought I'd post the individual questions+answers here in the blog first--which gives a chance to get more feedback--and then migrate them to their own page once the series is finished. If you have a general-interest question about the series that you think might not occur to me, let me know in the comments! Or if you want more details or further explanation on a topic.
The rough organization is: questions about genre, questions about format, questions about content, questions about overall series structure, and then miscellaneous questions. But I may initially post them more randomly as I get inspired. So here's the first.
* * *
Are the Alpennia books romances?
This is far from a simple question. From a very strict definition of a book where a romantic arc forms the dominant element of the plot, none of the Alpennia books is a romance. For a reader who requires on-page sex to consider a book a romance (and, yes, there are readers with that definition), none of the Alpennia books is a romance.
But if your definition of “romance novel” can include a story where the initiation, development, and fulfillment of a romantic relationship forms one central part of the plot, and where the characters involved in that relationship are an accepted couple for the foreseeable future by the end of the book, then both Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage are romances. If you require that there be only one central romantic couple in the story, then remove The Mystic Marriage from the category. On the other hand, if the romantic couple is allowed to settle into a happy but non-romantic relationship at the end of the book, you can add Mother of Souls to the mix. Under pretty much no definition of “romance novel” could Floodtide be considered a romance, although the protagonist’s romantic feelings are a central motif. And although the short stories "Three Nights at the Opera" and "Gifts Tell Truth" are both very much about romantic/sexual relationships, neither ends in a HEA ending.
Rather than trying to fit the Alpennia series into a romance box, it's probably better to think of it as a developing ensemble “found family” cast in which romantic ties are only one of several types of connections that bind the characters together. But if any of the books works for you as a romance, then by all means continue to consider it as such!
So, to summarize:
Daughter of Mystery – One central romantic relationship with classic HEA. No on-page sex. The romance is only one of several plot elements.
The Mystic Marriage – One existing/continuing romantic couple, one new relationship, both with classic HEA. No on-page sex. The romances are only one of several plot elements.
Mother of Souls – Two existing/continuing romantic couples. One new romantic relationship that resolves into platonic friendship. No on-page sex. The romances are only one of several plot elements.
Floodtide – Protagonist works through romantic/erotic feelings for several other characters, but is not in a romantic couple at the end of the story. No on-page sex. The romantic conflicts are only one of several plot elements.
"Three Nights at the Opera" - One central erotic relationship (but no on-page sex). The characters are not together at the end. But the relationship is the primary plot element.
"Gifts Tell Truth" - Once central erotic relationship (but no on-page sex). The characters are not together at the end. The relationship is one of two main plot elements.
This Edwardian country-house murder mystery follows the usual script of assembling an odd assortment of family, friends, and what-the-heck-are-they-doing-here characters, identifies certain characters (ideally more than one) as worthy of murder, establishes murderous motivations for most of the cast, with a handy storm to pen everyone in at the crisis. The mystery here is solid and even--if you haven’t read the book this is a prequel to--carries just enough doubt regarding the motivations and guilt of some of the more likeable characters to keep one on edge. If the primary viewpoint character--a Ladies Shooting Champion--were not our window on events, she’d be one of the prime suspects, simply on the grounds of no-nonsense efficiency.
The primary set-up, of course, is not so much the murder but the romance that develops in its shadows. Pat realizes she’s falling in love with her best friend’s apparently air-headed fiancée, though the engagement is dispensed with quickly enough that she’s never faced with serious ethical conflicts over it. Instead, the moral conflict is over how to handle the possibility that either her brother Bill or Bill’s male lover committed the murder in reaction to blackmail over that relationship.
Charles deftly lays out the contrasting experiences of men and women in same-sex relationships at the time: men’s relationships being criminalized and exactly the sort of thing one might murder to conceal, and women’s relationships being considered of little importance and not the sort of thing anyone was expected to organize her life plans around.
The development of Pat and Fenella’s relationship from wary companionship to attraction to “gosh, in the wake of murder we all need to stick together to protect each other so of course we should move into the same bedroom” proceeds apace, following the needs of the compressed structure of the story. (OK, so it all felt very rushed to me, but for at least one of them it wasn’t her first rodeo, so I’m willing to allow the benefit of the doubt for allosexual impulsiveness.)
If you like cozy mysteries and enjoy your romances to be layered with regular explicit sex scenes, this should be just up your alley.
Possibly the hardest thing in trying to write a stand-alone story within an existing series is trying to find the tricky balance between writing for the readers who don’t know any of these characters, and establishing the right dynamics for pre-existing characters who still need to “act in character” even in front of readers who don’t know what “in character” means for them.
Not all of the prior viewpoint characters have cameos, and Antuniet only gets this one, where she is stern and exhausted and yet the person most likely to be sympathetic to wild quests for the sake of experimental magic. And—for Iulien’s sake—it helps that she probably feels the least impulse to be over-protective of adventurous young women.
* * *
“We?” I asked.
Maisetra Iulien looked sideways at the tall woman and I could see that dangerous spark in her eyes, like she’d had when she first talked about exploring the chanulezes. Or that first day I met her when she’d run away from home in boy’s clothes. “You’ll need to come with me. I could scarcely go running around in the palace basements with a man I’m not related to and keep my reputation unless I have a chaperone with me.”
Mesnera Chazillen frowned at her but I could tell her mind was upstairs with her baby. “Don’t expect me to answer to your cousin for this.”
I wasn’t sure if Maisetra Iulien needed her permission or just wanted her blessing, but Mesnera Chazillen sighed and turned to open up the wooden case she’d set on the table. “Here. If you’re going to be running around with fever in the streets, at least I can give you this. It’s no protection but if you get sick it may help. We just worked out how to make them reliably.” She tucked a small, smooth stone as clear as crystal into Maisetra Iulien’s hand and then offered one to me as well. She looked down at my muddy skirts. “Ainis, perhaps you might lend this young person a clean dress so she looks respectable enough to be a proper vizeino. Go to the palace gates on the north side of the grounds. Tell the guard I’ve sent you to fetch something from my workshop. Iulien, you know the way. After that, you’re on your own.”
I looked at the stone in my hand. It felt cool—not just in my hand, but I could feel the cold in my belly and all along my spine. I tucked it away in the pocket under my skirt.
In this chapter, Cadden surveys the classical medical and philosophical writers who tackled the questions of the meanings of sex difference and the relationship of male and female (as well as mascuine and feminine). Different schools of thought are examined via a selection of key writers, discussing their basic principles and influences.
Part I, Chapter 1
Medieval philosophy rested on classical and theological traditions, but these traditions could be contradictory and their contents were sometimes adapted to new uses and beliefs.
Chapter 1: Prelude to medieval theories and debates
This chapter covers Greek and Latin source materials that would form part of the basis of medieval understanding of sex differences. These philosophers presented both “scientific” and metaphorical explanations for sex difference. Different writers presented different concepts that overlapped and contradicted each other.
Hippocrates covered wide-ranging medical information which was transmitted via Galen’s later framing and commentary. His primary concept was that of balance and imbalance, moderation, and the origins of humoral theory, resting on the concept of polarities that did not have hierarchical relationships. The sexes have different compositions of these attributes and they affect health and reproduction. Sexual activity both affected and was influenced by humoral balance.
[Note: A brief understanding of humoral theory is helpful, especially since I will tend to use this label to cover concepts that aren’t precisely “humoral”. Basically, all things are composed of attributes that exist on binary scales; hot to cold, dry to wet. Health, well-being, and “good life” come from having these properties in the correct balance. Medicine is designed to alter an imbalance, as disease and improper functioning are caused by one’s attributes being out of balance. But some “imbalance” in these qualities is inherent based on one’s nature, and group characteristics may be attributed to a general tendency to try to seek to balance those qualities. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this “fact.” So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of these properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. “Humoral theory” proper visualizes the two binaries in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, by behavior and activity. Although the rise of experimental science and medical treatments based on it eventually discredited humoral theory in Western medicine, the philosophical underpinnings can be compared to those of various systems of traditional medicine elsewhere in the world.]
Aristotle also subscribed to this balance/humoral theory but took a more systematic approach. His theory of form and matter sought to understand the causes of things and events. He took a more teleological approach (i.e., that things act to achieve a predestined goal). He applied value judgments to polar attributes that reflected an assumption of female inferiority.
The writings of Soranus (2nd century Greek) on gynecology brought in Greco-Egyptian thought. By his thinking, health related to concepts of laxness/tension, but still with the goal of balance. His philosophy treated female and male bodies as largely similar in function.
Galen (2nd century Greek) was also familiar with the Egyptian (Alexandrian) school of medical thinking, as well as other conflicting medical doctinres. He often rejected earlier writings while adopting specific elements of them. Like Aristotle, he preferred a philosophical framework for the practical medical knowledge he discussed. He ascribed purpose to nature (again: teleological thinking). His work didn’t focus on gender and reproduction. He embraced humoral theory and the principle of balance, focusing on binary oppositions but with less emphasis on sex differences, simply on contrasts. With respect to reproduction, he treated the uterus as having special importance, not simply as an analog of male anatomy and function.
Medieval philosophers might draw on these authors but often used their work to address questions that the classical authors hadn’t considered important, e.g., the role of sexual pleasure. The process by which classical texts were transmitted, translated, and assimilated was complicated as later authors added their own interpretation to the classical material.
Penny Micklebury braids together the historic, romance, and thriller genres in a story about personal and racial relationships and found family in Philadelphia on the eve of the Civil War. Eugenia Oliver (who sometimes operates as Eugene) escaped slavery and navigated the complexities of establishing herself as a professional seamstress and supporting less fortunate community members while also participating in the Underground Railroad. Some of her priorities change when chance brings her together with Abigail Read, a wealthy woman who traded the expectations of high society to turn her family home into a boarding house. Initially, the two are allies in solving a mysterious disappearance, but then they fall in love and things get more complicated.
Micklebury depicts the free black community of Philadelphia in vivid detail, including the layered complications of navigating a society that isn’t as free as it pretends to be. (Note: Micklebury is black and specifically focuses on telling black women’s stories across the whole range of genres she writes in.) Her descriptive prose painted the setting so you could feel the cobblestones and the bite of the winter chill. Eugenia is a complex and engaging character and I look forward to reading more about her. (A sequel is evidently in the works.) The multiple layers of the plot kept the story moving forward (even when they didn’t quite connect with each other) without backgrounding the romantic thread.
There were a few aspects of the story that worked less well for me. The point of view was a bit erratic and I often had to re-read passages to be clear whose emotions we were feeling. The economic and social context of Abigail Read felt out of sync with my understanding of upper class white society of the time. (An unmarried woman who had enough wealth to be sought after as a wife probably wouldn’t need to convert her home into a boarding house to support herself.) And the romance between Eugenia and Abby felt rushed in the beginning, especially for two women experiencing their first same-sex attraction. But overall, this was a delightful read and adds some valuable diversity to the field of f/f historicals.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 38d - How to Be a Feminist in History - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/09/28 - listen here)
The historic romance community has long been struggling with the conflict between wanting heroines that don’t blithely accept the gender prejudices and patriarchal structures of the past, while feeling uneasy about historic heroines who express modern attitudes toward equality of the sexes.
But are these positions truly in conflict? Is it the case that women in history accepted that they were inferior to men? That they failed to push back against patriarchal structures? That the only path to equality was to take on male attributes up to and including being read by society as male?
Absolutely not! We have plenty of evidence across the centuries of women rejecting negative stereotypes about women that were popular in their time and fighting back against social and legal restrictions. They weren’t always successful in their fight, and yet they persisted.
But does this mean those women thought, acted, and spoke like modern western feminists? That their goal was to have equal and identical rights and responsibilities with men?
Also not the case.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Even within just the last century, the idea of what feminism and gender equality means has changed over time. Why should the case be different in the past?
In every era, the understanding of the nature of the sexes, of the arguments for equality, and of what equality would look like have sprung from the overall beliefs and philosophies of their times. People may have accepted certain things as factual that we now challenge (or that are less relevant to gender equality today), while challenging other beliefs that their contemporaries accepted as true.
We don’t have a complete record of western feminist thought across the centuries. Women had less access to publication than men did, so fewer of their thoughts have been preserved for us. And relying on written materials for our evidence means that we’re mostly looking at the concerns of educated elite women. (There was one text I found a reference to that addressed alliances between women across social classes, but I haven’t been able to track it down at the moment.)
Today, we’re going to look at a small selection of feminist texts that were recorded from the 14th century to the 19th that express both women’s frustrations with the status quo and how they imagined its remedy.
There are some common factors between them. In general, these women did not challenge the assumption that men were physically stronger than women, as a whole. They did challenge the idea that physical strength corresponded to intellectual or moral strength. These proto-feminist women were also hesitant to challenge the divide-and-conquer technique of classifying women into “good” virtuous, chaste women and “bad” seductive, wanton women. Don’t blame good women, they argued, for the things those other women over there are doing.
That’s not to say that there weren’t women in history who challenged the virgin-whore dichotomy. Who argued for the validity of women to express love and desire openly, even outside of marriage. Those sentiments often appear in poetry. But when women were making a logical, intellectual case for equality of the genders, they may have felt that sexual issues were too much of a hot button to tackle at the same time.
It was also rare for these intellectual women to challenge Christian scripture as a framework for relations between the genders--though there were some who did. Rather, they would carefully pick and choose scripture to support their arguments--just as misogynysts would pick and choose to support theirs. A very common tactic in proto-feminist writing was to offer a catalog of prominent historic women who could be considered counter-examples to the charges made against women’s competence and ability. I’ve skipped these specific catalogs but they provide a good background to the role models that learned women had available.
And finally, while there have certainly been men in history who supported some version of gender equality, today we’re only looking at women’s voices. The texts I’ll be presenting excerpts from are all from western Europe--from Italy, France, and England--and represent only a very small sample of the voices I could have included.
* * *
Christine de Pisan was an Italian woman born in the mid 14th century, whose writing career took place primarily in France after she was widowed. She was a prolific writer of poetry and philosophy, but the work we’ll be considering today is The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405 and dedicated to Queen Isabeau of France. The work is Christine’s defense of womankind against the misogyny of her times and takes the form of a conversation between a character representing Christine herself and the allegorical female figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Christine has been reading an anti-woman text and begs these figures to help her counter the arguments it contains by building a textual “city” formed by logic and example. Reason begins by helping her clear ground for the foundations of the city by removing the “dirt and stones” that represent false accusations against women’s abilities.
I’ve put together representative excerpts from several different places in the dialog. The translation is by Earl Jeffrey Richards.
* * *
"Lady,” [Christine says,] “I remember well what you told me before, dealing with the subject of how so many men have attacked and continue to attack the behavior of women, that gold becomes more refined the longer it stays in the furnace, which means the more women have been wrongly attacked, the greater waxes the merit of their glory. But please tell me why and for what reason different authors have spoken against women in their books, since I already know from you that this is wrong; tell me if Nature makes man so inclined or whether they do it out of hatred and where does this behavior come from?"
Then she replied, "Daughter, to give you a way of entering into the question more deeply, I will carry away this first basketful of dirt. This behavior most certainly does not come from Nature, but rather is contrary to Nature, for no connection in the world is as great or as strong as the great love which, through the will of God, Nature places between a man and a woman. The causes which have moved and which still move men to attack women, even those authors in those books are diverse and varied, just as you have discovered. For some have attacked women with good intentions, that is in order to draw men who have gone astray away from the company of vicious and dissolute women, with whom they might be infatuated, or in order to keep these men from going mad on account of such women, and also so that every man might avoid an obscene and lustful life. They have attacked all women in general because they believe that women are made up of every abomination."
“But I can assure you that these attacks on all women--when in fact there are so many excellent women--have never originated with me, Reason, and that all who subscribe to them have failed totally and will continue to fail. So now throw aside these black, dirty, and uneven stones from your work, for they will never be fitted into the fair edifice of your City.
"Other men have attacked women for other reasons: such reproach has occurred to some men because of their own vices and others have been moved by the defects of their own bodies, others through pure jealousy, still others by the pleasure they derive in their own personalities from slander. Others, in order to show they have read many authors, base their own writings on what they have found in books and repeat what other writers have said and cite different authors.”
* * *
In this next excerpt, a distinction is made between women having the capability of studying and arguing the law, and whether women should take their place beside men in the justice system. Here Christine backs off on complete equality of function, on the argument that laws must be enforced by strength, which is the province of men.
* * *
Christine continues, “But tell me still, if you please, why women do not plead law cases in the courts of justice, are unfamiliar with legal disputes, and do not hand down judgments? For these men say that it is because of some woman (whom I don't know) who governed unwisely from the seat of justice."
"My daughter,” [Reason says,] “everything told about this woman is frivolous and contrived out of deception. But whoever would ask the causes and reasons of all things would have to answer for too much in this question... Now, as to this particular question, dear friend, one could just as well ask why God did not ordain that men fulfill the offices of women, and women the offices of men. So I must answer this question by saying that just as a wise and well ordered lord organizes his domain so that one servant accomplishes one task and another servant another task, and that what the one does the other does not do, God has similarly ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices...and to each sex has given a fitting and appropriate nature and inclination to fulfill their offices. Inasmuch as the human species often errs in what it is supposed to do, God gives men strong and hardy bodies for coming and going as well as for speaking boldly. And for this reason, men with this nature learn the laws--and must do so--in order to keep the world under the rule of justice and, in case anyone does not wish to obey the statutes which have been ordained and established by reason of law, are required to make them obey with physical constraint and force of arms, a task which women could never accomplish. Nevertheless, though God has given women great understanding--and there are many such women--because of the integrity to which women are inclined, it would not be at all appropriate for them to go and appear so brazenly in the court like men, for there are enough men who do so. What would be accomplished by sending three men to lift a burden which two can carry easily?
“But if anyone maintained that women do not possess enough understanding to learn the laws, the opposite is obvious from the proof afforded by experience, which is manifest and has been manifested in many women just as I will soon tell who have been very great philosophers and have mastered fields far more complicated, subtle, and lofty than written laws and man-made institutions. Moreover, in case anyone says that women do not have a natural sense for politics and government, I will give you examples of several great women rulers who have lived in past times. And so that you will better know my truth, I will remind you of some women of your own time who remained widows and whose skill governing--both past and present--in all their affairs following the deaths of their husbands provides obvious demonstration that a woman with a mind is fit for all tasks."
* * *
On the question of academic pursuits, Christine returns to emphasizing that the intellectual capacity of individual women argues against forbidding learning to all women. In fact, she goes further and argues that women are better suited than men for learning. But that they are less educated only because they are not given the opportunity.
* * *
“But please enlighten me again, whether it has ever pleased this God, who has bestowed so many favors on women, to honor the feminine sex with the privilege of the virtue of high understanding and great learning, and whether women ever have a clever enough mind for this. I wish very much to know this because men maintain that the mind of women can learn only a little.”
She answered, "My daughter, since I told you before, you know quite well that the opposite of their opinion is true, and to show you this even more clearly, I will give you proof through examples. I tell you again--and don't fear a contradiction--if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons. And by chance there happen to be such women, for, as I touched on before, just as women have more delicate bodies than men, weaker and less able to perform many tasks, so do they have minds that are freer and sharper whenever they apply themselves."
* * *
Moderata Fonte is the pen name of 16th century Venetian writer Modesta di Pozzo who wrote in a wide variety of genres, including the conversational dialogue On the Merit of Women. The work takes the form of a group of female friends--women from all ages and life circumstances--who gather in a garden for conversation and philosophical disputation. The subject they choose comes down to “men: threat or menace?” and might easily be compared with a 1970s feminist encounter group, in which the women air their grievances against the patriarchy. On occasion, one woman or another tries to defend the male sex, but is argued into silence. If you want to write a “burn down the patriarchy” character in 16th century Italy, you could do worse than memorize this tract.
In the following passage, the newly-wed Helena has been doing the “not all men” thing and is shut down by Corinna, who holds the floor.
* * *
"In any case," said Corinna, "Helena has not managed to prove anything except that men do have some merits when they are married--which is to say, when they are united with a wife. Now that I don’t deny, but without help from their wives, men are just like unlit lamps: in themselves, they are no good for anything, but, when lit, they can be handy to have around the house. In other words, if a man has some virtues, it is because he has picked them up from the woman he lives with, whether mother, nurse, sister, or wife--for over time, inevitably, some of her good qualities will rub off on him. Indeed, quite apart from the good examples women provide for them, all men’s finest and most virtuous achievements derive from their love for women, because, feeling themselves unworthy of their lady's grace, they try by any means they can to make themselves pleasing to her in some way. That men study at all, that they cultivate the virtues, that they groom themselves and become well-bred men of the world--in short, that they finish up equipped with countless pleasing qualities--is all due to women.
“If it is true what you say." said Virginia at this point, "and if men are as imperfect as you say they are, then why are they our superiors on every count?"
To which Corinna replied, "This pre-eminence is something they have unjustly arrogated to themselves. And when it's said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as when we say that we are subject to natural disasters, diseases, and all the other accidents of this life: it's not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them fearfully, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity, since they have been given to us by God as a spiritual trial. But they take the phrase in the contrary sense and set themselves up as tyrants over us, arrogantly usurping that dominion over women that they claim is their right, but which is more properly ours. For don't we see that men's rightful task is to go out to work and wear themselves out trying to accumulate wealth, as though they were our factors or stewards, so that we can remain at home like the lady of the house directing their work and enjoying the profit of their labors? That, if you like, is the reason why men are naturally stronger and more robust than us--they need to be, so they can put up with the hard labor they must endure in our service.”
“So you're saying that all men's hard labor,” said Lucretia, “and all the endless exertions they undergo for us deserve so little gratitude from us that all they merit is the contempt you're expressing! And yet you know full well that men were created before us and that we stand in need of their help: you yourself confess it.”
“Men were created before women.” Corinna replied. "But that doesn’t prove their superiority--rather it proves ours, for they were born out of the lifeless earth in order that we could then be born out of living flesh. And what’s so important about this priority in creation, anyway? When we are building, we lay foundations on the ground first, things of no intrinsic merit or beauty, before subsequently raising up sumptuous buildings and ornate palaces. Lowly seeds are nourished in the earth, and then later the ravishing blooms appear; lovely roses blossom forth and scented narcissi. And besides, as everyone knows, the first man, Adam, was created in the Damascene fields, while God chose to create woman within the Earthly Paradise, as a tribute to her greater nobility. In short, we were created as men's helpmates, their companions, their joy, and their crowning glory, but men, though they know full well how much women are worth and how great the benefits we bring them, nonetheless seek to destroy us out of envy for our merits."
* * *
When they move on to specific grievances, one of the first to be detailed is patriarchal control over family finances that leaves women of all ages and life stages at the mercy of the whims of their male relatives.
* * *
"As fathers, as brothers, as sons or husbands or lovers or whatever other relationship they have to us, they all abuse us, humiliate us, and do all they can to harm and annihilate us. For how many fathers are there who never provide for their daughters while they are alive and, when they die, leave everything or the majority to their sons, depriving their daughters of their rightful inheritance, just as though they were the daughters of some neighbor? And then the poor creatures have no choice but to fall into perdition, while their brothers remain rich in material goods and equally rich in shame."
"Then there are others who are lucky enough to be left a dowry by their father, or to receive a share in his estate along with their brothers if he dies intestate, but who then find themselves imprisoned in the home like slaves by their brothers, who deprive them of their rights and seize their portion for themselves, in defiance of all justice, without ever attempting to find them a match. And so the poor things have no choice but to grow old at home under their brothers' rule, waiting on their nephews and nieces; and they spend the rest of their lives buried alive."
* * *
The early 17th century French writer Marie de Gournay was a protegée of Queen Margot of France and, like so many of the women discussed here, wrote in a wide variety of genres, including some controversial religious works. She later dedicated works to the next queen of France, Anne of Austria, including Égalité des Hommes et des Femmes, “The equality of men and women,” and Griefs des Dames “The Complaint of Women” as well as other feminist treatises. Like Christine de Pisan, she embellishes her arguments with a catalog of notable women, and like many other early feminists, she places the blame for women’s lack of accomplishments on their being prohibited from receiving the same education and opportunities that men had access to. She identified women’s lack of access to the ownership of property and participation in public offices as a source of oppression, as in this introduction to the Complaint of Women.
* * *
Blessed are you, Reader, if you are not of the sex to which one forbids all goods, depriving it of freedom. One denies this sex just about everything: all the virtues and all the public offices, titles, and responsibilities. In short, this sex has its own power taken away; with this freedom gone, the possibility of developing virtues through the use of freedom disappears. This sex is left with the sovereign and unique virtues of ignorance, servitude, and the capacity to play the fool, if this game pleases it.
* * *
I would have included more from de Gournay if I had an English translation handy or had more time to tap the resources of my French-reading friends.
* * *
The French Revolution, in the later 18th century, was an occasion for all manner of people to claim the “liberty, fraternity, and equality” that the revolution promised. Not only were class distinctions to be erased, but there was a brief flirtation with the promise of racial equality, and some even dared to demand that equality be extended to women. One of the most persistent and eloquent of these was Olympe de Gouges, whose treatise Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen was a deliberate paraphrase and ever-so-delicate satire of the proclamation Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen drafted by the French National Assembly to set out the principles of the revolution. All she did was explicitly include women in the document’s principles, with certain expansions in areas specific to women’s condition. Rather than recognizing de Gouges’s valid points, the revolutionary government arrested her, convicted her of treason, and executed her.
The substance of her arguments draws on the principles of the Enlightenment, arguing for Nature rather than religious principles as her foundation. She begins with an address to her male and female readerships separately, then presents her re-writing of the articles of the Declaration of Rights.
* * *
Man, are you capable of being fair? A woman is asking: at least you will allow her that right. Tell me? What gave you the sovereign right to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the creator in his wisdom, examine nature in all its grandeur for you seem to wish to get closer to it, and give me, if you dare, a pattern for this tyrannical power.
Reconsider animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally, cast an eye over all the variations of all living organisms; yield to the evidence that I have given you: search, excavate and discover, if you can, sexual characteristics in the workings of nature: everywhere you will find them intermingled, everywhere cooperating harmoniously within this immortal masterpiece.
Only man has cobbled together a rule to exclude himself from this system. Bizarre, blind, puffed up with science and degenerate, in this century of enlightenment and wisdom, with the crassest ignorance, he wants to command, like a despot, a sex that is blessed with every intellectual faculty; he feigns to rejoice in the revolution and demands its equal rights, to say nothing more.
Mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the Nation, all demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Given that ignorance, disregard or the disdain of the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments [they] have decided to make known in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman; this declaration, constantly in the thoughts of all members of society, will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and responsibilities, allowing the political acts of women, and those of men, to be compared in all respects to the aims of political institutions, which will become increasingly respected, so that the demands of female citizens, henceforth based on simple and incontestable principles, will always seek to maintain the constitution, good morals and the happiness of all.
As a result, the sex that is superior in beauty as it is in courage during the pains of childbirth recognises and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
Woman is born free and remains the equal of man in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on a common utility.
The purpose of all political organisations must be the protection of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Woman and Man: these rights are liberty, property, security and above all the right to resist oppression.
The principle of sovereignty is vested primarily in the Nation, which is but the union of Woman and Man: no body, no individual, can exercise authority that does not explicitly emanate from it.
Liberty and justice exist to render unto others what is theirs; therefore the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it: these limits must be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.
The laws of nature and reason forbid all acts that are harmful to society: anything not forbidden by these wise and divine laws must be allowed and no one can be constrained to do what the laws do not demand.
The law must embody the will of the majority; all Female and Male citizens must contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its development; it must be the same for one and all: all Female and all Male citizens, being equal in law, must be equally entitled to all public honours, positions and employment according to their capacities and with no other distinctions than those based solely on talent and virtue.
* * *
De Gouges’ articles continue on and are followed by a clarion call to women to claim their due rights, and prescriptions for relationship contracts that preserve women’s financial rights, whether or not a formal marriage is involved. The elevated tone of the document declines somewhat toward the end, alas, when she moves into an extended rant about the unsavory practices of cab drivers.
* * *
Published just one year after de Gouges’ work, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is often considered the earliest “modern” feminist tract, but many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments--or at least her rationale for them--feel less sharp-edged than some of her predecessors. She argued that women should receive equal education to men, not for their own sakes, but so they could better educate their children and be more equal companions to their husbands. The work feels almost apologetic in some ways as she responds to a political tract by Talleyrand which appeared to support women’s equality but then fell short of enacting it.
* * *
Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? Unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.
In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me were conclusive, to prove, that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity must more universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolized when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of affection.
Consider, Sir, dispassionately, these observations, for a glimpse of this truth seemed to open before you when you observed, "that to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain." If so, on what does your constitution rest? If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test: though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman, prescription.
Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves, respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?
* * *
This is, perhaps, a good place to leave our survey of proto-feminist thought in history. Ideas about the equality of the genders have not developed on a straightforward path of continuous improvement. Both the arguments that are used, and the goals they argue for are shaped by their times. Should women have equal opportunity because that was clearly God’s plan? Or because they earned the right through their virtuous lives? Or because they will provide greater benefit to society by that means? Does equality apply to all women or only those of specific classes or temperaments? Does woman’s equality make her indistinguishable from man or simply equivalent to him in a different role? How do men benefit from women’s inequality and what is the best approach for changing their minds and hearts? Or is that a vain hope and all one can do is rail against the status quo?
You will notice that the material here assumes a heterosexual society. Proto-feminist tracts might go so far as arguing that women are better off unmarried, but the idea of any other personal arrangements exists only by implication in the silences. Still, the question of gender equality is highly relevant to developing historic characters in same-sex relationships because these ideas and arguments inform how those characters envision their options and what societal structures they might be seeking an escape from.
So go ahead and celebrate your historical feminists, but make them ring true to their times. Their stories are so much more fascinating that way.
I wrote something of a mini-review of this when I included it in a podcast for The Lesbian Talk Show on five reasons why the Regency era is great for f/f romances and five books that illustrate each reason. I might as well let it do double-duty:
Reason Why the Regency is Great for F/F Romances: Gender Imbalance
The Napoleonic wars were a major defining feature of the Regency era. There were significant casualties among the British military (though not as serious as among the French population). Taking the population from the 1801 census as a starting point, as much as 5% of the male population were killed in the next decade, and men of marriageable age were the target demographic for military recruitment. There was also a preference for recruiting single men. This all combined to leave a surplus of unmarried women--many of whom had no hope of ever finding husbands, simply for lack of opportunity. A dynamic like this meant that it was normal, though not desirable, for a woman never to marry. Such women typically would live with a member of their extended family, contributing to the domestic economy of the household. Another option was to be a “companion” to a woman of better means who had no immediate family of her own. While these companion relationships typically would involve a difference in age as well as economic status, it set a precedent for households composed of two women of theoretically equal social status.
Book that Illustrates This: Frederica and the Viscountess by Barbara Davies
Frederica Bertram is at that delicate edge of spinsterhood where she must seriously contemplate that if she refuses the expected marriage proposal from the tedious Mr. Dunster she will never have another opportunity to leave her parents’ roof. Her sister Amelia is still young enough to dream of romantic adventure. Into their quiet country neighborhood comes their neighbor’s scandalous sister Joanna, Viscountess Norland. Her scandal goes beyond having abandoned her husband and infant to go gallivanting around the continent, but also encompasses a taste for sometimes wearing trousers and a rumored duel with pistols. And she attracts visitors like the libertine Lord Peregrine who finds it amusing to turn the head of young Amelia Bertram to no good end.
Why it fits
Frederica and Joanna, of course, fall unexpectedly in love and their eventual solution to what society thinks is for Frederica to take up the post of companion to the Viscountess. Such an arrangement is considered a poor second choice to marriage by friends and relations, but gives both women a more respectable social presence than they had previously. This is a short, very sweet romance that draws heavily on the tropes and motifs of Jane Austen’s books, almost more than on the modern Regency romance tradition.
The book’s homages to Jane Austen novels are endearingly transparent. Mr. Dunster is the tedious Mr. Collins and Lord Peregrine’s attempted seduction of Amelia is a close echo of Lydia Bennet’s willing elopement with Wickham. Viscountess Norland, on the other hand, is a trope solely belonging to f/f historicals: the scandalous cross-dressing devil-may-care aristocratically-privileged icon of Not Like Other Girls. Frederica and the Viscountess is a delightfully tropey addition to the genre.
I can’t be anything other than delighted to find romance authors with established reputations and readerships venturing out into the field of f/f historic romance. Courtney Milan has tackled not only same-sex romance but a later-life discovery of love, as well as tossing our two protagonists into a “burn down the patriarchy!” (literally) adventure. I admire the enthusiasm and cheerful fury of the non-romance plot, but certain aspects of this historic setting fell a bit flat for me.
I mean: servants. Where are the servants? I don’t care how eccentric a rich elderly woman is, she doesn’t flit off to London for an unspecified period of time without at least one lady’s maid. And even the impoverished property manager whose plight she comes to address would be expected to have at least a part-time maid-of-all-work to do the heavy labor. Erasing the servants may be a convenient way of allowing your protagonists privacy to explore their new-found attraction, but it inevitably gives a novel a very modern feel for me.
The story is far more focused on the logistics of Mrs. Martin’s crusade of retribution against her Awful Nephew than on the romance itself. The women seem to get together on the basis of little more than bonding over “isn’t it awful that the world thinks old single women are of no value?” Their romantic attraction never really clicked for me. The revenge plot is a delightful wish-fulfillment story but the very over-the-top nature of the actions made it harder for me to sympathize with the women (or at least with Martin). Deliberately setting fire to buildings in the heart of mid 19th century London is not a harmless prank but the act of a psychopath.
So...mixed feelings on this one. It’s solidly written and the plot is well structured. I’m cheered by the existence of the book and its reception, but it didn’t really hit the spot for me either as a historic novel or as a romance.
I had much more to say about this collection right after I read it, but unfortunately that was about a year ago. The stories cover historic eras from the 14th century up through the 1990s, with almost half falling in the 20th century, more than half set in the USA, and none set outside Europe + North America. Based on my own experience of soliciting queer historical fiction (and collections my work has been included in) these statistics aren’t at all surprising but are worth noting. The themes and flavors of the stories are all over the map, including fantastic fairy-tale type settings, slice-of-life memoir, adventure, and a good sprinkling of romance, some of it erotic though to the best of my recollection, none explicit. The writing quality and historic grounding are similarly varied. There are some well-known names among the authors that are enough to make the collection as a whole worth reading, but chances are that for any given reader, only a handful of the stories will hit your sweet spot. Definitely a worthwhile endeavor but maybe a bit too unfocused to find a clear audience.