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Monday, November 11, 2019 - 07:00

Although I’m generally organizing this “classics of the history of gender and sexuality” series on a thematic basis, I moved this one out of order for logistical reasons (It’s the only one I have in pdf and I wanted get it done before I moved the other current 40+ article pdfs onto my iPad, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.)

Rich’s article--written in 1980, the year I graduated college and came out as a lesbian--simultaneously feels dated and feels all too current. It is dated in some of the ways it uses terminology and concepts around the word “lesbian” in ways that are either overly broad or appropriative of other nuances of identity. I know that it’s frowned on to view either people or texts as “products of their time” but I think it is important to understand the context in which things are written and said.

In 1980 we hadn’t yet developed the current extensive palette of vocabulary to talk about nuances of identity. And in 1980 the queer struggle was for the right to be recognized as existing and valid in the face of overwhelming heteronomativity. If people seem to have taken overly absolute positions for queer identities that now feel narrow and prescriptive, it was in part because any equivocation, any sign of nuance or weakness in one’s political positions, was seized on as undermining the whole. If you’re a woman who has ever felt love or desire for a man, then you’re really just straight and confused. (It was social conservatives who established that interpretation first, before it became attributed as an official lesbian position.)

If lesbian activists and historians of that era seem overly eager to lay claim to marginal cases for the lesbian team, it was because all they seemed to have were marginal cases. The Ladies of Llangollen? Just good friends. Emily Dickinson? Neurotic and jealous. And for vast numbers of candidates “But they married/fucked men, so how could they be lesbians?”

But Rich’s article also feels very current in many ways: the exclusion of relations between women as a categorical alternative to heterosexuality when discussing social dynamics; discussing “women” in ways that silently assume “straight women” (and, of course, silently assume “straight white women”); the socio-political systems that indoctrinate women in (and enforce) heterosexuality because to recognize alternatives is to allow women an escape hatch, regardless of their innate orientations. When Rich lists those systems--including the interaction between misogynistic pornography culture and workplace gender power dynamics, social and legal structures that push women to rely on men for economic security and status, and so forth--many of the examples could be pulled from our current headlines.

So approach this article, written 40 years ago, with charity. And if parts of it seem quaintly old-fashioned, ask yourself why so many other parts haven’t changed.

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Full citation: 

Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5: 631-60.

Rich opens with examples of academic and feminist writing that talk about women’s lives in ways that exclude homo-affective bonds or label them as deviant. If lesbianism is mentioned at all, it is treated as being born of hostility toward men or as mere “sexual preference” or as being a direct mirror image of the male homosexual experience. She follows this bias towards “compulsory heterosexuality” in four sample texts, all presenting themselves as feminist and taking the position that social relations between the sexes are disordered and problematic, but in every case ignoring or excluding the question of how “lesbian existence” (and in the context of this article, it becomes clear that this should be read as “the existence of women’s committed same-sex relationships of any type”) would change both the analysis and possible solutions to that problem. None of the texts questions whether, all other things being equal, the same proportion of women would choose the problematic state of heterosexual marriage as it exists.

The first book, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Ehrenreich and English looks at professional health advice to women from a Marxist-feminist point of view with the conclusion that advice regarding sex, maternity, and child care has always echoed and reinforced the requirements that a capitalist economy requires women to fulfill. Although their analysis challenges the basis of many principles of this advice, it never deconstructs the anti-lesbian position embedded in the advice manuals, despite the clear parallels between the persecution of lesbians and more general misogyny.

The second book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Miller) is written as if lesbians don’t exist. The third, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise (Dinnerstein) argues that disordered gender relations can be addressed by more equal sharing of parenting and the erosion of gendered social roles. The current arrangements, the book argues, perpetuate social relations that are hostile, exploitive, and destructive. But the book operates on an assumption that relations between men and women are the essence of society and simply need to be made more rational. Excluded from consideration is the long history of women who either opted out of those relations or were excluded from them (singlewomen, widows, lesbians, etc.). The author considers female separatism an interesting but impractical thought experiment, ignoring the fact that the “experiment” already exists in the small scale and has done so for centuries.

The fourth book comes the closest to acknowledging lesbian existence. The Reproduction of Mothering (Chodorow) takes a psychoanalytic examination of the gendered imbalance of child-rearing and how relations with a same-gender versus other-gender primary caretaker affect a child’s psychological development. For women, she concludes, this dynamic means that men are “emotionally secondary” in their lives, that men are not as emotionally important to women as women are to men. And that women have had to learn to deny the limitations of men as lovers (compared to women) for practical and psychological reasons. But within this conclusion, she does not come to the apparently obvious attraction for women of having female lovers. Chodorow dismisses this idea with, “lesbian relationships do tend to re-create mother-daughter emotions and connections, but most women are heterosexual.” [Note: If one sometimes feels that Rich engages in bi-erasure in her rhetoric, it’s important to note that the texts she is studying also engage in bi-erasure from the straight side.] Chodorow continues, “This heterosexual preference and taboos on homosexuality, in addition to objective economic dependence on men, make the option of primary sexual bonds with other women unlikely--though more prevalent in recent years.” [Note: keep in mind that Chodorow was writing in 1978.] The presumption “most women are heterosexual” is not examined even in the face of acknowledging the potential influence of social taboos and economic inequities.

All four of the books focus on how to “fix” the existing system of compulsory heterosexuality, despite acknowledging that there are sound emotional and psychological reasons for women to enjoy bonds with other women. That women continue to disproportionately hold to heterosexual relationships because of innate preference and that engaging in homosexual relationships is the only state that requires an explanation. This is expressed sometimes as the position that all people are inherently bisexual and that in an ideal world in which gender inequities were removed, this would be expressed. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the choices women make and situations the find themselves in are shaped by the existing inequities, including unequal access to the concept of lesbian existence.

The second part of Rich’s article focuses on the question: if people’s earliest experiences of nurture and emotional caring are from women, why would women ever redirect their search for those things to men? [Note: Rich is engaging in her own essentialism and erasure here in accepting the archetype of the nurturing mother as representing an experiential truth.] Why have the dynamics of reproduction become so inseparable from the impulse toward emotional/erotic relationships that it became necessary to violently enforce women’s loyalty and subservience to men?

But she moves on to a set of dynamics laid out an essay “The Origin of the Family” (Gough) that, rather than examining the reasons for this situation, focuses on eight mechanisms by which it is maintained [my paraphrases]:

  • Deny women their own sexuality (either by psychological or physical means)
  • Force them to accept male sexuality
  • Male control/exploitation of women’s labor and production
  • Male legal/physical control of children
  • Control of women’s physical abilities or geographic movements
  • Male use of women as objects of value in social transactions
  • Suppression of women’s creativeness
  • Prevention of women’s access to or participation in knowledge/cultural attainments (including suppression of knowledge of women who succeeded) [Note: once you start diving deeply into the history of women in the arts, literature, and sciences you begin realizing how much of the absence of women from those fields is a lie, that knowledge about them has been deliberately erased and suppressed.]

These mechanisms act together with the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage in popular culture to make same-sex alternatives not simply unattainable but unthinkable.

The next part of the article looks at the braiding together of the sexualization of women in everyday life, especially in the workplace, with the normalization of pornographic imagery, and the use of accusations of lesbianism or prudishness against women who push back against these forces. Within this multi-layered dynamic, does the notion of women’s “consent” have any meaning? [Note: this is one part of the article where I got a strong “not enough has changed vibe,” when you look at entire industries where women feel that their economic participation is contingent on going along with pervasive, casual sexualization of their existence.] Does “consent” to heterosexual marriage have any meaning if it is offered as the only viable alternative to male predation in the workplace? [Note: In 1980, one could still have the illusion that marriage enabled a woman to remove herself from the public economy.]

What if, Rich asks, men’s sexual anxieties about women are not that sexually uncontrolled women will “devour” them, but that sexually uncontrolled women will find them irrelevant? How much of the enforcement of male sexual dominance over women is because men fear not having access to sex at all? [Note: this question in Rich’s article predates but predicts the “incel” mentality.] Female sexual slavery exists not only in conditions of physical restraint, but in any situation where women trade consent and autonomy for freedom from violence and exploitation. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality enables that system by suppressing the awareness of alternatives.

At polar opposites are the questions: why do some women never turn away from that “primary emotional attachment to women,” and conversely why do some lesbians persist in identify/aligning with men in their social and political allegiances? [Note: I feel like this can be answered by “people are complex” but we’re going somewhere more theoretical in this article.] The phenomenon of the oppressed identifying with the values of the colonizer is widespread as a survival mechanism. We see it in women being co-opted into being the “enforcers” of male dominance (e.g., women as the gatekeepers for phenomena like genital mutilation or other physical “beauty” torture practices). It is also a factor in white women’s racism where allegiance to white male oppressors is valued over identification with other women.

Rich returns to Cavin’s “rich and provocative, if highly speculative” ideas about the history of the rise of patriarchy within a posited context of matrilineal female-dominated social bands. I.e., that the mother-child bond with male children was allowed to overcome the purported practice of ejecting adolescent males. [Note: I’m glad that Rich added “highly speculative” here.] Thus the idea that the primacy of heterosexual pairings evolves from male exploitation of the mother-son parental bond. Whatever its origins, Rich suggests, is the question that feminism needs to address not so much simple “gender equality” but the enforcement of heterosexuality  for the purpose of ensuring men’s unquestioned sexual, emotional, and economic access to women? And if this is the central problem of feminism, how does the erasure of lesbian possibilities undermine finding the solution?

In the third section of Rich’s article, she defines what she means by the terms “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum.”

[Note: this is a part of the article that I feel contemporary readers must work to enter with an open mind. The very phenomenon that Rich makes the center of this article--that a vast complex of social and historical forces combine to keep women from embracing the power of bonds with other women--continues to operate. There are ways in which use of the word “lesbian” are still being used to fracture and divide groups that by rights ought to be natural allies. I am not a disinterested bystander on this topic, as someone who identifies strongly with the label “lesbian” in a variety of its possible senses, and as someone willing to fight to the death to prevent the word from being turned into a poison pill by conservative forces who are trying to co-opt lesbian existence to weaponize it against other queer people. But that’s a rant for another time and place. For now, let me beg the reader to allow that “lesbian” can be used in an inclusive, rather than exclusive sense--in the sense used when we identify (the heterosexually-married) Sappho as a “lesbian”, when we embrace as historical antecedents the women described in 16-18th century texts as “lesbians” on the basis of erotic/romantic relationships between women, even when those same women also had erotic/romantic relationships with men.]

It’s worth quoting Rich extensively here. “Lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range--through each woman’s life and throughout history--of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support; if we can also hear in it such associations as marriage resistance and the “haggard” behavior identified by Mary Daly ... we begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism.’”

The denial of lesbian existence is made possible by the lack of automatic access to a shared community and history (unlike the existence of identities that are based on ethnic, religious, or national identifies). Lesbian existence in history can be erased not only by prevention of the creation of a historic record, but by prevention of the transmission of that record [Note: see the reason we don’t have the majority of Sappho’s poetry, or more recently the deliberate omission of vocabulary relating to lesbianism from the Oxford English Dictionary], or by the direct destruction of that record (e.g., the burning of letters and diaries). Lesbian existence can also be erased by a false equivalence of the lesbian experience as identical to that of men in homosexual relationships. [Note: in this section, we can see some unsettling hints of Rich’s woman-centered philosophy swallowing divide-and-conquer tactics when she notes that she wants to dissociate the lesbian experience from “male homosexual values and allegiances” and to consider it as “a profoundly female experience.”] Accepting “lesbian” as having only a clinical, medicalized definition divorces it from the experience of female friendship and comradeship, focusing only on the erotic and thus limiting the understanding of the erotic. [Note: She refers to the type of distinction seen in Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men where a qualitative line is drawn between romantic relationships between women based solely on whether those relationships had an erotic component. One angle that Rich doesn't---if I recall correctly--bring up explicitly, is that an insistence on a strict narrow clinical definition of "lesbian" as "a woman whose erotic desire and sexual activity not only is expressed overtly, but is solely directed toward women throughout her entire life." A big problem with such a narrow definition is that it essentially negates the possibility of finding lesbians in history.]

Rich works through a detailed catalog of the types of interactions between women that she wants to include under her concept of a “lesbian continuum” with the assertion that if all of those relationships can be dismissed as “deviant” in support of the proposition that heterosexuality is the only “natural” orientation for women, then women’s natural alliances with each other (and the resistance generated by those alliances) can be suppressed and dismissed. Similarly the “double-life” of women who would have preferred to devote themselves entirely to their relationships with women, but who married men for economic security, can be reclassified as “women’s natural preference for heterosexuality.”

The fourth section of Rich’s article is largely a summing up of her conclusions. Here are a few highlights. The denial of the reality and visibility of women’s passions for each other is a loss to the power of all women to change relationships between the sexes. It is based on a series of lies: that women are inevitably and tragically drawn to men even in destructive relationships, that women turn to women only out of hatred for men. So are all heterosexual relationships to be condemned? That’s the wrong question, she suggests, paralyzing us into a fixation on identifying “good” versus “bad” heterosexual relationships. It is the absence of choice--the refusal to acknowledge other categorical options--that must be addressed.

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Saturday, November 9, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40b - Interview with Heather Rose Jones - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2019/11/09 - listen here)

Transcript pending.

Show Notes and Links

In this episode we talk about:

  • What are the advantages to setting stories in an invented country like Alpennia?
  • The roots of Heather’s love for language and history
  • Themes and tropes in the Alpennia books
  • Why weren’t the books written as romances?
  • Complex intersections of gender and sexuality in the books
  • Queer coming of age in the 19th century
  • What books inspired the Alpennia series?
  • Why a laundry maid as a protagonist? Writing precarious lives.
  • Touch-points for writing historic disasters and sowing seeds of revolution
  • Why write a stand-alone book in the middle of a series?
  • Why write in first versus third person?
  • Finding the people of color in Alpennia
  • Planting story-seeds to harvest in later books
  • What’s next for the Alpennia series?
  • Giving characters failure modes
  • What else does Heather want to write?
  • Books mentioned
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Friday, November 8, 2019 - 06:00

As has become the custom in SFF circles, this blog is to place on record those items I will have created in 2019 that might be of interest to those nominating and voting on SFF awards. (Or any other genre of awards, for that matter, but there really isn't any equivalent culture within the lesbian literary community.) At the actual end of the calendar year, I'll do my usual "What Hath She Wrote" post that summarizes all my activities, but this one is just for the plausibly SFF items.


Floodtide (November 2019, Bella Books) - Not actually out in the world yet at the time I'm posting this, but them's the breaks.


I'm going to the a bit daring and suggest that there's enough historic fantasy content in The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to consider it eligible for consideration for SFF podcast awards. Specific episodes offered as evidence: a discussion of time-travel/time-slip motifs in f/f historical fiction, a discussion of and excerpts from Delariviere Manley's pseudo-utopian satire The New Atalantis, interview with author Katherine Duckett, interview with author Zen Cho, interview with author Molly Tanzer. I'd like to get people thinking of the podcast in this context even more in 2020 when the fiction series may publish historic fantasy as well as plain historical fiction.

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Writing Process
Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 06:00

I'm drafting up entries for an Alpennia FAQ based on either overt or implicit questions I get asked about the books. This time I tackle one more of the possible genres the books might fall in:

Are the Alpennia books SFF?

The Alpennia series fits very comfortably into the broad, general category of “science fiction and fantasy” or SFF for short. The magical elements place them solidly into the fantasy genre, and they also fit comfortably into the subgenres of “Regency fantasy” (more or less “settings that feel like Regency romances but have fantastic elements added to them”) and “fantasy of manners” (sometimes contrasted with genres like “high fantasy” that tends to deal with epic quests and the fate of empires, whereas a “fantasy of manners” tends to derive its conflicts and triumphs from the rules and mores of a stratified social structure).

As a reader and author, I tend to consider the SFF community to be my home town, and the SFF literary tradition to be my native tongue. As a generalization, I’d say that the Alpennia books have most easily “clicked” with people who consider themselves SFF readers. Other SFF readers may feel that the significant romance elements push them out to the margins of that genre. And for those who classify books based on publisher, the fact that Bella Books is not a SFF publisher undermines categorizing Alpennia as such. So, as for most of these questions, much depends on which factors you emphasize.

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Writing Process
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 13:56

This is it: the final installment of the Floodtide teasers! Carefully selected to avoid any spoilers at all. As I've mentioned previously, for several of the novels I've "bookended" the stories with a pair of short passages in a different narrative style. As for Mother of Souls, the bookends for Floodtide echo each other in theme.

You can pre-order the book at the Bella Books website for release-day delivery. (Actually, I'm not certain that hard copies will arrive by release day, but e-books will.) And I'll be giving away a copy or two to my newsletter subscribers, so if you aren't signed up for my monthly newsletter you might consider it. (I mean, sure you're going to pre-order it, but you can always give the book away as a gift if you win it.) And if you happen to be geographically local to me, I'm having a very informal release day party at my house the evening of Friday the 15th. (If you aren't a fb friend, you can contact me for info.)

The promotional blogs and interviews I'm doing for the release are appearing around the web in various places. At some point I'll set up a link blog with pointers to them all. And remember that enthusiastic and vocal fans are one of the best assets a new book can have!

Sometimes life is like the scent of fresh lavender as you strip it off the stems. It crawls up your nose and spikes into your head until it pounds and throbs in pain. Sometimes it’s like the close work in the still room, turning the flowers into sweetness. Sometimes it’s like the soft scent of lavender water sprinkled on the sheets in a faint reminder of sunlight giving you good dreams through the night.

They say any work can be a mystery if you do it with care and a prayer in your heart.

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Monday, November 4, 2019 - 07:00

This concludes the summary of Cadden's book with a discussion of how medieval medical and theological writings dealt with the apparent contradiction of valorizing sexual abstinence while justifying sexual desire as a healthy response to the balance of bodily humors. The variety of approaches--including a recognition of different reasons for abstinence--can be attributed both to the need to justify these conflicting principles and to a recognition that human situations were diverse and might need to be addressed by different approaches to health.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 6: Abstinence & Conclusions

Medieval opinions about abstinence--as expressed in medical, philosophical, theological, and social literature--are more complicated and ambivalent than those about procreation. Given that much of the discourse around procreative sex frames it as driven by medical and moral imperatives (e.g., theories about how sexual desire has the goal of achieving balance and promoting health), how can abstinence fit into the same framework without being considered unhealthy?

There were varieties of abstinence. Virginity was the one held in highest regard, especially in the early Christian period, and represented a complete avoidance of the experience of intercourse at any point in one’s life. Virginity was often contrasted with marriage (in contexts where marriage assumed sexual activity), with marriage being a “second-best” way of avoiding fornication (unauthorized sex). But one could also be a virgin within marriage, a condition that often features in saints lives.

Men could be virgins, just as women could, though the condition was more salient for women. In the later middle ages, the Church deemphasized virginity, either as an ongoing state, or as a requirement for various events such as marriage or taking monastic vows. This seems to have been largely a matter of practicality.

In a social context, only women’s virginity was emphasized and subject to family protection and control. This was driven by the desire for controlling the parentage of offspring. A number of medical tests purported to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin, and of course the ultimate proof of non-virgin status was pregnancy and childbirth. There were no equivalent tests and proofs for male virginity or fidelity. Countering these tests, there were also manuals with instructions for how to counterfeit proofs of virginity, especially the bleeding after penetration that was associated with myths about the hymen.

Although religious principles regarding sexual continence were, in theory, gender-neutral, they were generally compatible with the secular interest specifically in female virginity. One exception was that the Church allowed for the possibility of “spiritual virginity” even after the experience of intercourse. Thus some held that those who only experienced approved sex within marriage (the usual understanding of the term “chastity”) could be considered virgin. Theology was also less interested in the sex-specific “proof” offered by an unbroken hymen.

The next “rank” of sexual abstinence after virginity was permanent celibacy, as for those who took religious vows. Monastic institutions regularly had problems with enforcing this and the sexual misconduct of monks and nuns was a regular trope in medieval popular culture. A sincere religious vocation was only one of the paths to monastic life. Monastic institutions were commonly used as a place to store “surplus” sons and daughters for whom no land or dowries were available--a purpose that would be undermined by procreation. But conversely, for people (especially women) who wished to abstain from sex, a religious life was a useful option.

Far more common than these lifelong commitments to celibacy were temporary periods of abstinence such as due to postponed marriage or abstinence during certain religious festivals. Certain regional marriage patterns involved postponement of marriage well into the 20s, and demographics indicate that this wasn’t accompanied by significant illegitimacy rates. Medical texts indicate that this could be considered a problematic condition, and might recommend nonreproductive sexual activity such as masturbation (in conflict with the theological position on the topic). Both theology and medical theory supported a woman being abstinent while menstruating. The two also agreed on the desirability of women being abstinent during pregnancy, though some medical theories recognized that women might experience sexual desire during pregnancy even though it served no biological purpose. The prohibition was largely on moral grounds regarding the justifications for enjoying sex, though there were also anecdotal theories that a pregnant woman who committed adultery could achieve a second pregnancy with her lover’s child.

The central theme in all of these is that even for those who have a context for licit sex, the desired state is “continence”, that is, sex only in approved circumstances for the purpose of procreation. This was the principle behind condemnations of contraception, abortion, sodomy, and masturbation, as well as sex during pregnancy. This theme of the desirability of control over sexual impulses belongs to theological literature, while medical texts address only specific types of nonprocreative sex that are considered harmful. In other contexts, medical manuals (such as the one attributed to a female author, Trotula) acknowledge the harmful effects of abstinence on women who have no licit outlet (such as widows), or the ill effects on some women of sexual activity (and its consequences) who are not in a position to abstain, and offer treatments for those situations. One approach was the use of anaphrodisiacs to decrease sexual desire. This was not an approved theological solution as it removed the moral benefit of actively resisting temptation.

In general, medical authorities considered sexual activity to be essential for good health. Abstaining would put the body out of balance, unless one’s personal constitutional balance was already out of balance in a way that sex would aggravate. For those whose constitutions required sex for good health, but whose personal circumstances did not offer the opportunity, remedies might include medicines, diets, or activities that addressed the imbalance in other ways. But some medical authorities recommended masturbation as a way of restoring health. This might be dressed in the guise of a professional treatment, as in some prescriptions for women to have a midwife massage their genitals until orgasm.


While the interests of medical, philosophical, and religious traditions often aligned in principle around issues of sex and gender, when dealing with specific medical problems and conditions, the secular authors often showed flexibility and practicality in applying the varied and contradictory theoretical traditions to the topic at hand. There was no unified over-arching system to their approach, but the general principles of polarities, balance, and a “whole life” approach carry through. Beliefs about inherent differences between male and female bodies result in different assumptions and approaches. Although medical theories were sometimes used in support of social or theological concerns, as a general rule, medical writers did not feel constrained by purely theological principles (though theology might be an unnoticed part of the underlying assumptions).

The enforcement of a philosophical system of binaries, and the acceptance that qualities could manifest in contradiction to their expected assignment as a form of “imbalance,” meant that medieval medical and philosophical theories had no framework for understanding homosexuality as a distinct phenomenon. Rather, individuals were viewed as manifesting properties at odds with their nature. So, for example, a female person who desired sex with another female person was not viewed as having “same-sex desire” but rather as being of a masculine nature, where part of the inherent properties of a masculine nature was to desire women. [Note: One should not lose sight of other behaviors that could indicate a “masculine nature” in a female person, such as being strong, brave, intellectual, and in control of one’s emotions.]

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Saturday, November 2, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40a - On the Shelf for November 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/11/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2019.

You may have noticed something different in the show’s intro or on the website. The Lesbian Talk Show channel has rebranded itself as TLT--pronounced “tilt”. You still get the same content focusing on women who love women, produced by the same people. It’s just wearing a slightly different jacket. My show will keep the same name--The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast--it’s only our group network that’s changing its name.

Does it feel like the end of the year is galloping down on us? Writing communities have found ways to add extra layers to the end-of-year holiday crush. Whether you’re challenging yourself with NaNoWriMo--national novel writing month--or you’re one of the people who enjoys doing year-end book round-ups, or even participating in evaluating and nominating books for awards, it always seems like the last two months of the year are full to the brim.

Take a deep breath and rest for a little while. A podcast is a lovely way to carve some time out to relax. Especially a podcast on a topic near and dear to your heart like this one!

Fiction Project

The last story in the 2019 fiction series will be coming out at the end of November. This is “The Mermaid” by Kathleen Jowitt, a tale of a gift of the sea who may not be entirely what she seems.

Very soon it will be time to submit stories for the 2020 fiction series. You only have two months before submissions open! I’ll be excited to see what comes in this time because we’re opening submissions up to include historic stories with certain types of fantasy elements as well. If you write historic stories featuring women with same-sex interests, seriously consider trying your hand at something for the podcast. We pay professional rates of eight cents a word for stories up to 5000 words, and you’ll have an audience of at least a thousand podcast listeners. Check out the call for submissions linked in the show notes for the full details of what we’re looking for.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog is continuing our tour through a number of fairly dense works on sexuality and gender theory. In October we finished Joan Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages. Cadden digs deeply into the variety of understandings and theories about sex and gender in medieval thought and shows how those theories were applied to a selection of key questions like “what determines the sex of a child?” and “what is the purpose of sexual pleasure?”

In general, I’ve been trying to work through this set of publications in a systematic manner, following particular themes across time. But for logistical reasons, I slipped in Adrienne Rich’s classic essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence from 1980. Some of the language Rich uses to frame her ideas may feel dated today, but her major themes are--unfortunately--still pertinent, especially in how often feminist theory ignores same-sex relationships as an alternative and challenge to the heterosexual script.

The next two books weren’t as solidly relevant to the History Project as I expected, based on the shadow they cast across later scholarship. The articles in the collection Constructing Medieval Sexuality edited by Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz were overwhelmingly focused on male topics. And while Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval uses several fascinating incidents and texts as a lens for examining how communities arise around sexual topics, once again the lesbian-relevant content was less than I hoped.

Book Shopping!

I don’t know that the History Project book shopping will have much to say for a while. I currently have entirely too much material queued up so there isn’t much impetus to go on a shopping spree.

Author Guest

As I mentioned last month, I’m taking some shameless advantage of being an author with a podcast because I have a new novel coming out this month. So as a change-up in my author interviews, I invited good friend and previous podcast guest Darlene Vendegna to be the interviewer this month so I can be the guest. We have a wide-ranging conversation about Floodtide, the Alpennia series, and my writing habits in general. I’ll also be contributing this month’s Book Appreciation show with two of my favorite historical fantasy books with f/f relationships.

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For the historic essay this month, I thought I’d look at the place of social class in images and stereotypes of lesbians in history. It was often the case that several different images of women in same-sex relationships existed side by side in a given culture, and the women in those groups may or may not have seen themselves as part of the same community or experience. It was not at all uncommon for those differences to fall along lines of class. You may not be surprised that this topic is also inspired by themes in my upcoming novel.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of which, other than my book what else is about to be released or has come out recently?

There are two September books that haven’t been mentioned previously. The first takes a cross-time approach via a hidden diary and looks like it has some horror aspects to it.

The Hidden Room by C.S. Joseph & Kathleen Greyson from Affinity Rainbow Publications.

Clara Bogard reluctantly married architect Arthur Dumas in the early 20th century, after her father passed away. As a gift to his new bride, Arthur designed and built a Victorian mansion for their new home. Seeming philanthropic to others, Arthur had a black evilness in him. As Clara dealt with the escalating violence in her marriage, she finds comfort and affection in the arms of her friend Emma. A century later, in a last-ditch effort to save her failing marriage, novelist Reese Iverson agrees to move her family to a dilapidated Victorian home. During the renovations, a hidden room with over a dozen handwritten journals is discovered. As Reese reads the journals, she becomes immersed with Clara’s struggles with life and love. It soon becomes evident that Clara overcame and endured sinister horrors. After falling in love with her best friend Julia, Reese finds romantic parallels between herself and Clara. As she learns more of the woman’s fate, she uncovers the strength in herself to take control of her own life and hopes it isn’t too late for her happy ever after.

The second item is short story with a western theme: “Wanted” self-published by Lyzzy Burns.

Sally Godwin is a whip smart young widow with a farm that’s too much for her and a line of suitors without her best interests at heart. When she put out a want ad for a woman farmhand, she had no idea just how much of her life would change.

I don’t usually include books as new listings if the work is a revision of a previously published item. But since I mentioned seeing a run of Robin Hood books last month, I thought I’d include this October release, which was one of the titles that sparked that observation.

Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.

What if there had been a real Robin Hood, but instead of being a "he" the heroic outlaw was a "she"? Relive the classic tale told from a new prospective in Heart of Sherwood! When Robyn's father and brother are killed in the Third Crusade, she is banished from her manor home and branded a traitor by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Disguised as a boy, she joins Little John and the rest of the gang in Sherwood Forest—and soon finds herself their leader. Queen Eleanor suspects Prince John is up to no good, and colluding with Sir Guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham. To learn more, she engages Maid Marian as a spy—and unwittingly reunites Marian with her old childhood friend, Robyn. Together, the women help the queen acquire the funds needed to free King Richard and help Nottinghamshire—and perhaps fall in love along the way.

This next item is also a reprint, but of a story that previously appeared in the collection A Certain Persuasion, which had a Jane Austen theme. Based on the page count, this is the original short story and not an expanded version.

“Her Particular Friend” by J.L. Merrow from JMS Books.

When Susan Price leaves Mansfield Park to accompany her aunt, Lady Bertram, to take the waters in Bath, she little expects to meet an old “friend” of the family. Initially scandalised, Susan finds herself drawn to the former Mary Crawford, now a widow, Mrs Lynd. Mary has lost none of her playful spirit in the ten years since her family’s acquaintance with the Bertrams ended amid elopement and scandal. Her interest, first piqued by Susan’s resemblance to her older sister Fanny, only grows on discovering Susan’s very different character. But Lady Bertram will surely never countenance Susan’s intimacy with the woman whose brother caused her daughter’s disgrace -- and Mary’s true identity cannot be kept a secret forever.

I have three November releases, one of which I was only told about very recently. It hadn’t shown up in my keyword searches, which makes my usual point that if you have or know of a book that I should mention, please don’t assume I already know about it.

We start with the next installment in Geonn Cannon’s Trafalgar and Boone series: Trafalgar & Boone Against the Forty Elephants from Supposed Crimes.

Trafalgar and Boone have faced danger from all around the globe, but their greatest threat may be lurking very close to home. A quiet period of rest and recuperation between adventures is interrupted by the arrival of two constables on the front steps of Dorothy Boone’s townhouse. A woman was seen dumping a dead body outside a hospital near Threadneedle Street, and Dorothy matches the description given by witnesses. Dorothy manages to avoid arrest and takes it upon herself to investigate the crime, enlisting other members of the Mnemosyne Society to help. She quickly discovers the Forty Elephants, a gang of all-female thieves, has been revived by a woman named Maud Keaton and makes it her mission to bring them down. But Maud Keaton is very aware of Lady Boone and Miss Trafalgar. She knows all about Dorothy’s vault of mystical objects and will go to any lengths to gain access to it. Lines are quickly drawn in the sand, with the Elephants on one side and the Mnemosyne Society on the other. Faced with an enemy who is her match in both cunning and intellect, Dorothy quickly discovers that victory may be impossible, or come with a cost she’s unwilling to pay.

The book I almost missed is A Transcontinental Affair by Jodi Daynard from Lake Union Publishing.

May 1870. Crowds throng the Boston station, mesmerized by the mechanical wonder huffing on the rails: the Pullman Hotel Express, the first train to travel from coast to coast. Boarding the train are congressmen, railroad presidents, and even George Pullman himself. For two young women, strangers until this fateful day, it’s the beginning of a journey that will change their lives. Sensitive Louisa dreads the trip, but with limited prospects, she’s reluctantly joined the excursion as a governess to a wealthy family. Hattie is traveling to San Francisco to meet her fiancé, yet she’s far more interested in the workings of the locomotive than she is in the man awaiting her arrival. As the celebrated train moves westward, the women move toward one another, pulled by an unexpected attraction. But there is danger in this closeness, just as there is in the wilds of the frontier and in the lengths the railroad men will go to protect their investments. Before their journey is over, Louisa and Hattie will find themselves very far from where they intended to go.

And, of course, November brings us Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones from Bella Books.

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the Royal Thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

What Am I Reading?

Now what have I been reading since the last On the Shelf? If you’ve been following my reviews at The Lesbian Review, you might think I’ve been reading up a storm, but alas that was only a matter of getting caught up with my to-do list for books I’ve read over the last year. And this month has been all topsy-turvy so I’ve barely gotten any fun reading done at all. I’ve worked my way mostly through Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valour and Vanity but while it’s a delightful Regency fantasy, it doesn’t have any lesbian-relevant content at all. Between the time I’m recording this and the time it airs, I’ll have been on vacation for two weeks, so quite possibly I’ll have worked my way through a number of books in that time.

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Show Notes and Links


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Friday, November 1, 2019 - 08:01

I've been writing an improvised photo-essay ghost story on social media over the last few days (on facebook and twitter). I was hoping to post the final compiled version here, but I'm having trouble getting the blog to behave with regard to posting the in-line images. Eventually I'll sort that out, but in the meantime it's on my other (personal) website. It isn't quite the same experience as reading it in real time on facebook with reader commentary, but I hope you check it out and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

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Writing Process
Thursday, October 31, 2019 - 09:48

Review copies of Floodtide are now available for request on NetGalley. My publisher does the final approvals for review copies, based on reviewing history and online presence (i.e., not just people who want to get a free read), but if you consider yourself in that category and don't have your request approved, drop me a note and I'll see if I can make your case.

Pre-orders are also open as of today at the Bella Books website. (Hard copies may also be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and similar online retailers.) So let's show some love for Alpennia!

I'll be doing a couple of giveaways for subscribers to my newsletter. If you enjoy "behind the scenes" info and the occasional advance look at what I'm working on, the monthly newsletter won't burden your in-box very much.

In the mean time, I've been having fun posting a little Halloween horror story on facebook and twitter, inspired by my family visit in Maine. There isn't a convenient single link to offer, since I've been posting it to look like regular updates. But if you check out my feed in either place in chronological order, it should be easy enough to catch up on.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 06:53

While the Alpennia series has focused largely on characters who have significant mystical talents, Floodtide gives us a larger window into how "ordinary" people experience the magic that pervades the world. I've made previous reference to the climax of a Great Mystery feeling like a shiver down your spine, and to how even those who don't have measurable mystical talent can contribute power to the working of a mystery. Because the experience of those with greater talents can be so dramatic, there's no internal conflict in ordinary people between having these experiences and considering themselves untouched by magic.

This is Roz's contradiction: that she regularly performs house-charms and believes that they have effects, that she has a sensory response to the workings of magic around her, and yet that she considers herself to have no magical talent. If pressed, she might quibble over the definition of "talent," just as Serafina initially believes she has no mystical talents despite her extraordinary sensitivity to visions. From another angle, one might suppose that she categorizes her experience during "church mysteries" as different in kind from how Celeste's charms affect her. But as the story moves toward its conclusion, Roz seems to be on the edge of integrating her understanding of how she experiences magic.

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When I was a girl in the Orisule school and the sisters celebrated her name-day mystery, I imagined the saint holding her starry cloak out around all of us girls, like she was watching over us and protecting us. All I could think was how wonderful it would be to feel that way always.

All through those long days and nights working the fever charms, my magic feeling never really went away, though being tired and hungry, I didn’t pay it much mind. Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to feel like that all the time. Maybe it was better if it was rare and special.

But when Maisetra Sovitre spread her arms out like that and put a hand on our shoulders, everything got jumbled up together in my head: all my memories of the picture of Saint Orisule, and all the times working with Celeste on charms, and how being with Nan had given me that magic feeling too and that was why I’d never thought it was a sin, and it all shivered through me at once.

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