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LHMP #175 Faderman 2011 A Useable Past?

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 2011. “A Useable Past?” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Faderman, Lillian. 2011. “A Useable Past?”

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Faderman builds on Bauer’s discussion of how conventional historic approaches erase lesbian history, but adds that an abandonment of the concept of history as “what really happened” is a surrender to that erasure. She notes her own pursuit of lesbian history as an “unabashedly political project”--a pursuit of a “useable past” that offered the modern audience connection with history. Faderman has some possibly snide things to say about how the scarcity of premodern evidence for lesbians drives post-modern scholars to “all sorts of imaginative--and sometimes rather labored--devices.” On the other side, she notes how the longing for a “useable past” leads to ahistoricity (perhaps what is elsewhere called “search and rescue” missions). She asserts how the framework of Romantic Friendship allowed her to discuss intense loving relationships between women in the 18-19th centuries without anachronistically labeling them “lesbian”. This raises the question, if “lesbian” is an unstable concept, how is it possible to discuss lesbianism in history at all?

Faderman spends a while discussing how the strict scrutiny on the precise definition of “lesbian”--both within and outside the field of lesbian history--inevitably leads to erasing the realities of women who had primary emotional bonds with other women. But conversely, she probes at the question of whether “lesbian” has lost its most crucial meaning if it doesn’t refer to sexual relations. [Note: This is the theme that regularly bothers me in Faderman’s writing, that sex is the sine qua non of the word “lesbian”.] But she also notes that looking for “lesbian-like” data only in the context of social non-conformity excludes women whose lives were superficially conventional, despite strong evidence for female same-sex emotional or erotic relationships. “If our definition of ‘lesbian-like’ is limited to women who were openly outlaws, we’re in danger of losing much that is juicy and wonderful.” She notes the class divisions in responses to lesbian-like behavior and the promising evidence that knowledge and acceptance of female same-sex love was more widespread in premodern times than we often think.

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