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LHMP #312 Duggan 1993 The Trials of Alice Mitchell

Full citation: 

Duggan, Lisa. 1993. “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.73-87

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The introduction to this article identifies the turn of the 20th century as “a crucible of change in gender and sexual relations in the United States” and stakes a claim that the period from 1880-1920 was when the “Modern lesbian” emerged. [Note: One hears this claim about a variety of different points in the 19th and 20th centuries. So I’d withhold judgment about the accuracy of the claim.] This study focuses on the lesbian as a “desiring subject” -- a woman who considers her desire for other women to be a fundamental part of her identity. And that it was this self-identification that made the emergence of public lesbian identities and communities possible.

The precursors to this identity were the bourgeois “romantic friendship” and the working class “female husband” passing as a man. [Note: This is an oversimplification, alas, so it serves as a poor basis for theory.] The relationship of these images and how they relate to the emergence of the lesbian are obscured by a reliance on cultural representations rather than actual lives. For example, was the “mannish lesbian” a distorted antifeminist caricature? Or a strategic deliberate performance?

Anne Lister is invoked as an earlier example of a woman self-aware of her homoerotic desires and strategically deploying “mannish” traits, but she is dismissed as being isolated and not part of a “socially visible network” of such women.

The author presents her approach as studying how identities are constructed within contested narratives, especially how newspapers turned real women’s lives into fictional narratives that were, in turn, appropriated by sexologists as “case studies”, and then reclaimed by actual women as identities. Identity, she says, is the structure that gives meaning to experience. At the turn of the century, lesbian identity played a role in the public preoccupation with shifts in gender roles and the rise of psychological theories of sexuality.

Within this context, the sensational story of the murder in 1892 of 17-year-old Freda Ward by her 19-year-old female lover shows how the creation of narrative played out. One feature was how the relationship underlying the event was framed as unique, having parallels only in decadent French literature, while in fact the literature of American sexologists could product many similar case studies (not necessarily involving murder). The sensation was created, in part, by the reworking of the facts of the case in a variety of genres: fiction, folk ballads, and even a proposed play to feature Sarah Bernhardt.

Despite the murder at the center of the case, Alice was not tried as a criminal, but rather evaluated for insanity. The “medical” case, as recorded, featured Alice as having been a child whose interests were male-coded games and activities, disliking female-coded ones, while Freda was described as “typically feminine.” The two young women became lovers, though Alice was said to have the stronger attachment, and Alice proposed marriage to which Freda agreed.

They planned an elopement in which Alice would present as a man, and agreed on what names they would go by as a married couple.

During this time, Freda was courted by a man, which caused some friction between them. Freda’s older sister found their correspondence and, in collaboration with Alice’s mother, insisted that the relationship end. Alice, in despair, killed Freda (as she had promised to, if she was betrayed) because she couldn’t bear for anyone else to have her.

Although presented in the form of a medical case history, this narrative was constructed out of the testimony of family and neighbors, as well as of Alice herself. It partakes of elements from different class-specific narratives: schoolgirl “crushing” in the vein of romantic friendship, but a plan to use passing to achieve their goal, which fits more into a working class framework. As the public narrative evolved, Alice’s plan to disguise herself as a man was transformed from a strategy to an expression of masculine identity.

The motivation for the murder was depicted as a conflict between Alice’s fixation on the relationship as an established promise, while Freda in fact made and broke several engagements with men and seemed to treat Alice as only one of multiple suitors.

The third part of the narrative was the conflict between the young couple and their older female relatives. Although male relatives existed, they do not appear to have been drawn into the matter until after the murder.

Within all these frameworks, the masculine role-play was viewed and treated as a symbol of the “seriousness” of the relationship -- both from Alice’s point of view in wanting their commitment to be treated as the equivalent of a m/f romance, and from the point of view of their relatives who saw the gender role-playing as a sign that it wasn’t a harmless crush but dangerous deviance.

The coverage of the murder case led to interest in similar cases of female partners, such as actress Annie Hindle, where the press concocted stories of the jealousy she inspired in the female fans who were attracted by her male roles on the stage. Here the narratives were entirely invented and fastened onto Hindle’s name only due to her stage cross-dressing and her romantic involvement with a woman. That was enough for newspapers to force a connection with Alice Mitchell.

Multiple other examples are given of sensational newspaper stories that invoke the Mitchell-Ward case as a reference point for any female couple who came to the attention of the law, and as an argument that such relationships were likely to provoke jealous violence.

The article concludes by suggesting that the emerging “lesbian identity” may have constructed itself from an assortment of cultural motifs, similarly to how the Mitchell/Ward story blends features of different social stereotypes. And particularly that the “mannish lesbian” image was a deliberate strategy to create an identity separate from feminine society, which in turn led to the female partners of such women escaping the label of “lesbian” until as late as the mid-20th century.

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