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LHMP #322 Vicinus 1992 “They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong'”

Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 1992. "'They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong': The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 467-497.

Reading the development of the field of lesbian or queer history asynchronously results in doing a lot of talking back to the articles and books as I read them. Berating the authors, "How is it that you aren't considering these things that will be published several years later? Why aren't you examining these questions through a lens that won't be developed for another decade?" It helps to remember that I went through that same chronology in my own, much more amateur, pursuit of lesbian history. I was still vainly searching for resources at the time when articles like this one were being written and published. And if authors like Vicinus had better access to the available materials at the time, those available materials--or at least, knowledge of them--were still scanty back then.

So if an article like this seems to take a simplistic approach, if it doesn't consider some of the nuances, if it doesn't engage fully with insersectional questions, a certain amount of understanding is called for. But conversely, this article is still reasonably good as a high-level overview of the shifting attitudes and identities around women loving women in the 17th through 20th centuries. True, it doesn't probe deeply into the consequences of those attitudes and identities, or the significant overlap of the various motifs. And in delving into the topics of gender presentation, it bypasses questions of trans identity. But with that understood, I can recommend this as a useful overview.

* * *

The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.

The article’s title comes from a letter by French lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur in 1884 when, dressed in her working clothes of smock and trousers, she overheard people speculating on how to categorize her. The gender imperative of clothing was so strong that one speculation was that she was an elderly castrato singer, rather than embrace the idea of a woman in pants.

Bonheur shared her life with a woman and habitually wore male-coded clothing, but she didn’t identify the latter as part of a sexual identity, rather embracing the freedom from gender roles that it represented. She engaged in an “intense and passionate friendship” with another woman, but spoke of the “purity” of the relationship. Did she identify as a lesbian? And if not, should she be categorized as one?

[Note: As I read these questions of categorization, I keep thinking of the asymmetry in how men and women in homoerotic relationships are treated by historians. Do historians look for reasons to doubt classifying men in similar relationships as homosexual?]

At the time Vicinus wrote this article, she noted that lesbian history was only just beginning to break away from medicalized psychological models. Yet the creation of a history of lesbianism was centered strongly on the history of contemporary identities, on the history of the “modern lesbian” rather than on the history of women’s same-sex behavior in general. This focus on modern Western lesbian identity, she notes, also ignored and erased relationships in non-Western cultures, or in contexts where individual sexual identity may not be the most important cultural experience.

Lesbian desire may be omnipresent, but at the same time is undefinable. The diversity of individual experiences is enormous. Modern sexual identities may be understood as a product of a highly specific social context, while still recognizing that same-sex attraction appears throughout history and across cultures.

Two themes have always been in competition for understanding same-sex desire: social conditioning versus innate orientation. Both have been embraced within and without the lesbian community, but among academics there has been a general correlation between the privileging of butch-femme relationships and the concept of innate desire, and those privileging romantic friendships and the concept of a continuum of socially-constructed behaviors. These models align with different relationship “scripts” which will be the focus of the article.

The historic suppression of female desire means that in order to study lesbianism one must first identify the ways female desire in general is coded, and then identify same-sex desire within that code. The range of behaviors that contribute to this understanding include schoolgirl crushes, romantic friendships, Boston marriages, theatrical cross-dressing, passing women, butch/femme, and other modes. Vicinus spends some time discussing the difficulties inherent in the fragmentary nature of the available evidence. Another problem in the field is those who pit the butch/femme model and the romantic friendship model in competition with each other for the “true” heart of lesbian identity. Excess focus on either distorts the field. An emphasis on sexual activity as the key definition risks excluding all women in eras for which solid evidence of sex is not available. But a definition that encompasses a diffuse “woman-centered woman” concept risks erasing the specificity of experience that comes with sexual desire.

Various preconditions for modern lesbian identity have been offered up, such as economic independence, a focus on individualism, and the existence of women’s communities. Yet historic individuals can be identified who lacked each of these and yet lived undeniably lesbian lives. Further, the social developments that led to increased individualism, increased economic opportunities for women, and the development of woman-focused communities, whether religious or secular, cannot be demonstrated to align clearly with the rise of modern lesbian identity.

The article then reviews some of the high-level shifts in cultural models around same-sex desire. The late 17th century is identified as a period when prior understandings of social order were changing to more individualism and egalitarianism. During this period, lesbian desire was understood in four paradigms, correlated with social class. Class associations may have functioned to defuse the disruptive potential. The cross-dressed or transvestite woman was a common trope. Generally this model was associated with working-class and peasant women seeking the greater economic opportunities available to men. Although “passing” created opportunities for same-sex encounters, these were not viewed as inherently threatening to society, and passing women were often assigned heterosexual motivations for the disguise (e.g., following a male lover). This type doesn’t correspond well with the modern “butch” figure (though Vicinus’s rationale for this judgement has flaws).

Cross-dressing was also featured through the theatrical model, i.e., actresses who played “breeches roles” on the stage. Although they might play up the titillating dynamics of a woman given sartorial license to flirt with women, most such actresses were, in Vicinus’s words, “notoriously heterosexual”. [Note: This may be an exaggeration, given that we’re in the era of casually bisexual desire.] However some, such as Charlotte Charke, indulged in the erotic possibilities of gender play beyond mere stage-acting.

Another category would be women who overtly dressed in “mannish” ways, or who persisted in cross-dressing outside of an economic role that required it. Vicinus cites Dekker & van de Pol’s argument that women who desired women may have used this context due to being unable to conceive of love outside a heterosexual paradigm. But she notes that this can be little more than speculation given how scanty the information is of these people’s interior lives. [Note: As is rather common for scholarship from the 1990s, we don’t get commentary on possible transgender understandings of the same data.]

[Note: Vicinus discusses the 17th century case of Greta von Mösskirch as an example of a “mannish” woman, which is rather confusing since the primary source material clearly indicates that Greta was not “masculine” either in dress, behavior, or anatomy. It's true that Greta's contemporaries were concerned about making sure she was correctly categorized as to gender, but that was due to her expression of same-sex desire, not due to any other gender-related performance.]

I’m not sure where Vicinus marks the line between her categories one and two among the preceding.

The third category offered is labeled the “free woman” who is depicted as being sexually interested in both women and men. [Note: I’m bemused that the word “bisexual” appears nowhere in this discussion, although “lesbian” does consistently.] These women were often seen as politically dangerous, not only for their sexual influence over the powerful (both men and women) but as representing moral decadence.

The fourth category is romantic friendship, evolving in parallel with shifts in the concept of “friend”. This category is often associated with bonds formed over a shared love of learning. [Note: I feel that Vicinus overlooks the ways in which class-driven differences in evidence and self-depiction affect this perception. The romantic friendship model is best documented among the educated middle and upper class, which makes a shared interest in scholarship and literature an unsurprising motif.] This group is sometimes associated with age-differentiated mentorships which may be temporary. The participants tend to emphasize romantic and spiritual bonds as contrasted with sexual acts.

Though distinctly different in the behavior of the participants, these four models are related through men’s reactions to them, especially in how they were perceived as marginal to society.

Vicinus discusses the vocabulary used for women with same-sex desires, but as she is still relying heavily on the inaccurate chronology offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, this adds little insight.

Whether a relationship was viewed with amused tolerance or persecuted was largely based on whether it directly challenged male privileges, as with “female husbands”. But even then, such relationships might be viewed neutrally if the participants did not otherwise challenge social mores. Vicinus contrasts the sympathetic attitudes toward Mary East / James How and toward the Ladies of Llangollen in England with the trial and execution of Catharina Margaretha Linck in Germany. But it’s unclear whether she is giving consideration to the differences in legal status, as well as differences in cultural attitudes, as opposed to considering the different reactions to be driven purely by the behavior of the women involved.

In the early 19th century, there were two changes in same-sex relations. Public commentary on women’s same-sex relations became more common, but shifted from a focus on the aristocracy to women in “artistic” circles. Sexual license became available to women outside those in sex work, although it still threatened their respectability. At the same time, it became more common for middle-class women to wear “mannish” clothing either for practicality or personal style, often in the context of entering professions or endeavors previously considered male-only, such as medicine, literature, art, or travel. There continued to be a contrast between women who maintained “respectable” lives and framed their same-sex relationships in romantic and emotional terms, and those who embraced bohemian lives and expressed a more overt sexuality. Vicinus offers George Sand as an example of the latter and Rosa Bonheur as an example of the former.

In the early 19th century, we see the development of the “masculine” woman (i.e., one who dresses in masculine styles to varying degrees) whose primary emotional attachments are to other women, and which attachments might extend to sexual relationships. Their perceived masculinity was not (or no longer) theatrical performance, but was taken up as an expression of identity. From this we see the development of the “female invert” of the sexologists. This openly “mannish lesbian” type existed side by side with passing women and with romantic friendships of the “Boston marriage” type well into the 20th century. But with the official shift in focus to the “mannish invert” as the central model of the lesbian, a secondary category of “feminine lesbian” was rendered increasingly both present and invisible.

Vicinus discusses several iconic early examples of the “mannish lesbian” type, including Anne Lister and George Sand. She also notes that the “romantic friendship” type was not immune from suspicion, particularly when the sentiments between the two were considered excessive (as with the example of Emily Faithful).

While the 19th century sexologists may have focused over-narrowly on the “mannish lesbian” type in their attempt to categorize sexual behavior, they did not invent the characteristics and behavior assigned to this model but rather pieced it together out of the rising urban lesbian culture they had access to. But almost as much, their theories were influenced by differences in their own preoccupations. French sexologists were closely interested in female homosexuality, while the most prominent German sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, more or less ignored female homosexuality except as it could be shoehorned into their theories about men.

By the late 19th century, a pattern of urban migration among women with same-sex desires had become established. Urban bohemian subcultures embraced (or at least tolerated) lesbian communities, not only in European centers such as Paris and Berlin, but in early 20th century Harlem as well. These early 20th century lesbian communities self-consciously developed their own language and culture. [Note: some of Vicinus’s observations on the evolution of lesbian culture in the 20th century seems to ignore major shifts and crises in the overall culture, such as the effects of WWI.] The article concludes with a somewhat rushed summing up of the mid-century up through the cultural revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s.


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