Historic Couples: Passionate Friends
Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”.
This chapter looks at evidence regarding lesbian activity that can be found in specific court cases, as well as perceptions of the role of lesbian relations in criminal activities and contexts. The point here is not that lesbians were inherently criminal in early modern Spain (though some official opinions were that one type of deviant behavior was expected to lead to other types), but that the nature of legal records can provide a wealth of detail that is not available for other contexts.
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
Because monasticism is assumed to preclude sex, historians often work to desexualize passionate language used by medieval monastic writers, for example, in the context of writing about friendship. Language and actions that could be interpreted erotically are depicted as purely conventional, for example, possible interpretations of kissing on the mouth.
Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).
There was a narrow list of available occupations for a middle-class woman in the later 19th century--teacher, nurse, glorified lady’s maid, or occupations that shaded more in to the questionable: seamstress, actress. But for a select few, the professions were beginning to open up: doctor, professor, social reformer. To succeed in these professions meant foregoing marriage to a man for a wide variety of reasons.
If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career.
Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.
As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.