Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Bennett, Judith M. 2006. History Matters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-2004-9 [only Chapter 6: The L-Word in Women’s History]

Contents summary: 

Chapter 6: The L-Word in Women’s History

This book as a whole is a “state of the field” analysis of women’s history as an academic discipline, and especially of women’s history (indeed, history in general) covering eras before the 19th century. This summary will cover only the chapter specifically on lesbian history.

Bennett discusses the awkward position of lesbian topics in the field of women’s history, both the tendency of scholars of lesbian history to focus on “claiming” specific historic individuals as lesbian, and the tendency of other scholars to refuse to see lesbian possibilities unless unambiguously forced to (a lack of "historic gaydar", as it were). She discusses the “queering history” movement and notes its limitations for traditional historians (as opposed to literary theorists and post-modernists) in that it tends to more accurately represent modern interactions with historic material than historic realities themselves.

Bennett’s concept of studying “lesbian-like” contexts and practices (see Bennett 2000), rather than being restricted to definitively lesbian individuals and practices, arose specifically out of studying pre-modern history where the latter are largely invisible. Surviving texts concerning themselves with sexual activity, per se, derive almost exclusively from the writings of male church officials (outsiders to the topic by definition) or legal records (where the nature and reliability of the data is distorted both by what law and society considered criminal and by the consequences to the accused of how their actions were framed).

In answer to those historians who consider even the label “lesbian” to be anachronistic and meaningless in a pre-modern context, Bennett rehearses both the arguments that this standard is not upheld for other social topics, and the extensive historic data for a vocabulary indicating same-sex relations between women and specifically using words with the linguistic root “lesbian” for this purpose.

Bennett differentiates the scope of her “lesbian-like” concept from the “lesbian continuum” of Adrienne Rich, noting that Rich’s focus is on “intense primary bonds between women” whereas themes may be “lesbian-like” by contrasting with heteronormativity without involving bonds between women (e.g., the lives of single-women). Within this context, activities, behaviors, and situations may be “lesbian-like” but the category label is less usefully applied to specific individuals.

Several of the most familiar lesbian-like anecdotes are summarized:

  • The 15th c cross-dressing female student at the University of Krakow
  • The 15th c French peasant women Jehanne and Laurence, whose sexual relationship ended up in a law court.
  • A 14th c French community of ex-prostitutes that, although nominally a convent, functioned as an independent women’s community
  • A 14th c Italian women’s community founded by a wealthy widow in Ferrara and, although nominally contemplative in intent, deliberately kept free from ecclesiastical control surviving through at least one change of management.

The chapter concludes with a summary of the ways the study of these lesbian-like situations can provide background and insight for locating and identifying either historic lesbians or at least lesbian possibilities in history.