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Monday, February 18, 2019 - 06:00

Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) is commonly referenced as the "first" novel of lesbian identity, and in my generation that resulted in no small amount of trauma if we failed to recognize our lives and dreams within its pages. But Aimée Duc's Sind es Frauen? (Are these Women?) (1901) would have been a far more hopeful, sympathetic, and introspective introduction to the place of women who love women in the literary canon. One has to wonder whether the book's positive and feminist approach--and its happy ending--are exactly why the work was never made generally available. (I can't find any evidence of an English language translation.) If you want a different take on what sorts of lives and literary outcomes were considered possible for women who loved women around 1900, track down a synopsis of Duc's work and expand your historic imagination.

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Full citation: 

Breger, Clausia. 2005. “Feminine Masculinities: Scientific and Literary Representations of ‘Female Inversion’ at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14:1/2 pp.76-106

Breger looks at the close relationship between articulations of gender and sexuality in modern European history. [Note: gender and sexuality categories have always been closely intertwined, of course, not just in modern times.] That connection has an important role in structuring culturally-defined identities at the turn of the 20th century. The social and political currents around feminist (and anti-feminist) movements used the concepts of “perverse” versus “normal” sexuality in their arguments. And within the period around 1900, the concept of “inversion” became the dominant tool for engaging with same-sex attraction and gender transgression.

These conversations initially focused primarily on male-bodied persons, leaving the concept of “female masculinities” unexplored and invisible. “Female inverts” were more prominent in literature, and the medical literature eventually caught up.

This article examines that context through the lens of the 1901 German novel Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht (Are These Women? A Novel about the Third Sex) by Aimée Duc. While Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is often touted as the first modern novel to treat female homosexuality sympathetically, Duc’s work is a much more positive depiction and tackles the political and social implications of the topic more directly.

Breger argues for a new understanding of the concept of “female inversion” as reflected in this work that addresses the relationships of gender and sexuality in history, and examines the ways in which historians coming to the material from feminist, lesbian-feminist, queer, and transgender contexts have read texts such as Sind es Frauen? differently. She situates this approach within the context of works such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and against interpretations of the “third sex” model as being inherently homophobic, arguing for a broader and more flexible reading of historical case studies that recognize a continuum between lesbian and transgender readings of “female masculinities.”

Read from a modern point of view, the psychological and behavioral characteristics of “inversion” as defined by early sexologists align more closely with our current concept of transgender identity than with homosexuality, but rather than privileging one reading or the other, Breger chooses to investigate the metaphorical and rhetorical processes by which historical accounts construct concepts of gender and sexuality. (Rather than imposing definitions from an external viewpoint.)

When examining the use the “third gender” concept within such works, we find that it’s used to articulate not only concepts of sexual preference and cross-gender identification, but also politicized gendering of professional and intellectual activities as women were accused of being “masculinized” by participation in the public sphere. These uses cannot be neatly separated, as women’s emancipation was framed as “unsexing” women or conversely as rendering them sexually dangerous to other women. The closer one looks--particularly outside the canon of medicalized sexology--the more incoherent the concept of gender inverstion and “third sex” identity becomes. Reference is made to theorizing and critique in works such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies.

Breger’s reading of texts such as Sind es Frauen? and the actual life histories of individuals described in sexological literature is that many “female inverts” cannot be conceptualized adequately in terms of transgender or homosexual identity, but rather as complex intersections of elements associated with both masculinity and femininity.

Aimée Duc’s novel is noteworthy for its positive and nontragic depiction of love between women. The story centers on a group of female friends, most of whom met as university students in Geneva. They refer to themselves as belonging to a “third sex” in contexts that make it clear this refers to their love for other women (or perhaps other female members of the “third sex”). In contrast to most literary depictions of lesbian romance at the time, the primary couple end up happily together at the end. (This time it’s the male rival for one of their affections who conveniently dies and enables the outcome.)

Like less positive stories, the plot sets up its conflict via a triangular relationship involving a man, but not only is this resolved positively for the women, but the secondary plots in which the women discuss gender and sexual politics occupy more page time than the romance. The characters comment directly (and critically) on sexological theories current at the time.

Breger notes that Krafft-Ebing’s case studies offered in support of his theory of sexual inversion were not only filtered by his selection process (looking for life examples that were relevant to the theories he presented) but were often edited to focus specifically on those concepts and behaviors that he considered crucial, while discarding details that detracted from the thesis. Many of Duc’s characters don’t fit easily into any of Krafft-Ebing’s categories of inversion, blending traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics in a diversity of ways.

These characters (and their real-life counterparts) fit even less neatly into other theorists’ work that considered the “third sex” to be an inherently masculine phenomenon, as with Carl Ulrichs’ category of Urning which he defined as “bodily male, while mentally...a ‘feminine being’.”

The concept of the “third sex” as a gender category was used both to support and undermine women’s emancipation, depending on whether the writer felt that blurring of gender categories was a positive or negative outcome. In some ways, those who theorized the “third sex” as something distinct and apart from the categories of male and female (as with Magnus Hirschfeld) inadvertently acted to maintain gender norms by removing problematic individuals from those categories.

[Breger’s article continues to examine sexological theory in even more detail, but the above summarizes the essence of what it covers.]

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Saturday, February 16, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31c - Reprise: Ordinary Women - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/02/16 - listen here)

I’m sure that some of my listeners are fanatic enough to go back and listen to all the previous episodes. But for those who are only lately come to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, every once in a while I’ll reprise one of the earlier episodes that I think new listeners might enjoy. OK, so really this is a way of filling in an episode when my interview schedule has a gap in it.

The following show, “Ordinary Women,” was the very first episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, originally airing in August 2016. I think it still stands as a good introduction to some of the very ordinary women who loved women in times past. I hope you enjoy it.

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Let’s start this series with some ordinary women. Nobody special: they weren’t scandalous aristocrats or dashing adventurers or women who set out to transgress the rules of society. All they did was love each other. Perhaps not wisely, perhaps not always well.

In southern Germany, almost on the border with Switzerland, there is a town called Mösskirch. It has relatively few claims to fame: a composer, a philosopher, a painter whose name hasn’t survived, some talented brewers. In the 16th century, it was the residence of the Counts of Zimmern. But we aren’t concerned with any of them. We’re interested in a different 16th century resident, a servant-girl named Greta, who came to the attention of history in 1514 because she kept falling in love with girls.

Much of the solid historic evidence we have from medieval Europe about women who loved women is rather depressing, because the authorities only tended to pay attention to them when they’d stepped so far outside acceptable behavior that drastic penalties were invoked. But Greta’s story--as much as we know of it--is happier.

It is recorded that she loved young women and pursued them romantically as if she were behaving like a man. There’s no mention that Greta was masculine in any way other than falling in love with women--no indication that she dressed as a man, or tried to take on a masculine occupation, or that she made love to them using an artificial device. Those were the sorts of things that could draw harsh consequences. In fact, the only concern her neighbors seem to have had was to make sure that she really was a woman.

The concern wasn’t that she might have been a man disguising himself as a woman--that would have been a roundabout way to court girls! No, the problem was that her neighbors thought she might have been a hermaphrodite--something halfway between man and woman--and that this might be the reason why she felt erotic desires for women.

The idea of hermaphrodites as understood in that era is one of those odd social inventions. It probably derived in part from trying to understand intersex persons, who might have anatomy that seemed to be part male and part female. But it also derived from an inability to imagine anything other than heterosexual desire. So if a person who appeared female fell in love with or desired a woman, then that person must actually be a man.

The idea of hermaphrodites also overlaps with transgender history. Some historic individuals used the social belief in hermaphrodites as a legal tool to gain recognition as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Some even succeeded.

But all that is a side-note to Greta’s story. The midwives of Mösskirch examined Greta and proclaimed that she was “a true proper woman”. And as far as we know, that was an end of it. There is no mention of any legal charge against her. No mention of any consequences. And so we are free to imagine Greta von Mösskirch flirting with other girls at the market fair, perhaps saving her money to buy a hair ribbon as a gift in hopes of being thanked with a kiss.

The second example has a less happy end, though it’s likely that the women only came to the attention of the authorities because of a domestic dispute.

Our story happens at the very beginning of the 15th century in France. To set the stage, this is about a decade before the birth of Joan of Arc. In fact we’re concerned with another French peasant woman named Jehanne. Jehanne was married, as one was, but it seems that at some point she had discovered the entirely different joys of making love to women. She was friends with another married woman named Laurence. One day they were walking out to the fields together when Jehanne ventured a proposition, “If you will be my sweetheart, I will do you much good.”

Laurence may have been a bit naive, or perhaps she’d never had the occasion to consider the question of whether enjoying a roll in the hay with a woman would be a sin--a literal roll in the hay, as the testimony indicates. She told people later that she didn’t think there was anything evil in it, and presumably Jehanne’s offer sounded like a bit of fun. They made their way to a convenient haystack and Jehanne lay on top of her and made love to her. The end results were satisfying enough that the two continued to meet for erotic encounters: at Laurence’s house, in the vineyards outside the village, or near the village fountain.

But eventually things soured. We don’t know whether Laurence started to get nervous about what they were doing, or if one of their husbands started asking questions, or perhaps it was just one of those things.

One night, when Jehanne came to Laurence’s house, Laurence told her she didn’t desire her any more. Jehanne, let us say, took the breakup badly. She attacked Laurence with a knife and then ran away.

Although the records don’t say so in as many words, it’s likely that this attack and the consequences of it are the only reason their relationship came to the attention of the authorities. In fact, the record skips entirely over any original accusation or trial and brings us in when Laurence is appealing for a pardon on the basis that the relationship was all Jehanne’s fault.

People are people, no matter what the century. And if society and the law imagines forbidden sexual relationships to involve an aggressor and a naive victim, then there will always be a temptation to throw one’s partner under the bus when push comes to shove. Laurence’s appeal was successful and she was pardoned. This is no small matter, given that the original sentence might well have been execution. There is no word in the record about Jehanne’s fate. It would be nice to fantasize that she ran away entirely, changed her name, got ahold of her anger management issues, and found happiness in some other woman’s arms eventually. It probably isn’t the way to bet, but we’re free to dream.


The historic records concerning Greta von Mösskirch and Jehanne and Laurence are discussed in detail in the following publications.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 08:01

Emma Donoghue writes the sort of historical fiction that makes one unsurprised that she’s a historian first. This isn’t meant to be a criticism! But it can be crucial to know what you’re getting into and set your expectations appropriately.

Life Mask is a fictionalized biography of 18th century English sculptor Anne Damer, but it might be better characterized as a historical novel about upper class English social politics of the later 18th century, as viewed though the lens of an interconnected set of characters: Damer herself, her unlikely friend actress Elizabeth Farren, and the Earl of Derby (yes, of horse race fame) the long-time suitor and eventual husband (after his inconvenient wife died) of Elizabeth Farren. The book is structured much more as a biography--wandering along the paths of their lives, dramatizing key events and summarizing others--rather than a novel with a clear and compelling plot arc. And the reader should definitely not expect it to have the shape of a romance novel, even though Damer does achieve a happy romantic partnership at the end with writer Mary Berry. (There are no spoilers in history, and their partnership is historical fact, though the precise nature of it is more ambiguous in the historic record.)

Having set those expectations, I really enjoyed Life Mask, and even enjoyed the ambiguous uncertainty of how Donoghue would handle the same-sex romance aspect. The majority of the page time is spent on the friendship between Damer and Farren that becomes so intense and so well-known that there was open speculation about whether it had a sexual component. Damer already had a whispered reputation of “too much love for her own sex” and Farren eventually broke off the friendship after satirical publications made explicit reference to her connection with Damer. But in Life Mask this unhappy event proves to be a wake-up call for Damer that her feelings for certain women in her life are erotic and possessive as well as including the sort of intense romantic expressions that were considered acceptable by society. Donoghue presents a detailed and believable study of the contradictions of a culture that praises women’s romantic devotion for each other, but only up to a point.

But the bulk of Life Mask focuses on the political and social details of life among the English upper classes during the era of the French Revolution, and if you haven’t come for those details then you may find it a very long journey to get to Damer’s happy ending. Now me, I love historical novels that immerse me in the details of specific periods and events through the lives of fascinating people. This is the sort of book that, in my youth, helped me pick up much of my background understanding of European history (and especially British history). And if you have loved those same sorts of books, I highly recommend Life Mask as an addition to the mosaic.

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Monday, February 11, 2019 - 07:00

It's always interesting to see how shifts in philosophical thinking occur in waves across interconnected cultural traditions. Europe always had a diverse set of attitudes toward non-normative sexuality. But you can see specific concepts take hold and spread, either integrating with, or replacing, the existing local attitudes. These sorts of shifts are easier to see in more recent centuries. In medieval and early modern sources, the divide between the intellectual tradition of classical philosophy and the everyday experieces and reactions on the streets and in the courts can mask both the diversity of local tradition and the spread of intellectual theories. (A good example is the Zimmern Chronicle, where the author considers a number of potential "causes" for women's same-sex desire, some of them rooted in international philosophical traditions, some expressed in everyday social reactions.) In reviewing this series of articles on the rise of sexology in various countries, we can see in more detail how ideas about sexuality and gender spread and were integrated into existing understandings.

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Beccalossi, Chiara. 2009. “The Origin of Italian Sexological Studies: Female Sexual Inversion, ca. 1870-1900” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 18:1 pp.103-120

This article covers much of the same territory as Bauer’s article from the same volume (Bauer 2009) except from a specifically Italian perspective. The concept of “sexual inversion” entered Italian medical literature in 1878, but female same-sex desire was a familiar concept already and was associated with excessive sexual longing, female masculinity, and certain women-only environments. The article looks at how those concepts were interpreted during the devopment of sexology as a study at the end of the 19th century.

A psychological approach to same-sex desire was already present in the late 18th century work of Vencenzo Chiarugi, who viewed desire between women as a type of mania, one of the three types of mental illness he identified (mania, melancholy, and amentia). Melancholy, he described as a restriction in judgment or the ability to reason. He offered an example interpreted from Hippocrates called “Scythian melancholia” whereby Scythian men, due to riding horseback without stirrups, became functional eunuchs and therefore take on feminine roles when the find themselves unable to perform sexually as men. Beccalossi suggests that this is parallel in some ways to the later concept of “sexual inversion”, though that seems to be stretching the concept.

The article continues examining how psychological concepts and categories were applied specifically to sexuality. A view of homosexuality as a type of monomania was replaced with a focus on the concept of “moral insanity” in which an emotional crisis, sometimes accompanied by a physical abnormality, precipitated anti-social sexual behavior.

Italian medical literature of the mid 19th century (e.g., Ferdinando Tonini) still sometimes linked female same-sex desire to an enlarged clitoris, as a contributing factor if not necessarily a causal factor. In general, the theory was that some sort of sexual excess--of physiology or desire--underlay desire between women. But he also associated female same-sex desire with urban centers, women-only institutions (convents, colleges, or prisons), lack of maternal feeling, and masculine appearance.

Legal reforms in the 19th century (in the aftermath of French occupation and legal influences) addressed crimes of female sexuality but also attempted to equalize how the law treated men and women, at least in certain areas. Certain asymmetries were unavoidable, as with the legal control of prostitution, and women’s lack of political power. The introduction in Italy of Napoleonic law codes decriminalized male homosexuality except in cases of violence, and rarely mentioned sex between women at all.

The introduction late in the century of the psychological concept of sexual inversion covered two distinct issues: self-identification with the opposite sex from one’s physiology (what would today be considered transgender identity) and sexual desire for members of the same sex. Authors such as Tamassia considered the first to be the element that made sexual inversion a type of mental illness, and not simply same-sex erotic desire. He considered that most human passions and tendencies derived from sexual instinct, and therefore a disorder of that instinct resulted in mental illness, and frequently to criminal activity.

As in other countries, theories were developed out of case studies which were drawn from individuals already under medical treatment for insanity or mental disorder, thus leading to the belief in an association between sexual inversion and mental illness. Once such theories had developed, psychiatrists studying sexual disorders looked specifically for characteristics (such as masculine behavior in women) that they already believed were characteristic features of the condition.

In the 1890s, Italian sexological theorists became interested in classifying types of sexual inverts in terms of their relationships, partners, and life context. From this, they created two specific stereotypes of female inversion: the “tribade-prostitute” based on studies of women in the criminal justice system for crimes of sexual disorder, and the “flame” based on same-sex relations in gender-segregated institutions such as girls’ schools. Theories of social criminality were interwoven with sexual theory, such as the belief that women became prostitutes due to an inherent disposition rather than due to poverty or, alternately, that prostitutes turned to lesbianism in response to the brutality of their male customers.

The interest in the “flame” stereotype of lesbian activity had its roots in concerns in religious institutions regarding “special friendships” between nuns, but was extended to concerns about the passionate friendships that developed between girls in gender-segregated school environments. Although “flame” relationships might be confined to expressions of emotional attachment, they frequently included a physical component, even if simply an admiration of the partner’s beauty. Psychiatrists considered these “flames” to be a transitory state and only tangentially related to sexual inversion. They were to be controlled and discouraged but considered a temporary substitute for “normal” love.

In summary, beginning around 1880, there was a proliferation of publications on sexual inversion in Italian, with a special interest in female homosexuality. This can be attributed (in retrospect) to a voyeuristic interest on the part of male physicians, but such studies also served a social purpose of framing approved female sexuality in terms of procreation. At the same time, there was a shift away from studying female homosexuality as an abnormal phenomenon to considering it as a normal, but transient situational experience, albeit one that posed a potential threat to “innocent” women if taken to extremes.

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Saturday, February 9, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31b - 10 Lesbian Historical Books and Movies I Loved in 2018 - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/02/09 - listen here)

Maybe I’m a bit late to the gate for a favorite things of 2018 list, but it can take me a while to ponder my choices. This is a list of books--both fiction and non-fiction--and movies relating to lesbian history that I enjoyed in 2018. I’m not claiming that this is any sort of “best of” list. How could it be? I can only talk about the things that I had the time and opportunity to enjoy. And it’s very specifically chosen from things that I read or saw in 2018, not things that came out in 2018. I always feel sorry for authors whose books come out in December when people draw up lists based on year of release! Some of these works came out decades ago and I only picked them up to read in the last year. And I confess that for the non-fiction I focused on whole books rather than individual journal articles.

I thought a bit about how to organize this list and finally decided that chronology of topic would be the most arbitrary and therefore the most fair.

1. Roman Homosexuality by Craig A. Williams form Oxford University Press. I read this for the blog when I was doing a series of posts on publications covering sexuality in classical Rome. For quite some time I’ve been trying to get my head around scholarly explanations of how ancient Romans thought about gender and sexuality and why the modern categories of heterosexual and homosexual don’t really make sense in that context. Too often those explanations end up feeling like an erasure of non-normative sexuality. Williams was the first author who presented the material in a way that finally made sense to me. I still think he has some blind spots in terms of women’s sexuality. Like many male academics, he doesn’t try very hard to work past the male-dominated documentary sources to consider that women in the society he’s studying just might have understood their lives differently from what men said about them. But for the most part, he not only does a good job, but he presents the material in an evenhanded and non-judgmental way.

2. My next favorite thing covers a broad swath of time, so I’m arbitrarily placing it second. The collection of articles The Lesbian Premodern, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt includes articles covering specific topics from the medieval and early modern period, but also a number of theoretical articles about the study of lesbian history--what it means and how it can be done. I really enjoyed reading about scholars who are thinking and talking about many of the same issues that inspired the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, even though they’re looking at them from an entirely different angle. What does it mean to look for lesbians in the past? How does the search for identity both inspire and interfere with academic goals? How do philosophical conflicts among scholars affect what types of history get studied, and how? I found a lot of parallels in this collection between approaches to the study of lesbian history and considerations in the writing of lesbian historical fiction. And it gave me a lot of food for thought.

3. My next favorite item in chronology is...The Favourite, the recent movie about England’s Queen Anne and the rivalry between two of her courtiers for her affection and influence in the early 18th century. I took full advantage of this topic to do a show about Queen Anne within the historic context (, a review of the movie with two reviewers, and then another show about the satirical writings of one of her contemporaries ( who envisioned a secret lesbian society in a satirical fantasy. The reign of Queen Anne isn’t a particularly popular time for setting historical fiction. It’s not the wild and lascivious Restoration or that novelist’s favorite, the Regency or Georgian era. But maybe people will be inspired by this movie to take a closer look.

4. Number four in my chronology is the first of the several fictional works I enjoyed in 2018. With a late 18th century setting, Alyssa Cole’s novella “That Could Be Enough” set a high benchmark for lesbian historical fiction. Her characters not only reflect a possible early American understanding of women who love women, but very specifically the experiences of women of color in post-Revolutionary America.

5. The fictional works in this list all fall in a fairly tight time period, with number 5 being Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask, about the aristocratic sculptor Anne Damer during an extended period around 1800. This can’t really be classified as a lesbian historical romance--much more like a historical novel in which the main character has a lesbian romance. I haven’t written my full review of this book yet, but it falls in that genre of novels where the historical details are the focus and the personal stories are the medium through which we experience them. The sapphic happy ending is a long time coming in the book, and the reader will learn a vast amount about the details of English politics in the mean time. Probably much more than the average reader is interested in. But I have a great fondness for novels that help ground me in the details of history though the lives of the people participating in them. I learned most of my English chronology from authors like Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts. Emma Donoghue writes in that same vein but focusing on women who loved women.

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6.  In sixth place comes an entry into one of my favorite genres: the Regency Romance. The Covert Captain by Jeannelle M. Ferreira has gender disguise, desperate pining, veterans of Waterloo with post-traumatic stress, and lots of historically supported love between women. One of my aspirations is to write a lesbian Regency in the tradition of Georgette Heyer, but until I write my own, I’m happy to feast on contributions such as The Covert Captain.

7. Real-life Regency-era women didn’t fall far behind fiction in terms of whacked-out adventure and romance. The book Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar by Betty T. Bennett reads almost like an academic mystery novel, tracing the research that led Bennett from trying to pin down a couple of minor footnotes in her book about Mary Shelley, to discovering a story of mystery, gender disguise, literary pseudonyms, and marriage between two women that has the added excitement of intersecting the life of writer Mary Shelley. If anyone ever tells you that the plot of your lesbian historical romance is implausible, you can probably rest assured that it’s far more believable than the real life story of Mary Diana Dods.

8. Some people will try to tell you that the 19th century was full of passionate but sexless Romantic Friendships. Women who wrote sappy letters to each other full of elegant and overblown endearments, but who were far too much of proper ladies to engage in anything so vulgar as sex. But when you read candid biographies of women like actress Charlotte Cushman, such as the book When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female SpectatorsI by Lisa Merrill, it takes a lot of willful denial to conclude that these were not romantic relationships in every sense of the word. Cushman not only enjoyed a series of romantic relationships with women drawn from feminist and artistic circles, but she was a wildly successful actress, especially in “breeches parts” such as Romeo, who attracted adoring female fans, and was the center of a community of artistic women, in London, Boston, and Rome whose careers she promoted through her network of social and political connections. Cushman had her faults. It’s hard not to be a little squicked at how she arranged for one of her girlfriends to marry her nephew so they could have an excuse to be close to each other without making her long-term female partner jealous. But just as with Dods, she led a life that you’d have to tone down a little to write plausible fiction.

9. Returning to actual fiction, the late 19th century era of decadent artists and self-consciously transgressive sexuality is the setting for Molly Tanzer’s historic fantasy Creatures of Will and Temper, inspired by a reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. I loved how this tale wove together demonology, the aesthetic movement, and the maddening and loving relationship between two sisters. And it has a very delicious lesbian romance threaded through it that feels very true to the setting while never taking over the plot.

10. The question of where “history” ends and the current era begins is always tricky. I remember the events that inspired the movie Battle of the Sexes, based on the publicity-spectacle tennis match between champion Bille Jean King and has-been performative sexist Bobby Riggs. But the movie clearly treats the event as a period piece, so we’ll consider it a historical movie. One focus of the film that was less well known at the time of the massively publicized match was King’s on-going affair with Marilyn Barnett, depicted in the film as the team hairdresser. While the movie does the usual Hollywood condensation and rearrangement of the historic facts for dramatic effect. And, in my opinion, is far too kind to professional asshole Bobby Riggs, it does a good job of presenting the conflicts and joys of being a high-profile woman of the 1970s who is coming to grips with being in love with a woman.

11. No list of ten favorite things would be complete without cheating and adding in an extra. There are novels about the future that have all the feel of history--though sometimes a history we hope never happens. Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor is that sort of book, depicting a near-future America that feels entirely too plausible in its dystopic vision, through the eyes of a black lesbian army surgeon, trying to come back from a disabling injury, and her unexpected and eccentric housemate who is clearly engaged in dangerous espionage activities. Inspired as a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, this thriller is the first in a series that thrusts two very different women into an uneasy partnership.

So that’s my year in lesbian history. I’m looking forward to what 2019 brings. Follow the blog and podcast and try to guess what will make my favorites list next year!

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Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 07:21

One of the articles I covered last year was a study by Remke Kruk on the genre of "warrior women" epics in medieval Arabic litterature. In that 1998 piece, Kruk laments the lack of accessible translations of this fascinating corpus. This morning, my Twitter feed included a pointer to a freely-downloadable article studying and presenting a translation of on episode in the life of Dhat al-Himma, the central figure in the material Kruk discussed (although not the character that was the specific focus on the article). I'll be adding this new article to my to-do list, but if you're interested, you can check it out for yourself.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 07:09

I'm happy to announce the 2019 fiction line-up for the podcast! I haven't sorted out the appearance schedule yet, but in alphabetical order of story title, we have:

  • "Alphabet of Signs" by Ursula Whitcher, a flash piece set in Carolingian France
  • "The Black Handkerchief" by Gwen Katz, love and political uprisings in late 19th century Russia
  • "By Her Pen She Conquers" by Catherine Lundoff, the tale of an aspiring playwright in Regency-era London
  • "Jade Generals" by Ursula Whitcher, another flash piece, this time in Heian Japan
  • "The Mermaid" by Kathleen Jowitt, salvaging shipwrecks in in 18th century can turn up unexpected treasure

I'll be running the two flash pieces in the same episode.

I'm always looking for narrators who are comfortable with specific cultural settings. If you've done professional narration--or have access to the equipment and would like to give it a try--contact me about providing a sample. My preference is for a "storytelling" style with a certain amount of expressiveness and with the character voices distinguished (but not a fully "acted" performance). This is a paid gig.

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Monday, February 4, 2019 - 07:00

One of the consequences of lining up a set of all relevant articles from a single source is that I end up covering articles that are marginal to my personal interests--and keep in mind that this project is largely diven by what I personally find interesting. (If people want me to focus on things I find boring, they'd have to pay me a lot of money to do so.) In the case of the Journal of the History of Sexuality this means a group of articles about the field of sexology, as it developed in the late 19th century. (Once the topics move into the early 20th century, I consider myself authorized to skip them, since that's how I set up the focus of the Project.)

In the next several blogs, expect some of my impatience and frustration with "sexology" to leak out around the edges. Expecially when it comes to the misogyny that was embedded in the history of the field. But even more than impatience with the field of sexology itself, I'm frustrated by how often people today will repeat the myth that the sexologiests "invented" homosexuality. While there are narrow and rigid definitions by which that claim might be considered true, in the popular imagination it gets interpreted as meaning that same-sex love didn't really exist before the late 19th century. That there were no women who loved women or men who loved men, there were just some random physical practices and some conventional social performances that wishful thinking tries to associate with modern homosexual identities.

If there's only one message I hope to spread via this blog, it is that taking that sort of narrow definition requires a fairly willful erasure of the earlier evidence for ways of being that have clear connections to modern queer identities of all types. So bear with me for a few weeks while I tick the sexology articles off the list. Then we can get back to the fun stuff again.

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Full citation: 

Bauer, Heiki. 2009. “Theorizing Female Inversion: Sexology, Discipline, and Gender at the Fin de Siècle” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 18:1 pp.84-102

Bauer examines the discourse around female homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century in the context of the discipline of “sexology”, i.e., the supposedly scientific study of sexual desire and expression. Bauer points out that the dominant Foucaultian approach to historical understandings of sexuality has in many ways marginalized issues of gender, centering the male experience as the default. How does this gendering of sexual theory affect the ways in which sexuality is understood and studied? Rather than focusing on questions of sexual identity, this article looks at how the field of sexology developed, and on the concept of “sexual inversion” as applied differently to men’s and women’s experience.

The concept and term “sexual inversion” begins appearing in psychological literature in the 1870s in Germany and somewhat later in French and English literature. The basic concept is understanding same-sex sexuality as a disorder of gender identity (an “inversion” of gender norms). To understand how this affected the field of sexology, one must study the concepts and metaphors that were invoked by this language. Focusing on the last decades of the 19th century, Bauer shows how the discourse around male “inversion” was tied to issues of sexual identity and sexual practice, and politicized with respect to the emerging ideas about the state. In contrast, ideas about female “inversion” focused on social rather than sexual difference, and on the idea of distinct and separate roles for women, and women in society.

Misogynist reactions to the feminist ideas emerging in the late 19th century highlighted the concept of the “mannish” woman (under the rubric “The New Woman”). Feminists picked up a version of that concept, framing a type of affirmative female masculinity that marginalized same-sex sexuality.

Envisioning homosexuality in terms of gender “inversion” relies on a concept of fixed, binary gender roles that can be reversed (and can be identified as being reversed). But much of the early sexological literature focused solely on male subjects, treating women as an afterthought, if at all. This overlooked the interrelationship of female inversion with feminist principles and the place that masculinity held within that context.

Further, the developing discourse around male homosexuality included the participation of male homosexuals themselves, who had a stake in shaping how the field developed. In contrast, female homosexuals initially participated as passive subjects (topics of study) and not as participants in the emerging philosophical debate. Thus, studies of women who self-identified as “inverts” tend to focus on a later period (especially post-WWI Europe).

The concept of “sexual inversion” referred to a range of behaviors that intersected with, but was not congruent with, homosexuality. Later theorists note that this interplay of topics has sometimes divided the field between historical surveys of behavior and identity that sidestep theorizing, and theoretical models that fail to align with historic realities. Others argue that rather than critiquing the inadequacy of sexological categorization, the very idea of classification should be critiqued. Existing histories of sexuality that derive from male-focused theories often miss gendered gaps in the historic record, as when phenomena that are identified as “new developments” from a male perspective can be found at earlier periods within a female context.

One approach to address these gaps is to study the types of sexual knowledge that were in circulation at different historic periods. Another approach (which Bauer takes) is to examine how the structuring of debate around sexuality works to marginalize women’s experiences and especially women’s same-sex experiences. While sexological literature about female inverts focused on sexual intercourse (or the desire for it), it had little place for the “feminist” invert who used masculinity to critique cultural metaphors for gender.

The next section of the article discusses the interplay between theories of male sexual inversion and the political context of modern nation formation and how both masculinity and femininity were conceptualized in that process. Socio-political concepts themselves were gendered, with cultural or linguistic nationality being viewed as feminine while male sexuality was associated with statehood and political nationalism. Within this context, women who had sex with women were both legally invisible and not a threat to the concept of statehood that was under debate.

There follows an in-depth discussion of the work of Krafft-Ebing and how it distinguished psycho/physiological “inversion” from same-sex sexual activity. Krafft-Ebing argued for a parallel understanding of male and female sexual functions as part of his logical arguments against criminalizing sex between men, in the process undermining the previous idea that women were not capable of committing “real” sexual acts together. Part of his argument was that, given that men's and women’s same-sex acts are equivalent, and given that women have been engaging in same-sex acts throughout history, but that women’s same-sex acts have typically not been criminalized, then men’s same-sex acts should not be criminalized either. [Note: I’m vastly oversimplifying my understanding of the argument here.] However this argument overlooks the significant social and legal differences in the treatment of men and women throughout history (never mind the differences in their sexual practices).

Women began participating more in the theorization of sex in the first decade of the 20th century (see, e.g., the German novel Sind es Frauen? (Are They Women?)). These women’s voices treated the subject of gender and sexuality with more fluidity and as more intertwined with feminism than men had. In the period between the two World Wars, the image of the “mannish” New Woman (as exemplified in Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness) became the popular model for female homosexuality. But in embracing the concept of a gender binary that could be reversed, in some ways this image marginalized same-sex desire, turning it into a pseudo-heterosexuality. As a political strategy, it was unsuccessful (some argue) precisely because it was associated with anti-feminist stereotypes. (Feminists had been subject to political attacks on the basis of being “mannish” since well before this era.)

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Saturday, February 2, 2019 - 09:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31a - On the Shelf for February 2019 - Transcript

Note: Enough story submissions came in on the very last day that I will be doing the fiction series this year.

(Originally aired 2019/02/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2019.

All sorts of fun things are coming up on the horizon for the podcast. I have three interviews scheduled to record and another five in discussions. When I have them in hand, I’ll let you know who and when, but I don’t like to jinx things before the recording happens.

One big thing I’ve started on, relating to the interview shows, is that I’m commissioning transcripts of all the past interviews and will eventually work up to getting the interview transcripts up fairly soon after they air.

At the moment, I don’t have any interviews in the can for this month, so you’ll get more surprise content--which is another way of saying, I’ll see what I can come up with on the fly. Maybe I’ll do a list of some of my favorite lesbian historical movies. There are more of them out there than you might think! If you’re a fan of historical fiction and would love to come on the show to talk about some of your favorite books, drop me an email and we can set something up.

By the time this show airs, the submissions period for the 2019 fiction series will have closed. But at the time I’m recording this, I honestly have no idea whether I’ll have enough submissions to actually run the series this year. Maybe I’ll get a ton of stories submitted in the last couple days; maybe just the couple that people have said they’re planning to send in. Maybe I’ll get enough great stories to fill the series. Maybe I won’t By the time you hear this, you’ll already know the answer, if you read the blog. I confess I’d expected there to be more interest and enthusiasm in the second year. No matter how things go with this year’s series, I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in 2020, which is a shame because I’d hoped to provide a new venue for publishing lesbian historical short fiction. But a publishing venue doesn’t do much good if no one sends their work in for consideration.

Publications on the Blog

On the blog I’ve been continuing to work through some thematic groups of articles from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, with a few other random items. January focused on articles covering 16th and 17th century topics, including a fascinating study of a gender-queer person in colonial Virginia that sheds light on how ordinary people understood gender identity and sexuality. In February, I’m tackling a collection of articles about the late 19th century field of sexology and the supposed “invention” of homosexuality by psychologists. I confess it’s an era and a topic that makes me impatient because too often that particular era in the medicalization of sexuality and gender identity gets misinterpreted as demonstrating that there was no such thing as same-sex love before people like Krafft-Ebing wrote their books about it. So if a bit of my impatience shows through in my summaries, you’ll understand why.

Book Shopping!

The only new book purchase for the blog this month was my very own copy of Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, in support of last week’s podcast with readings from the text. What did you think of Manley’s depiction--satiric though it may have been--of a secret sapphic society in early 18th century England?


For this month’s podcast essay, I think I’m ready to begin tackling the delicate topic of the historic intersection of themes of female homoeroticism and trans-masculinity. It’s a complicated and broad subject. For this first installment I’ll be tackling some basic approaches to unpacking our cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality categories so we can think and talk about historic categories in an open-minded way. Lesbian historical fiction has a bit of an unfortunate history of erasing or ignoring trans possibilities, in large part because we’re wedded to concepts of gender and sexuality that are rooted in our specific cultural context. To address the issues around trans-masculinity in lesbian historicals in a meaningful way, we need to take a close look at the historic relationship between how people in the past understood gender and how they understood sexual orientation. I’m going to have a lot of fun in this first essay, although with a very serious purpose, because I’m going to start by taking you on a tour through the semantics of prepositions--the topic of my doctoral dissertation.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And now for the new and recent releases of lesbian-relevant historical fiction! The first few books all have a prominent element of fantasy in their history.

Running Wild by Laurel Clarke (published through Amazon Digital) is subtitled “A Steamy Lesbian Romance in Ancient Greece” so you can probably assume you get what it says on the label. Here’s the blurb:

In ancient Greece, women don't leave the homes of their male relatives. They don't become physicians, and they CERTAINLY don't fall for other women. But Melitta is breaking all the rules. She didn't set out to get thrown out of her brother's house or meet a troop of naughty naiads. She definitely never expected to befriend Ris, a half-naiad half-human woman who has a bad habit of not wearing clothes. And now Ris just won't get out of her head. All Melitta ever wanted was a career as a village doctor and a normal life. But things are changing. Now, the only thing she seems to want is... Ris.

Breaking Mae's Curse self-published by Amy DeMeritt may have only tangential historical content. It’s hard to tell from the blurb.

What happens when a lesbian samurai refuses to marry the king? He kills her lover and then orders his sorceress to curse her to immortality as a five-inch-tall woman, of course. Fast forward almost 600 years. Mae’s plan to try to meet a beautiful woman backfires and instead she befriends a young IT nerd who is all too excited to try to help her break her curse – which requires a woman to fall in love with her. Can a five-inch tall lesbian samurai find love? Can Mae’s curse be broken? Or will the enemies of her past come back to destroy everything?

Souls of Viridian by Ayin Weaver from NovelWeaver Press sounds like the sort of cross-time/parallel lives story that pops up regularly in lesbian fiction.

Souls of Viridian is a tale of love and courage, a journey of possibilities, and a dream of expansive horizons. A 15th century Italian child of a secret healer, a young Parisian woman and her father at the dawn of revolutionary France, a lesbian artist and her partner living in 21st century America, a modern middle-aged widow searching for answers after her husband’s death, and an apparition from an other-worldly dimension—what could they possibly have in common? What could it all mean? Widow Rachel Padini wants answers, especially as dreams and hallucinations of an odd child plague her life. Artist Rita Kerner wants answers too—to unlock the mystery of the strange portraits she paints. But they don’t know each other. Nor do they know what they have in common—or what fantastical phenomenon awaits them if they meet.

A Harvest of Sisters self-published by Emma Bawden sounds like an interesting slice-of-life story set in early 20th century England.

On holiday with her parents in Cornwall, sixteen year old Jessica Bradley, falls in love with Elizabeth Trescothick, during the summer of 1931. Through the remains of the decade, she experiences loss and love, gives birth to a daughter, eventually finding happiness, a life long partner, and becoming part of a group of women, who form an art school in London, before WW2. A story of independent women with a vision of equality and a refusal to commit to convention.

The Arrival of Lady Suthmeer self-published by Connie Valientis is a bite-sized novelette with a nebulously 18th or 19th century setting. I’ve reviewed it on my blog if you’re interested.

All Lavina wants is to quietly marry a man who will allow her to continue her current affair with the beautiful Lady Georgia Suthmeer. But with Lady Suthmeer herself objecting to any marriage, and with Lady Suthmeer’s husband pursuing Lavina for himself, it’s easier said than done. Can Lavina balance the men and women in her life, or will she end up losing her reputation–or worse, her lover?

The Plan by Kim Pritekel from Sapphire Books sounds like a classic tale of girls from opposite sides of the tracks.

As the dark days of the Dust Bowl came to an end, the midsection of the United States tried to rebuild and revitalize. In the small, dusty farming town of, Brooke View, Colorado, teenager, Eleanor Landry and her mother were dealing with her father, a self-appointment fire and brimstone preacher to his congregation of two. A plan to survive. As the dark era of the robber baron comes to an end, giants of industry and innovation emerged with fabulous fortunes manifested in the mansions that dotted the landscape across the country. Lysette Landon, the teen daughter of the wealthiest family in Brooke View, was everything a good, proper girl of privilege should be. Only problem was, she wasn’t dreaming of finding a young man to raise a family with. A plan to be free. One look, one touch, all plans are off.  Secrets deeper and darker than the grave would bring Eleanor and Lysette together, their families connected by a web of lies and broken promises. A plan to escape.  Be careful because, life has other plans…

Acts of Contrition is the 4th book in the Passing Rites saga by Elena Graf from Purple Hand Press. Be aware that this series has some intense content, including depictions of rape and sexual violence, as well the aftermath of war.

World War II has finally come to an end and Berlin has fallen. Nearly everything Margarethe, chief of staff of St. Hilde's Hospital and head of the aristocratic Stahle family, has sworn to protect has been lost. After being brutally abused by occupying Russian soldiers in her own hospital, Margarethe must rely on the kindness of her friends to survive. Fortunately, the American Army has brought her former protégé, Dr. Sarah Weber, back to Berlin. As Margarethe confronts painful events that occurred during the war, she must learn both to forgive and be forgiven.  This is the fourth novel in the Passing Rites Series, which follows the aristocratic Stahle family through the 20th century. Set in Berlin during the aftermath of World War II, Acts of Contrition shows how survivors struggled with their guilt over the events of the war. It tells the story of how rape, crushing personal losses and grief can bring someone to the brink and how friendship and love can bring her back.

Manifold Press is putting out a Valentine’s anthology, Rainbow Bouquet, with a range of stories of queer love in the past, present, and future. At this time, I don’t know what the extent of the lesbian content might be. At some point this year I’ll be doing an interview with the new editor of Manifold Press to talk about her plans and vision for the publishing house.

Figuring by Maria Popova from Pantheon is a non-fiction book with a description that reads almost like a historic novel, and so might be of interest to my listeners.

Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.  Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution have risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson. Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

If you know of any forthcoming lesbian-relevant historical fiction, including historic fantasy and similar genres, drop the podcast a note to make sure we have a chance to include it.

Ask Sappho

I’d love to continue doing the “Ask Sappho” bit in this show, to answer questions or explore topics that are too brief for a show of their own. But it only happens if people send me questions or requests. If you like what you hear on this show, drop us a note and let us know. And get your personally-tailored information on lesbian history and historic literature.

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Books Mentioned

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Monday, January 28, 2019 - 07:00

As I mention in the discussion below, given how very little information this article has relating to women's same-sex relations, one might wonder why I bothered to include it. And the answer is, because often negative information is as important to understanding the context of people's lives in history as the positive information is. We often have an impression that women in sexual relationships were in constant danger of persecution and repression. That they must have lived in constant fear of discovery and the consequences thereof. But once you sift through the data in this article (and it's packed full of numbers and pie charts and trend graphs), the take-home message is that in the entire kingdom of Aragon in Spain, for the century and a half when the Spanish Inquisition was most fixated on the sexual lives of ordinary people, only one (1) female couple is recorded as being tried by the Inquisition for the offense of sodomy. And they were punished by exile and being forbidden to live together, not by death or even imprisonment. (Though exile was nothing to sneeze at.) While this data doesn't address how this compared with attention from the secular courts, and while it doesn't give us a baseline for how many women engaged in acts that might have been considered sodomy, we can make some reasonable extrapolations and suggest that legal prosecution of women solely for engaging in same-sex acts was not a major risk factor.

So when you're imagining the lives of your fictional characters and thinking of setting them in 16-17th century Spain, maybe--just maybe--the Inquisition isn't something that needs to be a constant threat looming over their lives. In fact, coming to the notice of the Inquisition must might be more historically inaccurate than otherwise.

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Full citation: 

Fernandez, André. 1997. “The Repression of Sexual Behavior by the Aragonese Inquisition between 1560 and 1700” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.469-501

This is a data-heavy examination of cases under the Spanish Inquisition for sexual-related offenses during a critical period from the mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century. There is very little in the article that speaks directly to sexual activity between women, but it provides a context for attitudes and risks during that period.

The question being addressed is why there was a significant increase in the prosecution of sexual offenses in the Kingdom of Aragon beginning around 1560, and how and why that focus tapered off over the course of the 17th century. The official focus of the Inquisition was on eradicating heresy, but in the mid 16th century that focus expanded to overlap with the jurisdiction of episcopal and royal courts with regard to four categories of sexual offense that were considered to represent not simply moral offenses, but offenses against the natural order or against the sacraments. These four categories were solicitation, bigamy, sodomy, and bestiality.

The documentary record shows the court working its way through the process of categorizing offenses under these headings, and determining their relative gravity and appropriate penalties. Simple fornication (i.e., extramarital sex between a man and a woman) was a moral and legal offense but did not come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition under ordinary circumstances and so is not included in this data (although far more common).

A great deal of the article is taken up with detailed discussions of data trends, categories, and statistics, of which I’ll only hit the highlights. Overall, this increased focus on sexual offenses ran from 1560 through around 1620, then tapered off  steadily until the end of the 17th century when the Inquisition functionally lost interest in the topic.

Of the four categories, the only one of relevance to the LHMP is sodomy, and even there the overwhelming majority of the cases involve relations between men. Out of 1829 cases included in the data overall, 691 (38%) fell in the category of sodomy. But of those, only 8 cases involved women, with 7 of them concerning sodomy in the context of a male-female relationship. Only one case (keep in mind, this is in the entire kingdom or Aragon in the course of nearly a century and a half) involved a female couple. The case occurred in 1656, the women were unmarried, and (if I’m reading the article correctly) the sentence was banishment from their home city for 8 years and being forbidden from cohabiting.

While this may seem like a small tidbit on which to include this article in the Project, it provides a context for other previous mentions of the prosecution of female couples within the authority of the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly the overall risk of coming to their attention, or of receiving a significant punishment, was low, despite the fearsome reputation of the organization.

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