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Wednesday, April 7, 2021 - 07:00

I keep forgetting that I meant to put all the commentary related to the publications themselves in a blog field that keeps that commentary tied to the "official summary". So sometimes I have to go back and "fix" things later. (Like today.) In fact, there are a lot of LHMP entries where I keep meaning to go back and systematically sort out where the various bits of text should go. The difference is fairly invisible to anyone who reads the blog as it comes out, but if you're reading publication entries from searches or through tag links, it affects how easy it is to find my associated commentary.

Such is the awkwardness of legacy systems! The LHMP started out on my LiveJournal, with a "flat" structure of the single text field. When my highly-talented web people started designing how the LHMP would work on this site as a specialized function, we had to tackle how I wanted to divvy up the information from those original all-in-one blogs. Obviously, the summary of the publication was a key element. (With all its assorted meta-data.) But I often (though not always) had a more meta-discussion that was more about me reacting to the article than about the article, and I wanted to keep that separate. (Except for the times when it made more sense to interleave it in the summary, where I had to flag it more carefully as my commentary.) But those original  blogs sometimes also included text unrelated to the LHMP entries. And if I wanted to keep the superficial appearance of having the "same" blog as the original (only on a new site) then I couldn't simply strip those parts out and ignore them.

But now comes a different logistical consideration. Because if my commentary on the LHMP articles goes in a "commentary" field tied to the LHMP entry itself, rather than the framing blog text, then the vast majority of my LHMP-related blog posts won't have any "blog text" at all. And the blog text is what shows up in, for example, the website's front page field. (Though this problem doesn't affect my RSS feed, because that uses the whole blog+LHMP entry, rather than using a truncated portion that might end up being empty.)

And now you now why my webmasters sometimes give me That Look when we talk about features. I tend to have a fuzzy "grand vision" approach to web design. They have to make it work. And once they've set something up that will work as programmed, I have to remember to actually use the structures as they're intended in order to get the effects I claimed I wanted.

Oh, and having explained all that, I'm now remembering why I keep defaulting to putting my LHMP commentary in the opening blog field: because currently the commentary field doesn't display in the blog view, only in the LHMP entry view. Argh. Well, put that on the list of things to tweak, and let's put it in both places for now.

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Klein's book belongs more to the category of high-concept lit-crit studies than to more strictly historical studies. I'm not saying this to criticize it, but simply to situate it. The focus on various body parts is a clever conceit, but has a tendency to skew the significance of the topics she's chosen to discuss.

The focus on analyzing the narratives of cross-dressing, rather than studying the behavior and psychology of the actual historic people involved (which are far less accessible) excuses, to some extent, the way the text defaults to considering the subjects of the book always as women, and to a large extent as assumed-cis women who are employing strategic disguise. This, after all, is how the contemporary narratives about these people treat their lives. And so, as a study of the narratives (as opposed to a study of the people) it makes sense.

But it means that Sapphic Crossings is a book that is unlikely to appeal to those who are looking for historic resonances for a modern transmasculine experience. In all the discussion of the "meaning" of breasts, there is no mention of how they might participate in gender dysphoria, and it's difficult to tell whether that's because dysphoria is never hinted at in the historic narratives, or because it isn't part of what Klein is interested in studying. But never fear, the next book I plan to discuss works from an opposite default: treating all such historic cases as transgender narratives. Neither approach is ideal from a general history point of view. But together--with the understanding that the books each take their position for a particular analytic purpose--they can provide a richer background.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 2: Sapphic Breasts and Bosom Friends

Klein's book belongs more to the category of high-concept lit-crit studies than to more strictly historical studies. I'm not saying this to criticize it, but simply to situate it. The focus on various body parts is a clever conceit, but has a tendency to skew the significance of the topics she's chosen to discuss.

The focus on analyzing the narratives of cross-dressing, rather than studying the behavior and psychology of the actual historic people involved (which are far less accessible) excuses, to some extent, the way the text defaults to considering the subjects of the book always as women, and to a large extent as assumed-cis women who are employing strategic disguise. This, after all, is how the contemporary narratives about these people treat their lives. And so, as a study of the narratives (as opposed to a study of the people) it makes sense.

But it means that Sapphic Crossings is a book that is unlikely to appeal to those who are looking for historic resonances for a modern transmasculine experience. In all the discussion of the "meaning" of breasts, there is no mention of how they might participate in gender dysphoria, and it's difficult to tell whether that's because dysphoria is never hinted at in the historic narratives, or because it isn't part of what Klein is interested in studying. But never fear, the next book I plan to discuss works from an opposite default: treating all such historic cases as transgender narratives. Neither approach is ideal from a general history point of view. But together--with the understanding that the books each take their position for a particular analytic purpose--they can provide a richer background.

The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.

Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.

Regularly throughout the texts, the breast functions not so much to reinforce normative gender expectations, but to draw attention to female centered relationships. Alongside that function, breasts reflect racial and national stereotypes and reveal how themes of gender and desire are linked to whiteness.

During the 18th century, medical and political discourse around the breast shifted from an erotic, to a maternal symbol. And as with facial hair, we see a taxonomy of civilization reflected in breast characteristics.

In cross-dressing narratives such as that of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, exposure of the breast is linked to being read as female, but often the revelation is deliberate and strategic, not accidental or involuntary. Deliberate exposure of the breast by a cross dressing woman to establish her sex may be done for a female audience, creating sapphic possibilities. In Belinda, Lady Delacourt’s exposure of her damaged breast creates the context for bringing the women of the novel together.

[Note: one text that Klein doesn’t mention but that plays up the themes of this chapter is The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the cross-dressing main character reveals her sex to the woman she has a crush on (who has sworn off relations with men) by opening her clothing to reveal her breasts.]

The presence of the breast functions similarly to the absence of facial hair in being a gender marker, but an ambiguous and elusive one. It must be hidden to maintain the disguise, but it’s surprisingly easy to conceal.

Breasts have a long and contradictory history of being used to represent various perceptions of female identity, both positive and negative. The ambiguity of the breast is furthered by the multiple meanings that words such as “breast” and “bosom” can have, drawing in metonymic references to emotions. The 18th century saw a rising focus on the symbolic nature of the breast, and of maternal breast-feeding as a feature of female identity. (As contrasted with hiring a wet-nurse.) Some scholars trace a shift from the “erotic breast” of the renaissance to the new political symbolism of the breast in the 18th century, though this is not a universal view. The chapter has a fascinating discussion of the range of breast-meaning theories, but it’s too detailed to really summarize here.

The idealized breast in 18th century western culture was small and rounded, representing a young, pre-lactating body. Colonialist writing evaluated non-western societies using a sort of “breast phrenology” to equate pendulous breasts with a lack of civilization. In western contexts, large breasts were associated with aggressiveness.

When breasts are mentioned in cross-dressing narratives, it is usually to note them as small (and thus easier to disguise) but also as aligned with racialized images of superiority and whiteness. In cross-dressing narratives, women focus first on concealing the breast, and then on strategic deployment of them--in both cases as a gender marker.

The chapter dives into a detailed analysis of these themes in several texts, specifically: the history of pirates Read and Bonny, the military narratives of Hannah Snell and Christian Davies, and the novel Belinda, which adds another layer to the symbolism of breast and cross dressing. In Belinda the “wounded breast” of the cross-dresser embodies the punishment for her gender transgression as well as providing the stimulus for female bonding over the intimate nature of sharing the knowledge of the wound.

I’m skipping over a lot of the details of this very close reading of the texts.

Time period: 
Tuesday, April 6, 2021 - 07:00

While the dual meaning of "beard" that Klein plays with in this chapter may have been the inspiration for combining the motifs, I'm not sure I agree that there's a meaningful connection in that historic era between facial hair and the use of courtship scripts to bolster one's public identity. Both existed; it's the direct connection that feels anachronistic. And if the chronology of the term as detailed by Wikipedia is correct (not necessarily a given), then its use in the context of queer relationships is secondary even during its rise in 20th century use, and use for establishing transgender identity (as opposed to concealing homosexual orientation) doesn't seem to have been part of standard usage even then. (But the Wikipedia article is sparse and not well sourced, so I wouldn't necessarily rely on it for chronology and scope.)

But the use of public relationships to establish, conceal ,or distract from one's gender or sexuality has wide application across history. And the converse is also the case: the public incorrectly assuming they can determine someone's gender or sexuality based on the relationships they are known to engage in. In both cases, familiarity with an established framework or script for interpersonal relations is an essential pre-requisite. I mean, how could we cope if no assumptions could be made about how people interact in categorical ways?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 1: 18th Century Female Cross-dressers and their Beards

Note: The content of this chapter was also published independently as:

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2016. “Eighteenth-Century Female Cross-Dressers and Their Beards” in <em>Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies</em>, Vol. 16, No. 4, SPECIAL ISSUE: New Queer Readings: 119-143

This chapter looks at the symbolic function of facial hair as a definitive sign of maleness and the ways a successful courtship of a woman can substitute for the lack of a beard. The “smooth beardless face” is noted in narratives as a giveaway. But beards were not fashionable in the 18th century. And the subject’s “feminine” features might be cited as being an attractive feature to women.

Women’s desire for feminine characteristics in a purportedly male body disrupts the expected gendering of desire. If women are only expected to desire men, then is the interest of a desiring woman a marker of successful maleness? The author notes the deliberate play on words in referring to a “beard” as the fake relationship that diverts attention from the unacceptable identity. This is only one of the ways in which gender can be manipulated via independent components.

At the same time, the desiring woman signals sapphic possibilities to the knowledgeable observer, in parallel with making trans identities legible. The question of knowledge is different between narratives of “real-life” and literary cross-dressers. The undeniably female body is typically foregrounded in literature, while the lack of knowledge about the underlying body is often a theme in supposedly real-life stories.

[Note: The main themes of the text get repeated a lot using a variety of gender studies terminology. I’ve tried to cover all the main themes, but may miss some nuances.]

The rest of the chapter looks at three examples centering around “beards” in both senses: the biography The Female Soldier (about real-life personality Hannah Snell), Sarah Scott’s A Journey through Every Stage of Life (specifically the story of Leonora and Louisa), and Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband (fictionalizing the real-life story of Mary Hamilton). There are briefer notes on the memoirs of military cross-dresser Christian Davies and the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke.

Ballads and news reports of working class cross-dressers often focused on economic motivations, while novels of middle-class characters depicted cross-dressing as whimsical or sinister. But the audiences for these genres were not segregated, and press reports of real-life cross-dressers reference themes familiar from popular culture.

In the Renaissance, beards denoted masculinity and maturity, while beardlessness equaled youth and androgyny. But by the 18th century, the fashionable male face was clean-shaven. The text mainly talks about England but this fashion was more general. The ability to grow a beard still signaled masculinity, but shaving was framed as “civilized,” representing self-control.

These themes show up in race theory where a sparse beard signaled lack of virility and inferiority--this was also tied to women’s inferiority correlating with the inability to grow a beard. The possibility of bearded women was known, but this only meant that beards alone could not necessarily be proof of sex. Conversely, references to gender-transgressing women use the specter of a beard as a sign of crossing boundaries, saying that such women “might as well have a beard.” The connection between beardlessness and lack of virility was a also made in the context of castrato singers, effeminate fops, and the use of wigs by both sexes.

Attention drawn to the lack of a beard (or lack of evidence of having shaved) motivates cross-dressers to pursue relationships with women in order to supply proof of masculinity, even as their bodily androgyny or ambiguity is depicted as being attractive to women.

In The Female Soldier Hannah Snell is depicted as cross-dressing to search for her husband, therefore invoking no female same-sex motive. She fears male assault if discovered, and so used the attraction of women as a shield against suspicion. In Scott’s novel, Leonora and Louisa are two young women who run away to escape family pressure and abuse. As the taller of the two, Leonora cross-dresses and they pose as brother and sister. This isn’t enough to solidly establish Leonora’s maleness, so she works to attract female attention as a shield and succeeds in part because of her androgyny. In The Female Husband Mary Hamilton pursues women for economic and sexual reasons, but is also described as being attractive to women because of her androgyny, even as her apparent youth is shown as being a source of criticism. There are examples from other sources of cross-dressing women being viewed as being more successful at “being men” than men. Cross-dressing women knew how to please women, as well as being attractive to them because of their feminine characteristics. Within these narratives, a cross-dressing woman paired with a woman was not equivalent to a man with a woman.

Time period: 
Monday, April 5, 2021 - 07:00

I have several quite recent publications (the current book is from 2021) that address the intersection/overlap of female same-sex encounters and trans-masculine experiences in history. I thought it would make an interesting thematic group to cluster them as a series. (It may take more than one month, though I'm going to try to do multiple posts each week to get through more quickly.) A great many of the pulications the LHMP has previously covered in the range of cross-dressing, gender disguise, gender change, and transgender identity are rather dated. My perception is that academic work on the history of gender identity has shifted more significantly in the last 20 years even than work on lesbian history (and the field of lesbian history has shifted a lot!).

On the LHMP twitter account, I posted a thread on Transgender Day of Visibility about how I consider it impossible to study lesbian history without also studying transgender history. I hold this position not only because the subjects and themes of that study can often be difficult or impossible to distinguish, but also because the understandings that people in the past held regarding gender and sexuality made connections between the two that are vastly different from our modern framings of gender identity and sexuality.

If you go looking in European history for an understanding of female same-sex desire that excludes all suggestion of "desire for a woman is an inherently masculine attribute," then you have excluded a vast amount of the data. (This is the same trap as looking for an understanding of female same-sex desire that requires the position, "lesbian identity can only exist where there is solid evidence of genital sexual activity." But that's a rant for a different day.) Regardless of their subjective internal understanding of their gender identity, it is a regular (though not universal) theme in European historic contexts that sapphic desire implied some degree of innate masculinity. It was part of the landscape they lived in, and therefore it must be included in the scope of our study.

That said, the set of books I'm embarking on currently focus on some very different angles of the trans-masculine/lesbian interface and operate with different default framings. This is part of the reason for studying them together as a set.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Introduction: Imagining Sapphic Possibility

[Note: I’m experimenting again with Apple’s voice-transcription function. Dictating from notes results in different phrasing than typing from notes. So the “feel” of this write-up may be different than my usual.]

This book looks at 18th century English depictions of female cross-dressing (i.e., assigned-female persons who are being read as male) and the relationship that has to ideas about female same-sex intimacy.

[Note: I have used the book's wording "cross-dressing women" to reflect how the author is framing the topic. The author emphasizes that she considers setting the framings "cross-dressing sapphic women vs. trans men" to be a false binary, and that her position is that all cross-dressing, regardless of context or motivation is inherently trans, as well as inherently queer. Furthermore, she is primarily examining the material as a literary genre, with consideration of its reception by contemporaries. And in the 18th century context, that contemporary audience would overwhelmingly understand the subject as "women disguised as men". However I will note for my readers that, because of these considerations and purposes, the wording and framing of the book may come across as erasive of trans possibiities, even though it does overtly recognize them on a regular basis. Read this work as a book about how trans narratives create an awareness of sapphic possibilities, rather than as claiming that the people being discussed--historic and fictional--were cis women in disguise as opposed to trans men living their authentic lives.]

18th century narratives of cross-dressing women were common. In many contexts, the focus is on how to manage the female body, and why that body appeals to female observers. Cross-dressing narratives became central to defining and negotiating gender and sexual categories in the long 18th century.

These texts “teach” readers how to recognize embodied sapphic possibilities. Klein’s analysis shows how the various genres and classes of texts bring together queer desire and trans categories, as well as disrupting the concept of heterosexuality by blurring sex and gender categories. The book is not concerned with questions of whether women who were attracted to cross-dressing women recognized them as such, whether sexual activity was involved, or whether cross-dressing women genuinely desired their female partners. Rather it examines how bodies are represented and perceived.

This analysis detaches masculinity from male bodies and considers the representation of specific body parts as they participate in cross-dressing gender performance. The illustrative body parts that Klein focuses on are: the beard, the breast, the penis, and the legs. The symbolic function of these with regard to gender relate to other categories such as race, nation, and disability.

This analysis is not a chronology of examples, rather it represents the blurring and confusion of the binary representation of gender difference. [Note: This book has lots of theory jargon, which I’m trying to present a bit more directly.]

The introduction continues with a literature review and a consideration of why the author focuses on the word sapphic for this topic. The author points out that regardless of individual gender identity, cross-dressing is always by definition a trans act that inherently challenges gender categories and boundaries. Klein considers that putting “trans” and” lesbian” in binary opposition in discussions of this sort is a trap. It is not her intent to create such an opposition even though her focus is on how cross-dressing speaks to sapphic concepts.

There is a conflict created between how cross-dressing bodies work to be sufficiently masculine versus being perceived as too feminine. And in some ways cis female desire for cross-dressing women is more queer than the cross-dressing performance itself. The introduction concludes with an overview that summarizes the structure of the book.

Time period: 
Saturday, April 3, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 1998 - On the Shelf for April 2021 – Transcript

(Originally aired 2021/04/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2021.

How’s everyone doing? I’m finally back working on my next Alpennia novel and feeling like most of my work routines are back in the groove. Spring is going sproing and my demographic group is finally eligible for the Covid vaccine. My garden is straining at the leash waiting for the contractor to finish getting the new irrigation system set up and I’m looking forward to the day when I can invite all my local friends over for a garden party again.

But in the mean time, I’m inviting all of you to a party celebrating some big milestones for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. We’re celebrating 7 years of the history blog—7 years and over 300 publications, who would have thought? But more importantly, we’re celebrating 200 podcast episodes! 200 episodes in almost 5 years. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty amazing. I wanted to do something to mark the occasion, and after talking to folks about various options, I decided the best choice was an all-day open house on our Discord server.

Um…you did know we have a Discord server, right? You don’t even have to be a Patreon supporter or anything to join, all you have to do is ask for an invitation. The Discord has been gradually accumulating members during our “soft-launch” period…well, ok, that’s a fancy way of saying that I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t promoted it as much as I should. But the podcast anniversary party seemed like a good excuse to ratchet up the promo.

So on Saturday May 8th, the week after episode 200 comes out, plan to drop by, chat about lesbian history, about books, about whatever else strikes your fancy. There will be both text and audio/video channels available, and I just might be doing some surprise give-aways. Put it on your calendar and ask for an invite link if you aren’t already a member.

News of the Field

From light-hearted celebration, I’d like to turn to a somewhat more serious subject for a moment. This was inspired by a topic that came up in my social media about lesbian fiction that exoticizes or objectifies characters from non-white or non-Western cultures. Now, I’m a middle-class white American, so I’m not going to try to speak for marginalized readers. But at the same time, I’m a middle-class white American so if this subject gets people’s noses out of joint, I’m not going to be personally hurt by their reactions. And maybe that gives me a responsibility to speak up.

I’d like to frame this issue as questions that we can ask ourselves—whether as readers or writers—about the books we love. I’m not going to tell anyone how to think about any particular book, but I’m going to urge you to be mindful and consider the following.

Does this story treat the characters as full, individual human beings? All the characters, and not only the viewpoint ones? Does this story show an understanding of the history and cultural context that the characters exist in? Does the story recognize and engage with differences in status and power between the characters? Are all the characters given equal agency within their relationships? Or, if not, are the consequences of that inequality acknowledged? Does this story assign attributes or reactions to characters that reflect cultural stereotypes? Does the story fetishize certain characters or cultural attributes? How would a reader who shares a cultural background or identity with one of the book’s characters feel about how that character is portrayed? How are language or speech patterns used to represent a character’s identity? Which characters get to be depicted in a neutral manner and which are set apart in how they’re depicted? How are characters described? What types of physical traits are described positively, and which ones negatively? Whose appearance is treated as the default and who gets described in contrast to that?

When I’m putting together the lists of new books, it sometimes happens that the cover copy for a book makes me uncomfortable about how certain characters or cultures are portrayed in objectifying ways. I don’t want to set myself up as a gatekeeper of which books get included or not, but at the same time I feel a responsibility to my listeners. All of them. Sometimes I’ll feel uncomfortable enough that I’ll include a cautionary comment. Very very rarely, I’ll quietly leave a title off the list. But we’re all responsible for the publishing landscape of lesbian fiction: not only as authors in what we write, but as readers in what we accept in the books we read. We have not always lived up to that responsibility. And the absolute minimal bottom line is that if someone stands up and says, “This book depicting someone with my background hurts me in the way that character is written,” we have the responsibility to listen, and believe, and think about the consequences of that.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has finally finished covering all the journal articles I downloaded back in July of 2019! I mixed a number of other books and articles in among them, but that store of material has kept me going for almost 2 years. It’ll be a little while yet before I’m ready to brave social mixing enough to access the JSTOR terminals at the UC Berkeley library again, so maybe I should work on books for a while. Maybe even some of my recent acquisitions!

In March I covered a rather eclectic selection of topics: Katherine Binhammer’s comparative study of how female same-sex sexuality and eroticized pain were treated in later 18th century England. Marylynne Diggs’ exploration of relatively early depictions of female same-sex desire as psychological pathology in 19th century American sources. Deborah Nord’s exploration of a loose network of middle class singlewomen in Victorian London who stood outside the supportive communities of feminists, as well as refusing conventional married life. And Mary McLaughlin’s detailed history of a very different community of unmarried women in 16th century Ferrara, which gives another triangulation on the options women could have available. Then, just for fun, I tossed in an examination of a Regency-era satirical cartoon showing two women making out on a park bench.

For April, I’ve lined up several relatively recent books that examine histories of people who were assigned female but lived male lives through a transgender lens. For me, it’s not possible to study lesbian history without studying it in parallel with transmasculine history, because of the shifting ways in which gender and sexuality interacted in past societies. In the literature of the later 20th century and early 21st century, there has been a tendency to default to treating these people as “women in male disguise” in all cases. And while I think it’s equally mistaken to treat them all universally as trans men, that framework can guide us to a different set of historic understandings that we’d see otherwise.

Book Shopping!

My book shopping has picked up a bit this month. There’s a new biography of my favorite 19th century American actress, Charlotte Cushman, and it’s a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity by Tana Wojszuk looks like a more popularly-oriented biography than the one I leaned heavily on for my podcast on Cushman. I’ll keep hoping that someone in the movie or tv business latches onto her story and decides to make a lavish costume drama.

The second book I picked up this month is Debating Sex and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Spain by Marta V. Vicente. I’ve covered a number of publications that look at the 18th century seismic shifts in cultural understandings of gender from English and French sources, so it will be interesting to see how Spanish texts cover the same topics.


When I get to the part of the On the Shelf script where I’m supposed to tell you what his month’s podcast essay will be, about half the time I realize in a panic that I haven’t picked a topic yet. So…um…that would be the case this month. I have an idea, but it depends on whether I can brainstorm enough content for it. So I’ll leave it a mystery for now, in case I end up doing something different.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

We have a bumper crop of new and recent books this month, most of them from February and March. The February books come from some unusual angles.

The most intriguing is Adeline Lim’s self-published memoir In the Footsteps of Anne Lister (Volume 1): Travels of a remarkable English gentlewoman in France, Germany and Denmark in 1833. Lim is retracing some of the journeys that Anne Lister documented in her diaries and combining her own experiences and thoughts with excerpts from the diaries. For those of you who can’t get enough of Anne Lister, this looks like an interesting adventure to tag along on.

Whether you try this next one depends on how you feel about real-people fiction that introduces a queer element not present in real life. Vivian Dunn’s self-published For the Love of Many takes on a fictitious romantic encounter in 1920s Broadway between the future star Joan Crawford and a fellow chorus dancer. A story of secrets and show business, but it’s unclear to me why the author chose to associate her character with this specific historic person.
Nathan Long’s The Woman in the Coffin published by Oolong Books is another unusual cross-over, this time with a different author’s fictional universe. With the knowledge and permission of the original author, Long has written a different viewpoint of characters from Elizabeth Watasin’s “Dark Victorian” universe, following Nellie O’Day, a theatrical male impersonator, and her obsession with an acrobat who performs as part of a mesmerism act. Magic and murder follow.

I turned up five March books that weren’t on my radar yet last month. First up is another story in Stein Willard’s self-published Regency series, The Reserved Doctor. Gender disguise on the part of the title character leads to some romantic confusion for emperiled Catherine Poole, who isn’t accustomed to being attracted to men. I’m not familiar with this author, so I can’t advise on how well the story handles the gender issues.

Have you ever looked at the shelves full of het Scottish highlander romances and wondered what a sapphic one might look like? Sarah Swan has you covered with her self-published Like the Down of a Thistle. In 18th century Scotland, a young widow and her neighbor, whose husband is off at the battles, lean on each other to manage the grueling farm labor. An unexpected love grows, but what will happen with the battles are over and the soldier returns? The author promises us a happy ending, just in case you’re worried.

In contrast, readers might want to take a look at some of the content notes for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore from Square Fish. Following parallel stories in 16th century France and the modern day, this reinterpretation of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the red shoes includes motifs of persecution of trans people and Romani. In 1518, a strange “dancing sickness” in Strasbourg is blamed on witchcraft and Lavinia must make a desperate choice. Five hundred years later a descendent of Lavinia’s family confronts a new curse, bound to a pair of red shoes, to save his friend Rosella. Notes on Goodreads confirm that the book includes lesbian characters, but the details aren’t clear.

Vesper St. Clair’s “Gilded Lily” series, set in the upper crust of 1920s New York has previously focused on male couples. But a new novella in the series, Diamonds & Pearls, from Eventide Press, follows an heiress and a female jewel thief through both speakeasies and Upper East Side parlors. There’s a content note for violence, but also a promise of a happy ending.

German author Helmi Schausberg seems to specialize in stories set in Ireland. The German-language novel Für ihr Land (For Her Land), from Querverlag, follows Irish nationalist Eileen and unionist Josie as they are caught up in the Easter Rising and swing between extremes of friendship and conflict against the setting of the struggle for Ireland’s freedom.

I’ll conclude with three April releases, though I’m sure I’ll find more next month. In Poison Priestess from Amulet Books, Lana Popović takes on the “affair of the poisons” in Louis XIV’s glittering and dangerous court of Versailles. There’s a fantastic element in the story as Catherine Monvoisin turns to prophetic visions and sorcery to fight off the threat of poverty, only to find herself facing greater dangers than mere debt.

Magic is an even more integral part of the worldbuilding in Ester Manzini’s The Other Side of Magic from The Parliament House, in which a fantasy world based on 16th century Italy finds two young women from opposite sides of a magical conflict thrown together in a common struggle for their freedom.

And the final April book is Riley LaShea’s romantic steampunk adventure, Dr. Todson's Home for Incorrigible Women from Midnight Jasmine Books. When Caroline Ajax’s husband finds her inconvenient, he thinks to disappear her into an asylum. But Dr. Eirinn Todson’s Home for Women is not at all what Caroline expected. And neither is Dr. Todson, who has her own mysterious and tragic past.

What Am I Reading?

I’ve made a lot of progress on getting caught up with book reviews, and while it hasn’t entirely evaporated my reading block, I can feel things loosening up. I did read one queer historical romance novella this past month, though the pairing involved a trans man, not a female couple. The book was Meg Mardell’s The Christmas Chevalier, which is a lovely Victorian-era holiday-themed story involving masquerades, printing presses, and the delicate negotiation of meeting someone anew whom you’ve known all your life. It has mild peril and a happy ending, with a historic grounding that feels solid and effortless.

Author Guest

This month our author guest is Rose Lerner.

[Interview transcript will be added when available.]

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Rose Lerner Online

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Monday, March 29, 2021 - 07:00

Including artwork in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is a tricky project, especially when I don’t have a publication to cite as a source, but only my own attempts at reconstructing a context. But this lovely item is worth going to the effort for. If anyone knows more about the historic context of the people involved, I'd love to be able to add to the discussion of how this image was perceived and received by contemporaries.

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Full citation: 

“Love-a-la-mode or Two dear friends." 1820. London Publish’d by Clinch 24 Princes St.

This is a card with an engraving dated 1820 titled “Love-a-la-mode or Two dear friends” which exists in multiple copies in various collections. Individual copies may be annotated in handwriting to add further information.

Various versions are circulating online, from different sources and with different handwritten additions. As the engraving is hand-colored, different versions have different color schemes for the clothing. A high-resolution image can be found at: It is included here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Love a la Mode or Two Dear Friends

The Image

The image shows a scene in a garden or park, with trees, bushes, and a lake with a swan in the background. In the foreground, there is a bench on which two women are seated.

The woman on the right is wearing a white, long-sleeved dress and has taken off a large-brimmed bonnet that sits on the bench next to her. The woman on the left is wearing a red, long-sleeved dress and a round turban-like cap with ostrich feathers. She is sitting with her left leg in the lap of the other woman. The woman in white has her right arm around the other woman’s shoulder. The woman in red has her left arm around the other woman’s torso, with her hand visible just under her arm. Their other two hands are clasped together in their laps. They are kissing.

In one of the copies I’ve been able to locate, there is a hand-printed identification below the two women identifying the woman in red as “Lady Warwick” and the woman in white as “Lady Strachan.” 

Visible behind a bush near them and somewhat to the right are the torsos of two men. The one on the left is wearing a military uniform with what appears to be a bicorn hat. The man on the right is wearing a brown suit coat and a black top hat.

There are three word balloons, one located somewhat ambiguously over the women, but apparently associated with the woman in white, and one coming from each of the men.

The word-balloons read: [woman] “Little does he imagine that he has a female rival.” [man in military uniform] “What is to be done to put a stop to this disgraceful business?” [Man in top hat] “Take her from Warwick.”

At the right just below the image is printed “London Publish’d by Clinch 24 Princes St.”

Historic Context

Admiral Strachan served in the Royal Navy in action during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He married Louisa Dillon, Marchioness of Salsa in 1812. Given the dates, the Warwicks in the image are presumably Henry Greville, 3rd Earl of Warwick and Sarah Elizabeth whom he married in 1816. In 1820, Lady Warwick would have been 34 and Lady Strachan 37.

Lingering Questions

What the actual relationship may have been between the two women, or what the purpose of this satirical image was, has left no trace in the Wikipedia records of the individuals but might be retrievable from some more in-depth source.

Between the posture of the women and the commentary in the word-balloons, it’s clear that the women are to be understood to have a romantic and/or erotic relationship with each other. The implication is that their husbands are thought (by the women) to be unaware of this relationship, but that they would be expected to object, and indeed are shown objecting and plotting to put an end to the relationship.

But the image also provides various bits of information about expected or actual behavior. It shows the women engaging in affectionate behavior in a semi-public location. It shows several types of physical interactions that are intended to show the nature of their relationship: kissing, hand-holding, embracing, and entwining the legs. There’s a nod to the reality that certain types of hat would get in the way of kissing.

This image is interesting and useful for more than the implications for the specific people involved. It shows us a non-pornographic (if most likely satirical) vision of what female same-sex courtship in the Regency era might look like. It shows that such relationships were not only part of the public imagination, but were expected to be recognized as possible and meaningful. And the identification of female same-sex erotics as “a-la-mode” provides a counterpoint to the image of the early 19th century as a period when sapphic relationships in England were being erased from public consciousness in favor of the rise of an ideal of domestic morality.

If I turn up any more information about the socio-political meaning of this particular image, I'll add it later. Let me know if you have any leads!

Time period: 
Saturday, March 27, 2021 - 17:00

I pulled this article to read, not specifically for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, but more for the general topic of economic options for women outside of marriage. But I think it’s relevant enough to include. Posting a bit late this week due to [waves hands vaguely at the world].

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Full citation: 

McLaughlin, Mary Martin. 1989. "Creating and Recreating Communities of Women: The Case of Corpus Domini, Ferrara, 1406-1452" in Signs vol. 14, no. 2 293-320.

Non-historians (and even some historians) often have fixed ideas of women’s place and opportunities in past cultures. One of the themes I hear when authors and readers explain why they steer clear of historical fiction is that women in patriarchal societies were completely constrained by their relationships to men. But conversely, when we do imagine the lives of women who stepped outside those constraints, we are often think only in terms of adopting male-coded roles and careers.

In covering the following article for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I am not suggesting any specific implication that the women of the medieval Corpus Domini community engaged in same-sex romantic relationships (though it’s clear that the community inspired some strong emotional bonds modeled on the mother-daughter relationship). Rather, I’m putting it forth as an example of a woman-centered, woman-led institution that resisted being subsumed under male leadership or control. Despite several off-branches that did choose to affiliate themselves with traditional religious orders, the original secular community survived for the equivalent of three generations. Although founded by a wealthy widow, it included women of a wide variety of economic backgrounds, and welcomed young unmarried women, offering them a path that was neither traditional heterosexual marriage nor traditional religious vows.

But the Corpus Domini community also operated within a specific cultural context. A similar institution could be a setting for a story in late medieval Italy, not necessarily for other times and places. I find that my most successful historic stories arise from coming across a context like this and then asking myself what sorts of women inhabited it? What were their lives like? If a woman experienced same-sex desire within such a context, what form would it take? How would her community view her? What are the possible successful and happy lives that could exist within such a context? How would they be specific to that time and place?

McLaughlin traces the history and internal politics of a planned women’s community in Ferrara in the first half of the 15th century. Although the community eventually shifted (through several branchings) into a traditional religious order, it had started as a secular (though devotional) community and maintained that status for almost 50 years, largely due to the determined and forceful personalities of its successive leaders.

Such lay devotional communities were not at all uncommon in various parts of Europe in the later middle ages. In size they might range from half a dozen members to the nearly 100 of the Corpus Domini community at the time it redefined itself as part of the Order of Saint Clare.

The Corpus Domini community was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by a young and wealthy widow, Bernardina Sedazzari. The daughter of a merchant family, as a child, the motherless Bernardina was placed in the care of a Benedictine abbey. After her marriage and widowhood, she returned to the abbey for several years, perhaps contemplating joining the order. But for unspecified reasons—though she was known to be something of an independent spirit—she left to found her own community. She still had her substantial dowry, she had been legally emancipated by her father (who might otherwise have had legal control over her money), and with an additional donation from the aunt who had provided her dowry, she brought together a group of devout women who supported her idea to create a lay community. To that end, she purchased a house and two pieces of property in Ferrara.

Initially she represented her plans as intended to set up a group of a dozen nuns following the Rule of Saint Augustine, but that never came to pass. In retrospect, the ambiguity of her plans may have helped to deflect ecclesiastical concern, but Bernardina worked hard to avoid turning the community into a traditional order under church authority. Even so, she created her own convent-like rules for the community and required members to promise to support it taking their vows “between her own hands” (i.e., suggesting a pseudo-fealty type arrangement).

In such lay communities, women—both widows and unmarried women—would pool their resources (in the same way that women joining a religious order would be expected to bring a “dowry”) and follow the usual patterns of secular life, but they were not bound by rules that required specific clothing or that restricted their interactions with the general community. They also performed religious devotions and “good works” through charity and offering a respectable upbringing for poor girls and orphans.

One such girl who was taken in by Bernardina was Lucia Mascheroni, whom Bernardina eventually named as her heir and successor in the community. Bernardina’s will “granted Lucia all rights and powers over Corpus Domini and its property, having asked and received form her a sworn promise to ‘defend, maintain and improve’ the community in the form in which it has existed since its foundation.” Lucia took this promise very seriously, and her efforts to retain the lay character of the community shaped its fate.

However after Bernardina’s death (in 1425?), Lucia’s authority was challenged by another member, Ailisia de Baldo, who had her own following of girls raised within the community and who wanted Corpus Domini to become a traditional convent under Augustinian rule. Ailisia and her followers gained church support for her plans and temporarily took control of the institution, but Lucia appealed to the secular ruler and court of Ferrara and won recognition of her legal rights to the property and control of the community.

This struggle, however, attracted the attention of church authorities who appointed a commission to “reconcile the differences” within the community, and to create explicit formal structures for their governance. In theory, this included retaining the lay character of the community, and recognizing a joint authority between Lucia and Ailisia, along with election by the community of officers to oversee everyday affairs. The reconciliation was short-lived. Two months later, Ailisia left with her follower to join an Augustinian convent. The conflict between the two may have been, not so much religious differences, but simply a struggle for personal power. Ailisia was strong-willed, well-connected, and an able administrator. She may have recognized that a traditional religious order would attract more patronage than a lay community, apart from any specifically religious concerns. Her new community was quite successful and became a permanent part of the Ferrara community landscape.

The original Corpus Domini community also thrived, but somewhat in spite of, rather than because of, the leadership of Lucia. Lucia’s primary characteristic was her dedication to keeping her promise to Bernardina.  She had significant personal charisma, but was not effective as a community leader. This left something of a leadership vacuum that was filled by a prominent Ferrara noblewoman, Verde Pio da Carpi who, although not a member of Corpus Domini itself, took an interest in using the community to further her own social and political ambitions. This was primarily accomplished by arranging financial support for the community, thereby increasing her influence over the direction and nature of the institution.

Verde, too, felt that Corpus Domini would best be served (and serve her interests) as a traditional religious order, identifying the Order of Saint Clare as the desired state. Lucia’s promise to Bernardina was still a barrier, but Verde took the approach of asking the pope to absolve Lucia from her promise as a first step to having her renounce her rights to the property and community.

Lucia seems to have opposed this on principle, not merely due to being bound by her promise, but during her temporary absence from the community, Verde put her plans in motion creating a fait accompli when Lucia returned with five companions, including a young woman named Caterina Vegri who will be the “third generation” mentioned previously.

Caterina later set out an account of the difficulties and trauma that accompanied this power struggle. Although she eventually accepted membership in the transformed Corpus Domini, at that time she was a loyal supporter of Lucia and an unwilling pawn when nominated as a candidate for abbess of the planned institution.

With the new Clarisse administration imposed on the community, Lucia may have been pressured to take the habit, but soon left “of her own will” perhaps concluding that her promise to Bernardina was incompatible with taken vows. The community continued in a sort of legal limbo for perhaps the next 15 years until Lucia (who by this time appears to have been over 50 years old) finally agreed to renounce her rights to the property and community, which was later followed by papal absolution from her long-held promise regarding the community.

The article concludes with a detailed discussion of the social, economic, and ecclesiastical pressures that tended to make lay communities of this type precarious and short-lived. Permanence and stability were most possible by accepting ecclesiastical institutionalization. The commitment and cohesion felt by the followers of a charismatic leader such as Bernardina (and to some extent, Lucia) would itself push them toward prioritizing the existence of the community over the ideals of lay community that had originally inspired them.

That conflict of ideals can be seen in Caterina Vegri’s tribute to Lucia’s leadership and mentoring, to the efforts she had put into maintaining the community, even as Caterina shifted the context to praising the end product of Lucia’s work as the establishment of the convent. Caterina herself went on to become abbess of a different Corpus Domini institution in Bologna and her religious writings and personal reputation resulted in her eventually being canonized as a saint (in the 18th century).

There’s a lot more in this article about the context, history, and logistics of the Corpus Domini community, but the above summary is focused on both the existence, and the difficulties of a medieval Italian secular “commune” of women that provides just one example of the possibilities for non-married women’s lives in that era.

Time period: 
Saturday, March 20, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 197 – Hey Hollywood! Historic Couples who would Make Great Happy Movies - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/03/20 - listen here)

This episode was inspired by twitter chat about some new movie—honestly, I don’t recall the title at this point—that explores a female same-sex relationship in history that ends in violent tragedy, in this case, murder by an abusive spouse. This comes on the heels of Portrait of a Lady on Fire which ended in tragically wistful separation, and Ammonite which ended in…well I think there are different opinions as to what it ended in, but a happily ever after for the female couple was not in view.

And that’s what had people riled up. Not that unhappy stories aren’t interesting. Not that tragedy doesn’t often inspire great art. But that if we are never allowed to see sapphic stories in history that have a genuinely happy ending, it leaves people thinking that such endings didn’t exist. I’ve run into this belief often enough: “I don’t want to read f/f historicals because it wasn’t possible for a female couple to live happily ever after unless one of them was pretending to be a man.” And, yes, that’s usually how it’s phrased: “pretending to be a man” which is another issue because it erases the complexities of the “female husband” phenomenon and implies it doesn’t count as a happy ending.

And yet, women did have happily ever after endings together, or extended periods of happy for now. Real women with real lives. Many of whom had interesting enough lives to be made into movies. In some cases, we know a great deal about those lives. In other cases, we know just enough that we could elaborate a happy romantic story around the basic facts.

For this episode, I’ve chosen female couples who met, loved, and established a happy life together. I make no judgements about whether that life included a sexual relationship as long as there was a loving partnership. For some pairs, it was indeed an “ever after” not parting until death. For others, personalities and circumstances intervened and the happiness turned out to be only “for now.” But any of them could be given a non-tragic, non-depressing treatment on the silver screen. And these are just the women who also did something interesting enough to end up in historic records. Quiet happy couples don’t attract much notice, but quiet happy movies could be made about them nonetheless.

I started out with a list of three dozen couples, but I didn’t have time for quite that many, and some get just a brief mention. These lives are drawn from the 17th through the early 20th century, and as usual lean heavily on England and the US. My criteria were: did two (at least) women live together or present to the world as a romantic couple for an extended period of time? And do we know enough about them to tell a story about their lives?

I have a file of random bits of story text that come to me without knowing what project they’re going to land in. I’d like to use one of them to introduce the women I’m featuring in this episode. This snippet may end up being the opening—or the closing--of a medieval story I’m writing tentatively named “My Three Jehannes”—it has the feel of how a medieval woman might think.

“Whether a tale is comedy or tragedy depends so often on where one stops in the telling. Follow any man's life long enough and it ends in the grave. This is my story. For now, it is not a tragedy. And that is as much as anyone can hope for.”

Courtesans Just Wanna Have Fun: Isabella de Luna & Pandora

The Sieur de Brantôme was, in essence, a professional gossip monger in the French court of the late 16th and early 17th century. He had a fascination with sexual escapades outside of marriage, and recorded stories of lesbian sex for the shock value. But while he may not have been particularly sympathetic to his subjects, we can take a different view.

Isabella de Luna was a courtesan in Rome, but though her living might depend on her relationships with men, her heart was given to another courtesan named Pandora. Pandora eventually left the profession and married a butler in a cardinal’s household but her relationship with Isabella held fast. Isabella was known to boast of how they gave Pandora’s husband more cuckold’s horns that Pandora ever did in her former profession. Their story might not seem like a traditional romance, what with the sex work and marriage and all, but just imagine them swanning through Renaissance Rome, daring to love each other openly and giving the finger to conventional expectations. Brantôme describes Isabella as “old and wily” so we can assume that she knows her way around and has figured out how to make the system work for her.

Joined Even in Death: Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones

A century later in England, and from a much different level of society, we have the barest sketch of a love story that lasted until death parted them. Lady Catharine Jones and Mary Kendall lived lives that were praised on their tomb as virtuous and courteous to all, but praised especially for the “close union and friendship in which they lived” such that they desired not to be parted in death, and were interred next to each other. Mary Kendall left this life first, at the age of 33, while Catherine Jones survived her by another 30 years. Neither woman married—at least, no husbands are mentioned in their memorials. And their relationship was recognized and praised by their families, who were responsible for setting up the memorial that provides us their story.

What else may we know about them? There was a disparity of rank—Catharine’s parents were the Earl and Countess of Ranelagh --but that did not prevent their friendship. Together they would have seen the reigns of William and Mary, and then Anne. Ranelagh was an Irish title, but Catharine’s father was active in the government in London and that’s likely where she and Mary met. (Mary was born at Westminster.) We may imagine Mary joining the Ranelagh household in some function and the Ranelaghs must have approved of their bond, for their acquiescence would have been needed for the placement of Mary’s grave in a location reserved for their family.

We know nothing else of their individual lives, but a story could be told of the history they witnessed.

Female Husbands

As we move into the 18th century, there are enough biographies to sort them out into topics. This century was the heyday of the “female husband”—of female couples, usually working class, who married by virtue of one partner taking on a male role. If we could see into their minds, some might fit better into a transgender narrative, but I’ve chosen examples where there’s some evidence that the “husband” was not motivated by an internal sense of gender.

What Might Have Been: Sarah Paul (Samuel Bundy) and Mary Parlour

Sarah Paul had something of a traumatic youth. In 1753, at age 13, she was seduced—which may well be a polite way of saying raped and abducted—by a traveling painter. To avoid pursuit and identification by Sarah’s mother, her seducer dressed her in male clothing and passed her off as his son, renaming her Samuel Bundy. After a year, she got away and spent a year as a sailor. But evidently she had learned something of the portrait trade, for she apprenticed herself—still passing as a boy—to a painter named Mr. Angel in Surrey for a year or so. That brings her up to age 16 or so, at which time she attracted the romantic attention of a young woman named Mary Parlour in Southwark. After courting for some time, they were married. The chronology is perhaps a bit fuzzy, for elsewhere it’s recorded that she was age 20 at the time of the marriage.

Sarah Paul—that is to say, Samuel Bundy—had some conflict with her employer and quit, which put the maintenance of their household entirely on Mary’s shoulders, who scraped by on savings and by pawning her clothing. Samuel Bundy tried to make a go at the sailor’s life again, but was now worried that she couldn’t succeed in the disguise any more in the close quarters of a ship, and so returned to her wife. Mary later testified that her spouse had initially claimed illness as a reason not to consummate the marriage, but she soon became aware of her spouse’s sex and chose not to go public with the discovery. But evidently some of their neighbors became suspicious and did their own investigation, at which Sarah’s disguise was revealed. This resulted in Sarah being brought to court on a charge of fraud. There wasn’t actually any law in England against gender disguise or sexual relations between women, but the charge was that Sarah had entered the marriage for the fraudulent purpose of gaining access to Mary’s possessions.

The problem with this charge? Mary doesn’t seem to have had any objections. The court record notes that “there seems a strong love and friendship” between them, and Mary kept Sarah company while she was in prison. And when the case came to trial, Mary declined to appear to testify against her which left no case to try. At that time, Sarah appeared before the court in female clothing and was noted to be a “very agreeable woman, a very good workwoman at shoe-making and painting…and a very sensible woman.”

The judge ordered Sarah’s male clothing to be burnt and ordered her never to appear in disguise again.

And then what? Sarah and Mary loved each other. Mary had supported her spouse throughout the legal ordeal and ensured her release by refusing to testify. We could easily imagine a future for them. Perhaps Sarah could return to the work of painting portraits. During the period of the trial, she had gotten back in contact with her mother. Perhaps Sarah and Mary could go to live with her while they sorted things out and got their feet back under them again.

Alas, we do have a later data point. Seven years later, Sarah Paul is recorded as dying in the workhouse of Saint Sepulchre in London, at age 27, still notorious for her marital adventure. But if we end our story shortly after the trial, we can imagine that other ending for them.

On the Flip of a Coin: Mary East (Mr. How) and Mrs . How

A few decades earlier, starting around 1730, we have a much different and happier story of a “female husband”. And once again, it has come to us in enough detail to provide good fodder for a movie. The initial parts of the story may have been a convenient fiction, designed to make the rest palatable to the general public, but it could just as easily have been true. This is the story of Mary East, who took on the identity James How, and of her wife Mary Snapes. (The contemporary news reports never mention the wife’s name, however Jen Manion tracked down their marriage certificate when researching the book Female Husbands: A Trans History.)

As the story goes, Mary East had been courted by a young man who turned his hand to highway robbery, and so was sentenced to transportation, which took him out of the picture.  At age 16, East decided after that to remain single. A single woman was at an economic disadvantage. But she knew another young woman, a year older, who had similarly determined to live the single life after “many crosses in love”.  This, as we now know, was Mary Snapes.

As the report says, the two “being intimate, communicated their minds to each other, and determined to live together ever after.” I’ll note that since many single women did not take this sort of approach, we can probably guess that they had an attachment of some sort to each other and expected to rub on well together. Their solution to the economic disadvantages was that one of them should put on men’s clothing, they’d move to another community where they weren’t known, and they would live as husband and wife. Who would be the man? They flipped a coin and the lot fell to Mary East who then became James How. (Which makes keeping track of references much easier than juggling two Marys.)

If true, that element in the story argues against viewing James How as a trans man. But let us also keep in mind that 18th century understandings of gender performance are not the same as 21st century ones. In including their stories among a list of female couples, I don’t mean to argue that all “female husbands” had identical experiences and understandings of their identities.

James and Mary pooled their resources and found they had 30 pounds between them, not a lot of money, but nothing to sneeze at. They left their original home and, while traveling, came across a public house in Epping that was looking for a proprietor. They rented it and set up as tavern keepers.

Then came an unfortunate event that turned into a blessing. James became involved in a quarrel with another man and one of his hands was badly injured. Between the resulting disability and presumably the clear fault of the other party, James brought a successful lawsuit against the attacker and was awarded damages of 500 pounds. Now that was very much not a sum to be sneezed at. With that as a nest egg, James and Mary found a much better location for their tavern-keeping at Limehouse-Hole. They lived there as husband and wife, prospered in their business, saved up money, and were able to purchase the White Horse tavern in the town of Poplar free and clear, evidently later acquiring other properties.

By all later accounts, they were pillars of the community. James took his turn serving in almost all the parish offices, being exempted only from that of constable due to disability. James served on juries, including several times as foreman. Their neighbors admired and respected them, and they had savings of between four and five thousand pounds, which was quite a comfortable fortune at that time.

They lived and thrived as husband and wife for 34 years until Mary Snapes fell ill and died. If that were all there was to the story, it might not be quite dramatic enough for a movie, but we need to step back a little.

When James and Mary had been a couple for about 18 years, a woman recorded as Mrs. B, who had known them back before Mary East became James How, bumped into them, recognized them, and decided that their wealth and situation made them an attractive target for a little blackmail. Mrs. B wrote to the Hows and suggested that 10 pounds would keep her mouth shut about their little gender disguise thing. Afraid of what disclosure would mean, James paid up and Mrs. B seemed to be satisfied.

Sixteen years passed with little to trouble the couple, and then over a short period of time, disaster threatened from multiple sides. Mary fell ill and went to stay with friends in the country for her health, but rather than recovering she was soon on her deathbed. She sent for James but he wasn’t able to join her. In what happens next, we might want to think a bit about who’s telling the story and what their interests are. Evidently Mary told her friends the truth about her and James. And later those friends claimed that Mary had promised they should inherit her half of what she and James had accumulated. And they wanted more besides.

Now how likely was it that Mary had actually promised this? Or is it likely that these supposed friends, having been confided the secret, became as greedy as Mrs. B? Oddly, the resolution of that conflict seems to be omitted in the very detailed reporting.

Shortly before Mary’s death, Mrs. B comes into the story again. Perhaps Mrs. B’s circumstances changed, or she got greedy. Perhaps she heard of Mary’s illness and figured it was a good time to make a move. In any event, she wrote to James again demanding another 10 pounds for her continued silence. Having received it, she wrote again two weeks later demanding another 10 pounds. James sent her five.

And then Mary died. It’s reasonable to assume James is grieving as well as concerned with how to keep the business going on his own. To keep their privacy, the couple had never employed servants, which would have been a heavy burden of labor in those times, to brew and cook and serve meals and clean up. And Mrs. B figured it was time to step up her demands.

She sent two bully boys pretending to be constables who accosted James How, claiming to come from the famous Justice Fielding, to take James into custody for a robbery committed 34 years earlier when she was living as a woman. Oh, and also threatening to expose her masquerade.

James called on a passing neighbor, Mr. Williams, for help and explained the whole, including that she was a woman, and demanded that she be taken before the local Justices, not hauled off to Justice Fielding. Mr. Williams agreed to help but said he needed to go home for a moment to put on a clean shirt. A trivial detail, perhaps, but one should put on a best appearance before the court.

While he was gone, the two thugs upped the ante: give them 100 pounds and they’d leave her be, otherwise she’d be hanged for the robbery in 16 days and they’d get only 40 pounds apiece for bringing her in. James resisted, but before the neighbor Mr. Williams could return, they dragged her off to Mrs. B’s house to continue the harrassment.

At this point, James seems to have hit on a clever stratagem. She couldn’t pay the money directly on the spot, but she’d give them a draft to be paid by Mr. Williams, the neighbor.

Mr. Williams, in the mean time, had come back to find James gone, and ran around to the local Justices and then to Justice Fielding to search for her. Coming back home, he found James there, who told him everything that had happened.

A few days later, Mrs. B shows up with her two thugs and the draft for 100 pounds…and the three are promptly arrested. When James How showed up to testify against them, along with Mr. Williams, she had returned to women’s clothing and to using the name Mary East, though evidently the mannerisms of a man were noticeably hard to shake.

The three conspirators fell out on the stand and accused each other and were sent off to Bridewell for trial and sentencing.

Mary East, for her part, decided it was time to retire from keeping a public house, and given the fortune that she and her wife had built, it would be a comfortable retirement indeed. Perhaps not as happy an ending as it might have been had Mrs. How not fallen ill and died, but a triumph for justice at the very least. Mary East lived for another 14 years, which by my calculations would make her in her mid-60s. Not bad for a hard-working woman in the 18th century. Enough of her fortune remained to leave money to relatives, friends, and the poor people of the parish.

Perfect Friendship: Katherine Bovey and Mary Pope

Not all couples left quite as complex a story for us to envision. The interesting details of Katherine Bovey’s life, and the exact nature of her relationship with Mary Pope, can only be teased out in part from the conjecture that she was the woman satirized as “the perverse widow” in an early 18th century magazine, though scholars are confident about the identification.

Katherine was born in 1669 and was widowed young at age 22 in 1692. Evidently that’s when the interesting part of her life began. Her epitaph reads that “it pleased God to bless her with a considerable estate”. Not only did she inherit her husband’s estate, since there were no children, but she was also her wealthy father’s sole heir. And evidently there were any number of men who felt that a young, wealthy widow owed a debt to society that could be made good by marrying one of them.

After her husband’s death, she retired to her estate in Gloucester and led a life of scholarship, contemplation, and good works. But our satirist complains, “You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town, to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship; she is always accompanied by a Confident, who is witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a Barr to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.”

That sure sounds like a jealous jilted suitor to me! But who was this confidante who poses a bar to Katherine’s remarriage? That would be Mary Pope, the woman whom Katherine named as her executor and who commissioned the memorial to her that stands in Westminster Abbey, overflowing with praise and adulation. The epitaph notes that the two women “lived near 40 years in perfect friendship never once interrupted” until Bovey’s death at age 57.

The math suggests an intriguing backstory. If Katherine and Mary had been living together in perfect friendship for almost 40 years when Katherine was 57, then they must have begun that friendship when Katherine was around 17, five years before she was widowed. Her husband was only 2 years older than her, and is described as being given to excess both in debauchery and ill-humor. This might go some distance to explaining her disinclination for a second marriage. I’ll note that there is absolutely no reference to her husband in her memorial inscription, which is a noteworthy fact.

So two years into an unequal and possibly unhappy marriage, Katherine begins a deep and abiding friendship that will last her entire life. That friendship sustains her through the remaining five years of marriage. When she is unexpectedly widowed, Mary remains as her companion, likely already being a member of her household. The satire that sniped at Catherine for declining re-marriage was published when she was 42 years old, at which time one might imagine she had plenty of practice in shrugging off unwanted attentions. After Katherine’s widowhood, she and Mary were together for another near 35 years, after which Mary Pope was left to administer her wishes after death.

We have a few glimpses of Katherine. Delarivier Manley, in The New Atalantis, depicted her under the poetic name Portia and describes her as “One of those lofty, black, and lasting beauties that strike with reverence and yet delight." The memorial that Mary Pope commissioned for her touches on personality rather than physical appearance. She was a good conversationalist, well-read, a philosopher who “ventured far out of the common way of thinking” except in the realm of religion where she was solidly orthodox. She was frugal but generous, cheerful and compassionate. Open-handed both in hospitality and charity.

We know less about Mary Pope. She was the daughter of a Bristol merchant and so, if not as wealthy as her friend, was probably used to comfortable circumstances. She was about 4 years older than Catherine, which must have helped her be a steady and stable companion to the young bride. Her own memorial describes her as “the friend of Mrs. Bovey and partner of her virtues.” There is no evidence that she ever married. Mary lived for another 19 years after Katherine’s death, surviving to age 81.

If theirs were not exactly lives of drama and adventure, there is no question that they lived happily ever after.

Literary Collaborators

In the 19th century, there was something of an explosion of partnerships that paired romance and literary collaboration. Since this episode is starting to get a bit long, let’s skim over a few.

19th century Irish writers and cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Martin wrote together under the pseudonym “Somerville and Ross”. (Violet Martin used the pen name Martin Ross.) They led an active life and their political sympathies leaned toward women’s suffrage and Irish nationalism. After Violet’s death, Edith continued the literary collaboration with her via seances.

English authors Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper were also both close relatives and literary collaborators, as well as having a relationship that their friends considered equivalent to a marriage. They wrote together as “Michael Field”.

Late 19th century English novelist Marie Corelli (a pen name of Mary Mackay) outsold the combined work of her contemporaries Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling—and that you’ve probably never heard of her is a striking example of the erasure of women’s literature. Her childhood has the stuff of drama, as her mother was a servant in her father’s household and she was shipped off to be educated in a French convent, perhaps to avoid the embarrassment of having a bastard daughter underfoot. Her fiction featured melodrama and the supernatural and she may have been the originator of the “curse of the Pharaohs” that was said to strike British archaeologists who excavated Egyptian tombs. Marie shared her life for 40 years with Bertha Vyver, who was named her heir. The two had met as girls at that Parisian convent school. Bertha’s family had done a lot of self-fictionalizing. Her rather feckless father at one time had a business selling fictitious hereditary titles and decided to create himself and Bertha’s mother a Count and Countess. When Marie Corelli and Bertha Vyvyr were just short of 20 years old, well before Marie’s writing career took off, Bertha became caretaker for Marie’s invalid father. She also took up photography, though little of her work has survived. In a short space of time, Marie’s father and Bertha’s mother died, leaving the two free to pursue their own careers. Throughout Marie Corelli’s blazing literary career, Bertha Vyver was at her side, supporting her. Truly happily ever after.

The Cushman Circle

I did an entire episode on 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman and her rather tangled love life. Despite the drama and occasional infidelities, I don’t think it can be argued that Cushman had anything other than a happy and positive life. She was a blazing star on the stage, the center of a vibrant and creative artistic circle of queer women, and finished her life in a series of triumphal performance tours even while suffering from breast cancer, resting at last with her life partner, sculptor Emma Stebbins at her side. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is a crime and an embarrassment that we don’t have an entire extended mini-series about Cushman and her circle. This is a community packed full of female couples with happy endings. Let’s look at a couple more of the stories that can be told here.

Matilda Hays was a journalist, writer, and translator of the works of George Sand. She was an activist for women’s rights and economic opportunities. She participated in the creation and support of a series of periodicals focused on women’s rights, though these efforts were often hampered by clashes of strong opinions among the partners. She also tried her hand at acting, which is how she met Charlotte Cushman. Matilda and Charlotte had a 10 year relationship that contemporaries recognized as a type of marriage. But Cushman’s need for the spotlight and star status eventually undermined the relationship. A romantic polygon formed, with Matilda engaging in an affair with sculptor Harriet Hosmer and Cushman secretly beginning her relationship with Emma Stebbins. Matilda brought a palimony suit against Charlotte and won a settlement for having set her own career aside to support Charlotte’s. Matilda then had some sort of relationship with poet and feminist Adelaide Anne Proctor, who dedicated love poems to her, but it was cut short by Adelaide’s death. Matilda’s final romantic partnership was with Theodosia Blacker, Lady Monson, another activist for feminist causes. In Matilda Hays we see the intersection of Charlotte Cushman’s circle of artistic women, many of them in relationships with other women, and British feminist circles, also chock full of female romantic partnerships.

The community of female sculptors studying and working in Rome that Cushman was deeply involved with also included Anne Whitney and Abby Adeline Manning. Whitney created a number of portrait sculptures of prominent historic and contemporary figures, many of which are featured in public locations in Boston and Washington DC. She was politically active in abolition and women’s rights, and many of her sculptures celebrated women in non-traditional positions of leadership. She and fellow artist Abby Adeline Manning shared their life for nearly 50 years, though Manning’s career evidently took second place to supporting Whitney’s. They were recognized as having a “Boston marriage”.

Boston Marriages

All it takes to open the floodgate of fascinating female couples in 19th century America is to utter the phrase “Boston marriage.” A Boston marriage was a recognized long-term domestic partnership between two unmarried women, typically of the educated middle class, that was understood to be a committed and romantic arrangement. The phrase was coined to recognize the phenomenon, and in turn the existence of a label for the phenomenon gave it legitimacy and substance.

The women in Boston marriages were often involved in higher education for women—an alternate name was “Wellesley marriages” in reference to the female couples among both the faculty and graduates of that women’s college. They tended to have progressive politics: women’s rights, abolition, support for immigrants. Here are just a brief sampling of some of the women of Boston who combined the personal and the political in their partnerships.

Writer and poet Sarah Orne Jewett was known for works depicting the coast of Maine. She was cited as a literary influence by Willa Cather. Jewett formed a friendship with Annie Fields, the wife of the publisher of the Atlantic Monthly. After Mr. Fields’ death, Sarah and Annie moved in together and shared the rest of their lives. Annie Fields was not merely the wife of a publisher, she was a writer herself, producing poetry, essays, and biographies of her contemporaries. And both before and after her husband’s death, she was the center of the literary community of Boston, supporting a network of connections between the prominent writers of the day.

Mary Woolley was an educator first and last, having been one of the first female students at Brown University (after considering Oxford) while simultaneously teaching at Wheaton Seminary. Within 4 years of beginning teaching at Wellesley College she was made a full professor. That was also the year she met Jeannette Marks, a student at Wellesley, 12 years her junior. Marks was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and engineering professor. She was 24 and just finishing her degree at Wellesley when she met Mary Woolley. The two hit it off and from there on their lives and careers ran in parallel. That same year, Woolley was offered a job heading the women’s college at Brown University and offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, a prominent women’s college. She chose the latter and after spending a couple years winding things up at Wellesley, became one of the youngest college presidents when she took over at Mount Holyoke. Meanwhile, Marks had finished her degree at Wellesley and then, while simultaneously completing her Masters degree there, became a professor of English at Mount Holyoke the same year that Woolley started as president there. The complexities of a two-academic-career household were simplified somewhat by Woolley’s ability to pull strings. Wooley’s philosophy of women’s education at Mount Holyoke was radical: she thought that education for women should be an end in itself, just as it was for men, and not viewed simply as a preparation for social service. She networked with other women’s colleges and worked to raise the academic standards at Mount Holyoke, both for faculty and students. She increased the college’s endowment ten-fold and greatly expanded the facilities. Both Marks and Woolley were active in progressive political causes, including women’s suffrage, pacifism, and racial equality. Over 36 years, Woolley made a significant mark on Mount Holyoke, but when she retired from the college presidency, the board of directors deliberately worked to reverse the “feminization” of the Mount Holyoke faculty and administration, despite the opposition of that faculty. The successor that the board chose to replace her was seen as a deliberate slap in the face. After Marks’ retirement 2 years later, they never returned to Mount Holyoke. They enjoyed their retirement together (aside from political activities) at the Marks family home in New York.

Ada Dwyer Russell was born into a newly-converted Mormon family in Utah in the 1860s but went to school in Boston. She took up the profession of actress, performing many roles in New York beginning around age 15, as well as touring in England and even Australia. She married late—at age 30—to a Boston actor, presumably met through their mutual profession, but the marriage lasted barely past the birth of their daughter the next year and they separated permanently after that. Why? The answer may come from the central romance of her life, with a woman she met in Boston, 17 years later when she was 49.

Amy Lowell was born into the Boston aristocracy, part of a talented and prominent family. But in her early years she considered herself a social outcast and had a reputation for being overly opinionated and outspoken. She was largely self-educated, a book collector and European traveler, and took up writing poetry, being inspired by Eleonora Duse. She was 38 when she met and fell in love with Ada Dwyer Russell and from then on, Ada was her muse and the subject of extensive erotic love poetry. Amy embraced free verse and became a major figure in the Imagist school, somewhat to the annoyance of Imagist founder Ezra Pound who felt that Lowell had horned in on his personal territory, especially when she published a three volume collection of Imagist poets.

Although Ada and Amy felt they had to hide the nature of their relationship, to the extent that they destroyed most of their correspondence, there is one fascinating angle on how that relationship was received. The year after the two women met, and before they moved in together for the rest of their lives, Ada Dwyer Russell’s father was asked to resign from the Mormon religion for telling people that same-sex sexual activity was not a sin. All is speculation, but could it be that Ada had earlier lesbian relationships that influenced her father’s opinions on this topic? Did his open-mindedness extend to welcoming Amy Lowell as his daughter’s spouse? Amy treated Ada’s daughter and grandchildren as her own, so whatever the family may have officially known, the two women were clearly loved and accepted as a couple.

Ada and Amy enjoyed 13 years together, including traveling to Europe during the most prolific time of Amy’s career. The year after Amy’s death from a stroke, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Do you want an all-American patriotic story? How about featuring Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful”? But she was much more than simply a songwriter. After studying at Oxford in England, she became a professor of English at Wellesley College. She was also a prolific author and speaker on social reform, with interests in feminism, racial relations, immigration, and poverty. After World War I she campaigned for America to join the League of Nations and was active in the peace movement. In her 30s, she was inspired to write the lyrics for “America the Beautiful” after a trip to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Historians have debated the nature of the relationship between Bates and her life-long housemate Katharine Coman, given that the majority of their correspondence was destroyed by Bates. Note: destroying correspondence happens an awful lot among women who shared their lives with other women. Funny thing. But mostly the historians seem to be quibbling over the question of whether they had a sexual relationship. The few surviving letters speak of their love, and that Coman was a significant reason for Bates’s return to Wellesley after her stint at Oxford. What is certain is that they met in 1885, when they were in their mid-20s, lived together for 25 years, traveled together, and supported each other’s careers. Coman was a professor of history and political economy, founding the Wellesley Economics department and was as well-known and influential as Bates during their lifetimes.

There are so many interesting couples among the Boston marriages that I’m going to have to cut this short, but you can track down social workers Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown, writers Louise Imogen Guiney and Alice Brown who were involved in the Aesthetic artistic movement, and socialists and immigration activists Vida Scudder and Florence Converse.

Can we get a little diversity?

This has been an awfully white list, and the reasons for that are many, but have a lot to do with whose lives get recorded in detail. I previously did a podcast on a late 19th century Black couple, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, whose partnership was treated as a marriage by their friends and family. To fit them into the happily-ever-after mold you’d need to close the curtain before Addie decided to marry a man for the sake of security. But it could be done.

You could definitely build a happy story out of the entwined lives of playwright and teacher Mary Burrill, poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, all prominent Black intellectuals in the era of the Harlem Renaissance, with lives centering around Washington D.C. Both Burrill and Grimké wrote works engaging with the Black experience in turn of the century America, but also touching more broadly on social issues important to women. They had an intensely romantic friendship in their youth. Sixteen year old Angelina wrote to Mary about her hope that Mary would become her wife. Their correspondence is filled with passion, yearning, and expressions of love that also found their way lifelong into Grimké’s poetry. But the two don’t seem to have found their way to a shared life. Mary Burrill, however bought a house together in DC with Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard University and they lived together until Slowe’s death. Slowe had attended Howard University—the most prominent of the historically Black colleges—as a student, and after a career developing educational institutions and programs in DC, she was tapped for the Dean position.  Oh, and along the way she won the American Tennis Association’s first tournament and was the first American Black woman to win a major sports title. You think we could build an exciting and positive bio-pic from the lives of these three women?

But Wait, There’s More

There are a lot more stories that would make great happy-ending movies that I haven’t had time to go into, or that I’ve presented in previous podcasts. Look at how successful the Gentleman Jack series about Anne Lister is! And there have been treatments of the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, though nothing like what they deserve. While a bit complicated for a traditional romance happy ending, why don’t we have a major production celebrating Nathalie Barney, Romaine Brookes, and Rene Vivien and the rest of their circle in Paris?

If a film maker wants to start with a book to adapt, how about Emma Donoghue’s novel Life Mask about sculptor Anne Damer, ending with her definitely happy partnership with writer Mary Berry? Or Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter about the scandalous divorce trial that feminist publisher Emily Faithful got entangled in, before redeeming her reputation and finding her way to a long-term romantic partnership later in life. Want a story of long pining that is eventually rewarded? How about the lives of socialite Rose Cleveland (who served as first lady when her unmarried brother Grover was president) and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, which lasted through Evangeline’s marriage until fate allowed them to spend their later years together.

And why, oh why, have we never been given a big screen treatment of that most iconic of 18th century couples, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the “Ladies of Llangollen,” whose adventures to elope together and life-long happy romance was celebrated by their contemporaries as the epitome of true love?

There is no reason to think that we can’t have happy movies about female couples in history. It certainly isn’t for a lack of source material. Go out there and demand more realism in our lesbian costume dramas—and realism means our share of happily ever afters!

Show Notes

A tour through the lives of some f/f couples in history who would make great “happily ever after” movies and tv shows

Find more information about the primary couples discussed in this show at the following links:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Monday, March 15, 2021 - 21:00

Not much to say on this one. Also: my brain is a bit knocked out from the Daylight Savings Time change, so I'm not up to being clever tonight. Just glad I got the blog done on Monday this week! I hate letting things slip past their delivery targets, because that way lies chaos.

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Full citation: 

Nord, Deborah Epstein. 1990. "'Neither Pairs nor Odd': Female Community in Late Nineteenth-Century London" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 733-754.

I almost didn’t blog this article, once I started reading it. The title suggested more relevance than the content ended up providing. It falls into the category of “what are the options for women who aren’t in conventional heterosexual marriages” which can be useful for character development. But there’s a lot of content on that topic and I try to stick to more general demographics. This article is more a biographical sketch of a specific set of connected individuals.

Nord takes a deep dive into the lives of three single women who made lives for themselves in 1880s London outside of conventional family structures, but also apart from organized women’s communities and institutions. Nor were these women in unrecognized female partnerships. All three intersected the field of social work in some way, but without approaching it as a female-coded vocation. And all three were loosely connected to each other (as well as to other single women) socially, but in a somewhat loose fashion that did not assume mutual support.

These women occupied a somewhat ambiguous and contradictory position. They chose to marginalize themselves in society by stepping outside the conventional structures of middle class life, but often found their vocations in promoting and encouraging those conventional structures for other women, as in the administration of settlement houses (structured housing for the poor). They fell in an intermediate temporal position between earlier Victorian female homosocial communities who operated within traditional domestic structures, and the independent 20th century “new women” who deliberately embraced singlehood and female community as a political position.

The women in this study did not specifically reject marriage, though they might set it aside for a time. And they pursued individual emancipation from the restrictions of female roles, but did not necessarily embrace feminist politics in general. But choosing to spend some portion of their lives single, in professional pursuits, enabled them to envision new roles for women in society.

Three women who are the focus of this article. Beatrice Potter Webb developed an interest in sociological research via working as a rent-collector and administrator of a slum tenement. From her observations of the lives and struggles of the residents she wrote a number of studies of working class dynamics and the causes of poverty. Webb’s cousin Margaret Harkness was also involved with the tenement that Webb administered but converted her observations and experiences into novels criticizing various social conditions. The third woman in the study is poet and novelist Amy Levy, who brought a particular focus to the Jewish community in London.

This loose network of women dissolved at the end of the 1880s, due to personal conflicts, death, or emigration. Nord suggests that the lack of an accepted social niche for single middle-class women in this transitional era was a driving cause of this social fragmentation (though I wonder if she’s generalizing too much from a specific set of women). And yet, though rejecting the idea of participating in a formal female community, they were able to produce their best work specifically because of the support of that informal community.

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Misc tags: 
Tuesday, March 9, 2021 - 07:00

A regular experience in the random nature of how I encounter and summarize articles is the sense of whiplash when I think, “Wait, haven’t we already dealt with this question?” And, of course, I’m thinking of other publications that came after the one I’m reading. Diggs’ analysis is in correspondence with some of the early challenges to Faderman’s view of romantic friendship. I have to keep reminding myself that it was published a quarter of a century ago, and the ideas being presented here were fairly new at the time.

I sometimes try to envision a “family tree” of work on lesbian history—something that traces not only the chronology of the publications, but the specific chains of connection showing what each is reacting and responding to. (It might be an amusing project, but mostly it’s a dangerous rabbit-hole. One I need to avoid at all costs!)

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Full citation: 

Diggs, Marylynne. 1995. “Romantic Friends or a ‘Different Race of Creatures’? The Representation of Lesbian Pathology in Nineteenth-Century America” in Feminist Studies 21, no. 2: 1-24.

Diggs begins with a review of recent (in 1995) work on the relationship between romantic friendship and lesbian history, especially Smith-Rosenberg 1975 and Faderman 1981. Those publications presented a view of women’s intimate friendships in the 19th century as socially acceptable and treated as “innocent.” She discusses the social context of the 1970s as it influenced the interests and motivations of academics approaching the topic of romantic friendship.

But, Diggs notes, the view of a lost innocent era of romantic friendship that gave way sharply and universally to a pathologized view of homosexuality was being contradicted by scholar such as Vicinus, who argued both that the romantic friendship model survived well into the 20th century, and that it was never as universally accepted as Faderman suggested (as well as suggesting that it was a peculiarly American interpretation of the evidence).

Interpretations of women’s same-sex relationship as pathological can be identified well before the later 19th century, and Diggs notes that despite the recency of the terms “lesbian” and “homosexual”, other vocabulary for women who desired women can be found as early as the 18th century. [Note: And, of course, the alleged “recency” of the word lesbian can be disproved.]

Domestic fiction of the early 19th century (as well as material like Anne Lister’s diaries) identify spaces in which women could construct a concept of female homosexual desire that might hide under the veneer of nonsexual romantic friendship. Diggs doesn’t contradict the theory that “homosexual identity” as we understand it arose out of a specific historic context, but she argues that threads of anxiety, distrust, and pathologizing around women’s intimate friendships in early 19th century American culture depict a more complicated and layered understanding of how romantic friendship was viewed and experienced.

Examples are drawn from Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ A Mortal Antipathy, and the genre of “advice manuals” which warmed about hazards that could be associated with female friendships. (One interesting text is quoted as recommending that “kissing and caressing of your female friends should be kept for your hours of privacy, and never indulged in before gentlemen” lest the gentlemen get the wrong idea about the girls’ level of erotic knowledge.

Women writers sometimes engaged in a more complex view of romantic friendships, acknowledging the hazards but not necessarily pathologizing those hazards. Works cited include Margaret J.M. Sweat’s Ethel’s Love-Life: A Novel in which the protagonist recounts past romantic/erotic relationships with women in a confession to her (male) fiancé, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s story “The Long Arm” in which the jealous and possessive love of one woman for another becomes a motivation for murder, without presenting the relationship as inherently pathological. These works clearly depicted women’s intimate friendships as in conflict with heterosexual marriage, not simply as a “practice” for that state.

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Monday, March 8, 2021 - 16:34

I've been posting about this on twitter, but maybe it's time to mention it in my actual Alpennia blog? For two weeks now, I've written at least a paragraph every day on Mistress of Shadows. So far I've been working on chapter 2 (in which I do emotionally traumatic things to Barbara and make her cry) because chapter 1 involves a new character and new setting (Zobayda in Marseilles) so I worried about getting bogged down by tackling it first.

One of the hardest parts of writing for me is making that transition from getting the last book out and starting the next book. I wish I had the time and energy to start writing the next book with the last one is in edits and whatnot, but I don't. The pandemic took out a number of my productivity habits, simply because I'm very much a creature of habit--having the time doesn't mean that I'll use that time for a specific task if my context for that task has been removed.

But I very much need to be writing again. For the sake of my self-identity as a writer, I need to get the next work out into the world. And that starts with getting back in the habit of writing every single day, no matter what.

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Writing Process
Mistress of Shadows


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