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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 181 - The Anandrine Sect

Saturday, October 24, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 181 (also 51d) - The Anandrine Sect - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/10/24 - listen here)

The Anandrine Sect

Among the more curious myths of sapphic history—and I say “myth”, but let’s keep an open mind while reviewing the evidence—is the late 18th century French Anandrine Sect. I don’t have the resources to trace the earliest appearance of the term “Anandrine” to know whether the word predated this particular context. “Anandrine” is a neo-Greek compound from “an” meaning “without” and “andros” meaning a male person. Thus, Anandrine, “without men”. This is, of course, an annoyingly male-centric way of thinking about sex between women, though it fits with the attitudes of the times. But before we enter the temple of the Anandrine Sect, we need to put together the background to its entrance on the stage.

Political Context

French politics of the 18th century used sexuality and gender stereotypes as tools for representing and attacking political opponents or targeted populations. While homosexual activity featured in these debates, this was not an era of sharp divisions in sexual preference. Those accused of sexual irregularities were typically depicted as being generally libertine. Homosexuality might be a part—but only a part—of politically-charged innuendo. At the same time, for both men and women, we see a recognition that some people might have a clear preference for sexual partners of a particular gender, and that this might be taken as indicating some more general aspect of their personality or character.

Sexual libertinism was ascribed to the aristocracy, as well as to the demi-monde of performing artists and sex workers. These groups were set in opposition to the rising influence of middle class thinkers and influences. Sexual continence and marital fidelity were being claimed as signs, not only of personal morality, but as essential attributes of particular social classes, and as essential for the strength and stability of the state.

From the point when lesbian tastes were first being recognized and discussed in public as an identifiable concept—certainly at least by the 16th century--every western European culture seemed to associate female homosexuality with its political rivals.  In the later 18th century and even more so as the century turned, English and German discussions depicted it as a decadent French practice, while French texts framed it as quintessentially English.

As we’ve noted, Sapphic relations were also attributed to specific social classes—always as a negative judgment—aristocrats, artists, and actresses. These groups were the  “other” for the rising bourgeois movements that challenged their influence and prominence. In France, some familiar names raised in this context included Queen Marie-Antoinette and her close companions the princess de Lamballe and the duchess de Polignac, but many others as well. The lists are long. At the center of the artistic side in France was the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt, of whom more later. One of the more unusual figures assigned to the sapphic camp was the transgender Chevalier d’Eon. (I can’t really get into that topic without an entire show.) Women who had genuine political power were a popular target for rumors of lesbianism, regardless of the solid evidence available.

One feature of this era is that women were not simply rumored to engage in lesbian relations as individuals, but increasingly they were depicted as being part of clubs, associations, or simply private social circles organized around a shared sexual preference. And, in turn, woman-centered societies attracted sexual innuendo as a means of critiquing and denigrating women who dared not to subjugate their lives to men.

The Culture of Pamphlets and Societies

It was not only female organizations that provoked social and political anxiety. The 18th century was a time when people at all levels and of all types were coming together in affiliation groups to further their common interests, whether it was the male political clubs in the coffee houses, the literary salons, professional academies, commercial associations, or fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons. Marginalized political interests came together in secret clubs and these were often the foundation of revolutionary movements, about which more in a moment.

Similarity of interest and purpose was a common organizing force. For women’s organizations to be part of this rise of affiliation groups, women needed to view being female as an identity, as something separate from and perhaps more important than their class, national, political, and occupational affiliations. In an odd way, this understanding was enhanced by two philosophical shifts that might otherwise be viewed as anti-progressive. One was the growing prominence of the “two-sex” model of gender. There had long been parallel attitudes toward the nature of gender: the one-sex model in which women were a variant (and deficient) type of man, and the two-sex model, in which men and women belonged to distinct categories. The second and related movement was the rise of the “separate spheres” philosophy in which society was divided into those activities, interests, and experiences belonging to men and those belonging to women.

Taken together, these philosophies depicted men and women as functionally separate species with entirely separate natures and interests. This created a conceptual space in which women might find common cause across social barriers. It led to exploration of feminist thought and even ideas of female separatism. Separatism, in turn, raised the question of lesbian practice as a natural consequence of women-only societies.

From another angle, the sensational literature of political and erotic pamphlets that focused pointedly on sapphic themes must have spread the imagery of lesbian relations far more effectively than the earlier references in medical manuals had. Whether the veritable explosion of references to sex between women in printed literature was accompanied by an increase in the actual practice is difficult to guess. But the idea was there for the taking.

The evocation of female same-sex relations as the organizing principle for secret societies stands in for a general concern with the influence of women in politics, and especially a concern with the subversive power of female alliances, as well as the anarchic and disruptive power of women who were not under male control. Female power destabilized the hierarchies of the state in the same way that secret societies did. How much more so, when the two ideas came together?

Of all the secret societies that were popular in the 18th century, one of the most prominent and enduring was the Order of Freemasons, and consequently it provoked some of the strongest reactions from critics. It wasn’t the secret exclusivity that bothered those in power so much as the group’s leveling ideals--in theory seeing members from all classes and ranks of society as equals. And while Freemasonry was, in general, an exclusively male province, France took the lead in the 1770s in expanding those leveling ideals by authorizing female masonic lodges. These “lodges of adoption” were not independent and sovereign from male authority, but some seem to have embraced sororal solidarity as a unifying principle. In some cases, these female lodges featured ceremonies and rhetoric that may be what is being satirized in descriptions of Anandrine rites. One female Freemason lodge titled its leader the “Queen of the Amazons”. Though the actual female-centered social organizations never entirely excluded men, they raised the image of women forming self-authorizing communities independent of male authority.

Mademoiselle de Raucourt

But before we move on to the Anandrine Sect itself, we need an introduction to a key player, the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt. Françoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte, known by her stage name Françoise de Raucourt, or Mademoiselle de Raucourt, followed the family trade of acting from an early age. By the early 1770s, she became famous playing roles with the Comèdie Française, though her career was slightly disrupted by her profligate habits, when she spent several years in prison for debt. She won the patronage of Queen Marie-Antoinette in the late ‘70s, which was not entirely a benefit when the Revolution broke out. As a result of her Royalist connections, she was absent from the stage until the early ‘90s, spending some of that time in prison, after which she regained official favor and continued a patchy stage career until her death in 1815.

De Raucourt was notorious for her female lovers during the height of her popularity in the 1770s. In her later years she may have settled down to a long-time relationship with a fellow prisoner under the Revolution, Henriette Simonnet de Ponty. De Raucourt’s public fame, her confirmed preference for female lovers, and her association with Marie-Antoinette were likely what made her an ideal mouthpiece in fictional depictions of the Anandrine sect.

The Lodge of Lesbos

Social concern about secret societies, a rising interest in images of lesbian sex, and a general anxiety about women coming together in radical organizations. These are the background to a 1775 entry in the underground journal Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique: “They say there exists a society known as the Lodge of Lesbos, but whose meetings are even more mysterious than those of the Freemasons have ever been, with initiations into all the secrets that Juvenal described so frankly and openly in his Sixth Satire.” The entry goes on to identify the leader of this lodge as the actress Mademoiselle de Raucourt.

Even given the gossipy nature of this publication, note that the attribution is “they say”, triangulated with the name of a prominent actress known for her lesbian relations. This information predates the earliest reference (at least the earliest one mentioned in my sources) to the Anandrine Sect, though the parallels between the two are very close, down to the connection with de Raucourt.

The Anandrine Sect as Lesbian Separatist Commune

The Anandrine Sect itself is first introduced—as far as I can find—in the pornographic work L’espion Anglais (The English Spy) written in 1778. This is a collection of salacious anecdotes, one of which involves an adolescent country girl who, having inclinations toward sex with women, is sent off to Paris to be initiated into an Anandrine sect. Her sponsor describes the group thus:

“A tribade,” she told me, “is a young virgin who, not having had any relations with men, and convinced of the excellence of her sex, finds in it true pleasure, pure pleasure, dedicates herself wholly to it, and renounces the other sex, as perfidious as it is seductive. Or, it is a woman of any age who, having fulfilled the wish of nature and country for the propagation of the human race, gets over her mistake, detests, abjures crude pleasures, and devotes herself to training pupils for the goddess.”

She tells the young woman, “You already seem worthy to me to be initiated into our mysteries. I hope that this night will confirm the good opinion that I’ve formed of you, and that we’ll lead an innocent and voluptuous life together for a long time. You won’t lack anything. I’m going to have dresses, finery, hats made for you, buy you diamonds, jewels. … I’ll show you the beauties of Paris one after another. I’ll take you frequently to the theater in my box seats, to balls, to strolling places. I want to shape your education, which, making you more pleasant, will save you from the boredom of being often alone. I’ll have you taught to read, write, dance, sing. I have mistresses for all these subjects at my disposal. I have them for other subjects, as your tastes or your talents develop.”

The young woman eagerly agrees, and we get a description of the initiation ceremony. It takes place in a classical temple featuring statues of the goddess Vesta, of Sappho, and other symbolic figures. There are black marble altars, and stoves that burn incense. The members of the society take their places in pairs, reclining entwined on pillows in the Turkish style. The new initiate and her sponsor enter dressed in loose gowns with symbolic colors. Then a welcoming speech is given by the society’s president, Mademoiselle de Raucourt, after which the members vote on the acceptance of the candidate.

In the overall form and shape of the ceremony, one might think of any number of private formal social clubs. Masonic rites come easily to mind.

In a separate entry in L’espion Anglais, a supposed initiation address to the Anandrine Sect is given by Mademoiselle de Raucourt. The address is purported to have been given in 1773, but this should be understood as a literary invention.

“The Anandrine Sect is as old as the world. One can’t doubt its nobility, since a goddess was its founder. And what a goddess! The most chaste, whose symbol is the element that purifies all the others. However opposed this sect is to men, the authors of the laws, they’ve never dared to proscribe it. Even the wisest, strictest of legislators sanctioned it in Lacedaemon Lycergus had established a school of tribadism where young girls appeared naked, and in those public games they learn tender and amorous dances, postures, advances, embraces. Men bold enough to look in there were punished with death. This art is found reduced to a system and described energetically in the poetry of Sappho, whose name alone awakens the idea of what was most amiable and enchanting in Greece. In Rome, the Anandrine Sect received, in the person of the vestal virgins, almost divine honors. If we believe travelers on the score, it spread to the most distant lands…”

This explanation and introduction to the society goes on at great length and moves on to more explicitly sexual matters. It becomes clear that the description of pure and noble pleasures is only the beginning, and there is a reference to flagellation as part of the standard repertoire of their sexual practice. The structure, as laid out in this address, is one of age-differentiated relationships, where an older, experienced woman takes on a young, inexperienced student. They form a bond based on this mentorship, and then eventually, in turn, the student graduates to being a mentor to a new initiate herself.

The titillating hints at the sexual rituals of the group contrast oddly with the utopian commune that is described. Here’s how the fictional de Raucourt sets out the arrangements:

“It’s not enough that a structure be built on solid and lasting foundations, that it be kept away from destructive elements, and protected from dangers that can threaten it. It’s necessary, in addition, that it offer the eye fine proportions, a sense of harmony, a whole, the great merit of masterpieces of architecture. It’s the same with our moral structure. Tranquility, unity, concord, peace should constitute its principal support, its praise in the eyes of outsiders. May they see nothing in us but sisters, or rather maybe, admire in us a large family, in which there is no hierarchy other than that established by nature itself for its preservation, and necessary to its administration. Benevolence toward all unfortunates should be one of our distinctive characteristics, a virtue flowing from our gentle and sociable manners, from our essentially loving heart. But it’s with respect to our sisters, our pupils, that it should be deployed. Complete community of property, so that no one distinguishes the poor from the rich. May the latter, on the contrary, take pleasure in making the former forget that she was ever impoverished. When she is brought forth into society, may she be noticed because of the sparkle of her clothes, the elegance of her adornment, the abundance of her diamonds and jewels, the beauty of her horses, the quickness of her carriage. May those who see her recognize her and exclaim, “It’s a pupil of the Anandrine Sect! That’s what it means to make sacrifices to Vesta!” It’s thus that you’ll attract others, that you’ll plant in the heart of others like you, who will admire you, the desire to enjoy your fate by imitating you.”

The Anandrine Sect in the Sex-Pamphlet Wars

The description of the Anandrine Sect in L’espion Anglais is decidedly tame compared to the next significant representation of the group, which again sets up Mademoiselle de Raucourt as the leader of the group. This pamphlet from 1791 entitled Liberty, or Mademoiselle Raucourt to the Whole Anandrine Sect can best be understood as part of a connected series of raunchy political satires featuring a mythical “Committee on Fuckery” which has taken on itself the application of revolutionary principles to the sexual underworld of prostitutes, sodomites, and tribades. The prostitutes have aligned themselves on the side of the revolutionary government and used seduction to gain the upper hand over their rivals, the buggers. The Anandrine pamphlet in the series takes up the story when de Raucourt is warned of the prostitutes’ legal triumph over the buggers and she goes to the Comedie Francais to rally the tribade troops to the side of homosexual solidarity. While one purpose of the pamphlet series may have been to satirize the over-the-top polemical language of the genre, another purpose may have simply been the joy of seeing how many times one can say “fuck” in a paragraph. I won’t be quoting from this particular text, not so much out of prudishness, but frankly because it's tedious and boring. A translation of the entire text can be found in Merrick and Ragan’s Homosexuality in Early Modern France, listed in the show notes. You might find it useful for research purposes regarding types of sex acts that the writer envisioned women engaging in with each other.

The Anandrine Sect of this post-revolutionary pamphlet is a foul-mouthed, working class, sex-obsessed rabble, compared to the pre-revolutionary Anandrine Sect of L’espion Anglais, with its formal, classically inspired rites and emphasis on sensual pleasures. But in both cases they represent a dangerous, uncontrolled female sexuality that is disruptive by its very existence, while at the same time being controlled and managed by being presented and filtered through a male pornographic gaze.

Queen Marie Antoinette and the Anandrine Sect

There is not a direct connection between the Anandrine Sect and Queen Marie-Antoinette, but many of the same themes are present. She is worth discussing here for those parallels.

The hostility toward Queen Marie Antoinette in France focused around a number of themes. She was foreign. She was financially profligate. And she was sexually licentious with both men and women. Given the king’s sexual issues, there might have been a certain amount of understanding offered for her looking for satisfaction—and for a means of getting pregnant—elsewhere. But a common satirical image of the queen settled on depicting her as preferring sexual relations with her female favorites and viewing this as a symptom of her general character.

If we were looking for solid historical evidence for Marie Antoinette’s actual sex life and sexual inclinations, we’d probably be left with the same sorts of vaguely suggestive data that we have for figures like Queen Christina of Sweden, or Queen Anne of England. But when our topic is how her political enemies depicted her, the documentary evidence is solid, unambiguous, and explicit.

An anonymous pamphlet published in 1793 titled “The Private, Libertine, and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette” consists largely of a chronological catalog of all the women and men she was claimed to have engaged in sexual relations with, starting with her sisters at age ten and continuing through most of her closest friends and supporters in the court, including the duchess de Polignac and the princess de Lamballe.

The language is not as coarse as that of the Anandrine pamphlet. “[The duchess] was very pleasing in amorous diversions… the spirited and lustful Guémenée…was secure for a long time. There were continual tete-a-tetes. The sessions lasted for more than two hours. Antoinette’s eyes sparkled with the most passionate fire. The two women gave each other the lewdest caresses in public. … the excesses to which she surrendered herself with the tribades, her favorites … revolting acts of lewdness that she took pleasure in relishing with her own sex … Marie-Antoinette continued her hot caresses. Excited by the teasing of the royal finger, [she] was soon sharing her mistress’s rapture.”

Though the list includes both sexes, there are regular references to Marie Antoinette’s “taste for women…passion for [her own] sex…her natural inclination for women…”

Adultery was not the only point of the accusations. Her lovers were claimed to have influence over her decisions, to be given extravagant presents or the right to distribute favors or positions for profit. Women were said to use Marie-Antoinette’s bed as a means of gaining legal judgments and be granted pensions.

Pamphlets were not the only context for these claims. A comic opera of 1791 titled Le Branle de Capucins depicts Marie-Antoinette as sexually voracious with both sexes even while under house arrest by the revolutionary government.

The legacy of this queer sexualization of a powerful woman for the purpose of problematizing female power in general can be seen in the early 19th century rise in both France and England of the cult of female domesticity and the emphasis on female modesty and purity as a symbolic metric for the health of the state. Look at what politically powerful women become! See what they’re like! The state is only secure when women are properly chaste, modest, and motherly!

The Anandrine Sect Spreads

The use of realistic literary conventions in depictions of the Anandrine Sect, and the incorporation into those depictions of real women known to have sapphic inclinations meant that the Anandrine Sect as presented in L’espion Anglais was taken as factual by contemporary people, and was referenced by later writers as being an actual phenomenon. The term “Anandrine” as a synonym for “tribade” appears in the 1789 novel La Curieuse impertinente, where a convent is depicted as a branch of the Anandrine organization. In another 1789 novel, Les Chevalières errantes, ou les deux sosies femelles (The Female Knights-Errant or the Two Twin Girls), although the word Anandrine is not used, a close double of the Anandrine initiation ceremony from L’espion Anglais is depicted.

Was the Anandrine Sect Real?

This leaves us with the question: was the Anandrine Sect real? Was there an actual secret society of sapphic women in the 1770s in France that initiated young women with orgiastic rituals in a classical temple?

For me, the strongest argument against these being depictions of reality are the nature of the texts in which the sect is depicted. L’espion Anglais is very overtly pornography. The motif of a young woman confessing her journey into a sexual underworld was common, and understood as a literary technique. All references to an Anandrine Sect, by that name, trace back to that one source, though it in turn may have been inspired by the slightly earlier description of the “Lodge of Lesbos”. I’ve run across one modern historian who seems to take references to the Anandrine Sect at face value, but the majority opinion is that it was entirely fictitious.

But we can ask a different question as well: is the description of the Anandrine Sect plausible? There was definitely a tradition of secret societies in France in the 1770s. And groups such as the Freemasons did engage in formal initiation rituals using classical symbolism and imagery. There were certainly loose networks of women with sapphic interests who supported each other in finding partners. So if someone were to use a similar motif in a fictional setting, I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker.

Show Notes

A look at the motif of the 18th century French “Anandrine Sect” purported to be a lesbian sex club.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: