(Originally aired 2021/10/17 - listen here)
I have a list of at least a dozen podcast essay topics waiting to be written—and that’s not counting the series I plan about historical romance tropes—but they all require a significant amount of research and writing time. This month, my day-job has been sucking up all my surplus energy and I find myself in need of something I can write off the cuff, reusing some themes I’ve talked about individually. So I landed on the topic of single-sex communities and societies, and the myths and realities of homoeroticism that circle around them.
Ideas about women’s sexuality in women-only spaces have always been driven by the prevailing theories at the time about women’s sexuality in general, and about motivations for same-sex erotics. Eras that consider erotic attractions to be inherently polymorphous—whether viewing that as good or bad—usually default to expecting women-only societies to encourage lesbian activity on the principle of “you do what’s available.” Eras that consider women to be inherently non-sexual beings will tend to predict that an all-female society will be celibate. Individual fictional examples, or imaginative expectations of real societies, may also be driven by prejudices and stereotypes. And, of course, real societies tend to be more varied and messy than the thought experiments people may create in fiction.
Some of the literary examples I’ll be discussing touch on the question of trans identities within “single gender” contexts, and I’ll put this content note up front that historic examples of this theme are rarely handled in trans-friendly ways, particularly where they address sexuality.
A Roadmap of the Discussion
But what do we mean by “all-woman societies”? There’s a wide sliding scale. At one extreme we have fictional—one could almost say science-fictional—examples, where men have, in some way been entirely eliminated and reproduction is done by other means. At the opposite end of the scale would be cultures with a strong homosocial element where the genders are not physically segregated but the majority of socializing is segregated by gender. In the middle are institutions such as convents or schools that segregate the genders for part or all of a woman’s life. There are physical segregation institutions like the harem of Islamic societies (which existed in many different forms, but in general involved restricting the interaction of women with men outside immediate family members). And there are social organizations that women might participate in on a temporary basis while primarily living in a mixed-gender society. Outside of the science-fictional examples these concepts rarely involve complete separation of the genders (or complete elimination of men), but across much of the scale there might be a de facto separation of the genders in all but highly formalized circumstances.
There is also a wide variety of depictions of sexual expectations within these communities—an entirely separate axis of variation from the community types. It can cover everything from “what is this ‘sex’ thing you speak of?” all the way to “sex is what brings us together today.” In between there are many variations. The “planet of women” genre often takes a stance that might be characterized as “I’m horny, but I didn’t know for what until men showed up.” Up through the 18th century, a common attitude was, “I’m horny for pretty much anything, and if women are what’s on the menu, that’s cool.” Sometimes you get, “I know we’re supposed to be celibate but we slip up.” And especially in certain genres the take seems to be, “We’re in love, the rest is none of your business.”
So let’s take a tour through ideas people in the past have had about women-only communities and societies, starting from the extreme end of the scale.
The World of Women
We may think of concepts like a “planet of women” as being modern science fictional concepts, but it’s been an idea that authors have played with regularly over the centuries.
The earliest envisioning of woman-only societies include classical myths such as the Amazons or the followers of the goddess Diana. In both cases, the cultures were envisioned as a society from which men were specifically and deliberately excluded, and where sexual relations with men were either prohibited (in the case of Diana’s followers) or allowed only in limited circumstances for procreation (in the case of Amazons).
As I discussed in an earlier podcast, the implication of sexual relations among Diana’s female followers appears first by implication in the story of Callisto, when Jupiter seduces the nymph by disguising himself as the goddess. For the seduction to work, one must assume the normalization of sex between women in this group. That assumption is made more overt in later medieval and Renaissance versions of the story, such as William Warner’s Albion’s England and Thomas Heywood’s The Golden Age. In the early modern period, we see references to real-life women being a “follower of Diana” if they reject heterosexual marriage for the company of women, but it’s rare for these references to contain overt references to sexual activity, though it may be hinted at.
In the earliest stories of the Amazons, the possibility of same-sex desire is essentially ignored. The sex lives of Amazons were relevant only in their occasional encounters with men. But in medieval and Renaissance uses of Amazons in literature, we see evidence that they were perceived as engaging in homoerotic encounters, or at least they were open to the possibility. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the Amazon Bradamante attracts female desire. In Sidney’s Arcadia, a man disguises himself as an Amazon to gain access to a secluded woman and persuades her that it’s ok for her to love a woman. In Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, the Amazon Emilia is mourning her dead girlfriend. There is no explicit indication that it was a sexual relationship—as opposed to a very intensely romantic one—but such a sexual reference would be at odds with the tone of the piece. These are only a few of the literary Amazons who engage in either the reality or appearance of same-sex erotic relationships.
Aside from works playing off of classical mythology, fiction about all-woman societies seems to appear in the late 19th century. (And, of course, the theme is quite popular in science fiction from the mid 20th century on, but that’s outside the scope of this podcast.) Female-authored women-only utopian novels of the 19th and early 20th century typically reflect the gender stereotype prevalent at that time of women as being elevated, cultured, but non-erotic beings. In works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, published in 1915, or the much more obscure 1890 work Mizora by Mary E. Bradley, an event in the past has eliminated all the men in an isolated region and the women became able to reproduce via parthenogenesis. Sexual desire, however, is assumed to be absent from these societies and the authors may not even feel the need to explain this point. In Mizora the only socially sanctioned emotional bonds are within the matrilineal line, though cohort friendships also exist and the female outsider through whose experience we learn about this society develops an intense but non-sexual friendship with one of the women. It’s worth noting that both Herland and Mizora interweave their utopian ideals with very problematic ideas about eugenics and racism, as well as concealing the violent incidents that contributed to their establishment.
A utopian short story of 1905, Sultana’s Dream by Indian author Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain follows a less extreme set-up, where a past incident has resulted in an exchange of roles between men and women, with men being kept in seclusion and performing domestic labor and only women living public lives, which has resulted in significant scientific and environmental improvements. But as with the western examples of a similar era, the story is silent on the question of romantic and sexual relations. This work falls more in the next category: societies where the genders are largely physically segregated in everyday life.
Convents and Harems
There are many different forms this segregation has taken in different social contexts. Sultana’s Dream operates within a system similar to the harem tradition, in which women are restricted to specific physical spaces and interact with men only in highly restricted circumstances. Harem culture was a site of massive cultural misunderstanding between Islamicate societies and European visitors, and the descriptions of Turkish harems that were disseminated in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries often say more about the preoccupations of the writers, than the reality of the women’s lives. We know from Arabic writings of the medieval period and later that sexual activity between women in the harem could be considered an ordinary part of life, with medical theories about whether it was driven by situational opportunity or innate preference. No significant weight of morality was placed on such activities. But European writers interpreted both the realities and their fantasies about women of the harem through their own attitudes about both gender and sexuality. Male writers of the 16th and 17th centuries provided lurid accounts of sexual activity between women in the harem, attributing their excessive lust to the unavailability of men and to the erotic atmosphere of the bath houses. Women were presumed to be sexually voracious and if men were not present they would satisfy themselves with each other. In contrast, Mary Whortley Montagu’s early 18th century first-hand accounts of life in an Ottoman harem depict a more lightly sensual atmosphere, but Montagu was clearly aware of her readers’ expectations when she writes about seeing “not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture.” And as a woman of the aristocracy writing for her female associates she may have felt more constrained in her depiction.
In a way, the closest analog in Western Europe for the gender dynamics of the harem is probably Catholic convents, another institution where women were restricted in their physical movements and limited in their interactions without outsiders to the community, though the overt motivation was different. The realities, myths, anxieties, and propaganda around lesbian activity in convents are complex. (I did an entire podcast on the topic.) To sum it up briefly: there is plenty of evidence that lesbian activity did occur between cloistered women, though how much or how widespread is difficult to know. There’s also plenty of evidence that the church hierarchy thought segregated communities of women created a potential for disruptive romantic and sexual relations among the residents—though far less disruptive than the possibilities in a mixed-gender community would be. In addition to simple regulatory prohibitions on any sort of intimate attachments (which were considered to interfere with a focus on devotion, even aside from those that fell in the category of sin), often there would be logistical regulations to make sexual encounters more difficult: sleeping clothed, not sharing beds, group dormitories with supervision. So while there was definitely a pop-culture motif of the sex-starved nun who made do with women because men were excluded, we know that this motif was treated as a real hazard by the institutions themselves. But with the advent of Protestantism, another factor comes into play. Protestant movements had serious concerns about the sincerity of celibate communities in general, as well as hostility toward Catholic institutions in particular. This came out in new tropes about lesbian activity in convents, especially with the rise in pornographic literature in the 17th century. In general, this type of literature took the stance that lesbianism in convents was driven not only by situational opportunity, but from belief that gender-segregation itself was inherently perverse. (Note that these themes are spread around the same time that stories of Turkish harems are being spread.)
Some of the same concerns were expressed about non-cloistered women’s communities, which often had a religious purpose but were not necessarily under hierarchical authority, such as the Beguines and some independent women’s communities in Italy. With these, concerns about situational desire among all-women groups were bolstered by anxiety about women who were not under the administrative control of men. With regard to sex, this anxiety came out around both the possibility that unsupervised groups of women were enjoying sexual encounters with men, and that women in groups might be having sex with each other. The evidence around these non-cloistered communities rarely documents anything more than intense emotional bonds and romantic pairings.
School Crushes and Temporary Retreats
Gender-segregated institutions may come and go in prevalence and may be only a temporary opportunity, such as girls’ boarding schools. Although institutions intended to educate girls were being founded as early as the 17th century, the heyday of the girls’ boarding school (and the resulting social dynamics) came in the mid 18th through 19th centuries. Within a community where adolescent girls were separated from their families to become part of a relatively self-contained educational community, there evolved a normalized expectation that the students would form romantic friendships that often had an obvious erotic component and paralleled the elements of heterosexual courtship. Administrative and community reactions to these relationships were largely positive and supportive until around the turn of the 20th century when psychological theories of homosexuality began to be applied to social dynamics. One could view these bonds as entirely driven by situational availability, but there was also a cultural element with new students learning the rituals and expectations from the existing culture. The faculty at such institutions—typically also all female—formed a different layer in these women-only institutions, and in the 19th century they engaged in romantic and/or erotic relationships often enough that such pairings were called “Wellesley marriages” after a popular women’s college. For these adult relationships, in addition to the simple availability of female bonds on a day to day basis, looking outside the female community for relationships often meant losing one’s teaching job.
This type of voluntary creation of an all-female community existed in other forms, especially in works of fiction. As is typical for literary depictions, the consequences of such communities for their romantic lives tends to follow the romantic tropes expected by the author’s audience. Thus the women-only retreat at the center of Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century The Convent of Pleasure enjoys same-sex flirtations and mock-courtships due to situational availability, but a seriously erotic component is introduced (and accepted) only when a disguised man enters the community for that purpose. The women are shown as being hesitantly receptive to same-sex erotics, but the audience is assured that the reality is missing.
The Club Scene
When the audience is looking for scandal, titillation, and satire, then the depictions of woman-only clubs and societies goes further. Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis satirizes certain movements and figures in late 17th century England with a broad brush. But the example we’re interested in here is her “New Cabal,” a fictional society of women who pair off with vows of eternal love and a rejection of men. These women live within mixed-sex society but gather occasionally for private women-only events that feature feasting, the enjoyment of nature, and sexual encounters. This is no longer a matter of a situational restriction of the available partners, but the active creation of a segregated organization for the purpose of enjoying same-sex erotics.
A similar organization with a similar purpose, though described in more pornographic terms, is the fictional late 18th century Anandrine Society. This Masonic-like club cloaked its sexual activities in pseudo-classical ritual. While the sexual encounters of the New Cabal are still described with a certain amount of circumspection and innuendo (while being obvious to the reader), audience tastes and the target readership for works describing the Anandrine Society a century later were accustomed to more explicit descriptions.
The idea and reality of woman-only societies and organizations has persisted across the centuries, taking forms that emerge from, and reflect, the social tenor of the times. To some extent such motifs always provoke concerns about how women will behave with each other when they are apart from men—whether by their own choice or driven by other social forces. And whether or not people imagine that single-gender communities will automatically lead to same-sex erotics is situational as well. What do people of that era believe about women’s sex drive? How do they imagine women might act on it? Is erotic desire envisioned as gender-neutral or do people believe it is provoked only by certain types of potential partners? For that matter, what is the author’s purpose in describing a woman-only society? And how does sexuality fit into that purpose? Both chaste and erotic depictions may be created side by side, aimed at different audiences and written with different ends. And the realities of single gender communities are inherently more complex than fiction.
If you’re thinking about writing a women-only community in a historic setting, take a while to consider all the different forms it might take, and all the different expectations the women in it might have.
In this episode we talk about ideas and realities about all-woman societies, communities, and organizations in the past, and how they depicted the possibility of same-sex erotics.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online