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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 230 – The Long History of the Lavender Menace

Saturday, May 21, 2022 - 20:35

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 230 – The Long History of the Lavender Menace - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/05/21 - listen here)

The term “lavender menace” dates to 1969, when leaders in the National Organization for Women (the most prominent feminist organization in the USA at the time) took steps to distance itself from lesbian organizations and causes for fear that a close association of lesbians and feminists in the popular imagination would undermine feminist goals. The phrase was taken up as a rallying cry the next year by an informal group of lesbian feminists at the Second Congress to Unite Women, and their activism and outreach reversed the official position of the National Organization for Women to being inclusive of lesbian concerns.

But the association of female same-sex desire and feminist activism – and anxieties about that association both inside feminist circles and from anti-feminist agitators – dates to much earlier than the second-wave feminist movement of the 60s. So this episode takes a historic tour through that association within Western culture.

Definitions and Caveats

To begin with some caveats, it is not always the case that anxieties about feminism raised the specter of lesbian inclinations. And it isn’t an automatic given that women with same-sex desires will adopt feminist philosophies. And I should note here that, in this episode (as I often do), I’m going to use a variety of terms for female same-sex erotics—including the word “lesbian”—without intending a precise modern definition and without implying the use of that word in the era in question. Sometimes it’s just a matter of making the script interesting and elegant to read.

Cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality affect the types of connections people will make. It has been a repeating motif that anti-feminists view arguments for gender equality as an act of transing gender. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male." In various different forms at different times, people have thought that if women engaged in behaviors and activities and had rights that were considered to be masculine, it would turn them into men, either psychologically or—in some eras—physiologically. Or, if not into men, then into not-women. This is a different motif than the idea that feminism turns women into lesbians, but the two have overlapping territory due to certain models of sexuality, in which desire for women is viewed as an inherently masculine trait and indicates masculinity in the person who experiences it.

Similarly, it might seem like a given that women who desire women, and who are less invested in the normative expectations of heterosexual marriage, would be motivated to support equal legal and economic rights for women. But this assumption overlooks the importance of class and other types of identities, which may over-ride any sense of sisterly solidarity. Individual women—and Anne Lister in the early 19th century is a salient example here—sometimes thought of themselves as unique individuals apart from the general mass of womankind, and they might believe themselves, as individuals, as worthy of rights equal to those given to men while also believing that most women were not worthy of them. Similarly, some people assigned female who desired women perceived their desire for the rights and freedoms available to men as stemming from an inherent masculine identity that also motivated their sexual desires. As they did not identify with the category of “woman”, they might not feel aligned with the struggle for rights for women, and could be, in some cases, fairly misogynistic in their positions.

In order for anxiety about feminism leading to lesbianism to arise, it’s necessary for a society to have the concept of “the lesbian as a type of person” (to use Nan Alamilla Boyd’s phrase). This doesn’t require that the word “lesbian” be in use, or to have a concept of sexual orientation as a type of personal identity. It only requires that women’s same-sex desire be recognized as a habit, a propensity of taste, or a personality type. That recognition has existed in a wider swath of time and geography than the social constructionists might have us believe. But it’s also the case that without a public and recognized vocabulary for female same-sex desire, the accusations of lesbianism may surface in coded ways—as dog-whistles that may not be obvious to the modern audience.

Needless to say, in order for this equation of feminism with lesbianism to arise, it’s also necessary for a society to recognize a concept equivalent to feminism. Historians of feminism typically speak of the “first-wave” feminism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on voting and property rights, and “second-wave” feminism starting in the 1960s covering a wider range of social and legal inequities, with everything prior to those waves being labeled “proto-feminism”.

But in this episode I’m going to use a more general definition in which feminism consists of organized philosophical arguments for reducing the social and legal barriers to women’s participation in the public social sphere, whether in terms of access to education and an intellectual life, of participation in the workforce and control over the products of their labor, of having a role in government, of the right to a legal identity that was not dependent on a male relative, or addressing a gendered double-standard with regard to sexual behavior and marriage rights. Not all people who embraced some feminist aims aspired to the complete equality of the genders—some feminists were peculiarly limited in the types of changes they wanted to see and the arguments they expressed. But I think it’s reasonable for the current purpose to define feminism in terms of a desire to reduce the inequality of the genders.

At the same time, not all cases of individual women claiming or arguing for male-coded rights and freedoms can reasonably be called feminist. As noted above, some such women considered themselves to be special cases and were content for the majority of women to remain in their traditional roles. Or they argued only for the rights of certain subsets of women to have rights, excluding others on the basis of class, race, religion, or other factors. Those loyalties to the status quo didn’t protect them from the same attacks and push-back faced by women who did have broader aims.


Historian Valerie Traub discusses a phenomenon she calls “cycles of salience” where recurring co-existing motifs across time give us periodic views of phenomena that appear similar but are not directly related except through their superficial manifestations. I view this periodic recurrence of the “lavender menace” motif as one of these cycles of salience. Eras of feminist agitation give rise to a variety of types of social anxiety. Depending on other factors in society relating to sexuality, one of the forms that anxiety may take is concern about female same-sex relations. But here, rather than using “same-sex relations” as a euphemism for lesbian sex, I mean it in the literal sense: relationships between women.

Two different types of anxiety contribute to the lavender menace motif. The older type, as mentioned previously, is an anxiety that if women behave in ways labeled masculine, it will literally turn them into men, or at least will make them less female.  This might take the form of a belief that male-coded activity will hinder female fertility, or it might operate more on a psychological level, making them less “feminine” in terms of the social ideal.

But the other theme is that equality of the genders will make men irrelevant to women. If women were no longer dependent on men for economic stability, to act for them in legal matters, to protect them from threats, or any of the other roles that men were expected to fulfill, then women would have no need for men at all, including for sexual gratification. If one examines the underlying logic of this anxiety, it isn’t very flattering to men. But for that matter, feminist rhetoric in some ages argued that marriage was a form of involuntary servitude with no guarantee of any return, so perhaps men’s fears were well founded.

Waves of Feminism

Proto-feminist ideas in the Middle Ages tended to focus on moral and philosophical issues, such as the feminization of Original Sin. Arguments for women’s moral equality, made by authors such as Christine de Pizan in The City of Ladies, focused on begging for men’s good will and recognition of women’s worth, but rarely challenged the economic status quo in which women’s labor was less valued. Questions of political equality were largely not relevant under systems based on monarchy and aristocratic rule. Women arguing for better education and an equal respect as moral beings might be considered undesirably masculine in nature, but the lack of a coherent concept of “lesbians as a type of person” meant that lesbianism did not form part of the equation at this time.

This general pattern held through the Renaissance. A wider interest in education and learning inspired some women to argue that women should have the same educational opportunities as men, but in general those opportunities were enjoyed only by the elite. As a broad generalization, many people recognized that some women could aspire to the same accomplishments as men, but there was a sense that this was only possible for women who were “masculine” to some degree to start with. But we can see glimpses of the themes that prepared the ground for a lavender menace motif. Feminist treatises (such as Jane Anger’s 1589 Protection for Women or Moderata Fonte’s 1600 treatise The Worth of Women) argue from the premise that women’s social power can only derive from separating themselves from men and focusing their resources in support of other women. Other authors who took a “women first” stand included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Marie de Romieu, and a semi-anonymous group of six London maidservants who published an open letter in 1567 appealing to their female employers to make common cause as women in support of their common interests such as resistance to male sexual predation.

These texts highlight the idea of a homosocial economy of women that allows for equality in relationships that can stand against patriarchal structures. This sort of equality was not possible between women and men.  The specific activities of constructing these homosocial bonds point out the inequality of male-male friendships and female-female ones: men’s same-sex friendships act within and support patriarchy while women’s same-sex friendships act to subvert and negate its power. For women to create non-marital bonds outside the family was an inherent act of challenge to the status quo which expected women’s loyalties to be to husband, household, and extended family in that order.

The individual elements were starting to be present for a lavender menace, but they didn’t align quite yet. Sexual desire between women was recognized as a possible “personal taste,” but people weren’t making a connection between sexuality and philosophical positions on gender. Even in England’s “gender panic” of the early 17th century, the concerns about masculine women and effeminate men were not seen as relating to same-sex desire, but to gender identity.

But in the later 17th century we see the first recognizable iteration of the lavender menace motif.

Feminist thought was exploring topics like social and legal disparities in marriage, and the logical extension of humanist and neo-platonic philosophies that “the soul has no gender”—a philosophy that tripped over social beliefs about the inherent sexualization of male-female interactions. New non-conformist religious movements, such as the Quakers, embraced a fairly radical equality of the sexes. Poets like Katherine Philips were making the connections between philosophies valuing the equality of women and a personal erotic connection with specific women. Advocates for women’s education like Mary Astell argued that bonds between women were an essential bulwark against patriarchal barriers and that marriage was a hindrance to equality. Authors like Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish, and Delarivier Manley imagined woman-only societies and woman-centered relationships, driven by similar philosophies, that included a more overt eroticism—although they had a wide range of critical positions on the intersection.

And now the necessary components for a lavender menace fall into place. Susan Lanser argues that, in the later part of the 17th century, this conceptual shift in the use of intimate friendship structures among women to support their struggles for autonomy and authority collided with emerging recognition of the erotic possibilities between women. This “sapphic” consciousness (encompassing both private and public expressions of same-sex desire) acted to dismantle the logic of patriarchy and thus formed the basis for the emergence of modern feminism.

But increasing public visibility of this sapphic consciousness was accompanied by the increasing use of derogatory imagery of lesbianism to undermine women perceived as challenging male authority. We see this, for example, in the accusations of lesbianism directed at powerful women in the circle of Queen Anne of England. The satiric version of the tribade or fricatrice no longer represented a trans-masculine appropriation of the male role, but was now depicted as rejecting men entirely, with a goal of establishing exclusively female spaces that embraced lesbian erotics.

The attribution of lesbian desire to women who promoted—or simply adhered to—feminist ideals created (in Lanser’s analysis) a social divergence between those who deflected suspicion behind the rhetoric of idealized platonic relations—a rhetoric that would eventually give rise to the motif of romantic friendship—and those who embraced a more overt eroticism and saw their reputations and legacies get sidetracked and categorized as libertinism and satire. As it were, a divergence between “respectable” feminists and radical sexual outlaws.

This motif rises again a century later, in the last quarter of the 18th century. Women who took seriously the ideals of the Enlightenment challenged society to extend those ideals to women. The female-led and nominally egalitarian atmosphere of the salon in France and England became an incubator for new strains of feminist thought. Female philosophers in revolutionary France took advantage of the atmosphere of change to push for true legal and social equality. English social reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft set forth detailed critiques and arguments for women’s rights.

This time the backlash came in two flavors: feminists are either bitter, sexually-frustrated old maids, or they are lesbians. Although the “bitter old maid” motif is another one the recurs across history, we’re only concerned at the moment with the second motif. With roots in revolutionary France, there is a growing motif of tribades not as isolated individuals or couples, but as creating voluntary communities and secret societies. The sensational and pornographic depictions of the Anandrine Society (there’s a prior podcast on this topic) braided together the image of collectives of women rejecting male supremacy, discarding men as unnecessary, and enthusiastically enjoying lesbian sex.

Cautionary novels in England promoted the stereotypical feminist couple: the pedantic intellectual bluestocking, partnered with the mannish Amazonian sportswoman, reflecting the two dire fates that awaited women who rejected domesticity. This, despite the fact that the actual bluestockings tended to be relatively conservative and conventional in their aspirations for women.

Commentary on female intimacy became increasingly satiric, projecting anxieties about the irrelevance of men onto an exaggeratedly decadent elite, in order to elevate middle-class domestic femininity. The reasonable ideals of female equality in the Age of Enlightenment were rejected by male philosophers as extremist and the result of the excesses of female intimacy.

The sentiment in post-revolutionary France against secret societies of all kinds helped paint feminist and separatist organizations in general as suspiciously sapphic. This, in turn, pushed upper class and intellectual feminists into an emphasis on anti-eroticism in relations between women, seen for example in the work of Wollstonecraft and the rise of the motif of "romantic friendship" among upper class women. The portrayal of sapphic eroticism then shifted toward lower class women, framed as monstrous, and increasingly treated as criminal.

These are the fracture lines in the wake of the era of revolutions that proved a set-back to even modest feminist goals. Conventional domestic morality became identified with the political health of the state. The rejection of marriage and childbearing in favor of personal fulfilment came to be viewed as a form of treason. Those who had aligned calls for women’s equality with calls for sexual freedom, such as Wollstonecraft, were savaged in the public press as immoral.  And those women in romantic couples—whether sexual or not—who succeeded in achieving an independent household together must have felt a certain amount of pressure not to attract similar attention by raising the feminist standard.

But once more the cycle sowed the seeds of its revival. The cult of female domesticity, the ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women, the elevation of sentiment as a virtue, all of which had the surface goal of keeping women out of male-coded roles, had as a side-effect the strengthening of social bonds between women. Romantic friendships and gender-segregated educational institutions became the building blocks of what would eventually become “first wave feminism”.

Romantic friendship – as the “respectable” face of female same-sex desire – was never quite as uncritically embraced as the simple version of history would have us think. (Though neither was it universally the “yeah, sure they’re just good friends” cover story that wishful thinking suggests.) And in the tension across the 19th century between the approved and hazardous flavors of female intimate friendship, we see the framework for “lavender menace” battle lines, once first-wave feminists start making gains toward the end of the century.

As Lisa Moore lays out in her article “Something More Tender Still than Friendship,” the depiction of non-sexual romantic friendships in both fiction and non-fiction of the 19th century – rather than being either an accurate description of women’s relationships, or even an unquestioned fiction – was deployed as a shield against the specter of lesbianism. In order to maintain and protect the illusion of white middle-class heterosexual domestic purity, the ideal of romantic friendship was defined in opposition to “dangerous female friendships” or racialized models of sexually deviant women.

The power of this illusion became even more important as women began achieving some of the long-elusive goals of feminism, especially the ability to earn a living apart from the patriarchal household or heterosexual marriage. This ability created the freedom for female intimate friends to set up domestic partnerships together in numbers sufficient that the rest of society took note. Perhaps men were becoming irrelevant to women’s lives?

A common theme in the personal correspondence of later 19th century women with professional or intellectual aspirations was the impossibility of finding support for those aspirations within conventional marriage. This meant that such women—having built their most solid and long-lasting personal connections in a gender-segregated society—turned to other women for emotional, psychological, and financial support. And, due to the barriers they faced, they turned to feminist philosophy to express their frustrations and envision a better future.

Some of the social factors that bolstered first-wave feminism were byproducts of a specific historical era. The increasing industrialization of the economy affected women’s ability to support themselves, as small private businesses were forced out of the market by large-scale industries that were highly sex-segregated in employment. Related to this was the focus among middle- and upper-class social reformers on bettering the position of less fortunate women and creating wider opportunities for them. This created a context for organized institutions whose goals required finding successful strategies for social and political change. And once established, they identified many changes they wanted to work toward. Organizations to promote women’s suffrage emerged in the USA, England, and France, although they had a long struggle to success.

Demographics were another key driver of feminism in the late 19th century. Women significantly outnumbered men in both Europe and America either generally (in part due to wars) or locally (due to the differential migration of men to industrial centers and to feed colonial expansion). This meant that many women who had been socialized to rely on marriage as a life path now found themselves needing to be self-supporting and yet cut off both from many of the traditional jobs for women (that had disappeared) and from the better-paying jobs created by the new economy.

Middle-class women began expanding their presence in intellectual and clerical work, such as teaching and office work, and began agitating for equal pay in workplaces where they might find themselves earning one half to one tenth that of a man doing the same work. At the same time, we see the rise of what now are termed “pink collar” professions--jobs that were opened to women specifically because women had been socialized to accept limited working conditions for poor pay. At a more restricted level, women began demanding access to, and recognition at, professional careers such as medicine and academia.

In the mid 19th century, ideas about women’s education that had been largely intellectual exercises in previous centuries began to be put into practice. Higher education became more generally open to women (though sometimes it was necessary to create entire new institutions to do so, such as Mt. Holyoke College in the USA). By the late 19th century, one third of college students in the USA were women and most major European countries had at least some colleges that admitted women. And the vast majority of these female students were in institutions with largely female faculty.

When one surveys the women who did pursue advanced and professional studies, the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: a married woman would have less freedom to pursue such interests, as well as being subject to the time demands of motherhood. But also, women who had such ambitions may have recognized that marriage would be a distraction and roadblock.

Who did they turn to? The close, supportive, long-term relationships they already had with other women. Historical studies of the life-patterns of early first-wave feminists identify some clear prototypes: an only or oldest child whose father was supportive of her education and was the primary parental bond, and often a sense from the woman that she was serving as a substitute for the son her father would have preferred.

And here we trip over the groundwork for that generation’s “lavender menace.” This model for the “New Woman” matches fairly closely the stereotype later identified by psychoanalysts as a “cause” of lesbianism. In her study of this era, historian Lillian Faderman speculates on cause and effect. Was it that women who were attracted to other women responded more strongly to the opportunities of this sort of upbringing? Or did such an upbringing make the rejection of marriage and the expression of desire for women more attractive? Faderman notes, “Whether, as an independent, ambitious nineteenth-century woman, she began as a lesbian or as a feminist, it was very possible that she would end as both.”

At the same time, the emergence—particularly in France—of women with a public identity that can solidly be labeled “lesbian,” and the greater publication of sexually explicit material involving female couples, meant that the deniability of lesbianism was being eroded. It became less possible for the average person to be ignorant of lesbian possibilities, and therefore accusations of lesbianism became viewed as more plausible.

This is the context in which the illusory ideal of platonic romantic friendship begins to fray at the edges. These independent “new women” were passing by the dubious attractions of heterosexual marriage and establishing stable domestic partnerships that were not simply recognized as a substitute for marriage, but were overtly labeled things like “Boston marriage” or “Wellesley marriage.” Once the word “marriage” is used, it becomes more difficult to ignore the erotic potential of such relationships.

The later 19th and early 20th century are full of the names of such couples among female professionals and intellectuals. The feminist movement was teeming with them. And with backlash against the growing success of that movement we begin to regularly see charges of “mannishness” and sexual impropriety.  Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and feminist women as aggressive, ugly man-haters. Schoolgirl friendships that had been the social foundation of many a feminist power couple became pathologized even by those same movement leaders. Some feminists tried to rework the accusations of “mannishness,” depicting a type of affirmative female masculinity that marginalized same-sex sexuality. Others seized on a type of respectability politics that tied the feminist movement to moralizing goals such as the prohibition of alcohol, or campaigns against pornography. Ah yes, the sex wars. Is this starting to sound familiar?


In summary, feminism and female same-sex desire have been part of a long, tangled dance. The cycles that I’ve depicted here are, perhaps, not as clear-cut and distinct as I’ve made them seem. Feminism may have waves, but the ocean has always been present underneath. Reactionary responses to accusations of lesbianism are all the more ironic given how solidly each feminist wave has been rooted in social and emotional bonds between women—including between pairs of women whose bond encompassed romance and sometimes sexuality. And attempts to distance feminist movements from those accusations have always failed, not simply because there were lesbians present, but because the problem was never the lesbians but the stigma on lesbianism. To be aware of the historic pattern is the first step to breaking the cycle. The lavender menace has never been a menace to feminism but to the illusion that you can engage in revolution and remain respectable.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The changing focus of feminist activism across the centuries
  • Different ways in which feminism was attacked
  • The rationale behind accusing feminists of lesbianism
  • Cycles of activism and backlash

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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