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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 40d - Class and Models of Lesbian Desire

Saturday, November 23, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 133 (previously 40d) - Class and Models of Lesbian Desire - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/11/23 - listen here)

There are a vast number of historical lesbian archetypes--always keeping in mind that I’m not necessarily talking about historic people who would have identified as “lesbian” but of people and lives who have resonance for modern readers who enjoy stories about women who love women. When we think of people like the women in a Boston Marriage, or a cross-dressing “female husband”, or the doomed swaggering seductive temptress of a decadent French novel, there is a tendency to imagine those archetypes as being the image of the lesbian in their particular era and culture.

This isn’t the case, any more than a particular era has only one model of what it means to be heterosexual. But in examining these archetypes in isolation, another thing we can lose sight of is that each model arises out of a particular set of cultural circumstances, and not all women had the opportunity to participate in all of their era’s lesbian archetypes. From the point of view of an author, the circumstances of your character’s birth affect what their options are likely to be for expressing same-sex love.

Today’s discussion explores the importance of class in lesbian archetypes. Which roles would a woman be able to inhabit? By “class” I mean not only economic status, but different social strata that brought both beliefs and expectations about one’s life path and goals. All of these factors changed over time. In order to know what your character’s expectations are--or what sort of character will best fit the plot you envision--you need to examine the setting in time, geography, and social context.

I’m going to look at five factors that intertwine in complex ways: understandings of sexuality, money, family structure, agency with regard to marriage, and access to economic independence. This won’t be an exhaustive catalog of the possibilities, but rather a set of contrasts and comparisons that inform how a woman might think about same-sex relationships and what her options are for engaging in them. As usual, my focus is primarily on Europe and the European-colonized era in America. I don’t feel I have enough of a deep understanding of other regions to do a similar analysis.


One of the more essential features of class difference in history can be beliefs about the sexuality of people of different classes. Does a culture believe that working-class people have a more intense or less controlled sex drive than upper-class people? This was true at certain times. Or does a culture view upper-class people as given to wild decadence and libertine sex lives, as contrasted with the down-to-earth morality of the poor? This also was true at certain times.

Cultural beliefs about the innate sexuality of people of different classes aren’t rooted in some sort of truth and don’t even necessarily reflect statistical reality. But they shape people’s self-image as well as shaping how others react to their behavior. When the image of chaste female Romantic Friendship was celebrated among middle-class British and American society, it was understood to be in contrast to the less “elevated” sensibilities of the lower classes and foreigners. The famous trial of Woods and Pirie concluded that it was inappropriate to even imagine nice, educated, middle-class women having sex with each other, but acknowledged that such things were done by the lower classes.

The libertine sexuality of the English and French courts in the late 17th and early 18th century included an assumption that both men and women were capable of sexual desire for any gender. But those ideas existed in parallel with a growing religiously-inspired sexual conservatism that was more popular among the middle and working classes.

So when you’re developing your historic character, you can’t assume that there’s a single attitude toward same-sex sexuality in your setting. How will people react to her desire for other women? How will they interpret it? How much will that depend on who she is?


In 21st century western culture, we’re accustomed to the idea that wealth can make everything easier and more possible. Whether we view wealth and class as distinct or as linked concepts, modern fiction tends to separate the abstract concept of wealth from the social contexts in which it is acquired.

Money buys us privacy; it insulates us from the opinions of others; and it goes quite a ways toward insulating us from legal consequences for our actions. Especially if wealth is inherited, we can treat it as a neutral character asset, like beauty or a good sense of humor.

But historically wealth has been closely tied to class in various ways, and class in turn affected self-identity and expected life paths. If a person’s wealth came from membership in a hereditary land-owning aristocracy, it came with strong expectations regarding one’s family role and the need to help create alliances and networks to maintain that status. Opting out of those responsibilities generally meant opting out of the benefits of the family wealth.

When the world turned, and wealth became associated with the rise of a middle-class mercantile or industrial class, one of the features of those groups was an aspirational upward mobility that often embraced stricter ideas of moral behavior than the aristocracy, even as they viewed their material success as distinguishing them from the lower classes.

So the same wealth that might, in theory, provide freedom and protection from popular disapproval of one’s sexuality, might bring with it an increased expectation to subordinate one’s personal desires to the goals of the family. Or the social aspirations that money made possible might be undermined by any appearance of deviating from expected behavior.

Furthermore, in past eras, wealth and its benefits were not easily portable. It could be difficult to continue to enjoy the benefits of money if you walked away from the institutions and social structures it was tied to. And someone with no apparent social or familial ties who shows up in town with a large fortune will likely be under more scrutiny for unusual behavior rather than less.

So you can’t necessarily solve the hazards of your historic character’s sexuality simply by throwing money at them. You need to consider how they obtained that money, what they need to do to maintain it, and what additional restrictions and burdens come with it.


The question of money leads naturally into issues of family structure and responsibilities, as well as household structures. How do these questions differ for different classes? And how do they enable or hinder different types of same-sex relationships?

In the realm of historical fiction, we often imagine that marriage obligations to further dynastic goals are restricted to royalty, or at least to the aristocracy. But especially in the pre-modern era--before the rise of industrialism--the creation of personal connections between families via marriage or other relationships had vital consequences for the economy and stability of the larger group as well as the individual. Heterosexual marriage was a way of exchanging resources between families and securing expectations of loyalty or assistance. Marriage established financial arrangements for the transmission of wealth to the next generation. Those arrangements could continue to bind the members of extended families in mutually beneficial contracts for generations to come.

This held true not only for middle class mercantile and craft families, but for rural agricultural families as well. So a specific woman’s life choices to marry a man or not could affect her entire extended family. In eras when participation in those extended family networks was critical to one’s personal success, as well as being driven by family feelings, it could seem only natural to subordinate personal taste to the greater good.

Conversely, the economic and familial bonding aspects of heterosexual marriage meant that the people engaging in it didn’t necessarily expect marriage to fulfill their emotional or erotic needs. Due to patriarchal interests in being certain of parentage, there was a great deal of scrutiny on women who looked to men to fill those needs, but for the same reason there was far less concern if they looked to other women.

And the inter-family bonds across all classes were not restricted to marriage, though as usual, the nature of those bonds differed by class. In working class families of the pre-industrial era, it was common for adolescents of any gender to spend time working outside the family home, either as a formal apprentice, or as a domestic servant, or as something halfway between the two. It was usual for a young woman in this type of arrangement to be part of a group of age-mates in the same position, who would share living space (including sharing beds) and perhaps make friendships that would affect the course of their lives.

Among the land-owning classes and aristocracy, similar arrangements brought even younger children into the household of a family connection (ideally, one of higher status) to learn manners, household management, and build ties of alliance perhaps including marriage to a scion of the family. We see a deeply emotional bond between two women who likely met in this context in the funeral monument of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in the 15th century.

Marriage and Employment

One topic where class can make a significant difference is in marriage options. Does a person have a say in whether or not they get married? How much choice do they have of one suitor or another? What are their options if they choose not to marry? While historic women might view heterosexual marriage as compatible with same-sex romance, the readers of historic fiction tend to feel uncomfortable around any pairing that doesn’t involve romantic love (at least in the end). So if the goal is to have your character find an unremarkable way to opt out of heterosexual marriage, it helps to know the options that are appropriate to her class.

A woman born into the upper classes will generally have less agency in marriage options than other classes. But this includes a higher likelihood of remaining unmarried if no appropriate suitor is available. During some eras, the narrow requirements for a suitable husband meant that large numbers of daughters of the landowning classes went unmarried. Alternately, a planned marriage might fall through for reasons of social politics. At the same time she’s less likely to have the ability or inclination to simply reject marriage for reasons of personal preference. When there’s no expectation that a heterosexual woman will marry for love, it seems less likely that lack of interest in men entirely would be considered a reason not to marry. And even alternate arrangements like entering a religious life rely on family cooperation, rather than being a matter of personal choice.

Among the working classes, one of the most common reasons for a woman not marrying is insufficient finances to set up an independent household. The most typical method of funding marriage might differ depending on era or region--in northern Europe she might be working for wages to “earn a nest egg” and argue that she hasn’t met her target yet. In southern Europe it might be more expected that a dowry would be provided by the family or through charity. Both of these might fail for various reasons.

The circumstances of a middle-class woman’s life would be affected strongly by era, location, and the precise nature of her family’s status. But it might be a useful generalization to say that she has more agency to refuse a suitor, to choose a self-supporting career, or to remain an unmarried participant in a relative’s household. In the middle ages, middle class women could be independent business women or craftswomen. In the 19th century, the option of a career in social or intellectual pursuits gradually became more available. But conversely, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a middle class woman would find it harder to be economically independent of her family.

Upper class women rarely had the option of working to support themselves. Not only was it simply Not Done, but they often didn’t have access to the skills and training to do anything other than manage a household.

Popular Tropes

So what about some of the popular literary tropes for getting your woman-loving-woman free of the social constraints of heteronormativity?

One very popular trope in f/f historical romance for allowing your characters a Happily Ever After ending is for one of the women to pass as a man. Setting aside, for the moment, the complicated question of gender disguise versus transgender identity, this option comes with some significant consequences. For one, changing your identity--whether it involves gender or not--means walking away from all the resources, support, and connections of your former life. In our hyper-mobile, individualistic world today, it can be difficult to realize just how drastic an action that would be in past ages.

Remember what I said about wealth being tied to land for the upper classes? You can’t just pick that up and take it with you. Nor can that type of wealth be suddenly bequeathed to a complete “stranger” who suddenly appears with a deed of sale. There’s a place in Anne Lister’s diary where she fantasizes about disguising herself as a man in order to marry one of her lovers. But she recognizes that it would mean walking away Shibden Hall, from any sort of financial security, and from the family heritage that she was so proud of. That’s a major roadblock.

In the pre-industrial era, even middle-class wealth was often in non-portable forms. Making a break with your former self meant starting from scratch, not only in employment, but in reputation and all the sorts of ties that make the difference between isolation and a social safety net. The closer you kept to the places and life you were familiar with, the greater the risk of being recognized by someone from your former life. And across vast swathes of time and in many places, being “not from around here” was a substantial handicap for success. It made getting employment harder and it often brought attention from the local authorities--something that passing women might want to avoid.

Changing one’s identity was easier, in some ways, for a woman who had little to lose: the poor or those who had lost family support and ties for some other reason. But you still needed to be able to support yourself and--since we’re talking about writing romance here--support the woman you love.

There’s a reason why a significant proportion of the early known examples of passing women correspond to the rise of professional military forces in the 17th century. Military recruits were often in short enough supply that they were given little scrutiny, and a military career could easily take you far from your origins. But from the point of view of establishing a same-sex relationship, military life had its own hazards.

One of the reasons for the popularity of gender-disguise plots in the American West--in addition to the simple popularity of the western setting in general--is that most people had the same starting point: they’d left their previous lives behind and were all establishing new identities. In a sense, the westward expansion erased many differences of class. But this show is about when class does matter, so let’s move on.

The concept of Romantic Friendship, which has such lovely potential to be a smokescreen for same-sex relationships, was enacted in different ways in different eras and among different classes. For middle-class women, economic changes in the 19th century made it more possible for two supposedly single women to establish an independent household together. Indeed, the economic savings of combining households offered cover to working women that wealthy women of a higher class didn’t have the same access to.

Aristocratic women of the 17th and 18th century might extol the importance of female bonds, as poet Katherine Philips did with her “Society of Friendship”, but they rarely had an economic basis that would enable them to avoid marriage in favor of their passionate female friends. When they could--as in the case of the late 18th century “Ladies of Llangollen”, it was typically due to family support and might be tenuously dependent on the continuing good will of a relative.

But similarly, before the rise of the “new woman” in the later 19th century, and increased economic options for middle class women, their romantic ties to other women often had to take second place to family obligations that provided a home and livelihood.

Putting Class Models Into Practice

I played on a lot of these class differences in developing the various characters and relationships in my Alpennia series. Jeanne de Cherdillac plays on the archetype of the decadent aristocrat. She is allowed to be entertainingly scandalous, to some degree, but also has a marriage in her past. Margerit Sovitre uses wealth as an excuse to avoid marriage, and balances on the edge of using middle-class respectability to deflect suspicion about her personal life. And Rozild Pairmen, the heroine of Floodtide, is a working-class girl who falls in love in the close quarters of the servants’ hall. No one will brush her relationship off as a pure and innocent romantic friendship because one doesn’t expect her sort to have that sort of refined sensibilities. All three archetypes--and more--co-exist in their own spheres of society. The circumstances of their births and the paths of their lives affect how they are able to establish and enjoy relationships with other women. And yet each has a path to happiness.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The place of class in archetypes of lesbianism and same-sex desire
  • How class affects perceptions of sexuality
  • Class and money: who has it, what do then need to do to keep it?
  • Class and family responsibility: how do different groups balance individualism and group identity?
  • How does class influence marriage options, and the ability to reject them?
  • How does class affect the potential for economic independence?
  • Working through the dynamics of class in some popular lesbian historical archetypes

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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