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Lesbian Separatists of the French Revolution

Monday, January 25, 2021 - 07:00

In an era when men intrested in homosexual encounters were creating subcultures, meeting places, and social institutions such as "molly houses,"  there are vanishingly few indications that women with sapphic interests had anything similar. Except in the popular imagination. In fictional works such as L'Espion Anglois and in satirical political tracts, the image of an entire secret society of lesbians was developed. Was there any foundation of truth to these imagined lesbian sex clubs? Likely not on the scale depicted, though perhaps on a smaller more personal level. But the ability to imagine such a thing is telling in itself, and the separatist "Anandrine sect" entered the popular imagination.

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Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan. 2001. “’Au sein de vos pareilles’: Sapphic Separatism in Late Eighteenth-Century France” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3

Lanser, Susan. 2001. “’Au sein de vos pareilles’: Sapphic Separatism in Late Eighteenth-Century France”

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

Lanser’s argument in this article is that during the 18th century, this understanding shifted from tribades being “man-like’ to an awareness and concern that female homoeroticism might be an alliance of like with like, excluding the male entirely. As part of the shift in how gender was conceived of during the Age of Enlightenment, the ideology of sexual difference implied and required that women could not act “like a man” because the sexes were inherently different.

This developing view of female homoeroticism operated in parallel with the libertine depiction of female same-sex intimacy, which treated it as operating in relation to heterosexuality: women engage in lesbian sex because of proximity to women and the unavailability of men, but the act exists either to prepare them for heterosexual relations or as entertainment for a male voyeur (either within the text, or the reader). Libertine philosophy proposed that all women were capable of enjoying sex with women, but that it inevitably existed in relation to men.

This shift in understanding begins to be reflected in dictionary definitions of “tribade” in the mid 18th century where, in contrast to earlier definitions, the word is defined as the “name given to lascivious women who try to obtain among themselves pleasures they can receive only from the other sex.” (1755). The tribade is no longer behaving “like a man” but she also is no longer allowed the possibility of achieving or providing full sexual satisfaction (as that would require the presence of a male analogue). Even that partial satisfaction is denied in the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française which defines tribade as “a woman who violates another woman” introducing a predatory theme. Other texts of the era describe “an inexplicable passion”.

Lanser asserts that this represents a change in understanding from the tribade as a man-like figure to the tribade as rejecting men and creating exclusively female spaces. In the 17th century, sapphism was attributed to women due to “masculine” ambitions and intellectual accomplishments, and especially to those holding feminist positions. But by the later 18th century, rather than feminism implying sapphic interests, sapphism is treated as essentially feminist. This manifests in the 1770s and 1780s in texts that depict tribades not as isolated individuals or couples, but as voluntary communities and secret societies.

The foremost example of these is the story within Mairobert’s L’Espion anglois in which the woman-only sapphic Anandrine sect is presented and described. The word “anandrine” (literally “without men” or “without husbands”) reflects this image of tribades as not simply lovers of women but haters or rejectors of men. They form societies to support each other and to protect other women from men by bringing them into the sect.

 The Anandrine sect is envisioned as a complex expansive community, given an ancient history, and with a clearly defined mandate to expand its influence. Sapphism is no longer a matter of isolated sex acts but has become an entire way of life in a separatist society. (Keep in mind that this text is almost certainly fictitious, as Lanser notes.) But the realism of the narrative, and its references to actual women known to have had sapphic relations, encouraged widespread belief in the truth of the Anandrine sect at the time and after.

The image of the organized and collective Anandrine society was taken up in fiction at the end of the 18th century, appearing as a positive and supportive experience for the characters (though within either a pornographic or satiric context for the overall narrative). Underlying this positive experience for the female participants was the implication of hostility toward men. But the narratives undermine the attraction of separatist society either by revealing it to be a lie, or by having the young accolytes leave for the attractions of heterosexuality (even though those attractions may turn out to be treacherous).

In contrast to previous associations of female power with sapphism, in which same-sex attraction was depicted as a hazard of all-female societies, this late 18th century trope depicts sapphism as an essential foundation for a feminist utopia. Lanser explores the connection of these texts with the political polemics against Marie-Antoinette that depicted her (supposed) sexual relationships with women as being founded on destructive impulses toward society in general, in revenge for their love being despised.

Another connection the pre-revolutionary sapphic texts make is with the place of women in Freemasonry. Although 18th century Freemasons generally excluded women, France authorized some women-centered lodges whose ceremonies sometimes invoked Amazon symbolism and called for rejection of the patriarchy. There are symbolic parallels between the women’s lodges of the mid 1770s to 1780s and the Anandrine rituals depicted in texts of a similar era. A direct connection was made in a 1775 reference to a Masonic “Lodge of Lesbos” that implied same-sex erotics via a reference to Roman author Juvenal.

Lanser suggests that the use of Masonic imagery to describe sapphic societies reflects anxiety about both groups. The female Masonic groups were, in actual fact, carefully managed to maintain male supervision and control, and were never exclusively female. But the fictitious sapphic separatist societies could be viewed as the hazard that control was meant to ward off in the face of hypothetical principles of equality. But in some ways, the homosocial nature of organizations like the Freemasons may have precipitated a gender segregation, in contrast to the gender-integrated salons, which resulted in both the reality and the fantasy of women banding together in separatist organizations. In combination with the rising theory of gender difference that viewed men and women as inherently incomprehensible to each other, the same principles meant to support modern patriarchal structures may have inadvertently promoted the conditions for sapphic separatism.

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