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Looking back at Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men

Monday, April 20, 2020 - 10:00

Every once in a while, a researcher thinks, "I'd really like to know what the author of this text thinks about it now." And sometimes--though rarely--that request is answered. I know that there are things I've written in the past, in the context of this blog, that I might word differently today, or look at from a different angle. Every sociological study is a reflection not simply of its content, but of the place where the researcher is standing at the time of writing.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1999. "Surpassing the Love of Men Revisited" in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 6.2 p.26.

Back when I was blogging Faderman’s 1981 book and expressing a certain amount of frustration with what I felt was an undue and overly sharp distinction between women who felt romantic love for each other and women who had sex with each other, I wondered if any of Faderman’s ideas on the topic had changed over the decades.

So I was intrigued to discover this article, published in 1999, that addressed that question directly. It’s still only a partial answer to my question, having been written 18 years after the book came out, while another 20 years have passed since then. And it’s rather different from the answer I expected. Because a large part of it sums up as “why did all these people misunderstand my book and think I was making a sharp distinction between relationships between women based on whether genital sex was involved?” To which I can only say, “I read through the book in great detail at two different times in my life and got that impression both times, so just maybe it was an understanding that was inherent in the text as written?”

But never mind. Here’s Faderman’s look-back.

Faderman’s book came out of several articles she wrote on the topic of love between women, how that love was expressed in literature and correspondence, how and when love between women became pathologized by sexological theory, and how self-conscious lesbian identity arose within that context. The work had come from a very personal place for her: entering the lesbian social world in the 1950s at a time when that identity was still heavily stigmatized and working through the process in the decades that followed of embracing lesbian identity as a positive force.

Having encountered expressions of romantic love between women in her study of 19th century literature, Faderman decided to tackle the question of how and why the phenomenon could shift from being universally condoned in Western culture, to universally condemned.

Faderman notes that when she wrote StLoM she could not imagine how much the world would change on the subject within her own lifetime, and admits that if she had it to write over again, she would do it differently. The following points are specifically noted as places where she now feels she erred.

She feels she did not give sufficient credit to the social and political work of the “homophile” organizations of the mid-century, only seeing them as conservative and old fashioned from the point of view of a ‘70s activist. She also regrets not being able to find any material on women of color to include in the book (and provides a number of references now available on that topic).

Faderman notes that the field of queer theory--which had not yet been developed when StLoM was written--now better engages with the historic fluidity and flexibility of sexuality and affectionality through history. That she had tried to present love between women across the centuries as a contradiction to a false homosexual/heterosexual divide. But that she feels the “queer movement” has the potential to uphold essentialist concepts and to continue to “other” people identified as queer, while her work had been intended to demonstrate a continuum. To point out that desire between women has been common in any era and culture that has not been actively hostile to same-sex love. While some of the subjects of her book she now feels would have identified today as “queer”, others would have rejected the idea that they were in any way distinct from the generality of women in their own culture.

One goal of StLoM was to demonstrate the extent to which the expression of sexual and romantic desire reflects the culture in which it exists. In eras that were friendly to the concept of love between women, it was virtually universal. In eras that were hostile, it was treated as abnormal and was pathologized. But that the underlying feelings were not different in kind.

Seeing the fluidity of people’s identities and affective connections within the context of the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, she felt validated in the conclusion that--when not suppressed--every woman was capable of experiencing desire for other women. But, she acknowledges, this was driven in part by that experience being a personal truth for her.

Faderman protests that her work was misunderstood by those who accused it of reducing to the question of “did they or didn’t they [have genital sex]?” While other critics felt that the book promulgated a false position of “no sex before 1900.”

[Note: here I will point out that if so many people--including me--took away this misunderstanding, perhaps the fault was in the text, not the reading.]

Faderman claims that her strategy was to take the position that whether or not we can “prove” genital sex between women, the demonstrable strength of their emotional and sensual attachments qualified them as progenitors of the later lesbian-feminist movement. That she was not denying the possibility of genital sexuality between women in the 19th century, only qualifying the impossibility of proving it except in very limited cases. She goes on to reiterate what she had intended to argue in StLoM:

  • That we cannot know whether specific historic women had genital sex with each other in most cases;
  • That we can know that many women had intense, passionate, and erotic relationships with women, and that these were common and widespread before same-sex relations were morbidified;
  • That it doesn’t matter for our purposes whether they had genital sex (even the sexologists didn’t make genital sex a prerequisite for identifying someone as lesbian);
  • That the most significant feature of lesbian relationships have always been intense, committed emotional bonds;
  • And that regardless of whether genital sex was involved, women in passionate committed relationships in the historical record can be considered “foremothers” of women in intimate same-sex relationships today.

Faderman admits that one driving force for her book was to create a “usable past” for contemporary women and hopes that, despite the book’s flaws, she was able to do that.