Skip to content Skip to navigation


Wednesday, September 2, 2020 - 07:00

As noted in Monday's blog, I'm giong to post the sections of this work on a somewhat irregular schedule as I finish them. The writeups are too long for a single post, but I don't want this series of four books to drag out for months on end. So I won't quite complete one book per week. Maybe one every two weeks.

It's fascinating to see French and English sexual culture laid out in parallel so deliberately (and not simply because they're the cultures the author had available sources on). Given how closely connected these two traditional rivals were, the contrasts in social and sexual dynamics shed useful light on the diversity of sexual cultures even within a narrow scope. For an author of historical fiction, these contrasts can be extremely useful. Have your characters interact with people from a neighboring culture whose differences give you a chance to depict the attitudes of your setting and protagonists. Have them travel and encounter new ideas. Have them read books or letters that broaden their minds (or for them to disagree with!). Have your English women react with both shock and envy at the apparent social freedom of French ladies. Have your French characters find community among other women whose marriages offer them no sense of companionship or affection. Build up a slow burn with long affectionate letters of amitié.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2

Part 1: Sexualized Models of Female Intimacy

Chapter 1: The Tribade, the Hermaphrodite, and Other “Lesbian” Figures in Medical and Legal Discourse

John Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” demonstrates how the image of sexual relations between women was contained by treating it as autoerotic (i.e., because it is based on similarity, the women in essence love themselves) and barren, while also safely locating women’s same-sex desire in the past. But works like this are part of a growing cultural awareness of female homosexuality. There is an increase in prosecutions of women for sodomy in France and elsewhere on the continent, alongside translations of classical sources mentioning tribadism, medical interest in the clitoris, concern with regulating non-procreative sex (especially masturbation), and the emergency of pornography as a literature, especially featuring sex between women.

These movements contradict the oft-cited presumption that sex between women was rarely represented before the 19th century. There is a wealth of representation in law, classics, medical, libertine, and erotic pseudoscientific texts, all of which fed into the new genre of pornography. French sources were particularly rich in these themes.

The idea that women could satisfy their erotic desires without men (which meant without pregnancy or risk of venereal disease) provoked anxiety for the institution of marriage and reproduction.  This linkage of f/f sex with fears of marriage resistance and avoidance of reproduction began to link feminism with accusations of anti-maternalism.

France had, perhaps, the longest tradition of legal prosecution of f/f sex, though early laws confusingly transfer male-specific language to their discussion of female sodomy. Both the language of laws and the prescribed punishments were often worded in ways that obscured the exact nature of the acts being punished.  Wahl mentions the medieval story of Yde and Olive as an example of anxiety about “what women do”. [Note: This seems a bit out of place in the timeline, but she’s recapitulating the entire French history of legal attitudes toward female sodomy.] French legal cases in the mid 16th to mid 17th century often revolve around gender disguise or suspicions of physiological hermaphroditism, which were interpreted under the definition of sodomy.

But the legal premise [as it had evolved by this date] that sodomy required penetration conflicted with the libertine position that female couples could not have satisfying sex because penetration was not involved. This may have contributed to the rising popular image of the “phallic clitoris” as well as a fascination with dildoes. These created a sexual transgression that was worthy of condemnation.

England stands apart in its absence of legal references to female homosexuality and a lack of prosecutions for it. One can find, in fact, a deliberate omission of f/f possibilities in statutes adapted from texts on both homosexuality and bestiality, where the originals treated men and women as potentially equally participating in both, but the English adaptation mentions women only with regard to bestiality. Various opinions are noted for this relative lack of legal interest in women’s same-sex activities. But England was also, in practice, more tolerant of m/m relations in this era, and in both cases tended to displace the image of homosexuality onto foreign cultures, locations, and individuals.

Legal discourse began to lean on medical “expert witness” to guide questions of gender/sexuality. French cases are cited where medical examination “saved” women from punishment for female sodomy by supposedly demonstrating that they were hermaphrodites.

There was a growing concern about a link between anatomy and f/f sex. In this context, a new theory arose that f/f sex and female masturbation could causeclitoral enlargement, not simply be enabled by it. This was linked to an Arabic tradition of medical writings that associated the clitoris with excess of female desire. The source of these texts then created an association of enlarged clitorises with Arabic, Egyptian, and African women and introduced the idea of treatment by clitoridectomy (though this “treatment” did not become an established European practice until later).

If f/f sex could create “masculine” anatomy that then enabled penetrative sex, then maybe it wasn’t quite so “barren” after all. When tribadism could be viewed as nothing more than mutual masturbation, it wasn’t dangerous to heterosexual institutions, but if it could replace the penis, that was another matter. This shift in imagery also created the idea that the effects of f/f sex were inevitably “visible” on the body. The idea of clitoral hypertrophy entered English texts in the 17th century but wasn’t accompanied by any call to create penalties against its supposed use. English texts often othered the phenomenon entirely and claimed that English women didn’t exhibit it. [Note: This may have been a consequence of English authors engaging in scientific observation and failing to identify actual examples, while still presenting foreign descriptions as fact.]

But with the influx of French culture at the restoration of the English monarchy, the idea of f/f desire as an “open secret” took hold in England.  During this same era, the image of the hermaphrodite expanded from an anatomical concept to an allegorical one, representing the dissolution of gender boundaries and becoming an icon of sexual deviance. [Note: My reading has suggested that the metaphorical hermaphrodite arose as an image in England in the early 17th century, if not earlier, and was well established by the Restoration.]

Medical interest in both “normal” and “deviant” anatomy became a cover for prurient interests, and the boundary between medical texts and pornography became fuzzy. Another culturally relevant feature of these medical texts is that they increasingly appeared in the vernacular language, providing a wider reach into (literate) society. Focus on the clitoris came to replace the idea of the hermaphrodite as a representation of anxiety about lesbianism. If the clitoris gave all women the ability to satisfy themselves and each other, what of men?

The theory that stimulation caused enlargement of the clitoris turned attention to masturbation in general. 18th century texts encouraged schoolmistresses to keep an eye out for the practice among students. Such texts both denied that masturbation was common among women and spread the knowledge of its possibility. This is only one example of the generally contradictory nature of the genre.

Semi-pornographic “confession” letters about masturbation (and f/f sex, though the distinction was not always clear) tied sexual knowledge to the practice of reading, as well as well as to cross-class relationships. The framing of such activities as “masturbation” diverted attention from the homosexual nature of the context.

In the mid 18th century in England there was a rise of “female husband” stories. Images of female homosexuality expanded to include passing women and the demimonde of actresses and prostitutes. The idea of the clitoral tribade was split off to form an idea of monstrosity apart from everyday social experience.

Chapter 2 - Representations of the Tribade in Libertine Literature

In parallel with medical interest in the hermaphrodite and tribade, French libertine literature and “gallant” literature “rediscovered” the tribade via classical sources and Italian pornographic literature. Meanwhile, in England, poets such as John Donne and Ben Jonson used the images of the tribade or fricatrice in satire and erotic writing. Playwright and poet Aphra Behn used the idea of the hermaphrodite to explore f/f desire. These uses are not new, but expand on images of f/f desire in Renaissance and classical literature.

One can find several organizing themes within these literary representations, especially viewing f/f desire as a passing developmental stage that gives way to heterosexuality, or as a consequence of gender play or gender disguise, or as a mythological motif. Homoeroticism could be found in plays, romances, and poetry, with both men and women depicted as enjoying desire for both sexes.

Homoerotic themes on the stage are well studied. Wahl looks instead at the specific genre of libertine writings, that focus on explicitly erotic representations and use the tribade as a “scandalous” and transgressive figure. The authors are primarily male, with Aphra Behn being the notable exception in writing openly of f/f desire and interrogating the misogyny and gender constraints that her contemporaries were swimming in.

French libertine writers presented themselves as direct observers/reporters and took at least the appearance of a moral stance, following the tone of the medical literature. They set themselves u as judges of “natural” law to identify those who broke it. Historians often treat this genre either as erotic fantasies or as defamatory gossip while accepting the “amused tolerance” of their stance as sincere. Thus, these historians consider libertine writings on f/f desire to demonstrate its insignificance and inconsequentiality. Wahl argues for seeing a more complex reaction that reveals the men’s desires and fears around f/f sex.

Several specific texts are examined, starting with Brantôme, who pretty much catalogs the libertine views of female sexuality. He combines classical literary examples with contemporary anecdotes, depicting f/f sex simultaneously as a rediscovery of classical practices and as a foreign import from Italy. He adopts a geographic polarity: southern cultures are more passionate, northern ones less adventurous. But sexual knowledge could be transmitted between them like a disease. [Note: Of course, in turn, when English writers tackled the “transmission” theory of f/f sex, they saw France as the source of infection.]

Brantôme raises the question of whether f/f sex constitutes adultery. (A great deal of his work focuses on extramarital sex in general, in line with gallantculture.) He primarily presents f/f sex as a preferred alternative to adultery with men, but also alleges that it can be a symptom or a cause of uncontrolled desire in general. But then he sidesteps the implications of this by focusing on f/f sex as an outlet for virgins and widows, whose activities wouldn’t challenge the institution of marriage.

F/f sex is ok “in the absence of men”, but even depicting it as a “safe” outlet undermines the assertion that f/f sex can’t compete with m/f sex. He repeatedly fails to integrate the idea that f/f desire inevitably gives way to m/f relationships with the actual anecdotes he presents in which women are deeply devoted to each other.

Brantôme echoes Italian erotic literature in depicting f/f sex as an “apprenticeship” to unrestrained sex with men, linking tribades and prostitutes via voyeuristic anecdotes in which his descriptions focus on a male observer. Woven throughout Brantôme’s anecdotes are the message that women will be punished for their same-sex acts, not by an external justice, but as an inevitable “natural” consequence. Dildoes cause fatal injury, discovery brings humiliation.

Brantôme’s terminology for f/f sex is slippery. Though terms like “tribade” and “fricatrice” are used, they don’t clearly align with specific practices he describes and may be used allegorically in ways that remove actual women’s sexuality from the picture. We also see this in the poems by Donne, Woodward, and Jonson in which the female image of the Muse introduces the same-sex element. These (male) English poets, while using lesbian imagery, are not clearly speaking of f/f sex at all. [Note: And yet, even the use of lesbian imagery in a figurative sense reflects or creates an awareness of the possibilities in life.]

Wahl addresses two assumptions to contradict them: that female homosexuality was not an “available category” in early modern England, and that the few clear examples of f/f sex stand apart from other forms of transgressive sexuality. She specifically challenges Alan Bray’s assertion that female and male homosexuality were not linked in the early modern imagination.

She notes Traub’s contrast between “tribade sexuality” involving some degree of masculine performance, and “femme” desire, that had no physical signifier (whether in dress, in the use of a dildo, or in being marked on the body via the clitoris).  “Femme” modes were easier to view as compatible with a normative life path ending in reproductive sexuality. Traub’s polarities are blurred in Donne’s poem “Sapho to Philaenis” and in Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda”. These two works also bookend a period of relative tolerance for f/f sex, prior to the rise of satirical takes in the early 18th century. [Note: Given the relative paucity of material, I’m not sure how solidly one can speak of a “period of relative tolerance” when it also included things like Jonson’s attack on Cecelia Bulstrode.]

Donne envisions an “innocent” self-loving relationship between Sapho and Philaenis that explicitly contrasts with m/f sex as “leaving a mark”. The imagery is utopian. Behn blurs the polarities by envisioning a gender-fluid Clarinda who leans “masculine” when actively pursuing desire of a female beloved, while being viewed as a safely “innocent” target of a woman’s affection. The poem praises Clarinda in alternately male and female terms: female beauty, but male-coded behavior.  She is desirable to both men and women because she is both male and female. Behn’s use of a plural subject as the observer intimates that all women might be drawn to Clarinda, and that they may remain innocent in that love as they love a woman, not a man.

[Note: It occurs to me that part of the “is lesbianism dangerous” dilemma for writers in this era boils down to a dual meaning of “inconsequence”. If f/f sex is inconsequential/unimportant then it isn’t a challenge to reproductive sex, but becausef/f sex is free of “consequence” whether pregnancy, venereal disease, or simply being categorized as adultery, it has inherent advantages over f/m sex. I think this is one of the things Wahl is arguing, but I wanted to restate it in my own words to fix it in my head.]

Behn’s references in the Clarinda poem to Chloris/Alexis (stock pastoral figures) and Hermes/Aphrodite raise the image of the hermaphroditic hybrid who can be lover to either sex while belonging to neither. But Behn can’t escape the cultural framing that views desire for a woman (or active sexual desire in general) as inherently masculine, while framing f/f relations as “innocent” and “friendship” as opposed to passion.

French libertine poets offer another angle on f/f love but one that fits securely with the assumption of ultimate m/f triumph. F/f bonds are defined within a conventional romance dynamic, but designed for a male audience. F/f love is not to be consummated, it is self imposed suffering, it falls short of “the real thing”. They do wrong to refuse themselves to men. But within this context, f/f love is depicted as tender, egalitarian, and bewildering to men.

The themes of an almost sympathetic tolerance of f/f love and an insistence on heterosexual conversion come to a point in the dramatic and poetic works of Benserade. Written for a libertine audience (both male and female) he ventures to depict happy f/f relations, as in Iphis and Ianthe (though only Iphis is consciously aware of the same-sex aspect), while still promising a heterosexual resolution. (The couple is allowed a happy wedding night as women, but Iphis’s sex-change is still required to make the marriage itself possible.)

Benserade also wrote about losing a female lover to another woman and this work sharply depicts the limits of male sympathy within the complex reasons why he finds the desertion offensive. He could bear losing his lover to a man, but is miffed that a woman’s love could be strong enough to steal her away. He consoles himself that his lover will inevitably be abandoned in turn for a man. He asserts that women are incomplete without a man and therefore two incomplete things can’t achieve completion together. [Note: In the male-authored texts comparing f/f and f/m love, one can see the underpinnings of a major motif in modern biphobia: that a woman who is capable of desiring both women and men will inevitably, at some point, choose men over women. Within the time-scope of Wahl’s study, this isn’t a question of “men can offer marriage and women can’t” because the entire debate concerns gallantrelations apart from marriage.]

In summary, these representations of f/f sexuality illustrate an increasing awareness of the potential for sexual and erotic relations between women, with a consequent concern for policing non-reproductive sexuality, represented in the form of the clitoris. Yet within this context, there are glimpses of the ability to imagine f/f love in utopian terms, even if “invisible”. The conflict is between visibility and consequent male anxiety on the one side, and invisibility and hence inconsequentialness on the other.

Time period: 
Monday, August 31, 2020 - 07:00

Having finished up the long list of journal articles acquired in my last trip to the JSTOR terminal at the U.C. Berkeley library, back in the Before Times, rather than continue my original plan to read some more theory oriented books, I've lined up four books generally on the theme of the intersection between friendship and desire in the last four centuries. (Primarily, as usual, focusing on England/France and a bit of the USA in the later part of the scope.)

Wahl's book is the first of these, looking at two contrasting models of intimate relations between women in 17th and 18th century England and France. The direct comparison of the two cultures is useful because looking at either one in isolation during this period would present a false impression, and yet they were in close communication and influenced each other immensely.

I'm taking the book in several chunks, but may post more frequently than my usual weekly schedule. I'm feeling like I'm finally coming out of my quarantine slump, but don't want to trap myself into too ambitious a commitment yet.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2


The word “intimacy” is chosen for the focus of this book deliberately for its ambiguity of meaning. It reflects both openness within relationships and privacy protecting those relationships. “Intimacy” can both indicate close friendship and be a euphemism for sex. Wahl looks at the late 17th through 18th centuries in England and France to untangle the meanings of “female intimacy”, originally intrigued by the correspondence between Denis Diderot (author of La Religieuse) and Sophie Volland, whose “intimacy” with other women provoked jealousy in Diderot and veiled hints of sexual impropriety. Diderot never directly accused Volland of having sex with women, but spoke of her “liking pretty women” and of her friend’s “voluptuous and loving” actions.

At a time when men thought women incapable of “true friendship”, how were relations between women viewed? What motivations and purpose were they thought to have? While using the language of love, were they in fact homoerotic?

Wahl is not looking for “lesbian” representation as such, but looking more broadly for dynamics that are inclusive of homosexuality. She follows Foucault, while recognizing his deficiencies with regard to women’s erasure. In the review of theory, Laqueur’s one-sex to two-sex theory is noted.

The creation, in the 18th century, of the middle class “domestic woman” relates to the rise of bourgeois power. But this focus marginalizes anything outside the middle class heterosexual norm. This era saw a conflict between philosophies that viewed women and men as essentially similar, or as fundamentally different. But the focus on differences between the sexes can erase equally important differences among women.

Wahl discusses the meaning of lesbian (in)visibility (cf. Terry Castle) and takes as a starting position that lesbian sex has existed across time, culture, and class, but that specific practices are shaped by culture and era. She rejects a sharp distinction between “sexual behavior” and “erotic but non-sexual behavior”, which is often used in order to narrow and contain the scope of what may be called “lesbian” (critiquing Faderman on this point). The distinction between “romantic friendship” and “lesbian” is treated as artificial and meaningless.

Wahl avoids speaking in terms of “identity” or “choice” in sexuality but argues for a fluid, variable and contradictory model of sexual experience. In this era, we see the image--both for men and women--of a person who enjoys relationships with both sexes simultaneously with no conflict, who sees them as complementary and distinct experiences.

The author notes that transgressive categories like “hermaphrodite” and cross-dressing/gender-disguise figures can identify points of cultureal anxiety, but chooses to focus on Traub’s “fem-fem” dynamic in this book. Wahl treats marriage, not as identical to heterosexuality and inherently excluding homoerotic bonds, but as alignedwith heterosexuality and with reproductive sexuality. Female intimacy can act within or across heterosexual institutions independently of them.

The book will use two reference models as a lens: “sexualized” and “idealized”. These are used to examine not only women’s lives but societies fantasies about their lives.

17-18th century ideas about female intimacy are shaped by a contest between the one-sex and two-sex models. Are women “lesser men” or are they something entirely separate from men? There is a parallel contrast between viewing fem-fem love as a “harmless life stage” that all women might experience, to seeing women’s same-sex desire as a force equal to or stronger than male-female desire.

The “idealized” model of female intimacy is linked to the rising image of domesticity, companionate marriage, and a focus on woman as mother rather than as wife. Women’s friendship shifted to filling a place formerly held by family networks. Even the “companionate marriage” ideal--which in theory held that a husband and wife should be equal (or at least complementary) companions in marriage--strengthened female friendships, as it tended to result in women being companions to their husbands without women receiving the same companionate support in return. Instead, women turned to each other for companionship and support. They worked to create ideal models of friendship and rejected the misogynistic position of the male tradition of platonic friendship which held that women were incapable of “true friendship”. As these efforts adopted the language of courtly love, they produced homoerotic overtones that some historians reject (as mere convention) and others seize upon (as reflecting genuine emotions). Poet Katherine Philips serves as a lens for this .

The erotic and idealized models of female intimacy played out in the same woman-centered social spheres: convents, schools, salons. As this conflict played out, 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 the extreme result of the excesses of female intimacy.

Wahl notes the problem that the “sexualized” model is based almost entirely on men’s writings, creating problems for interpretation. The book will conclude with the political uses of sexualized female intimacy to target “aristocratic decadence” in general.

Time period: 
Saturday, August 29, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 173 (previously 49e) - Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink by Jeannelle M. Ferreira - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/29 - listen here)

There are so many joys I’ve gotten from the fiction series on this podcast. The joy of being someone’s first professional sale. The joy of providing a venue for an ongoing series. The joy coaxing a new story out of an author while waiting impatiently for her next novel.

Ferreira imageToday’s story was written by Jeanelle M. Ferreira who writes queer historical romance and sometimes poetry. In 2020, her work will appear in Climbing Lightly Through Forests, an anthology tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin (edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley, from Aqueduct Press). She notes that she is beyond thrilled to take part in the Lesbian Historical Motif Podcast Fiction project, and not just because the world needs more historical Jewish lesbians. She is also finishing the sequel to 2018’s The Covert Captain and deeply regrets buying that melodica for her spouse and child. Find her on Twitter @jeannellewrites, particularly if you have thoughts on late Georgian coaching inns and post roads.

Dixon imageOur narrator today is Violet Dixon, who is sheltering in place from Covid-19 outside Philadelphia with her wife, two teen sons, and four tolerant cats. When not Zoom coaching or social distancing in the recording booth, she is an award-winning stage director. She has previously done author narration for lesbian novels such as KC Luck’s Darknessseries and Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink


Jeannelle M. Ferreira


Oy, dayne eygelekh vi di shvartse karshelekh / Un dayne lipelekh vi roseve papir / Un dayne fingerlekh vi tint un vi feder / Oy, shraybn zolstu ofte briv tsu mir.


Oh, your eyes like black cherries
And your lips like rosy paper
And your fingers like pen and ink
Oh, that you might write often to me.

Tr. Sonya Taaffe, 2006


It was almost too late in the spring for coltsfoot. Her back ached from bending, her hands hurt from twisting stems, and she had gone further into the forest than she meant. The river laughed, just ahead of her sight; the sun had sunk behind.

feldsher’sdaughter would never grow tall, nor carry the muscle of a day’s work in the rye, but she could take care of herself; besides, she was nothing much to look at and thirty-six. A double blessing, if only she worked out what the blessing was. Meantime she held her hair off her neck, for a moment’s coolness, brushed her hands clean, and was not afraid of the woods.

An arm was round her waist from behind, a light hand at her throat, and Malke found herself held and bent like a reed.


“You shouldn’t go so far. You never know who might be out here.”

“The worst people,” she replied, and turned to face Hanie Apteyker.

She was pale and clever-mouthed, cut narrower than most of the boys she taught and taller than Malke by head and shoulders. She looked elegant in a hat and kapote two hundred years out of fashion, her hands were always ink-speckled, and Malke felt a sweet ridiculous fondness every time she —

“Hanie, no.” Malke got a good look at her. “Not again.”

“Never mind it.” Hanie pushed her wrist over her wrecked cheekbone carelessly as if she flicked off a fly. She was still wearing the clothes she taught in, walked in, and the men who came through Koshany in the Czar’s uniform would have seen not Hanie, but Heskel, a thin enough bone to pick and not quite worn-down enough to be worth ignoring.

“Never mind an eye like that!” Malke grit her teeth. “Did you fight back?”

“Of course I — not much!”

“Love, what did they want from you?”

“They seemed upset I wouldn’t let go my book.” Hanie shrugged. “But I never learned to speak fluent idiot, so what do I know?”

One of Hanie’s peyeshad been cut off, with a slow knife or a dull one. She looked a little lopsided, a little ragged, and Malke felt fear-dryness in her own throat. “Just give them what they want next time, please, please.”

“I couldn’t. Not this one. Read it,” said Hanie, and held out a plain cloth-covered book, not larger than her  hand.

“You know I can’t!”

“You can. That’s just the point.”

It was printed in Yiddish. “Sefer ha-Yashar,” Malke read. “M, D, X, C—” With the Latin alphabet she was much slower, and could not have sounded these letters into any word at all.

“Fifteen ninety-two.”

“So old — and in Yiddish! It must have been written for a woman.” The light was fading, the tall grass and the river never silent, but Malke felt as though the two of them were standing in some long-ago woman’s room, with books of her own and time to read them, time to think in her own language.

“Or by a woman.  By — someone like me.” A half-grin, shy, made it past Hanie’s bruises. “I wanted to show it to you, before I sell it.”

“You could make your name from this!”

“I have a name.” Hanie-clothed-as-Heskel shrugged. “I’d like other things more. I’d like to get us out of here, before —”

Us,” echoed Malke. “You work too much, and you study too long, and your girl never sees you.”

“You should be my wife.”

“If I could, if I could! What’s your plan, scholar?” There was no one here with them but the river; this was where they had always come, with secrets the village could not hold and plans so wide only a river could believe them.

“This.” Hanie tapped the book where it lay tucked inside her shirt. “I’m taking it to Odessa.”  Odessa, she said, as if it were not saying into hell oronto the moon.

“You walking there? Walk me home. I’m starving.”


Hanie put one of Malke’s clean aprons on without tying it. There was a potato for each of them and one for the pan, a little schmaltz, but no bread, and Malke would not let her walk three streets to the baker’s back door in the dark. She took her time brushing the worst of the mud from Hanie’s jacket, while the room grew warm and the food began to smell worth eating, but there was nothing to be done for the trouser knees or the hat.

That Heskel the teacher boarded most often at Nathan the feldsher’s house, even now there was a stone on Nathan’s grave and his son’s, the village knew; all of Koshany knew everyone’s everything, but they had needed someone underpaid to teach cheder.

They needed a feldsher, too, and a midwife. It was a slim thread of power only — a younger rabbi might have shouted her down, a less fond father married her off — but it gave Malke these two rooms, and money sometimes. She stitched cuts, broke fevers, held babies away from Lilith, and when Hanie Apteyker had come back to the feldsher’s house wearing the road-dust of Kiev and a pair of trousers, Malke got Koshany’s silence in return.

“Malkeleh, what? You’re staring.”

Malke looked at her, the beaten-white of her linen, the blossom-white of her shoulder; her dark brows a worried question, her cropped hair and its lone front curl. “I want to paint you.”

“No, I, no.” Hanie shook her head.  “In America, Malka sheyne, let me buy you all the colors in the world, but here — paint your roots and leaves, please.”

“We’re four hundred rubles from America.” Malke, nettled, ducked past Hanie’s reach.

“It’s too much risk. What if someone saw it, what if they see —”

Malke snorted. She took down her herbal from the room’s one high shelf, its weight falling familiar onto her chest, and she let it open across the table, over the tin plates and the salt dish. The book’s pages crackled with water-wear and long use; dried buds and bracken sifted onto the tablecloth. There were leaves and roots painted in it, every plant Malke had picked or distilled or put down in tincture, the undersketches thick at first and then, years and pages passing, clean and fine. Her father’s handwriting and then her own, better script, for a cough, for bone-setting, for wanting something one could not have, for getting something one should not want.

In the margins, there were pictures — Koshany’s fences and livestock, in broad strokes with ink; little pencil drawings of faces and houses. Nothing to spend color on, only a village aging with the artist who observed it.

The sketch of a young girl by the study house, half a minute’s work except for her plaits, long and careful, inked black. A corner some pages later and the same girl in it, a sack on one shoulder and a book in her opposite hand. Ten pages, twelve pages, a year of young Malke’s work slipped past, and here and now Hanie’s arm had gone round her waist. Drawn in quick as glances, the girl with black braids in the women’s gallery, in the market square, wearing some boy’s stolen hat.

More than half through the book, her father’s lettering long vanished, Malke found it.

An entire, costly page had been given to one subject, ink and charcoal to catch darkness or light, with touches of burnt umber for eyes and brows, alizarin fading at the lips.

“It’s me.” Hanie sounded young, as if she had lent her voice to that girl in the portrait. “You saw — me.”

“I remembered you. You were already gone. I think it was another year before you learned to post a letter.” Malke shrugged. “I don’t think oil and canvas will compound my sins, I’m saying.”


She woke the next morning in Hanie’s arms, very romantic but for the cover of a book shoving her in the ribs. Hanie’s questions were still in her head, why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you ask me not to go? As if the girl Malke had been could ever have given words to her own heart.

Hanie was reading, two more volumes were in the bed with them, and sometime near dawn she had been outdoors: her boots on the floor, too close to Malke’s rag-rug, were covered in wet grass.

“Bought bread,” she said, then cleared her throat. “Persuaded. Persuaded Moshe about some bread.”

“Where’s toast, then?”

“I was researching.” Hanie opened her embrace to indicate the little, plain-bound book between them. The Sefer ha-Yashar was heavy, for something so small, and it did not fall open as easily as it should for a book so very old. Malke was resolute in her skepticism, for all a good feldsher stayed just aside of magic, but there was something —

“Toast,” she said, absolutely firmly, and made her feet touch the floor.

Breakfast took no time at all, even with the last scrape of jam chased from the jar; there were no dishes, and there was only one road out of the village. It was a clear morning, no clouds, no damp, nothing to slow a person well used to walking. Hanie sat on the table’s edge, badly-dented cap in one hand. She had always been the kind to read five books before speaking one word, but she seemed to wait now for some permission Malke scarcely knew how to give.

“You can’t go to Odessa dressed like the milkman.” Malke lifted the floorboard beneath which everything of value — paints, sketchbook, fifty rubles and her father’s own herbal — was hidden, and pulled up something squared and soft, kept from the earth’s touch by oilcloth and a layer of plain linen tucked through with white mint and thyme.

It was a young man’s suit, a sharp Warsaw suit, maybe only five years old; it had pinstripes, jet buttons, a wing-collar shirt. It was wool so fine Malke’s fingertips, as she held the morning coat out to Hanie, didn’t catch on the weave.

“I couldn’t, I don’t dare.”

“Shmuel doesn’t want it. He didn’t when he was alive, either, don’t make that face. Auntie Eva made it over from our cousin, and it pinched.”

Hanie, who had walked out of Koshany fifteen years before in a Romani shawl and plaits, stood in the big room of the feldsher’s cottage and looked like a city boy who had lost a tavern fight. Malke’s voice was a wet sound on stones, all over again, her eyes were prickling and her hands twisted tight in her skirts and fifteen years wasn’t time enough for some things to change: she said something useless as spent coals.

“Oy, your boots. Well, maybe even in Odessa no one walks in their shul shoes.”

“Malke —”

“Wait.” With the case-knife she kept sharp enough for foxglove stems, Malke cut Hanie’s remaining peyes. Hanie put up one hand to the shorn spot, as if she’d been hurt; Malke, with the dark curl kept safe between thumb and palm, wanted to kiss her.

“It suits you,” she said first, bravely.


She thought she might never sleep again. The rain was a drum on the roof thatch, the wind was full of women’s voices, and the feldsher’s house smelled acrid from three ointments she had let burn. There was white camphor and speedwell to start again in the morning, a spatter-mark searing at her wrist, and only a trace of Hanie’s scent left in the pillows.

The butcher’s dog was barking. Then the hatmaker’s dog, and the paper-seller’s dog two doors beyond. She was no longer used to this, to the nonsense of being a woman alone in a house; Malke pulled the quilts over her head, as if it might help, and when the knock came she lay shaking-still.

Out in the darkness, someone was fumbling the front-door latch.

“Malke! Malkeleh, are you all right?”

It was a small house, no more than four steps to the door. “God’s sake! You knock like a Cossack!”

“Wait! It’s wet! I’m wet!” Hanie, soaked and sodden down to the new split in her left boot, tried half a second to keep from Malke’s arms.

“You’re real. You can’t be real. It’s a week’s walk to Odessa. A week back.”

“Malke, hush, I didn’t go near it. I fell into the river.”

“It took you three days to fall in the river?”

“The big river,” Hanie amended, shrugging and holding on to Malke all at once. They had never kissed on the doorstep, or in a downpour, but it was the blackest hour of morning and Hanie’s mouth was warm. She laughed, too, between kisses, against Malke’s cheekbone,  against her throat. “I swear I would have sent a letter, but all I’ve got in my pockets is river-water. Come inside and look, look at this.”

As they dripped and shivered, by the growing light of a fire half kicked, half coaxed to life, Hanie pulled the small, familiar book from beneath her shirt. The Sefer ha-Yashar had been half drowned in the Dniester; its plain pale cover fell by threads and drenched fragments to the floor. Hanie shook it, hard, as Malke had never seen her mistreat any book.

It did not fly apart at the spine. The pages sagged, water streamed from it, and Hanie was still holding the book as if its pasteboard was not melting away in her hands.

She faced the firelight with it, and Malke shouted.

“Pearls,” she whispered, when she could, at least not acting the fool she felt.

“Garnets. A sapphire. I don’t know the purple.” Hanie held the book out to Malke. “I know gold, when it’s heavy enough to drown me. It didn’t, Malkeleh, say something?”

“A woman’s book,” she managed. “We can’t, we can’t take these. They belong to her family.”

“Her family was three hundred years ago, in Venice. I got this off Dmitri the carter for three kopeks, and it belongs to us.”

“Off you go again, us.” Malke sniffled. Hadn’t she spent twenty minutes in the rain?

“I’ve got enough here to be married.” Hanie brushed over the sapphire, the size of her small finger’s nail.  “We could leave in the morning, if we wanted. More or less. If only we dry.”

“Leave Koshany? They won’t have… there won’t be a feldsher.”

“No.” Hanie looked at Malke, looking lost, and gently took her hand. “There will be Malke Pecherska, a botanical painter in America.”

“Malke Apteyker, I thought. Did you change your name in that river?”

Show Notes

The LHMPodcast fiction series presents a story by Jeannelle M. Ferreira, set in a late 19th century Russian Jewish community. Jeannelle is also the author of The Covert Captain: or, A Marriage of Equals. The story is narrated by Violet Dixon, who also recorded the audiobook of The Covert Captain.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Jeannelle M. Ferreira Online

Major category: 
Monday, August 24, 2020 - 12:00

One of the advantages of having broad scholarly interests is the chance to see patterns recur across otherwise-unrelated fields. Duggan--in studying the turn of the 20th century--identifies that as a crucial turning point for lesbian identity. Those who study the mid-20th century identify that as a crucial turning point for lesbian identity. Those studying the rise of the 19th century sexologies claim them as the crucial turning point. Randolph Trumbach specializes in the cusp of the 18-19th century and claims that as the crucial turning point for homosexual identity. Valerie Traub studies the turning of the 16-17th century and identifies is as a key context for the evolution of lesbian identity. See the pattern here?

It's a pattern familiar to other fields. There's a joke among historical linguists that the birthplace of the Indo-European language family is always the homland of the scholar studying the question. Among my friends who study the history of fashion, there's a similar observation that "the birth of fashion" occurs within a given scholar's era of expertise.

And yet, are all these scholars in error? Or are these concepts constantly evolving, hitting multiple key developments, and always in dynamic change? (Even the question of the birthplace of Indo-European is open to the counter-question of whether it had only one singular birthplace.)

It's a useful reminder that we often see most clearly the things we examine in the greatest detail.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Duggan, Lisa. 1993. “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.73-87

The introduction to this article identifies the turn of the 20th century as “a crucible of change in gender and sexual relations in the United States” and stakes a claim that the period from 1880-1920 was when the “Modern lesbian” emerged. [Note: One hears this claim about a variety of different points in the 19th and 20th centuries. So I’d withhold judgment about the accuracy of the claim.] This study focuses on the lesbian as a “desiring subject” -- a woman who considers her desire for other women to be a fundamental part of her identity. And that it was this self-identification that made the emergence of public lesbian identities and communities possible.

The precursors to this identity were the bourgeois “romantic friendship” and the working class “female husband” passing as a man. [Note: This is an oversimplification, alas, so it serves as a poor basis for theory.] The relationship of these images and how they relate to the emergence of the lesbian are obscured by a reliance on cultural representations rather than actual lives. For example, was the “mannish lesbian” a distorted antifeminist caricature? Or a strategic deliberate performance?

Anne Lister is invoked as an earlier example of a woman self-aware of her homoerotic desires and strategically deploying “mannish” traits, but she is dismissed as being isolated and not part of a “socially visible network” of such women.

The author presents her approach as studying how identities are constructed within contested narratives, especially how newspapers turned real women’s lives into fictional narratives that were, in turn, appropriated by sexologists as “case studies”, and then reclaimed by actual women as identities. Identity, she says, is the structure that gives meaning to experience. At the turn of the century, lesbian identity played a role in the public preoccupation with shifts in gender roles and the rise of psychological theories of sexuality.

Within this context, the sensational story of the murder in 1892 of 17-year-old Freda Ward by her 19-year-old female lover shows how the creation of narrative played out. One feature was how the relationship underlying the event was framed as unique, having parallels only in decadent French literature, while in fact the literature of American sexologists could product many similar case studies (not necessarily involving murder). The sensation was created, in part, by the reworking of the facts of the case in a variety of genres: fiction, folk ballads, and even a proposed play to feature Sarah Bernhardt.

Despite the murder at the center of the case, Alice was not tried as a criminal, but rather evaluated for insanity. The “medical” case, as recorded, featured Alice as having been a child whose interests were male-coded games and activities, disliking female-coded ones, while Freda was described as “typically feminine.” The two young women became lovers, though Alice was said to have the stronger attachment, and Alice proposed marriage to which Freda agreed.

They planned an elopement in which Alice would present as a man, and agreed on what names they would go by as a married couple.

During this time, Freda was courted by a man, which caused some friction between them. Freda’s older sister found their correspondence and, in collaboration with Alice’s mother, insisted that the relationship end. Alice, in despair, killed Freda (as she had promised to, if she was betrayed) because she couldn’t bear for anyone else to have her.

Although presented in the form of a medical case history, this narrative was constructed out of the testimony of family and neighbors, as well as of Alice herself. It partakes of elements from different class-specific narratives: schoolgirl “crushing” in the vein of romantic friendship, but a plan to use passing to achieve their goal, which fits more into a working class framework. As the public narrative evolved, Alice’s plan to disguise herself as a man was transformed from a strategy to an expression of masculine identity.

The motivation for the murder was depicted as a conflict between Alice’s fixation on the relationship as an established promise, while Freda in fact made and broke several engagements with men and seemed to treat Alice as only one of multiple suitors.

The third part of the narrative was the conflict between the young couple and their older female relatives. Although male relatives existed, they do not appear to have been drawn into the matter until after the murder.

Within all these frameworks, the masculine role-play was viewed and treated as a symbol of the “seriousness” of the relationship -- both from Alice’s point of view in wanting their commitment to be treated as the equivalent of a m/f romance, and from the point of view of their relatives who saw the gender role-playing as a sign that it wasn’t a harmless crush but dangerous deviance.

The coverage of the murder case led to interest in similar cases of female partners, such as actress Annie Hindle, where the press concocted stories of the jealousy she inspired in the female fans who were attracted by her male roles on the stage. Here the narratives were entirely invented and fastened onto Hindle’s name only due to her stage cross-dressing and her romantic involvement with a woman. That was enough for newspapers to force a connection with Alice Mitchell.

Multiple other examples are given of sensational newspaper stories that invoke the Mitchell-Ward case as a reference point for any female couple who came to the attention of the law, and as an argument that such relationships were likely to provoke jealous violence.

The article concludes by suggesting that the emerging “lesbian identity” may have constructed itself from an assortment of cultural motifs, similarly to how the Mitchell/Ward story blends features of different social stereotypes. And particularly that the “mannish lesbian” image was a deliberate strategy to create an identity separate from feminine society, which in turn led to the female partners of such women escaping the label of “lesbian” until as late as the mid-20th century.

Time period: 
Saturday, August 22, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 172 (previously 49d) - Artificial Scarcity of Representation: Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana- transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/22 - listen here)

What does representation mean when we’re looking deep into history? When the people we long to identify with had radically different understandings of the very identities we’re looking for? As I put it in an essay I wrote several years ago: who owns history? Who gets to claim specific historic figures for “their team” when the scanty evidence can validly be interpreted in more than one way? And how are those questions magnified when we’re talking about mythic or fictional creations in the first place, for whom the entire concept of “historic truth” is of questionable usefulness?

This month’s podcast theme on representations of the sexuality of the goddess Artemis or Diana is intended to poke at those questions and discuss why they can be so thorny and why we can find ourselves asking the wrong questions in the first place. After considering the question of Artemis/Diana in particular, I’m going to talk about why the creation of an “artificial scarcity” of representation bothers me more generally, and how I struggle to avoid contributing to it.

The Goddess Artemis

Both the Greek goddess Artemis and the Roman Diana have complex histories and attributes. The many versions of them share themes without having overall consistency. Artemis was a goddess of hunting, of wild beasts, and of wilderness in general. Her key attributes included virginity or chastity, expressed as a desire not to marry and more generally to resist being treated as an object of desire by men.

In many stories she is attended by a group of women who are similarly pledged to remain unmarried and who are cast out of the group if they stray. Some related this attribute to a desire for autonomy from men and a degree of power that was not available to married women in Greek society--not even goddesses. To be in a relationship to a man put him in a position of power over her, and as with Athena, this wasn’t compatible with the flavor of divinity that Artemis represented.

Some later Greek writers represented Artemis’s rejection of relations with men as a rejection of sexuality in general and placed her in opposition to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.

But Artemis was not a simple, one-note divinity. Her devotion to chastity made her a natural as the protector of young girls, but she was also one of several goddesses overseeing chidbirth and midwifery--an attribute connected with the story that she was born before her twin, Apollo, and was midwife for her mother at her brother’s birth. Even as she protected women in childbirth, she was also blamed for specifically female causes of death. She had some attributes of a goddess of the moon and the underworld, mirroring Apollo’s association with the sun. Artemis has some attributes that seem borrowed from mother goddess traditions, though she was not represented as a mother goddess directly.

There are a wide variety of more local traditions and interpretations of Artemis that may reflect what were originally independent local deities with similar attributes, or where myths about an unrelated figure were transferred to her. This type of conflation of independent traditions into a unified figure--often with attempts to smooth out the inconsistencies--is called syncretism and is a key factor to keep in mind. Artemis doesn’t have a consistent, coherent story in part because she did not evolve from a single source. This syncretism also accounts for the many and conflicting variants in some of the key myths associated with her.

The story of Orion is one of those inconsistencies. The basic story is that Orion was a great hunter who became a companion of Artemis through that shared interest. Things go wrong--though there are several versions of what, why, and how--and Orion is killed. Maybe accidentally by Artemis. Maybe she’s tricked into it. Maybe he was stung to death by a scorpion. Maybe the earth goddess takes him out because he swears he’s going to hunt every animal on earth to extinction. Maybe Apollo is responsible because he’s afraid Orion will win Artemis’s heart and hand. There are a lot of different variants and they speak differently to the motif that Orion was the one man that Artemis was attracted to. None of the stories have her actually succumbing to his charms, but she does put him in the sky as a constellation, so she liked him enough for that. Sometimes the legend of Orion doesn’t involve Artemis at all. The point being that there isn’t one single story. No “true version” that trumps the others. This is a feature of classical mythology in general. The river may run to the sea, but it meanders and shifts in its course on the way, sometimes joining other rivers, sometimes splitting into a complex delta, sometimes drying up entirely or emerging from an underground course in unexpected places.

One of those story-rivers about Artemis is that she was intensely protective of her independent status with regard to men. There are any number of tales of Artemis taking revenge on men (or gods) for offences ranging from trying to rape her to accidentally viewing her bathing naked to simply challenging her status as the best hunter around. The most famous of these is the tale of Actaeon who sees her bathing--in some versions accidentally, in some, deliberately--at which Artemis turns him into a stag and he is hunted to death by his own hounds.

The story of Callisto (for which see a previous podcast) emphasizes the requirement Artemis had that her followers also remain chaste with regard to men. But the Callisto story also introduces the implication that relations between women weren’t considered to fall under the requirement for chastity. And therein lies one of the sources of ambiguity. Did Artemis’s chastity refer only to heterosexual relations or to sexuality in general? We’ll return to this question.

The Goddess Diana

The Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana had an independent origin from Artemis, but absorbed many of the Greek goddess’s attributes, making it difficult to disentangle the two. She was a patroness of rural spaces--though not so much of wilderness, a patroness of hunters and of the Moon. Like Artemis, she is considered a twin to Apollo. Another similarity is that she was dedicated to remaining virgin and was a protector of childbirth.

Later medieval traditions that associated her with witchcraft gave her a male consort and a daughter. Diana was often presented as having three distinct aspects, reflecting associations with hunting, the moon, and the underworld. In the last, she was sometimes associated with Hecate.

As with Artemis, Diana’s mythology, attributes, and worship were syncretic, incorporating material from a variety of sources--including, in her case, many of the traditions that Artemis had already attracted, making it pointless to try to define a single “true” version of Diana’s nature.

It was in this amalgamated version as Roman Diana that the goddess entered the later medieval, Renaissance, and early modern imagination, during various revivals of interest in Classical literature and imagery. She was assigned both the iconography and some of the specific mythic stories that had belonged to Artemis, including the transformation and death of Acteon and Jupiter’s seduction and rape of Callisto disguised as the goddess.

But Roman Diana also retained distinctive attributes and traditions of worship that differentiated her from simply being a mirror of Artemis. Although virginity was a key attribute of Diana, even more than Artemis she was not a deity for women only. Nor--despite the myths about men being punished for trespassing on her domain--was she depicted as being particularly hostile to men in general.

Diana left two legacies for post-Classical Europe. The worship of Diana (or of local deities conflated with Diana) continued into the early medieval period, making her a named target for Christian efforts to erase pre-Christian practices. These traditions contributed to the later association of Diana with witchcraft. But the second legacy came through the revival of classical myth and legend, both during the medieval period, and again in the Renaissance and later.

Diana’s rejecting of marriage or sexual relations with men, both for herself and her followers, was a repeating theme in the context of women’s resistance to marriage. Examples include Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” in which Emily prays to Diana to save her from marriage to either of the two men fighting over her. There are any number of other examples of Diana as an icon of marriage resistance. Shakespeare’s female characters regularly invoke Diana either when remaining chaste, as with Rosalind in As You Like Itor Hero inMuch Ado about Nothingor Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in cases where turning from a chaste life to marriage is framed as abandoning Diana’s temple, as with Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well.

[sponsor break]

Aro-Ace or Lesbian?

As I discussed in the podcast about Callisto, interpreting how Diana’s sexuality is viewed in historic literature requires some thought about the concepts of virginity and chastity. Does Artemis/Diana reject sex and romance generally, or sex and romance with men specifically? Male-dominated Neo-Platonic philosophy interpreted her sworn virginity as a renunciation of sexuality in general rather than an absence of sexual drive, but unless a text specifically addresses same-sex options, questions remain.

If we’re looking to classical, medieval and early modern sources for a clear answer to this, we won’t find one. The ways in which the goddess is represented, the words put into her mouth and the actions attributed to her, are ambiguous and contradictory. 

If you consider the question from the point of view of modern sexual identities, this seems a perplexing problem. But neither the classical Artemis/Diana nor the people who used her as a character in historic literature and art were modern people with modern categories for sexual identity. Just as it makes little sense to think about classical Greek and Roman ideas about male same-sex relations in terms of modern concepts of homosexuality, it makes little sense to think about historic references to virginity or chastity in terms that treat all gender pairings as equivalent.

Within the context of classical mythology--or, indeed, much of pre-modern literature--a virgin was a woman who had not had sex with a man. That was it. Men were the only sexual partner who counted for the definition. Male-female pairings were the norm against which everything else was evaluated. Everything else was--to use a modern concept--queer. And people didn’t necessarily distinguish the specific ways in which it was queer.

This, by the way, is my answer to people who question whether aromantic or asexual people are queer-by-definition. Queerness is divergence from the expected societal norm. For as long as our societal norm defaults to expecting everyone to be alloromantic and allosexual, then diverging from that state to any degree makes you just as queer as diverging from the expectation of heterosexuality, or the expectation of being cis-gendered, or the expectation of being monosexual. This might seem like a bit of a tangent, but it touches on one of the themes underlying why people view the question of Artemis/Diana’s sexuality to be a question of ownership.

But surely there are hints and clues in the historic portrayals of Artemis/Diana that could answer the question once and for all? Just as we can identify hints and clues in the lives of historic people that enable us to identify people as homosexual or as transgender or as other identities that weren’t clearly defined back then? Well, yes, there are hints and clues, but just as for other sexuality and gender questions, the answers aren’t clear-cut. And often they aren’t clear-cut for the specific reason that people weren’t thinking in terms of those modern categories.

So let’s look at some specific data.

Lesbian Diana

In the podcast about Callisto, I went through a number of examples of Diana--or her followers--being depicted as embracing same-sex love. These interpretations viewed their chastity as being an exclusion of relations with men, not romantic or sexual relations in general.

Every version of the story of Callisto is predicated on the understanding that Callisto believed that while accepting Jupiter’s sexual advances would get her kicked out of Diana’s band, accepting Diana’s sexual advances would not have the same result. Maybe Callisto is shown as being uncertain about having sex with Diana, or as welcoming it, but she definitely does not consider herself as committed to rejecting sexual relations in general. Whether it is William Warner in his poem Albion’s Englandasserting that “a maiden to a maiden might do this” or Atalanta, in Thomas Heywood’s The Golden Ageassuring Diana that “we [nymphs] are all coupled and twinned in love” these examples support the vision of a lesbian Diana. The Callisto podcast includes other literary references to a lesbian, or at least homoromantic, version of Diana, so I won’t reiterate them all.

Asexual Artemis

But Artemis/Diana often appears in other contexts that don’t reference the Callisto story. And in these, we have the opportunity to see Diana being depicted as standing against sexual love in general. This sometimes occurs in contexts where she is set up as an opponent to Venus, the goddess of love, romance, and sex. But can we distinguish between Venus as promoting heterosexual love as opposed to all types of love? Only rarely, for obvious reasons, but a pertinent example is in the Thomas Lyly play Gallathea.

Gallatheais something of a typical cross-dressing play in which gender disguise results in accidental same-sex desire, but in this storyline, two young women both cross-dress, both fall in love with the other (each initially thinking she’s falling in love with a young man), and continue to maintain their love after their gender is revealed.

The play includes a rivalry between Venus and Cupid on the side of love, and Diana and her nymphs on the side of chastity. In an initial encounter between Cupid and one of Diana’s nymphs, the nymph denies any knowledge of the thing called love and, when Cupid describes the symptoms and effects of love, she calls it “a foolish thing.”

In revenge for being rejected, Cupid decides to shoot his arrows at Diana’s followers to force them to love--not to love men, but to love each other. “I will make their pains my pastimes and so confound their loves in their own sex that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities.” So in this play, it isn’t only men that the nymphs reject, but clearly the experience of love in general. Of course, we must understand that the playwright’s assumptions and prejudices are at play in treating same-sex love as an “impossibility”, but the Diana of Gallatheais clearly distinct from the Diana of The Golden Age. And both reflect what writers of the time considered compatible with the mythic Diana they had inherited.

Let us skip to the end of the play, after Diana has captured Cupid and punished him for tormenting her nymphs. Diana and Venus appeal to the judgment of Neptune regarding Cupid’s fate, but also the fate of Gallathea and Phyllida’s love for each other. The two maidens, now again presenting as women, are challenged by Diana to “leave these fond affections.” But they proclaim their continued love and devotion and when Venus is asked if she approves, she answers, “I like well and allow it. They shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that nature or fortune shall overthrow love and faith.” And though Venus’s ultimate stratagem is to turn one of them into a boy, she approves their love before making that decision.

So in this depiction, Diana and her followers are specifically depicted as aromantic in general, not loving men or women, in contrast to Venus’s support of all forms of love.

But the Gallathea story points out one of the difficulties in identifying unambiguously asexual interpretations of Diana in eras that didn’t clearly distinguish asexuality from abstinence, and that often entirely overlook the question of same-sex desire. Gallatheaprovides a clear example of asexual Diana specifically because it doesrecognize the existence of same-sex desire and weaves it into the plot conflicts.

Texts that include an overt recognition of the possibility of female same-sex erotic desire are rare, and those that include them typically have the focus on the desire itself, not on a negation of that possible desire. This makes it hard to find similar examples but there’s a passing reference in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia. Like the Callisto story, the plot involves a man disguising himself as a woman (the Amazon Zelmane) in order to gain social access to the object of his desire, Philoclea. Philoclea, completely ignorant of “Zelmane’s” true gender, gradually realizes that she has fallen in love with someone she believes to be another woman. And she realizes that what she feels is something other than friendship but more akin to what she has been told heterosexual desire is like. In adjusting to this realization, Philoclea tries on several possible resolutions to her love.

“First she would wish, that they two might live all their lives together, like two of Diana’s Nymphs. But that wish, she thought not sufficient, because she knew, there would be more Nymphs besides them, who also would have their part in Zelmane. Then would she wish, that she were her sister, that such a natural bond might make her more special to her. But against that, she considered, that though being her sister, if she happened to be married, she should be robbed of her. Then, grown bolder, she would wish either her self, or Zelmane a man, that there might succeed a blessed marriage betwixt them.”

There are several similarities here to Gallathea, if one sets aside the gender disguise issue. Philoclea recognizes her desire as equivalent to heterosexual desire, and compares the companionship of Diana’s nymphs as being an unsatisfactory arrangement because it would not fulfill the specific and exclusive nature of her desire. By implication--though not expressed as overtly as in Gallathea--theArcadiaenvisions Diana’s band as excluding sexual desire, even when the possibility of sexual desire between women is accepted.

Given how hard one must work to identify unambiguously homoerotic themes in depictions of the mythic Diana, it seems odd to find it even harder (though clearly not impossible) to find evidence for works that treat the mythic Diana and her followers as unambiguously asexual. It is the silences and omissions on both the topic of homoeroticism and the topic of asexuality that create the difficulty. Sometimes those silences are deliberate, but more often they’re a byproduct of a historic culture that didn’t view the concepts as requiring distinction.

Artificial Scarcity of Representation

So...why should we care? For that matter, why is a podcast that specifically focuses on lesbian desire in history and literature taking all this time to argue the equal validity of an asexual versus lesbian rendering of Artemis/Diana?

Well, one minor reason is that I’m both lesbian and asexual, and it makes me uncomfortable when people act as if those two important parts of my identity are in conflict. But that’s dodging the question because the point is that there’s no reason why Artemis/Diana can’t be an icon for both allosexual lesbians andasexual non-lesbians and anyone else who finds connection with the mythology. When we’re looking for representation in the past, we need to move beyond the “naming and claiming” impulse and learn how to share.

Identity categories--whether gender, orientation, even ethnic and cultural--are by nature unstable and mutable. As I discussed in a podcast episode where I compared identity features to the semantics of prepositions--which, by the way, that was a really fun one, you should go back and listen to it--identities are inherently complex in structure. The features that make up a specific named identity come together in a particular social and historic context and may not make sense to people in a different context. To insist on a one-to-one correspondence of the identities we recognize today with identities in the past is as pointless as trying to fix the meaning or pronunciation of words, as futile as trying to force that river to run in exactly the same course for all time. I regularly point out that the gender and sexuality categories that were accepted and embraced when I was a teenager are vastly different from the ones current today. How much more so the identities of hundreds or thousands of years ago? Yes, there are commonalties, there are touch-points, there are thematic similarities. But there are not exact equations. And to try to force that one-to-one correspondence erases as many aspects of the past as it affirms.

Furthermore, it treats the relationship of contemporary people to history as a fixed and limited resource. It acts as if one person’s identification with a historic figure erases all other possibilities and steals the possibility of identification from other people. And here’s the thing: nobodyshould want that because everybodyhas something to lose.

Whether it’s the question of whether we’re allowed to “claim” a historic woman as a lesbian if she was in a marriage to a man, or whether the question is trying to divvy up every single historic person into a bin labeled heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, or whether we’re arguing over where to draw the line in past centuries between butch women and trans men, we all lose if we stake out the position that there can only be one right answer in every case.

The point may be especially clear in the case of Artemis/Diana simply because the question of historic truth is moot. But the argument holds much more widely. We can either create an artificial scarcity by demanding exclusive ownership of historic icons, or we can recognize the fuzzy, overlapping, shifting, ambiguity of identity categories and agree to share. And when we share, we allget more representation.

Show Notes

An exploration of the mythic figures of Artemis and Diana

In this episode we talk about:

  • Their complex and contradictory mythology and religious traditions
  • How Artemis/Diana was represented in later literature and art
  • Diana & Callisto: the lesbian tradition
  • Diana vs. Venus: the asexual tradition
  • Why we need to stop fighting over them

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, August 17, 2020 - 12:00

It occurs to me that it might be useful to add a tag for "history of sexualty textbook" now that I've included a handful of items in that genre. I have doubts about how useful they are to my imagined target audience, though it's hard to tell without feedback. All I know is that, in general, I've found them of minor use and interest to me personally. This means I'll try to deprioritize them in my reading--the problem being that it isn't always possible to identify something as being a textbook until I start reading.

After assembling a massive number of blog entries in advance back in the Spring, I'm now coming to the end of that cushion and need to assemble my planned reading for the next couple months. This will run smack dab into the disruption of my reading habits caused by quarantine and working from home. It's not that I don't have time--I have more "free" time than ever before--but my rhythms and habits haven't settled down into new patterns yet. I used to do most of my reading and note-taking during my lunch hour or on the commute train. Now I ride my bike on my lunch hour and the commute is only a few meters. But we keep on keeping on and it's time to wrangle this part of my life back on track.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5

Have you ever come out of a book wondering, “Was there actually a gap that this book was needed to fill?” This work is a perfectly reasonable survey of the topic of pre-modern sexuality, but having read through it, I don’t feel like I learned a single new thing. If it had been published in, say, 1990, it would have been a treasure. But in 2011 it’s just assembling material that is easily available in other general surveys. Nor did it feel like there was any new theoretical approach or synthesis involved. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad book! Not at all. Just an unnecessary one.

No, I take that back. I do feel that the book is flawed in certain essential ways. The authors work entirely too hard to establish their premise that there is no such thing as “sexuality” before the 19th century. But on a number of points, it feels like they’ve gotten too hung up on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the idea that if you don’t have language to talk about a thing, the thing doesn’t exist. Even if it were true that nobody ever used the word “lesbian” before the later 19th century (which isn’t true), how does it follow that nobody before then had a concept of a woman having a strong--perhaps even exclusive--preference for women as sexual or romantic partners? Ah, but they address that. Individual people may well have had preferences, but that was an incidental individual taste, like disliking cilantro.

Let’s think about that idea of taste as applied to food. Were there vegetarians before someone invented the word “vegetarian”?

Note: As I was writing this up, I found myself writing a lot of “the authors argue” or “the authors discuss” in order to distance myself a bit from the content. It got really awkward and I went back and rewrote everything. Just take it as given that this is summarizing their positions and not an endorsement.

Introduction: Sex before Sexuality

The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.

Examples are given of how a culture might have all the themes that are today understood as comprising the concept of (male) homosexuality, without compiling them into a concept parallel to that one. A culture could embrace male-male bonds and male beauty while proscribing specific sex acts between men. The attitudes in Ottoman and ancient Athenian cultures toward active/passive roles in m/m sex are compared. How can we say homo/hetero-sexuality didn’t exist in a culture that encouraged homosocial and homoerotic themes, but that valorizes m/f courtship/marriage/reproduction as a distinct sphere of experience?

Consider the gender dynamics of stage cross-dressing interacting with cross-dressing plots in the plays. How did people understand the sexual dynamics and all the layers? Is this an “undifferentiated sexuality” that treats boys and women identically? (Note that this assumes the point of view of a dominant male.) If adolescent boys were considered to fall in the same sexual-object category as women, can relations with them be considered truly “homosexual” if that concept is defined as sexual desire between people of the same gender? Similarly (with less concrete data offered) can we apply this question to desire between female-presenting women and cross-dressing ones?

One framing is that the pre-modern position was that it was the culturally determined gender role of one’s partner that mattered, not their biological sex. [Note: but this ignores the question of how they conceived of same-sex relations when there was no cross-gender element.]

It was in the 19th century that people invented the terms heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, sadist, masochist, and sexuality. [Note: They are simply factually wrong on “lesbian” and related terminology.] The period covered by this book (1100-1800) had sex, but no “sexuality” in the sense of orientations and identities. Foucault is cited in connection with this. [Note: At the same time, the book notes pre-1800 examples of descriptions reaching toward the concept of masochism and other “perverse” sexualities.] One should not use the words “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “pornography” for anything before the late 19th century, as the use of the words will distort understanding of the topic. Historic theories must embrace a clear pre-modern/modern separation. and any sort of “continuity” position with regard to sexual identities is suspect.

The rest of the introduction is a summary of the contents of the book. There is a survey of the major schools of thought regarding the history of sexuality. They don’t hold to a black-and-white “acts vs identities” position, and acknowledge the pre-modern conception of identifiable sexual preferences, but only object to applying modern names to these preferences. That it is the idea of connection between pre-modern/modern preference concepts that they object to. Pre-modern people should not be “forced” to occupy our modern categories retrospectively. They also have issues with defining “sex” [acts] and whether any sort of erotic behavior is included under “sex.” Within this context, they point to contemporary shifts in some cultures away from organizing around “identities” to focusing on “tastes.”

They note that the focus of the book is on Western Christian culture from 1100 to 1800, more or less excluding the colonies. They also prefer to avoid organizing around a medieval/early modern divide around 1500.

Chapter 1: Sin

This chapter discusses the history of the association of sex and sin--how the allowances for sex were hierarchically related to acceptable procreative sex within marriage. There are many details about what acts are better or worse than others, revealing the underlying value systems. The context of the discussion is from laws, penitentials, and popular culture.

Chapter 2: Before Heterosexuality

“The power of heterosexuality resides in a strange combination of ubiquity and invisibility.” The authors object to historians pointing out that heterosexuality, in being considered the silent default, thus “owns” history, claiming that this is an invalid take as it assumes a concept (heterosexuality) that didn’t exist. They critique historians who treat heterosexuality as a historic constant while discussing nuances of homosexuality.

[Note: While I agree in principle, I think we can’t escape the influence of modern assumptions of the fixed universality of heterosexuality.]

The authors discuss how the language of desire didn’t necessarily distinguish the sex of the desired object, but used similar terminology for all. Varied terms were used for different types of love, not for different objects. Homoerotic or homosocial bonds were considered of no consequence, even when using similar vocabulary to heteroerotic bonds. Marital affection was not automatically equated to “amor”. But at the same time, people accepted the centrality of marriage and procreation to society.

There is a discussion of types of illicit male-female sex, of marriage patterns, and of acceptable types of pre-marital sex. Marriage was considered “normative” even in contexts where there were significant numbers of never-married adults. There is a discussion of theories of differences between men and women in the experience of sexual pleasure.

In differentiating categories of sexual objects, female domestic servants were treated as naturally “available” to dominant men. There were double-standards for the sexual activity of unmarried men and women (men expected to be active, women expected to be not). Legal systems demonstrate how adultery was treated as a “property” crime as opposed to a form of fornication.

Chapter 3: Between Men

The authors ask the question, If all men are considered to potentially engage in male-male sex as an ordinary thing (even though certain acts might be proscribed) how can it be considered a distinct identity/orientation? They make a clear distinction between male-male sex as a functional category and sodomy as a historic concept (especially when defined narrowly as anal sex between men). But the complex history of the concept of sodomy makes the equation of the two problematic. There is a detailed discussion of how “sodomy” was defined and used across the centuries. This chapter focuses on how the ability of elite men to take sexual pleasure with objects of all types cannot be equated with a particular sexuality as an orientation.

At the same time, examples throughout the centuries are offered of men clearly expressing a preference for male partners. And male-male sex might be ignored by the community if no other factors were involved. There was a geographic distinction to some degree between the south/Mediterranean patterns where age/power-differentiated male-male sex was considered normal, and the north where all types of male-male sex were condemned equally.

Close male-male friendships might have an erotic component without being sexual, but examples are given of parallel erotic language used between men and from men to (non-sexual) female friends. On the other hand, the intersection of close male friendships and sex was a site of anxiety.

Evidence in the 18th century shows that language and concepts for preferences for male-male sex were commonly available. Yet the authors maintain that this was all processed under the concept of “personal taste” not identity.

Chapter 4: Between Women

[Note: As I summarized this chapter, I mostly found myself writing up a catalog of historic fact-lets and persons mentioned briefly in the text, all of which are covered in more detail in other publications. I’ve listed them briefly in the context of the topics of discussion, but for details use the topic links.]

There is general agreement on a progression in the early modern era from increased representation of female-female desire, to the “female husband” phenomenon, to romantic friendship. While the word “lesbian” was used in pre-modern times, it was not used to identify a stable sexual orientation. The authors discuss various strategies that historians have used to refer to f/f desire to get around an anachronistic use of “lesbian”.

Traub demonstrated a proliferation of f/f erotic representation that disproves the claims of medieval “silence” on the question of f/f erotics, but the topic is a contested site with questions of definitions and boundaries. Is “genital sexuality” the sine qua non? How do passionate friendships fit in? Do we reach for a concept that encompasses all situations of women outside of relations with men? Or do we start from the premise that heterosexuality “far from being compulsory, did not exist”?

Thirteen cases of “female sodomy” are discussed in Bennett, Crompton, Boone, but examples are few compared to records of male sodomy. (Examples: Bertolina/Guercia, Katharina Hetzeldorfer, Jehanne & Laurence)

[Note: in reading the discussion here on how to discuss “sex” if what you really mean is “penetrative sex acts” it occurs to me that maybe the authors could provide clarity by simply saying “fucking.”]

More sources of data on f/f erotics: penitentials, the medical texts of William of Saliceto, poem by de Fougeres, treatise against sodomy by Peter Damian, Benedetta Carlini, the two erotic poems between nuns in the Tegernsee manuscript, the writings and personal relationshps of Hildegard of Bingen, passionate friendships among the Beguines, the troubadour poetry of Bieris de Romans, the romances of Yde and Olive, and Silence.

The Renaissance added new f/f tropes to medieval performative mascuinity: female husbands, tribades, hermaphrodites, passionate friendship, Sapphists. We see the rise of “warrior woman” and cross-dressing ballads, but these typically depicted women who ended up in relationships with men. Gender disguise/transgender performance becomes a context where records focus on the use of a dildo for sex, and where f/f erotics were viewed as a vice that was potential in every woman: Amy Poulter & Arabella Hunt, Comical News from Bloombury, Fielding’s Female Husband, Catherine Vizzani.

There are few court records focusing on sex between women. Cases of “female husbands” generally involved charges of vagrancy [note: also “fraud”]. In a set of Dutch prosecutions involving sex between women it can be hard to determine what the actual charge was. Sex between women was often imagined in terms of “hermaphrodites,” suggesting a physiological cause for f/f desire. This is often connected to the 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris. As an analogue of the penis, the clitoris became the emblem of female erotic transgression and was merged with the image of the tribade such that the latter word came to be associated with clitoral penetration rather than the original sense of “rubbing.”

The use of “Sapphic” and related terms for f/f sex did not arise until the late 19th century despite the popularity of the image of Sappho in the Renaissance.. [Note: wrong. This vocabulary range can be documented in the later 18th century.] Art was a significant site of f/f eroticism, especially in the context of mythic images that incorporated the figure of a disguised or transformed man. The use of “Diana and her nymphs” as a context for depicting f/f erotics appears as early as the late 14th century.

Pornography--or professional literature that was barely distinct from pornography--was another site for depicting f/f erotics. Examples include: Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditus, Venus in the Cloister, Satyra Sotadica, Brantôme, and political pornography about Marie Antoinette.

Female friendship is rarer in the sources when compared to literature about male friendship. An early exception is the writings of Katherine Philips. Women adopted the discourse of male friendships but the topic was most commonly expressed in private correspondence rather that public documents. Convents expressed concerns about “particular friends.” The Maitland Ms poem XLIX uses a list of famous m/m friendships to frame desire between women. Anne Lister is discussed in this context as an outlier in being overt about her search for a “wife” rather than a “friend.” She recorded her suspicions about the sexual nature of the Butler/Ponsonby friendship, as well as her negotiations of sexual knowledge with her lover Mrs. Barlow. Lister’s sexual vocabulary for f/f activities was eclectic and extensive. The authors suggest that because Lister framed her desire for women in masculine terms, her relationships were not truly “same” sex relationships, and that Lister did not have the same sexual preference as her partners--that they had qualitatively different experiences.

There was a shift from attributing the cause of f/f desire to deviant physiology to attributing it to deviant gender (i.e., masculinity). The authors assert that it is anachronistic even to use the term “sapphist” for Lister as the word wasn’t used in that sense at the time. [Note: This is simply inaccurate. Hester Thrale described Butler and Ponsonby as “damned sapphists” in a context where the meaning is quite clear. And all of them were contemporaries of Lister.] Lister herself used the adjective “sapphic” in a context where it seems she associates it specifically with the use of a dildo (which Lister disdained).

A distinction is made for “situational homosexuality” (a woman who prefers men but is open to sex with women). [Note: this section of the discussion entirely erases the concept of bisexuality and ignores social pressures for m/f marriage regardless of personal identity/preference.] An example is given in the play The Antipodes where f/f sex is a “made do” when men fail.

In summary, there were actual pre-modern women who desired each other and acted on it. But the authors claim that none of these specific examples can be identified as “lesbian” under the definition of: a woman who has an exclusive desire for men, where there are no elements of trans-masculinity, and where neither partner has been involved sexually with men. [Note: It can easily be noted that under this definition a great many modern people who identify as lesbians would not meet the bar. In which case, are we actually comparing pre-modern cases with a “modern lesbian identity” or with a straw-women definition?]

The chapter concludes by claiming that only by renouncing all category labels and categories can “lesbian” desire be properly situated in a historic context.

Chapter 5: Before Pornography

[Note: Ok, at this point, I’ve rather lost my patience for summarizing this book in detail.]

This chapter continues the approach of “Topic-X did not actually exist in the pre-modern period because it doesn’t exactly match the way in which we, the authors, are going to define it. Also: history is complicated and we’re looking for a simplistic definition that doesn’t exist. But they have some valid points about how bawdy literature in pre-modern times had a different social purpose than the modern understanding of “pornography” as media intended to create and satisfy sexual arousal in the consumer.

Epilogue: Sex at Sea?

The epilogue discusses colonial encounters with non-Western cultures who had entirely different approaches to sexuality and how Westerners recorded their reactions to those encounters.

Saturday, August 15, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 171 (previously 49c) - Book Appreciation: Artemis/Diana in Fiction - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/15 - listen here)

As part of this month’s focus on the Goddess of the Hunt, whether as Greek Artemis or Roman Diana, I thought I’d do one of my thematic book lists. I have not, alas, had a chance to read though most of the works I’ll be mentioning. So this isn’t a review show, but simply a look at what’s out there. And in a change from my usual book lists, this time I’m not filtering by any particular representation or sexuality. This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. Some works were suggested by readers on Twitter. Some I found through Goodreads lists. And some I encountered through having their authors on my show.

The works discussed here may have the goddess herself as a protagonist, or may focus on one or more of her followers. One of the features of the Artemis or Diana of myth is that she was attended by a community of women who, like her, had sworn off relations with men.

The books that sparked the idea for this month’s theme are in Rick Riordan’s young-adult Percy Jackson series. The series as a whole tells the adventures of a group of half-mortal offspring of the Greek gods who get caught up in the political machinations of Olympus, as well as being in a somewhat uncomfortable position of neither mortal nor gods themselves -- a theme that is prominent in the original mythology. Artemis and her band of hunters appear prominently in the third book, The Titan’s Curse, as supporting characters who assist the protagonists, and two of the central secondary characters join the Hunters. The rules the hunters have about associating with men are a minor plot point. Based on various references in the books, it appears that Rick Riordan’s version of the followers of Artemis involves them swearing off romantic relationships entirely, not only heterosexual relationships, and there is one reference to a female couple who had left the Hunters when they fell in love so that they could live as a couple. Riordan is on record as saying that the Hunters are an attractive career option for women who are aromantic and asexual, though it isn’t an absolute requirement. The Twitter discussion that sparked my theme this month revolved around his portrayal of Artemis herself as aromantic and asexual, not simply as rejecting love and sex with men.

While Riordan’s series is aimed at the YA readership, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams have a middle-grade series based on Greek mythology, with a couple of titles featuring Artemis as one of the students at the Olympus Academy. So, sort of a magical school for young deities. One might think that a series aimed at much younger readers might stick with Artemis’s initial “yuck, boys” approach and leave it at that, but Artemis the Brave decides to fix on the one Greek myth that gives the goddess of the hunt a crush on a boy, and sets her up to fall for the mortal foreign exchange student, Orion.

The image of Artemis and her Huntresses in Elizabeth Tammi’s Outrun the Wind is similar to Rick Riordan’s. Those who follow the goddess are pledged not to fall in love with anyone, but when Kahina the Huntress saves the daring Atalanta, she begins to find that pledge hard to keep. Atalanta needs help to devise an impossible task for her unwanted suitors, and Kahina is handed the job of helping her. When both of them face hazards from their past, the gods aren’t the only shadow hanging over them. Elizabeth Tammi was a guest on the podcast to talk about her book, which views the women-only followers of the huntress as a fertile ground for same-sex romance, even if Artemis herself doesn’t partake.

Another aromantic and asexual take on Artemis can be found in the poetry collection Goddess of the Hunt by Shelby Eileen. I got a pointer to this one from @mizelle on twitter. Artemis herself is the focus of the poems, rather than being a background figure. Rather than viewing the goddess’s life of chastity as a renunciation, the poems reveal it to be an expression of her true self, maintained against those who want to change her.

The webcomic series Theia Mania by Li Österberg is a sardonic take on the family drama of Mount Olympus and includes not only a same-sex romance involving Artemis, but one between Demeter and Hecate as well. They aren’t necessarily the central characters but the relationships are treated as ordinary ... well, as ordinary as the Greek gods ever really get. The art is fabulous and shows a deep familiarity with ancient Greek styles as well as reflecting modern sensibilities. I got a pointer to this one on twitter as well, from @SerenaJenk this time.

Also turned up on twitter is a very short story Olympic Hearts by Madeline Kelly which pairs off Artemis with the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite gets around to be sure, but once or twice she’s fallen for a woman. A quick and bite-sized romance.

The huntresses of Artemis were sometimes conflated with the similarly man-shunning Amazons, and K. Aten’s Arrow of Artemis trilogy blends these themes in a classical-mythic setting. The focus is on the human followers of Artemis-the-goddess rather than bringing Artemis into the story as a character herself, but the series comes down solidly on the side of Artemis as lesbian icon. K. Aten came onto the podcast a while ago to talk about the series so check out her interview.

So there we are: not as many stories as I thought I’d find, but a diverse buffet of interpretations of the role and character of Artemis. I didn’t find any modern novels that interpreted her through the Roman version as Diana, though I mentioned several older works in last week’s show that have characters either corresponding to, or meaning to evoke, the goddess by that name. And next week I’ll talk more about the mythic stories and historic re-workings of the goddess that speak to how her sexuality was interpreted across the ages. If you know of any other books that would fit this category, drop a comment at the website. The link, as always, is in the show notes.

Show Notes

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, August 10, 2020 - 20:00

I had a moment of panic when my iPad (which had the highlighted version of this article ready for writing up) decided that it didn't have enough memory to open the relevant app. Because it's been downloading new versions of the iOS since forever but hasn't had the elbow room to install them. I temporarily deleted a bunch of apps to get things freed up, but the big problem is that I can't export the marked-up versions of the files and what the iPad really needs is to be restored to factory setting so I can start fresh. Or upgrade to the next iPad or something. Or something. Well, I've got everything sorted out for now. And I managed to get the blog posted on Monday, as planned!

I'm working on some new promotional contexts for the blog and podcast. The LHMP now has its own Twitter account ( so I can churn out more regular posts without spamming my personal feed. And because I had to set up a Discord account for the recent online Worldcon, I decided to set up my own server to explore hosting chats, etc. for the LHMP and for fans of Alpennia and my writing. I'm doing a "soft roll-out" by inviting people who express interest, and will experiment with doing some live chats and events there in the future. So if you'd like a head start, drop me an email or a twitter DM or any other non-public channel and I'll give you an invitation.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 2005. "Born of Two Vaginas: Love and Reproduction between Co-Wives in Some Medieval Indian Texts" in GLQ 11:4 547-577.

I’ve covered several other articles where Ruth Vanita touches on the motif of reproduction by a female couple in Indian mythological literature. This is a deep dive into the specific texts and contexts for that motif.

Ruth Vanita does an in-depth comparative study of several texts concerning the birth and life of the legendary hero Bhagiratha. The specific focus is a set of three 14th century Bengali texts (also reproduced in later 16-17th c collections) in which the hero is the result of the sexual union of two co-wives, queens of the late King Dilipa whose had died without fathering the son who was foretold to bring the sacred river Ganga to earth from heaven.

These texts are examined in two contexts: other versions of the hero’s birth and life that do not include the same-sex motif, and ancient and medieval Hindu ideas around co-wives, same-sex sexual relations, same-sex co-parenting, and miraculous or monstrous conceptions. She continues to discuss essential differences in law and society between the Christian concept of sodomy and the Hindu concept of ayoni (non-vaginal) sex.

Vanita’s previous studies on same-sex themes in Indian history points out that looking for evidence specifically of genital intercourse may overlook other types of evidence that are taken seriously within cross-sex relationships. In the context of modern debates over same-sex relations in India, it is important to identify canonical Hindu texts that accommodate (if not necessarily promote) genital same-sex relations within a neutral treatment of lovemaking in general. Here we find a contrast between prescriptive texts, such as legal and medical works, and narratives that are more concerned with emotional and inter-personal contexts.

The story that is the focus of this article can be read as celebrating sexual love between co-wives as being divinely sanctioned, as part of kinship structures, and as contributing to family and community. In addition to these factors, the relationship may be presented as providing physical and emotional fulfillment for the women.

The idea that sexual intercourse between two women can result in pregnancy and childbirth occurs independently of Bhagiratha’s story, at least as early as a 1st century medical text, the Sushruta Samhita. This union is said to produce a “boneless” child, as the father’s seed was thought to contribute bones to the fetus. This motif, and an explanation for how it was overcome, is present in two of the focal stories.

The “born of two mothers” motif is not the only version of the Bhagiatha story, and Vanita connects this motif specifically with medieval Shakta or goddess worship traditions current in 14th century Bengal, although the texts are more overtly part of the Vaishnava tradition, glorifying Vishnu. Another potentially relevant feature of this subgroup of texts is in presenting them as a conversation between the primal serpent, Sheshanaga, and the sage Vatsyayana (who is the assigned author of the Kamasutra, an erotic treatise that discusses same-sex relations in a fairly non-judgmental manner).

The core story of these three texts goes like this: after King Dilipa dies childless, his two widows have sexual relations and produce a child, Bhagiratha, who carries on Dilipa’s lineage and heritage. There is no question about his lineage because any child born to Dilipa’s wives (even after his death) is assigned as his child.

The reproductive context varies between the three stories. In one, the two widows go to a priest for help to continue the family line, who instructs them to eat a special type of rice and then to have sex, after which the elder becomes pregnant. The child is born “boneless” but an encounter later with the deformed sage Ashtavakra results in his body being transformed.

In the second version, the gods are the driving force due to their concern for the disruption to divine plans for the line of Dilipa. Shiva is sent to the widows and tells them to have sex with each other to produce the required heir. With the gods’ blessing, “the two women lived together in extreme love ... they enjoyed love play, and one of them conceived.” Again, the child is boneless and the women are advised to leave him on the roadside, where the sage Ashtavakra encounters him and is again the means of transforming his body to a heroic state.

In the third version, a more detailed context is provided for the women. They are provided with names (!), Chandra and Mala, and after Dilipa’s death they make love spontaneously, inspired by Madan the god of love, with the child being an unanticipated byproduct rather than the purpose of the activity. “Burning with desire induced by Madan, Chandra and Mala took each other in embrace, and each kissed the other. Chandravati played the man and Mala the woman. The two women dallied and made love. The god’s blessing had enabled the two women to play the game of love, and the energy of Madan entered the womb of Malavati. This is how Malavati became pregnant.” Mala is distraught and plans to drown herself, thinking people will assume she had been with a man, but the gods intervene and tell her that the pregnancy was by divine will to fulfill the prophecy. In this version, Bhagiratha is born perfect and beautiful.

A common factor among these versions is the intervention of the gods to sanctify the women’s relationship and the resulting birth. The women not only express devotion to the gods and their divine plans, but are concerned for their late husband’s lineage and the fate of the kingdom. But in addition to these more traditional concerns, they are shown feeling and expressing love and desire for each other.

The audience is primed to accept this as the divine plan, although there are occasional bows to expected conventional reactions: to a widow’s pregnancy, to the possibility that their actions result in pollution, to the motif that a child born of two women will be “monstrous” in some way. These anxieties are acknowledged, then resolved by how the events are reframed. In the most detailed version (the third described above), the women’s sexual encounter is placed in a traditional context for acceptable romantic and sexual pleasure: occurring during the monsoon season, characterized by kisses and burning desire, and inspired by the presence of Madan/Kama, the god of love.

The intervention of the god Kama provides license for the women’s desire for each other. When one is targeted by Kama, one is helpless. Same-sex targets may be rare, but an example is given of an 11th century statue with two women, embracing, as Kama shoots love-arrows at them.

Indian medieval legal discussions of sex between women point out that there it doesn’t represent a simple, unified concept. Rather, attitudes and penalties revolve around the desire to protect women’s premarital virginity. Digital penetrative sex between women, when one is a virgin, is proscribed and punished similarly to the same act involving a man, but there is no penalty indicated if both women are non-virgins.

The article discusses the contradictory attitude toward ayoni (non-vaginal) sex, with some stories presenting it as the origin of heroic offspring, while others treat it as an impure condition. Vanita suggests that these are two faces to the concept of “taboo” -- that what is sacred in one context is forbidden in others. But when ayoni sex is discussed in law books, the punishments are usually trivial and equivalent to those provided for heterosexual sex in impure, but not forbidden, contexts. The types of acts covered by the term are pretty much anything not involving a woman’s vagina, so the discussion is not limited to homosexual contexts.

The article then moves into a discussion of how British colonial attitudes and laws replaced earlier attitudes. There is a consideration of how different cultures treat the relationship of (and expected attitudes between) co-wives in polygamous societies. Within Indian traditions, women might use the co-wife relationship to bring a beloved friend (or lover?) into the marriage. Other medieval Indian narratives include the motif of loving bonds between co-wives, though not necessarily overtly sexual. The motif of pairs or groups of women co-mothering a child, either in legend or history is also touched on.

[Note: I’ve only briefly skimmed over these last several topics, which take up a substantial portion of the article.]

Time period: 
Saturday, August 8, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 170 (previously 49b) - Reprise - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/08 - listen here)

This episode is a reprise of a show that originally aired two years ago. This month I’m doing a series of shows around the theme of the mythic Artemis or Diana and how her sexuality has been portrayed, both in historical contexts and in modern fiction. The theme was inspired by a wide-ranging conversation on twitter discussing what I see as an entirely unnecessary conflict between works that represent Artemis as lesbian and ones representing her as asexual. But I’ll save that discussion for the week 4 episode. For now, let’s revisit the rather complicated and sometimes problematic story of Diana and Callisto.

* * *

The search for representation in history and historic art and literature is, in one sense, always doomed to failure because our identities are a complex product of a specific historic and cultural context. We can find echoes of individual details of our identities, but never the exact whole. And sometimes, to find those echoes, we need to excavate the features we identify with from a pit of stereotypes, disapproval, and hostility.

Today’s show looks at a topic that offers both some surprising examples of representation and some uncomfortably problematic features of how that representation was framed.

Ovid, Diana and Callisto, other mythic themes

The Roman goddess Diana (and her Greek counterpart Artemis, as well as other divinities treated as equivalent or related) is a complex figure with several prominent attributes. She is associated with the moon (corresponding to her brother Apollo’s association with the sun). She is associated with hunting and with wild spaces. She is associated with virginity or chastity and famous for harsh treatment of male intrusions into her all-female circle of followers, which makes it interesting that she was also associated with childbirth and was petitioned to assist both with becoming pregnant and with an easy delivery. Diana was often depicted in male-coded hunting garments, wearing a short tunic and boots, while carrying a bow and quiver and accompanied by hunting dogs or by a deer.

The artistic and literary treatments of Diana that had the most significant presence in later Western culture revolve around two stories, both of which are relevant for Diana as a lesbian icon. One is the story of the hunter Acteon and his fate. Acteon was out hunting and came across Diana while she was bathing naked. In punishment for this transgression, she changed Acteon into a stag and set his own hounds on him to hunt and kill him. This is part of a continuing theme depicting Diana’s band of followers as constituting a women-only space and enforcing that requirement with harsh penalties.

The other story, about Diana and Callisto, is more complex. In brief, Callisto was one of Diana’s followers, one of a band of nymphs who were sworn to reject men just as Diana herself had. Jupiter had the hots for Callisto--as he did for so many women in classical mythology--but there was no way to get close to her because of Diana’s big sign on the clubhouse saying, “No Boys Allowed.”

So Jupiter got around this problem by disguising himself as Diana. A number of the medieval and early modern versions of the story go into great detail about how Callisto became persuaded that a sexual relationship with the goddess Diana was not only ok, but was a great idea, though other versions depict her as being more consistently reluctant about it. At some point, of course, Jupiter revealed himself, but it was too late for Callisto to protest at that point. She became pregnant as a result, and although she tried to conceal the fact, her condition was discovered one day when the nymphs were bathing together. There’s that “naked nymphs bathing together in the woods” motif again. Callisto was expelled from Diana’s band and transformed into a bear, although the details of just who performed the shape-change vary depending on the version of the story. In any event, we aren’t so much concerned with that point.

The key aspects of these two stories that created resonances through the medieval and Renaissance periods were the following. The goddess Diana rejected romantic and sexual interactions with men and expected her followers to do the same. Both stories involve scenes of women bathing naked in wilderness settings. And Jupiter’s seduction of Callisto assumes a context in which Callisto responds positively to what she believes is same-sex desire. These motifs combined to create an unusually public culture of depicting female homoeroticism in a context where, if not exactly approved of, it was safely removed from everyday life enough to be acceptable.

It is undeniable that the popularity of artistic depictions of the story were, in large part, driven by the male gaze and an appetite for female homoerotic scenes created for men’s consumption. But at the same time, the depiction in both art and literature of a separatist society of women who resisted marriage or any other relations with men and who openly embraced physical affection and pair-bonding between women, created a conceptual space that welcomed women who desired women not only as consumers but as producers of those stories and images.

The concept of chastity and heteronormativity

A key feature to understanding the reception of Dianic art and literature is the shifting interpretations of the concepts of chastity and virginity. Diana was a virgin goddess and one whose followers were sworn to chastity, but for much of western culture these concepts were understood within a heteronormative framework in which “sex” was defined as what happened between men and women. During many historic eras in the west, erotic activity between women was not seen as threatening to society because it wasn’t categorized as “sex”.

Within this framework, there was no inherent conflict between Callisto swearing to be chaste and Callisto accepting the erotic advances of someone she believed to be a woman. This position is laid out explicitly in texts based on the Diana myths. For example, in William Warner’s poem Albion’s England written in 1586 Jupiter’s assault on Callisto is described as follows:


And Nymph-like sits him by the Nymph, that took him for no man,

And after smiles, with nearer signs of Loves assault began.

He feeleth oft her ivory breasts, nor maketh coy to kiss;

Yet all was well, a maiden to a maiden might do this.


From a similar era, Thomas Heywood’s play The Golden Age, lays out the expectations for the women in Diana’s band. When Callisto arrives begging to join them, Diana asks the hero Atalanta, “Is there no princess in our train as yet unmatched to be her cabin fellow and sleep by her?” And Atalanta answers, “Madam, we are all coupled and twinned in love, and hardly is there any that will be won to change her bedfellow.” So Diana tells Callisto, “You must be single till the next arrive: she that is next admitted of our train must be her bed-companion; so ‘tis alotted.” It is this uncoupled state that leaves her vulnerable to Jupiter’s advances when he arrives pretending to join Diana’s band. There’s an ironically humorous scene where Diana lays out the rules for her followers, which the disguised Jupiter has no problem promising to:


You shall vow chastity.

You never shall with hated man atone,

But lie with woman, or else lodge alone.

With ladies only you shall sport and play,

And in their fellowship spend night and day.

Consort with them at board and bed,

And swear no man shall have your maidenhead.


But despite this talk of bedfellows and sporting with the ladies, Callisto takes some convincing when the false maiden gets her alone and begins kissing and fondling her, asserting, “so a woman, with a woman, may.” This type-scene of a man in disguise working to convince a woman that same-sex erotics are perfectly acceptable also shows up in works not directly involving Callisto or the goddess Diana, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia.

In an expansion of the specific myths involving Diana’s maintenance of an all-female band, she became a key symbol of marriage resistance in general. There are many literary examples of women being depicted as being “followers of Diana” in the context of rejecting marriage as a life path. For example in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Knight’s Tale, the character of Emily prays to Diana for help in avoiding marriage to either of the two men competing for her hand. Chaucer took this tale from Boccaccio--or at least from the same source as him--who also feature Diana as the patroness of marriage resistance. The same story shows up in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, and in several plays Shakespeare’s characters make regular references to Diana as a symbol of a voluntary unmarried state. But it is a state in which love and even physical affection may flourish as long as only women are involved.

The problem of Callisto-type stories for transgender representation

The myth of Diana and Callisto and they ways in which it was represented in medieval and early modern culture--as well as other stories with similar tropes, such as The Convent of Pleasure and the Arcadia--highlight two examples of the pitfalls of reaching into history to find representations of modern identities. One hazard is illustrated by viewing the Callisto story through a transgender lens, the second hazard comes from recognizing the key role of male objectification in depictions of female homoeroticism.

In looking through western history for transgender representation, it is inescapable that pervasive misogyny makes examples of transfeminine representation far more problematic than examples of transmasculine representation. Female-bodied persons who took on a masculine presentation were, historically, treated as admirable. Both in medical theory and in literary representation, the motif of the spontaneous change of physiological sex is nearly always from female to male, and philosophers argued that this was as expected because nature would only support a change from less perfect to the more perfect--that is, from female to male. In contrast, western literature treated male-bodied persons who take on a feminine presentation almost invariably as engaging in deceit, often for the purpose of sexual predation, with the exceptions to this generally being when the feminine presentation is either done for comic effect or as humiliation.

This is an expected consequence of a cultural context in which being female is considered lesser than being male. There was no framework in western culture prior to the 20th century in which to view a transition from male to female as a positive and desirable thing. Therefore when done deliberately, the assumption was that it was from ulterior motives.

Plots and motifs like these were considered edgy and amusing in early modern literature, but they are problematic when viewed from the point of view of modern audiences. And since the organizing principle of this podcast is to look at history and literature as inspirations and sources for modern historical fiction, we need to deconstruct this motif a bit more deeply to map out the minefields.

Within the historic context, gender-disguise stories--whether of a woman disguised as a man or a man disguised as a woman--could create a context for imagining and visualizing homoerotic relationships, but with a “safety valve” in which they normally resolved into heterosexual couples at the end. Occasionally, this safety valve was in the form of a magical sex change, as in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe and its many descendents such as Yde and Olive or the play Gallathea. But at the heart of these motifs lies the erasure of the reality of queer experiences. Female couples were allowed to achieve a happily-ever-after ending, but only if one of them became a man. However much a story like Gallathea may tease the audience with the possibility of a committed romantic relationship between two women, in the end it erases the validity of that possibility to restore mandatory heterosexuality. But just as importantly, such stories erase the validity of the transgender experience even while appearing to support a transgender reading of the story.

A magical physiological sex change may have resonances with modern hormonal and surgical approaches to addressing gender dysphoria, but the motif doesn’t address the realities of trans experience any more than stories about miraculous cures of the blind and lame address the realities of people’s experience of disability. Characters such as Iphis, or Yde, or Gallathea and Phyllida, or Blanchandine in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil do not express gender dysphoria prior to their physiological transformations. Iphis and Ide and the dual protagonists of Gallathea express frustration at not being able to imagine how to successfully carry out their erotic desires within a same-sex relationship. And Blanchandine is looking for an escape from the predicament that gender disguise has led her into precisely because her desires are heterosexual and because she experiences life as a woman, whatever her outward appearance. Conversely, the few female-bodied characters who are described in terms that suggest gender dysphoria, such as the knight Silence in the romance of that name, have their stories resolved by being maneuvered back to living conventional female lives and, as always, being married off to men.

So just as there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for lesbian identification, there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for transgender identification, but in neither case do the motifs, the character motivations, and the story resolutions align for fully satisfactory representation.

I should emphasize that I’m talking specifically of self-consciously fictional representation here. There are plenty of real life biographies involving cross-gender behavior that evoke transgender interpretations--lives such as Catalina de Erauso or Eleno de Céspedes. But literature took a less nuanced and less ambiguous approach to the question because it was concerned with making the characters make sense within the social framework of the times.

In considering transgender intersections with characters and themes that have lesbian resonance, I’m almost always talking about transmasculine figures. When physiologically male characters appear in literature presenting themselves as female, it is almost universally within one of two contexts: for the purpose of humor, or for the purpose of gaining illicit sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society.

These two contexts not only erase the validity of transgender identity but reinforce two of the most hurtful myths about trans women that are present in modern culture: that transfeminine identity is inherently ridiculous, and that claims of transfeminine identity are made by cis men in order to sexually assault women in gender-segregated spaces. In other words, Jupiter’s rape of Callisto is the defining myth of the modern “bathroom panic” issue.

In searching through history and literature for scraps of identification and representation, I can get a bit numb to the stuff one has to slog through in order to find those scraps. But I think it’s important to examine the question of representation from many angles. Not just looking at motifs both from the context in which they were produced and from the context in which we are now examining them. But also looking at them from all the different angles of potential identification and representation.

Even though pre-modern literature could accept that a “chaste Diana” might engage in same-sex erotics, chastity most often implied an avoidance of all erotic activity. The fact that images of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto offer a superficial representation of lesbian desire doesn’t negate the fact that they also reinforce a pernicious stereotype of transgender motivations.

The same contradictions and ambiguities that offer the fleeting chance for identification for some readers and viewers, can remove the chance for identification for others. I don’t have any answers here, only the reminder that not only is history never neutral, but the study of history is never neutral. If I often seem to embrace only interpretations that address lesbian representation in history, it’s because this project was never intended to be a neutral presentation of historic fact. If, indeed, there is such a thing as a neutral presentation. But I will regularly acknowledge the specific filters I bring to this topic and remind my audience of other possible ways of engaging with the same material.

Female homoerotic art and the male gaze

This same honesty requires me to acknowledge that pretty much all the female homoerotic art we have from the medieval and early modern period was inspired by the fact that some men get off on seeing two women getting it on together.

Depictions of the goddess Diana and her followers in art can be found in a variety of standardized genre scenes, but by far the most popular were those that included the two bathing scenes: Acteon coming across the bathing Diana, and the pregnant Callisto being found out when the nymphs were bathing together. These scenes dwell lovingly on the revealing of naked female bodies in a public space, showing the women embracing or tending to each others’ physical needs. The scenes invite the viewer to become Acteon in his forbidden act of spying on the virgin goddess, without invoking the fatal penalty that was imposed on that figure.

Given the economics of artistic patronage in the medieval and early modern periods, when the majority of professional artists and the majority of those paying for their work were male, it’s an inescapable conclusion that these two scenes were popular mostly for their pornographic appeal. Not that artists necessarily needed much of an excuse for depicting naked female bodies.

Scenes from the Callisto myth can be found in western art beginning as early as the 14th century, in illuminated manuscripts that re-told stories from Ovid with commentary that gave them a Christian moralizing spin. Due to this moral angle, the illustrations often focus on the disgrace of Callisto’s pregnancy and her expulsion from Diana’s company, but there are also images of Jupiter’s seduction of her that provide the superficial appearance of two women in erotic embrace. In addition to kissing and embracing--which could be depicted without erotic intent--often the figures are shown with the disguised Jupiter holding Callisto’s chin--a formalized symbolic gesture known as a “chin-chuck” that always indicated romantic or sexual desire.

[Image: Woodcut in Giovanni dei Bonsignori's Ovidio Metamorphoseos vulgare (1497). Br. Lib. IB.23185]

Myth of Callisto - 1497 woodcut from a commentary on Ovid

In contrast to Rennaissance depictions, often the pair are clothed during these seduction scenes, while the bathing scenes involve nudity. Book art was not the only context for depictions of the Callisto myth. It seems to have been a popular topic for decorating Italian wedding chests in the 14th and 15th centuries.

As we move into the 16th through 18th centuries, the seduction scenes are depicted with more overt eroticism. In 1613, the painter Peter Paul Rubens--who gave his name to the lush depiction of curvaceous women as “rubenesque”--shows a naked Calliso receiving the embrace of a semi-clad false Diana who uses the same “chin-chuck gesture” used in medieval art to convey eroticism.

["Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. From Wikimedia.]

"Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens 1613

François Boucher, working in the mid 18th century, painted several versions of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto, including the one used as a logo for this podcast. The figures are either nude or semi-clad to expose torsos and legs, and lie entwined on draperies in a natural setting. In one of Boucher’s paintings, Diana again uses the chin-chuck gesture to make the sexual nature of the interaction clear.

["Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743, from Wikimedia]

"Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743

Even when painters of the early modern era are depicting the bathing scene where Callisto’s pregnancy is discovered, the homoerotic context is shown in how Diana and the other nymphs are in close flesh-to-flesh contact, draping arms across shoulders, or washing and drying each others’ naked bodies. Some of the famous artists depicting these type-scenes include Titian in the 15th century and Rembrandt in the early 17th century.

["Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556, from Wikimedia]

"Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556

It’s hard to talk about artistic depictions on a podcast, but if you’re really interested, I’ve included a selection of examples in the transcript of this podcast on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. Follow the link in the show notes to see them.

Diana as lesbian literary symbol

As noted earlier, references to being a follower or worshipper of Diana were sometimes used in early modern literature to indicate a disinterest in marriage or even active resistance to marriage as a life path. Continuing through western literature, Diana becomes a code-word for love between women that is exclusive of men--either using a clear reference to the goddess, or simply by the use of the name.

Jorge de Montemayor’s romance Diana from the mid 16th century uses the goddess’s name to set the stage for a Callisto-like tale of desire between women in a pastoral and mythic setting and gender disguise, but with the twist that this time the seduction really is between two women, but where one of them later claims to have been a man in female disguise in order to play a trick on the other.

Several 19th century works pair the name Diana with motifs of separatist female households. The novel Diana Victrix, published in 1897 by Florence Converse, has an unusually happy ending for two women engaged in a Boston Marriage--as the author herself was. Neither protagonist in the story is named Diana, so the “victorious Diana” of the title may be understood as the goddess’s ideal of a women’s separatist society. Louisa May Alcott’s unfinished story “Diana and Persis” may be making this allusion as well, telling the story of two women artists who pledge to support each other in ways that a heterosexual marriage never could. But while the story’s Diana remains unmarried and dedicated to her work, Persis succumbs to a man’s proposal and even though he promises not to interfere with her artistic career, the daily grind of marriage and motherhood leads her to abandon her art. A similar story of two devoted and loving friends whose happiness is destroyed by the intrusion of marriage occurs in George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.

And, of course, the choice of the name Diana for the superhero Wonder Woman is an obvious reference to her origins within the women-only Amazonian society of Themyscira.

Despite some of the uncomfortable aspects of the use of the goddess Diana as a symbol of marriage resistance, of a female separatist society, or of same-sex erotics between women, she has remained an enduring symbol across two millennia, standing beside Sappho as an icon of lesbian possibilities, even when those possibilities were otherwise hard to imagine.

Show Notes

Ovid’s myth of Diana and Callisto had lasting popularity through the medieval and early modern periods and provided a context for some unexpected representation of erotic interactions between women. But hoo boy are there some problematic aspects to this topic!

In this episode we talk about:

  • The goddess Diana and her attributes
  • The myths of Diana and Acteon, and of Diana and Callisto
  • Virginity and chastity and what they have to do with lesbians
  • Why the Callisto story has some major issues when considered through a transgender lens
  • Female homoerotic art and the male gaze
  • The goddess Diana as a symbol of women’s separatist lives in literature
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - 14:00

As the saying goes: what even is time? I was on New Zealand time for most of last week, and I'll blame that for being discombobulated on Monday and forgetting to post this blog. But better late than never.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.

I pulled this article in part to see if it had lesbian-relevant content (it does) but even more as deep-background research for my Franco-Egyptian character in Mistress of Shadows (Alpennia #5, in process). Triangulating on the everyday material and behavioral culture of an unmarried working-class Egyptian woman, living in a very mixed-culture Franco-Egyptian community first in Marseilles and then in Paris is proving to be quite a challenge. So every bit of research I can find that speaks to various aspects of her identity is valuable. For this reason, the summary of this article covers more details outside of sexuality than I might ordinarily cover because it’s doing double-duty.

Hatem looks at systems of institutionalized male control of female sexuality in 18-19th century Egypt, considering issues of class and ethnicity, as well as large-scale political shifts and disruptions. Moreover, patriarchal systems are not only about relations between men and women, but about how relations among women and relations among men support or resist power structures.

Although patriarchal cultures present themselves as idealizing heterosexuality, and engage in varying degrees of homophobia, the dynamic structures are more complex. Moreover, close relations between men are crucial to maintaining patriarchal control, but that doesn’t mean that such relations necessarily involve genital homosexuality. Even rivalry between men can be a form of homosocial bonding that includes as its purpose the maintenance of male solidarity.

On the female side, patriarchal structures are often designed to disrupt and undermine alliances among women, often by fracturing them along class lines and requiring women to compete with each other for localized power and security.

As a social system, patriarchy can be understood to have two primary concerns: the ideal of heterosexual intimacy, and the domination of one sex (women) by the other (men). These concerns are in constant tension.

Hatem’s study here uses this understanding of patriarchy to discuss and compare various types of patriarchal systems in 18-19th century Egypt, focusing on three distinct periods: 1760-1798, the French expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801, and the post-expedition era from 1805-1860. (The period immediately following the French departure was marked by chaotic transition and so is excluded.) Within this framework, Hatem identifies one possible interpretation of the social and sexual dynamics of women’s lives in Egypt.

18th Century Egypt

18th century Egypt had a sexually segregated culture that dated back in some form to pre-Islamic times, though the segregation is often associated in popular imagination with Islam specifically. But segregation was largely a feature of the sedentary parts of society, while the more mobile tribal groups featured less segregation, in part for practical reasons. The need for freedom of movement and for greater cooperation between the sexes for communal work made strict segregation unworkable. In addition, both women and men were viewed as identifying primarily with the larger clan, rather than smaller family groups, which meant less direct and individual control of women by immediate male family members.

As societies became more settled, responsibility and control of families was taken over by individual male heads of household, with women understood as belonging to them. In this context, segregation was a more practical and inexpensive means of controlling women as well as protecting them. Under traditional Islamic law, the family patriarch had legal control over family members and women’s modesty was emphasized.

Although this sexually segregated system still held in 18th century Egypt, it was also shaped by economic and social forces. Several identifiably distinct parts of Egyptian society experienced patriarchal control in different ways. These divisions included a significant agricultural peasant population, an Arab mercantile class integrated with broader regional trade networks, and the de facto ruling class of Mamluks, who managed the military and administrative functions of Ottoman rule.

These divisions involved distinctions of ethnic origin that affected sexual dynamics. The Mamluks were Turco-Circassian in origin, originally freed slaves, who operated as a military caste and worked to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness. Urban centers were dominated by an ethnically Egyptian merchant class which also was the primary source of scholars and intellectuals. As Egypt re-focused its economy on export and the provision of tribute to the Ottoman Empire, an alliance was formed between the Mamluks, merchants and intellectuals to implement and maintain control.

Gender segregation was affected by these divisions, as the political balances meant that social and sexual control was largely devolved onto individual family heads, including those in the large peasant class. Different structures and patterns of gender control manifested in the different social divisions.

Three gender-related institutions cut across these class lines to cement patriarchal ties: family, slavery, and sexual segregation. Segregation and the seclusion of women was, in theory, universal, but was more strictly practiced by the upper and middle classes.

The Mamluks originally came to Egypt as an enslaved military caste that was racially distinct from the Egyptian population. To maintain this distinction (Mamluk men who married Egyptian women lost their status), there was a constant influx of Turco-Circassian slaves, generally brought in as children. Men were given military training while women generally joined the harems of high-ranking Mamluk men and were only freed if taken as wives or when they bore children. While the wives and upper-class concubines of Mamluk men were generally of Turco-Circassian origin, their households also included Ethiopian and African slaves.

The position of women in these households was mobile and depended on their relations to men. Divorce was easy (for men) and might be used as a means of control, as well as creating power struggles among women. Generally if a woman bore a son for her owner she would be freed, and often would become a wife, whereas concubines who had not borne children had fewer rights. This made sexuality a political matter within households: a concubine was motivated to do anything possible to become pregnant, while men were motivated to avoid producing children except by their wives, to reduce their financial responsibilities.

Slavery was another context where sexuality was a source of conflict. Slaves could marry, and enslaved women could even marry free men, though their children would remain enslaved. This meant that multiple men might be involved in negotiations around the welfare of an enslaved woman and her children.

Men’s role within household dynamics was minimal, but the women of the household related to each other in hierarchical ways that often put their priorities in conflict, undermining potential sources of solidarity. At the same time, connections between the women of extended families created a large, female-dominated social world in which women were expected to be each other’s primary emotional and social support. Sexual segregation created incentives for same-sex relationships among both women and men, although homosexuality was, in theory, condemned in Islamic society. [Note: as other papers on this topic show, “condemnation” is a vastly oversimplified understanding of the multiple dynamics.]

Women’s same-sex relations were threatening to patriarchal control (to the extent that they had the capability of subverting heterosexuality). There are a few historical accounts of lesbianism within Mamluk harems of the 14th century which are instructive (though well removed from the time period of this article). [Note: I’ve seen references to this topic before and have identified the reference cited for further follow-up.]

Hatem has a discussion here of the ability of lesbians among the Mamluk harems to disrupt patriarchal structure by refusing the participate in the male traffic in women to create ties. But her discussion here seems to assume two things: that such women would necessarily have exclusively lesbian identities (i.e., that they considered their interest in women to exclude the possibility of accommodating heterosexual power dynamics), and that they had the agency to refuse to participate in such structures. I don’t know that either of those requirements has been demonstrated in this thought-experiment. In any case, Hatem identifies this as a potential cause for why male homosexuality was accepted among Mamluks and the Egyptian middle class, but lesbianism “remained underground and was viewed with contempt.” [Note: as if misogyny alone couldn’t account for the distinction? I think this is another case of “not proven.”]

Mamluk society involved a great deal of internal instability due to the mechanisms by which power was acquired and passed on. One practice addressing this was for Mamluk men to legally transfer property to their wives to protect it under law, which became a means for women to amass economic power. It also meant that women were drawn into open political maneuvering that had previously been the domain of men (with women participating in more indirect ways). This experience later became useful during the French expedition when Mamluk women were involved in direct negotiations with the French.

Middle class Egyptian households were comparable in size and internal dynamics to the Mamluk households, at least at the upper end. The dynamics of wives vs. concubines and the use of marriage and divorce to exert power over women were similar as well.

Veiling and seclusion were other practices where Mamluk and middle class Egyptian practice aligned. For female slaves in wealthy households, veiling was justified as protecting valuable property, but for free Egyptian women it was rationalized as an expression of modesty. Veiling and seclusion were associated with the need to protect women’s chastity and thereby the honor of the men responsible for them.

Cross-class cooperation among women included interactions with working class women outside the household that supplied essential services (mystics, matchmakers, beauticians, messengers, or peddlers of luxury goods). These women, in turn, used access to upper class women in order to obtain political favors or services for their families.

Among wealthy middle class families, women might be privately educated and have access to religious lectures. Inheritance rights of women in this class were respected due to the use of dowries in marriage negotiations. And there is evidence that some women managed their own property, or even in some cases their husbands’ property.

Accounts of working class women’s lives are scarce in the 18th century, but there is evidence that they did not follow the same rigid requirements for veiling and seclusion as the other classes. Peasant women did agricultural labor as well as household crafts. On the other hand, they had less control over personal property and marriages were generally arranged within the extended patrilineal family to maintain control of resources.

In general, working class women interacted more freely with men and leveraged legitimate reasons for mobility, such as religious festivals, to stretch the bounds of control. Urban working class women had even more mobility and engaged in occupations that made them key elements in larger women’s social networks--occupations such as midwives and entertainers, as well as those mentioned previously. In these roles, they had contacts with more secluded middle and upper class women and expanded their social networks by that means.

The French Expedition

Napoleon’s presence in Egypt was relatively short in objective terms--only three years--but is seen as a turning point in Egyptian history due to the disruption of the existing political systems. The successful French invasion not only disrupted the Mamluk military system directly, but undermined its authority as a bulwark against Christian power. The French introduced a new administrative structure that was inherited by the state introduced after their departure by Muhammed ‘Ali. But some historians argue that this phase may not have been the causal factor in the observed changes, only perhaps an accelerating one.

With regard to sexual dynamics, the French presence was disruptive while not being feminist in any meaningful sense. The requirement to billet French soldiers in private homes resulted in social mingling of the sexes and both formal and informal relations between French soldiers and Egyptian women had lasting consequences, including a violent, conservative backlash against women following the French departure.

During the course of the occupation, the Egyptian society incorporated French participation in patriarchal structures, with some French officers converting to Islam to marry women from prominent middle class Egyptian families. On other points, the culture clash was notable. French husbands expected their Egyptian wives to unveil in public, but that didn’t mean they supported women’s independence, and there were other aspects of sexuality where the French felt Egyptian women took liberties.

The French presence affected women of different classes differently. Some middle class women saw French interactions with women as encouraging greater freedom and social mobility and (vainly) petitioned Napoleon to support women’s interests. Upper class Mamluk women turned their political experience to direct negotiations with the French to support their families’ interests--to some extent, an extension of pre-existing dynamics made more overt--but as part of the older establishment they did not see the French as allies. Working class women clashed with, or benefitted from the French presence in a variety of contexts.

The 19th century

The French presence in Egypt ended rather abruptly with a British naval blockade. In the aftermath, there was a strong backlash against women who had “collaborated” which resulted in a conservative social climate in following decades. Women were executed for associating with the French and the threat of this violence helps explain why social segregation continued even as the practical basis for it eroded under the half-century of rule by Muhammed ‘Ali. [Note: the political dynamics of post-Napoleonic Egypt are complex and should be reviewed if you really want to investigate this era.]

The administrative and economic systems were overhauled in ways that affected all levels of society and all genders. Skimming over the details, some results included extended geographic separation of men and women due to economic dynamics, which resulted in raising the age of marriage for women, creating new hazards for women’s chastity before marriage, failed attempts to improve public education for girls and an accompanying interest from upper class women in private schools run by missionaries.

But overall, the patriarchal power systems were resistant to change and resilient. In shifting ways, women were defined as essentially sexual creatures, and that theme colored every social change.

Time period: 


Subscribe to Alpennia Blog