Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #100a Donoghue 1996 - Passions Between Women (Introduction)

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.


* * *

The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts? Or did they represent parts of a single continuum? This was a time when the word “passion” could apply to any strong emotion and had not yet become so closely linked to eroticism. Queen Anne makes an interesting lens for the topic as there were regular concerns regarding the nature and influence of her favorites—concerns that may have been rooted in issues of class and family but were often expressed in terms of suspect sexuality. Donoghue’s aim in this book is to break past artificial conceptual barriers between sex and friendship and explore the diversity of both as they apply to women’s relationships in the “long 18th century” in a variety of British sources.

In this introduction, Donoghue addresses the claim that a lack of vocabulary to discuss a topic such as lesbianism indicates an inability to conceive of the idea—a claim used to assert that lesbianism as a concept could not have existed before the late 19th century, based on the usage dates given in the Oxford English Dictionary for “lesbianism, “lesbic”, “lesbian” (as a noun and adjective), “Sapphism” and “Sapphist”. Setting aside the clear examples of earlier usage for many of these words, Donoghue points to other terms—now fallen out of use—that clearly referred in some fashion to a lesbian-like identity and category as early as the 16th century. Terms such as tribade and fricatrice, as well as descriptive phrases such as “donna con donna”, “lovers of their own sex”, the “game of flats”, as well as earlier examples of “lesbian” and “sapphist” that—contrary to the OED editors’ assumptions, can clearly be seen to refer to same-sex passion in context. But beyond that, Donoghue points to descriptive texts, such as the diaries of Anne Lister, that—regardless of the absence of a technical vocabulary—clearly reference not only individual attractions and inclinations, but a concept of inherent sexual orientation and categories of women who share them.

With these as signposts, we can also identify systematic though less explicit circumlocutions such as references to “feminine congression” or “uncommon/unaccountable/irregular/unnatural” tendencies. Taken as a whole, the picture emerges of a concept of sexual passion between women that was neither as invisible nor as absent as some have claimed, nor as tolerated as others have asserted. Donoghue notes that, given this context and given that the specific word “lesbian” is relatively uncommon in a sexual meaning during this era, she will use that word throughout this book precisely because it is both meaningful to modern readers and lacks the specificity or narrow connotations of more common 18th century terms such as “tribade” or “tommy”. In doing to, she notes that she will apply the term more broadly to include bisexual women than is usual today. (A distinction between exclusive lesbianism and female bisexuality can be found in some cases, but is relatively rare to in the 17th and 18th centuries.) Thus, the “passions between women” of the title is not meant to indicate an exclusive orientation but an inclusive one.

There is a discussion of the differences in types of historic evidence between the study of male and female homosexuality, in part derived from differences in social and legal attitudes toward the two (as well as the general tendency toward ignoring women’s activities). In spite of the problems of discoverability, Donoghue notes that she found a much larger body of evidence than she expected and notes the benefits of considering female same-sex history independently rather than as an appendix to the study of men. Because of this unexpected wealth of evidence, Donoghue chose to focus her work on texts published in English in the British Isles (including Ireland). Note “published” rather than “written” as she is interested in texts that participated in creating public culture, not simply commenting on it. The focus on the “long 18th century” was driven, not by an assumption that there was no female homoeroticism prior to that, but because it was an era of open debate on female sexuality and a time when there were large numbers of female authors being published, meaning that the topic is not forced into being filtered through male perspectives. Despite shifts and changes in the types of texts that addressed lesbian activity, Donoghue found a fairly consistent amount of material throughout the period studied.

The book is structured around four primary topics that emerged from the data: gender blurring, friendship, sex, and community. In general, it was a combination of these factors that might lead to suspicions regarding a particular woman. Therefore the division is not one of clear and distinct categories, but of different angles on how lesbianism was viewed, identified, and understood. Gender issues are covered in the first three chapters, friendship in the next two, and sex and community in the last two .

In looking at the body of literature under consideration, the question arises of who the readership of those texts was, and thus who could participate in the discourse that they helped create. Female literacy rates were generally lower than male rates throughout the period, but overall literacy was rising, in part due to the influence of charity schools. Further, many women may have had reading literacy but not writing literacy, and so may not have been counted in those statistics while still being literary consumers. Differences in literacy as well as access to texts would have varied enormously based on class and geographic circumstance. But many of the texts under consideration were popularly available via ballads, broadsheets, chapbooks, newspaper serialization, circulating libraries, and communal reading aloud. Novels often had bawdy content, and the more popular forms of literature even more so, and moral censorship or bowdlerization of books had not yet become a significant force. Visual representations are another part of this culture, although not a major consideration in the present text.

Despite this general availability, it is difficult to tell more specifically what knowledge or understanding particular individuals had, especially given the general atmosphere of condemnation. Many of the texts show an open anxiety about the intersection between acceptable interactions between women (such as friendship or “medical” stimulation) and the potential for an unacceptable eroticism, with the latter possibility veiled in denials or claims of disbelief, though frequently undermined with a bit of a literary wink and nudge. There is a generally accepted position that “nice women don’t” and therefore that a woman’s reputation can be a shield against giving an erotic interpretation to behavior that might be looked askance in a woman of lesser reputation. This last, Donoghue notes, lies behind Lillian Faderman’s interpretation of the larger part of late 19th century “romantic friendship” as being non-sexual in nature.

Donoghue stakes out a position firmly in the middle of the essentialist/social-constructionist debate, accepting that the forms of female homoeroticism are certainly likely to be shaped by their culture, but that evidence suggests the existence of the phenomenon in some form is a historic constant. Questions of the development of a notion of “lesbian identity” are hard to pin down, with any particular date giving way to earlier evidence, at least in individual cases. And Donoghue calls into doubt the idea that women of the early modern era had no general access to knowledge of the possibilities of lesbian behavior, or that they necessarily understood it through a strictly heteronormative filter: i.e., “if I desire a woman, I must be a man.” (In this, she criticizes some of Dekker & Van de Pol’s assertions.)

The introduction concludes by discussing other researchers in the field and noting the value of a multi-valent approach to texts and categories of texts to find the patterns and commonalties that allow interpretation to emerge.


Add new comment