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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #14 – Hunt 1999 "The Sapphic Strain: English Lesbians in the Long Eighteenth Century"

Full citation: 

Hunt, Margaret R.. 1999. “The Sapphic Strain: English Lesbians in the Long Eighteenth Century” in Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds. Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-1668-7

Publication summary: 

While, no doubt, many lesbians in history made their peace with the need to accommodate marriage and family life, when designing a character who has the freedom to refuse marriage to a man, it helps to know what social and economic options would have been possible (or even normal) within your setting. There have been several excellent collections of papers (and even more monographs) on the topic of singlewomen, but I believe this was the first significant one to appear.

Hunt, Margaret R. “The Sapphic Strain: English Lesbians in the Long Eighteenth Century”

In some ways, Hunt’s article recapitulates the entire structure and premise of the Lesbian Historic Motifs Project: that -- given fragments of clear evidence for lesbian desire and performance, and given the presumption that lesbian desire occurred in similar proportions in historic populations to recent ones -- there is value in identifying those social contexts and practices in which lesbian relationships and practices could have occurred. What this means is that Hunt’s article largely covers the themes and motifs that I’ve been pulling out of other articles in this volume: the statistical “normalcy” of unmarried women and particularly women heading their own households, often cohabiting with other women; the clear existence of close emotional relationships and support systems among women, and in particular among pairs or groups of singlewomen; the expectation that persons of the same gender would share a bed in all manner of circumstances without any assumption of sexual activity; and so forth. So in my summary here, I’ll primarily stick to the much smaller volume of direct evidence for lesbian desire and sexual activity that the article mentions.

* * *

Male-centric views of sexuality frame singlewomen either as lonely and frustrated (spinsters) or as dangerously promiscuous (whores), but this dichotomy ignores the possibility of the sexual desires of singlewomen being satisfied by other women. There is an idealized image of pre-modern lesbian that finds its epitome in the Ladies of Llangollen type from the late 18th century. This image involves women who were always at odds with female sex and gender roles who overcome societal and personal difficulties to find a partner, and who then settle into a quasi-married state, typically in a rural setting. This romantic ideal is not the only historic model for early modern lesbian relationships. This idealized pastoral seclusion was only possible for comfortably upper class women and statistically speaking most 18th c. lesbians would have been poor or middle class. Our image is skewed by the greater documentation (and thus visibility) of upper class lesbians. But most would have been unobtrusive and integrated in urban society.

Private accounts of sexual activity are rare but telling. The diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) are explicit regarding her sexual encounters and show that she found no lack of willing partners. While the popular image of women’s roles reflects the idea of pervasive patriarchy and female submission, anecdotal stories show the gaps and weaknesses in this image. Records of legal persecution and punishment indicate disapproval but they also imply more pervasive resistance than what might be documented directly. There is plentiful evidence from 17-18th c. England that ordinary people were aware of erotic attraction and activity between women. Several 18th c. treatises on sex explicitly discuss lesbian activity, though sometimes framed as “preparation” for heterosexual sex. The word “lesbian” was used in literary contexts with a near-modern sense. Classical texts using the term “lesbian” were available to those with a scholarly bent. Anne Lister quotes Juvenal in this context in correspondence as a coded way of sounding out a potential partner.

Lesbian sexual activity was not necessarily tied to a concept of identity. The overt evidence tends to focus on upper class, literate women: the Ladies of Llangollen, Anne Lister, the circle of women around Mary Astell, Sarah Fielding, and Anne Conway Damer. Hunt’s article focuses more on the possibilities for lower and middle class women. Cross-class sexual activity may have spurred a more hostile (and thus documented) response than within-class activity. An early 18th c. treatise on masturbation describes a long-term sexual relationship between an adolescent girl and one of her mother’s servants who shared her bed. While the legal account that is quoted stops short of discussing specific sexual practices, it’s clear that mutual genital stimulation is involved. At a different level of cross-class relationships, the rumored sexual relationship between Queen Anne (early 18th c.) and one of her women caused consternation despite both women being married. There are commonly suggestions of an intimate relationship when a singlewoman had a specific long- term female companion, especially when that companion was left an inheritance appropriate for a family relationship. Girls in boarding schools (which were only beginning to be popular) were notorious for forming romantic relationships, and Anne Lester had her first sexual encounter in one.

Clear documentation is also found when women clearly transgressed gender boundaries, such as women who disguised themselves as men to live with or even to marry other women, e.g, Anne Poulter who had been married to a man but took up the male persona James Howard to court and marry a woman.

Time period: 

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