Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #58 O'Driscoll 2010 “A Crisis of Femininity: Re-Making Gender in Popular Discourse”

Full citation: 

O’Driscoll, Sally. 2010. “A Crisis of Femininity: Re-Making Gender in Popular Discourse” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

O’Driscoll, Sally. “A Crisis of Femininity: Re-Making Gender in Popular Discourse”

This article, while fascinating in its look at changes in popular attitudes toward active female desire, seems to me to suffer from a few blind spots regarding the historic background of its themes. The author's asserts that there was no association in the popular imagination between the use of sex toys or cross-gender behavior in women and sexual activity between women. This appears to ignore the long tradition of associating forbidden erotic activity between women with dildos in, for example, penitential literature, and the many examples of passing women marrying other women while in disguise. I don't know whether this blind spot comes from the focus on popular culture or on the narrow time-span used for comparison. But in any event, these particular conclusions should be read in the context of other articles that contradict them.

* * *

O' Driscoll looks at changes in attitudes toward female sexuality and same-sex desire through the lens of the dildo in popular culture. She contrasts the later 17th century with its expectation of active female desire (see, e.g., the diagnosis of "green sickness" in girls caused by unfulfilled sexual arousal) accompanied by the portrayal of the dildo as a tool used by women of all types/orientations for fulfillment, with the situation of the mid 18th century when the idealized woman was sexually passive and the dildo had become associated specifically with transgressive illicit sexual activity between women.

O'Driscoll connects this shift with an increasing anxiety around "masculine women" (cross-dressers and passing women) but asserts that cross-gender behavior was not, with rare exceptions, popularly associated with same-sex erotic activity, just as earlier references to dildos had no specific association with same sex activity.

This shift occurs suddenly in the mid 18th century and we begin seeing the motif of the "dangerous and unnatural" masculine-appearing, woman who seduces and satisfies her female lover with the aid of a dildo. Fielding's "The Female Husband" and Bianchi's" Catherine Vizzani" are prominent examples. (See here for the Vizzani case.) After a passing mid-century fashion for these criminalized stories, the "female husband" in popular culture fades to a more pragmatic and less sexual role, for example, providing economic support.

Time period: 

Add new comment