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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82d Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 4)

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0

Publication summary: 

Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.

Chapter 4 - The Political Economy of Same-Sex Desire, 1630-1765

Sorry to short you-all on the chatty introduction again. Life is busy. Enjoy!

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Lanser emphasizes again that this study is not looking for historical lesbians--particularly given that the majority of the texts she examines are by men--but for ways the image of the lesbian is used public discourse.

In this chapter she turns to the ways that women’s writing used the imagery of sapphic relations, particularly in support of their own political ends. Whatever these women’s personal desires, what was their motive for publicly representing intimate female friendships in their writing and for doing so in eroticized ways? These writings operate primarily in the “horizontal” or leveling mode where female friendships are held up as an epitome of relations between equals and as the model for non-kinship bonds. This movement was largely the provenance of gentlewomen and served in part to argue for women’s right to subjectivity (in the sense of being an independent agent acting in the world). But this elevation of female friendships, although eroticized, also served to protect women’s friendships from accusations of sexual transgression.

This elevation required as premise that women be elevated to a social status that was worthy of friendship, in contrast to earlier views that considered only men to have this potential (and considered male-female friendships as impossible due to the difference in worthiness). Conduct manuals of the 17th century instructed men and women on how to perform this worthiness, but in gendered and class-anchored ways that excluded women from the potential for true friendships. In contrast to this instructive literature, women’s writings of the era stake a clear claim to women’s ability to form intimate friendships as strong and worthy as those of men. But in contrast to men’s discourse about male friendships, there is a strain in women’s discourse that emphasizes the need to have the power to perform friendship--a power that at its heart required freedom from the demands of men on their lives. This requirement in turn could only be justified by the depth of the emotional bond. And the expression of this depth found its voice in eroticized language.

This deep eroticized bond of female friendship had been expressed in poetry in the 16th century, in language that contrasts their united hearts or spirits with the desired uniting of their bodies. With women’s increased access to publication in the 17th century, a larger volume of work on similar themes begins to circulate. (The text provides the names and references to a great many women poets in this section, which are too many to list here.) The greater part of this body of literature involves poems addressed from one woman to another, in what Lanser labels “sapphic apostrophe”. The genre contains a tension revolving around issues of jealousy, separation, and criticism of marriage as an institution.

Lanser suggests that while some individual participants in this genre may have been motivated by erotic desire for women, the rise of the phenomenon as a whole is difficult to explain as a purely personal expression. Criticism of the genre identifies the awkward balancing point between “laudable” and “blameable” behavior where intimate friendships are praiseworthy only up to the point when they interfere with marriage and the duties thereof. The extremes of modern critical interpretation pair an interpretation of the genre as always personally erotically motivated with an interpretation that it is never more than conventional art and flattery. Lanser suggests a middle ground: that whatever other purpose the poetry may have served on an individual basis, it represented a sort of collective public project in reframing women’s place in society. The body of work, taken as a whole, created a concept of female subjecthood that could stand up to and with the emerging male humanist on a near equal basis. The sapphic imagery enables this by creating a context for women to assert sovereignty over their persons and to envision a separation (whether spiritual or physical) from male domination.

This imperative to separation became embodied in literary visions such as Margaret Cavendish’s all-female Convent of Pleasure and a long succession of separatist eutopias following it such as Millenium Hall. [Although Lanser does not at this point make comparisons with modern political movements, I can’t help but find echoes of “political lesbian separatism”.]

The elevation of female friendship became part of establishment ideals by the later 18th century, but the literature of this phenomenon makes clear that it is a class-anchored phenomenon. Only well-born women are considered for entrance to these literary female utopias, however much their designers might sympathize with the plight of working class women. This is also the context in which eroticized female friendships fracture along class lines with upper class women’s bonds being treated as invariably chaste and non-sexual (even when eroticized in description) while lower class women’s erotic interactions were framed as transgressive. This, in turn, led to what Lanser calls a “compensatory conservatism” which muted the more vivid expressions of eroticism to align the rhetoric more with the image.

In company with this, as the 18th century progresses, the depictions of cross-gender relations become organized around the notion of complementary difference (in contrast with the more medieval notion of female incompleteness). That is, women are accepted to be equivalent to men but only so long as they remain different, avoiding challenging men in male spheres.

Time period: 

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