Trumbach, Randolph. 1991. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.
Trumbach, Randolph. “London's Sapphists : From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture”
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[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article. I’d also like to acknowledge that articles such as this that treat historic individuals in a cross-gender or gender-ambiguous context will necessarily trade sensitivity for clarity when discussing both beliefs and realities about the relationship of bodies, identities, perceived identities, and orientations. I will usually try to rephrase an article’s language to something more neutral, but as we are not dealing with persons who can clarify their own preferences, the results will not always be satisfactory.]
Trumbach looks at shifts in the cultural understanding of gender and sexuality that appear in northwestern Europe around the beginning of the 18th century and that he sums up in the title of this article “from three sexes to four genders.” The modern western model of two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female) does not hold through all cultures and has not been universal throughout western history. He associates the shift under consideration with the beginnings of an ideal of equality between the two “legitimate” genders and the rise of a recognition of a third “illegitimate” gender: the “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation toward men, known in England as a “molly”.
[Note that this is not quite the same as a concept of a general homosexual orientation as it still focused exclusively on the “passive” partner who was assumed to have sexual encounters with “normal” men. Also note that "gender" is being used in this article to discuss a concept that combines features that we would today distinguish as gender presentation and sexual orientation. I believe the point that Trumbach is making with the use of the word "gender here is that 18th century English culture conflated gender presentation and sexual orientation in exactly this way.]
By the end of the 18th century, a parallel female role of the mannish woman-desiring “tommy” was becoming recognized. Trumbach asserts that at this time “sapphist” and “tommy” were used as the high and low culture terms for women with homoerotic interests just as “sodomite” and “molly” were high and low culture terms for men. Trumbach’s claim is that this “other female gender” was not completely recognized until the late 19th or early 20th century as women’s gender classification was driven more by their participation in sex with men than by their attitude toward sex with women.
[Note: There are certainly pre-19th century references to women who desire women constituting a “third gender” so I’m not sure exactly what Trumbach’s basis is for pushing the concept toward the end of the 19th century. I get the impression that--like many male historians--he’s treating the male experience as the default and evaluating women’s history in relation to how closely it matches that male experience. In this case, the phenomenon he's focusing on is the conflation of cross-gender presentation and same-sex desire as a combined social category, that is, the development of a female category directly equivalent to the "molly". In doing so, he filters out historical concepts and behaviors that don't participate in that combined category. So keep that in mind as I summarize this article.]
By this point (i.e., ca. 1900) western society had developed a system divided into four roles: man, woman, homosexual man, lesbian woman--roles that presumed only two biological sexes, that rejected a biological basis for homosexual behavior, and that no longer framed homosexuals within a transsexual structure (i.e., that one’s “true” gender was determined in contrast to the object of desire).
The 17th century paradigm--which was applied to both men and women--recognized two genders (male and female) but three biological sexes (man, woman, and hermaphrodite). Under this system, all persons were considered capable of desiring both genders, but “legitimate” sexual activity and desire occurred between male and female genders, and hermaphrodites were required to choose (and stick to) either male or female gender. Violation of this male-female requirement was stigmatized as sodomy, but sodomites were not considered a distinct gender based on their sexual relations. Further, acts of sodomy only violated the accepted gender system if they went against a gendered framework for penetration. As long as older, dominant adult men had penetrative sex with adolescent boys, and women had non-penetrative sex with each other, the gender system was maintained even during same-sex erotics. Persons who acted against this system (e.g., adult biological men who were penetrated or biological women who penetrated women) were not considered to be a distinct social class (gender) but rather were considered to be motivated by belonging to a distinct biological class (hermaphrodites). In the case of women, there was a persistent expectation that this biological class was identifiable by an enlarged clitoris. [Note: The failure of medical examination to uphold this concept in the case of women doesn’t ever seem to have disrupted the standing assumption.]
In the early 18th century, this system as applied to men underwent two shifts: from a 2 gender/3 sex system to a 3 gender/2 sex system, and from an expectation that sexual relations between men would involve an active adult man and a passive adolescent boy, to a system where some adult men who desired men took on “feminine” aspects of dress and behavior as part of engaging in those relationships.
This article focuses on what was going on with women in regard to these categorization shifts during this same period (the 18th century) particularly in London. Trumbach focuses on three topics: the concept of women as hermaphrodites, the understanding of cross-dressing by women, and the scope of “what male contemporaries would have considered to be actual sexual relations between women.” [Note: I use the precise quotation here to highlight that this analysis is assuming a male gaze for this shift in categories. I presume that to some extent this approach is due to the larger amount of male-authored material used as evidence. But I’d be happier if Trumbach seemed more self-aware of the problematic aspects. In the next section I’m going to quote Trumbach’s hedges for his assertions, because I think it’s important to recognize the degree of not-entirely-acknowledged personal speculation involved.]
Trumbach dates the emergence of the “sapphist” gender role to the latter half of the 18th century, emerging clearly only in the last quarter. In the earlier part of the century, women’s behavior was “likely” to be bisexual and their sexual activities with women focus on manual stimulation and avoided penetration. “Men speculated” that women engaging in penetrative sex with women were assumed either to have an enlarged clitoris or to use an artificial penis. “It is likely” that some female husbands who dressed as men and married women did use artificial penises, but “it is likely” that most passing women did not have sexual relations with women, and this is “probably true” even if they married.
[Note: that’s a lot of “likely”s and “probably”s. This entire section of the article strikes me as someone working hard to fit the evidence into his existing conclusions.]
Open cross-dressing, as on the stage, was aimed at appealing to men, not women, relying on the overt knowledge that the performers were women, while covert cross-dressing was intended to conceal the bodily sex. Only toward the end of the 18th century is there evidence of women using cross-gender appearance to appeal sexually to women. It is these women that Trumbach identifies as “London’s first sapphists of the modern kind”, in the sense that they were considered to be expressing a fixed, minority sexual orientation, rather than indulging in a more general possibility of same-sex desire that any woman could experience.
The “hermaphrodite” category was sometimes applied to men who took both an active and passive role in same-sex activity, but it was treated as more of a symbolic label than it was for women, for whom it indicated an expectation of anatomical anomaly. And as the 18th century progressed, the male category increasingly used “molly” instead.
For women, “hermaphrodite” could also be used in a metaphorical rather than anatomical sense, especially when attached to clothing that was felt to be too “masculine” in design, such as tailored riding habits. Here it is the clothing--not its wearers--that is considered to partake of male and female traits, and at least in the early century there seems to be no implication that women wearing “mannish” styles associated that fashion with desire for women. [Note: The early 18th century Memoirs of the Count de Grammont implies a relationship between Mrs. Hobart's "mannish" attributes and clothing and her predatory sexual interest in young women, but it's true that the association isn't as strong as it later became. And I think Trumbach has an unstated distinction between descriptions of "mannish" clothing being part of a stereotype of women's sexual deviancy, and the deliberate use of "mannish" clothing to express personal identity/orientation. Did the existence of the stereotype inspire homoerotically-inclined women to adopt masculine-coded clothing? Or was the stereotype an outgrowth of the earlier gender/orientation model that viewed female same-sex desire as a symptom of an essential "masculine" identity that also inspired cross-gender dressing? I think there's a lot more to investigate here, though it's questionable whether the data exists to be successful.]
The association of the concept of the physiological “hermaphrodite” rather specifically with women (as opposed to both women and men) is emphasized in the coverage of medical treatises on the phenomenon, such as Edmund Curll’s 1718 work, which focus entirely on physiologically female bodies that featured enlarged clitorises. He considered that hermaphrodites were inherently predisposed to transgressive sex and that sex with women was simply an extension of this. He also takes an exoticizing view of same-sex desire, considering hermaphrodites to be more common in hot climates, such as Italy and France. Unlike writers later in the century, he considered hermaphroditism to represent a distinct physiological (yet still female) sex that resulted in same-sex desires.
But hermaphroditism was not a stable category. A woman could become one as a result of masturbation, which was believed to enlarge the clitoris. Several “case studies” are adduced from the sensational tract Onania (which seems to have been a combination of anti-masturbation polemic and porno magazine letter column). Under this understanding of the relationship of physiology and sexual category, individuals can move between sexes by means of changes in their genitalia, whether spontaneously or as a result of stimulation.
The Onania also reflected the next stage of thought, citing writers who considered that so-called hermaphrodites were simply mis-categorized as to sex due to ambiguous genitalia. Thus, a girl with a large clitoris might be assigned as male (as in a case study related by surgeon John Douglas) and only later in life be re-assigned as female. In the case study this re-assignment was due to pregnancy. John Parsons, repeating the report in 1741, notes that in earlier ages the case would most likely have been reported as a change of sex, rather than an initial miscategorization.
It was mutability, rather than anomaly, that incited disapproval. Another physician, writing in 1771, noted a “hermaphrodite” who had lived as a man for at least 12 years, marrying a woman and living with her until her death; but after the wife’s death, the person began living as a woman and had married a man.
While earlier legal policy had recognized the possibility of change of physiological sex, it had required everyone to choose a single behavioral gender and stick to it. This emerging view of physiology in the 18th century held that actual sex change was not possible, and therefore to avoid sodomy it was necessary to correctly identify which sex a person was and require them to perform the corresponding gender. Another case study is offered: Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl but then at age 22 joined the army as a man and went to America . In that country, Thomasine again lived as a woman, but when examined was found to have male genitalia. (Trumbach suggests the likely explanation that Thomasine had an intersex condition in which male genitalia developed in late adolescence. But in general as Trumbach is interested in subjective social categorization, he doesn’t touch much on intersex conditions as a factor in the data.) The American court took the rather unusual approach of sentencing Thomasine to dress partly male and partly female, which would seem to contradict the requirement to “pick one and stick to it.” [Note: for those who would like to follow up on this case and its unusual legal context, see Wikipedia as a starting place.]
John Parsons briefly acknowledges the possibility of such mis-assignments of male individuals, but in general treats all hermaphrodites as basically female. As women, he argued, there was no point in requiring them to choose a gender--they had one. But this position combined with the expectation of heterosexual desire to argue that the category of “hermaphrodite as tribade” was non-sensical. Even women with enlarged clitorises were women and therefore should naturally desire only men.
What this meant was that rather than using hermaphroditism as a reason and excuse for apparently-female persons desiring women, desire between women was now considered to have no biological basis and therefore must be viewed as simple moral deviance. [Note: This is, of course, not a new and previously unknown understanding, but to some extent a return to an earlier position. As seen in other research, the fascination with the idea of the “macroclitoride hermaphrodite” was a Renaissance invention and superseded a previous model of same-sex desire as potentially available to all persons but morally deviant.]
As the category of hermaphrodite was receding as a framework for women who desired women, there was not yet an equivalent to the masculine “molly”, i.e., women who were socially (rather than biologically) disposed toward desire for other women. Such a category would become necessary, and was filled with the concept of the sapphist/tommy, representing women whose desires had been corrupted toward an inappropriate object.
The next section of the article specifically looks at the association (or lack thereof) between women who cross-dressed or passed as men, and women who desired women. John Cleland, in his translation of the life of Catherine Vizzani, suggested that cross-dressing women were predisposed to same-sex desire, but this suggestion doesn’t seem to hold for most 18th century cross-dressing women in London. (Keep in mind that Catherine Vizzani was one of those “hot blooded” Italians.) Trumbach asserts that for most of the 18th century, there was no specific association between female cross-dressing and lesbianism, in contrast to mollies (men cross-dressing as women specifically in the context of same-sex relationships and activity).
[Note: in order for this particular conclusion of Trumbach’s to be demonstrated, it is necessary for him to re-categorize a significant number of “female husbands” or to deny that their relationships had any relation to sexual desire. While it's true that documented motivations for "passing women" in this era are diverse, Trumbach goes out of his way to downplay the possible role of same-sex desire. I’m going to do a lot of critique interwoven into this next set of data.]
Trumbach notes that although there were women who courted and married other women in 18th century London and “may have tried” to have sexual relations using a dildo (as documented for Mary Hamilton and for Catherine Vizzani), this specific sexual act cannot be proven. [Note: Trumbach seems to ignore the issue that England had no laws against performing a sex act with a dildo, unlike a number of continental cultures where trial records document such sex acts clearly and in detail during this period and earlier. This seems to me to greatly weaken his conclusion that 18th century English cross-dressers were not engaging in penetrative lesbian sex simply because there’s no mention of it in the record.]
“Female husbands” in 18th century London were normally charged with fraud rather than with a sexual crime [there being no sexual crime on the books they could be charged with]. Examples of fraud charges include:
Other cases suggest that whatever the initial understanding may have been, the relationship was still found acceptable to both parties once the gender disguise was known. Sarah Paul was abducted by a man for sexual purposes at age 13 and dressed as a boy (Samuel Bundy) to conceal her identity. She escaped him and went to sea as a man, then returned to work as a painter, at which time she courted and married Mary Parlour. Mary soon discovered her “husband’s” physiological sex and took no action at first. Some ambivalence entered their relationship, for Mary later had “Samuel” arrested for fraud, but then refused to appear in court to support the charges and kept her husband company while in prison. The only outcome was that the magistrate burned Sarah Paul’s male clothing and ordered her never to appear as a man again.
Such relationships were sometimes successful enough to last until death. John Chivy was married to a woman for nearly 20 years and was not discovered to be physiologically female until after death. Mary East was the husband of a couple married for 36 years, running a public house and holding parish offices, and only discovered to be physiologically female after her wife’s death in 1766. Trumbach notes that there is no direct evidence whether their relationship was also sexual, though he notes that East’s susceptibility to a blackmail attempt suggests the possibility of more than simple gender disguise--or at least that the suggestion of such was a threat. In some cases involving simple gender disguise without marriage, the woman testified directly to an economic motivation, citing the better employment opportunities for men.
Simple economic gender disguise was treated inconsistently by the law, with many examples coming from military contexts. Some women, on discovery, received punishments including whipping or hard labor, while others were turned into folk-heroes and granted celebrity status, such as Hannah Snell and others. The popular media showed a certain prurient interest in the details of behavioral disguise, e.g., the use of instruments to allow male-style urination, or the need to perform the expected flirtatious interest in women. But the startling observation is how many of these known passing women in the military were not arrested in connection with their discovery.
Given the expected gender segregation of society, another motivation for women cross-dressing was to facilitate illicit interactions with men, whether sexual or merely social. Sally Salisbury dressed as a man for drunken and violent sprees with a group of young aristocratic men. A woman who served as coachman to Lady Ann Harvey cross-dressed in order to conceal her illicit marriage to another servant in the household, was only discovered due to pregnancy. Catherine Meadwell developed a male persona to better facilitate an adulterous (heterosexual) affair.
Trumbach spends a fair amount of time discussing the life and autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, but although he notes the “complications” of interpreting her motives, he sets out his default position by stating that she “probably” began cross-dressing to facilitate her second, secret marriage (to a man). In contrast, her travels with a female friend as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” are attributed merely to safety. Charke’s cross-dressed courtship of several women, her flirtations with prostitutes, and her stated discomfort with traditionally female occupations are considered to be balanced by the fact that she bore a child within marriage. [I can't help but hearken back to Trumbach's statement that women's erotic identity during this period was defined by whether they had any relations with men, not by the existence of relations with women. It's hard to find any clear distinction between Trumbach's own categorization strategy and his reporting of historic categorization strategies.] Trumbach sensibly points out that Charke’s hostile satirization of an effeminate male homosexual cannot be interpreted as a general hostility to same-sex relations as the two situations were not considered in any way equivalent at the time. But he concludes by noting that there is no proof that she ever engaged in “what would have seemed to her to be sexual intercourse with another woman.” [Note: this leaves aside the question of what she engaged in that would not have been categorized as "sexual intercourse." But there's a consistent through-line in the historic western treatment of female same-sex erotics that "it isn't sex unless it closely mimics heterosexual penetrative intercourse." In some eras, this interpretation left a lot of latitude for "acceptable" female same-sex erotic activity. But when this same definition is echoed by modern historians--in combination with a definition that "woman cannot be classified as lesbians unless they engage in sex," you get a lot of erasure where perhaps the majority of women with same-sex erotic interests are defined out of the category of "possible lesbians."]
Trumbach then sums up his not-entirely-proven conclusion that the majority of cross-dressing women in this era did it for economic reasons or for safety, but that a minority were motivated by a sexual attraction to women. Also his counter-position that the majority of women who had same-sex relations (whom he labels “libertine”) did not cross-dress or take on masculine behaviors. [Note: I’m not saying that I think his conclusions are necessarily false, only that they feel decidedly under-proven.]
Moving on to the specific topic of sexual relations between women, Trumbach reiterates one of the key factors in the English historic record: there was no law against it. Under English law, sodomy was illegal, but it was defined narrowly as either bestiality or anal intercourse. This leaves no scope for evidence of sex between women to be found in the legal record, abandoning the field largely to literature and gossip.
The imagined sexual activities of women in fictional accounts are largely written by men (most often in pornographic contexts), with one exception being by Delariviere Manley. The accounts may involve women of all life situations--young unmarried girls, married women, prostitutes. Somewhat obviously, the latter two groups are depicted as also enjoying sex with men, even in cases where they prefer women.
Manley’s satirical work The New Atalantis stands out in content. It features a “new cabal” of aristocratic women who have affectionate and romantic relationships with each other, though lip service is given to considering actual sexual relationships to be “going too far.” The characters in the narrative also acknowledge the difficulty of entirely avoiding marriage to men, even when they reserve their romantic love for their female friends. A few women are described in the work as being mannish in affect, though not in dress. And one is depicted as cross-dressing in order to visit prostitutes in company with her female lover. Overall, the depiction is of a group of women who have primary romantic attachments for other women, sometimes including sexual relationships, but who accept that marriage to, and sexual relations with men are also an unavoidable part of life. [Note: Trumbach seems to assume that the reader knows that Manley’s work was a thinly veiled roman à clef, with most of the fictional characters being easily connected with her real-life social circle. This makes the fictional nature of the relationships less of an argument for discounting them.]
More common in literature are male depictions of sex between women as an adjunct to sex with men, as in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in which lesbian seduction is used to “train up” a new prostitute. An interest in sex with women is presented as an “arbitrary taste” to be enjoyed when available but not pursued exclusively.
Gossip among the fashionable classes of London was another source of evidence for women’s same-sex relations, although perhaps not any more reliable in the details than literature. The nature of Manley’s novel provoked speculations. It was commented on that one married woman traveled with a female companion because she bore “affection to her own sex.” Sexual puns were made to comment on the public affection shown by one woman to another. And women who pursued amours with other women were reported with an implied expectation of sexual activity. The state of marriage was irrelevant in this context. Being married was neither a guarantee of disinterest in women, nor a bar to acting on that interest. Conversely, the possibility that affairs between women might disrupt heterosexual marriages was a spur to the sharpness of the gossip, but not an assumed consequence.
The flavor of this gossip was parallel to that seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries regarding sodomy between men, prior to the development of the molly role. Male rakes were expected to sexually pursue both women and boys. It was immoral but not scandalous. Similarly, these 18th century women generally had sexual relations with both men and women. There were economic pressures for the former that can’t entirely be discounted, but in general bisexuality was the expectation for “libertine” women. They were the subject of gossip for unchastity, but not for the nature of their partners. The suggestion of deviance was reserved for the rare examples of women who combined same-sex desire with masculine behavior (as for a few characters in Manley’s novel).
The use of dildoes for sex between women is another topic where fact can be difficult to extract from the available literature, which betrays a male-centered fixation on penetrative sex as being qualitatively different from other options. Thus, in Henry Fielding’s fictional account of Mary Hamilton, she is depicted as despairing of enacting her marriages to women without the use of an artificial penis (the discovery of which led to her exposure).Cleland’s translation of Catherine Vizzani’s memoirs also fixates on her use of an artificial penis in her affairs with women (while also addressing the previous era’s expectation that such desires were driven by anatomy in the form of an enlarged clitoris). In fact Cleland’s writings straddle various tropes. His Vizzani text expresses some surprise that Catherine did not have the expected anatomical cause, while highlighting her use of penetrative sex with an instrument, inspired by “some error in nature”, but then his Woman of Pleasure embraces the new framing of lesbian desire being “infectious” as it were, potentially stimulated in any woman via “corruption” by an experienced practitioner and not involving a pseudo-male partner. For Cleland, Vizzani’s cross-dressing was not a cause of her sexual interest, but rather a more serious transgression that took same-sex interest too far. In Cleland and some of his contemporaries, we can see these first hints at a female parallel to the molly: a minority of women who removed themselves from the category of “female” entirely and into a new category that would become labeled as “tommies” or “sapphists”.
[Note: While I've always been aware that Cleland's translation of the Vizzani text revised several sections relating to her sexual relations, I wasn't aware of some deeper and more questionable motives in his revisions that are explored in Donato 2006, which is among the articles I have lined up to cover in the next few months. Cleland very much cannot be viewed as a neutral observer of women's sexuality, in case there was any question.]
Another triangulation on the emergence of this new category comes from the gossipy diaries of Hester Thrale-Piozzi. Thrale had something of a fixation on identifying and recording male homosexuals (she considered herself to have a special ability to detect such inclinations even when concealed) with near-universal condemnation. She also commented on (real or imagined) sexual relations between women, particularly in Bath and London, but was less consistent in her reactions. She repeated an accusation that the French Queen Marie Antoinette had been the head of a Sapphic sect. She initially praised poems honoring the friendship of Miss Weston and Miss Powell, then later speculated salaciously on why Miss Weston had been averse to marriage and had made a fuss about another young woman. In 1795 Thrale went so far as to say that “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” But at the same time she had difficulty imagining what such women could actually be doing together. She was one of a number of people who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, as well as noting that Damer had also adopted various men’s dress accessories.
Thrale’s inconsistency also shows in her attitude toward famous passionate friends Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The majority of Thrale’s commentary on the “Ladies of Llangollen” is positive and she engaged in friendly correspondence with them, despite how well they fit Thrale’s criteria for being “unclean birds” as she puts it elsewhere. [Note: Trumbach states that Thrale “never made any negative judgment of them” but Donoghue cites a lesser known diary entry in which Thrale did refer to the two as “damned sapphists.”] Other contemporaries of Butler and Ponsonby were less hesitant to comment on their relationship and Butler considered a lawsuit against a newspaper article that suggested some irregularity to their relationship by describing her as “tall and masculine--always wears a riding habit” while describing Ponsonby in more conventionally feminine terms. In context we see a suggestion of the stereotype of “mannish” lesbian, and Ponsonby certainly reacted as if they description implied something unacceptable.
Trumbach suggests there was a distinction that Butler and Ponsonby did not “project [their relationship] as sexual” while Anne Damer, enacting a similar gender transgression in her dress and a liking for pretty younger women, “clearly projected her affection for women as sexual.” [Note: the evidence in both cases for this “projection” seems to come from how their contemporaries reacted to them.] “It is likely” Trumbach says, that this difference in projection derives from whether the women themselves identified their feelings as sexual in nature.
Even after the concept of a female “tommy” role developed, it was not as heavily stigmatized as the “molly” role. Women, in general, did not engage in their sexuality publicly and there is no evidence of a female subculture in taverns or public spaces equivalent to the molly houses. [Note: Other authors such as Donoghue have identified references to some evidence of public culture of this type.] Trumbach identifies several other general shifts that occur in the late 18th century with the rise of the “tommy” role: a falling off of interest in female actors taking on male roles on stage [but note various 19th century actresses famous for their “trouser roles” such as Charlotte Cushman], a greater difficulty for women passing as men and less interest in their stories, and the near-disappearance of the motif of an enlarged clitoris being used to explain same-sex desire. By 1800, Trumbach asserts, this new configuration had settled into a system of two types of bodies (male and female) and four genders, two “legitimate” heterosexual ones, and two stigmatized homosexual ones.