Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #297b Halberstam 1997 Female Masculinity Chapter 2


Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 2: Perverse Presentism: the Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband, and Other Pre-Twentieth-Century Genders

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

While Halberstam reaches into the 19th century to explore the historic background of female masculinity, I think the topic is done a disservice by not including a much deeper timeframe. As studies of classical and medieval theories of sex and gender--such as Laqueur and Cadden--demonstrate, the idea that certain characteristics are inherently masculine or inherently feminine, despite appearing in persons of any bodily sex, is long-standing. Latin had a word specifically for their understanding of female masculinity: virago. And medieval and early modern concepts of hermaphroditisim (when not being a framework for addressing intersex bodies) speak directly to the idea that gender identity and gendered performance will not always align.

Although Halberstam’s book focuses primarily on visible signifiers of masculinity and sexual behavior, there is a more general problem with the question of female masculinity, both in the historic context and today. When socially-valued characteristics are arbitrarily assigned to the category of masculinity, it means that women who embody those characteristics will tend to be read as masculine, regardless of all other gender performance. What are some of the valued characteristics that have historically been treated as masculine? Intelligence. Bravery. Leadership. Rationality. Morality. Robust health. Desire for women. This is the flip side of the problem.

Halberstam touches briefly on how women with intellectual interests, women in positions of social or political power, and so forth either have been subsumed into the category of “masculine persons” or have been derided as “unfeminine”, but I the topic presents a more complex problem in the earlier centuries that H doesn’t investigate in as much detail. And that problem is particularly relevant when trying to interpret what the label of “masculine woman” meant in the past, either to society or to the woman in question. If one is told that one’s interests and activities are signs of masculinity, how does one reconcile that  with identifying as a woman? How does it affect one’s relationship to womanhood or to femininity? Do you accept the label or challenge it? Do you decide you aren’t actually a woman after all (because society tells you that you aren’t behaving like one)? Do you begin to despise “femininity” because you consider it incompatible with your life? Or do you push back and argue for the right of women to do and be things that have been labeled masculine without losing their gender identity? Women have done all these things, varying both individually and based on shifting social attitudes.

* * *

The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]

Queer historians have tended either to pursue untheoretical historic surveys, or to theorize ahistorical models. [Note: let me unpack that -- there’s a tendency either to collect up “catalogs” of some particular queer identity without understanding those instances within the larger historic framework, or to focus on creating a theoretical historic framework that carefully sidesteps the messy historic realities that would contradict it.] This results in seeing either ahistoric universals or discrete identities bound to a specific historical moment.

To counter this, H looks at two examples of female masculinity from the 19th century to show how masculine women played a large part in constructing modern masculinity. Further, one can’t simply assume these earlier examples of female masculinity represent early forms of lesbianism. That erases their specific existence as well as erasing other early forms of same-sex desire. It turns them into sexual deviance rather than gender variance.

Halberstam puts forth two propositions:

1. Women have made their own unique contributions to what we call modern masculinity which go unnoticed in gender scholarship.

2. Female masculinity is actually multiple masculinities that proliferate as we examine them.

Having a small number of categories forces diverse behaviors and identities into a single concept, erasing the variety and distinctions that are most interesting. Related to this, in the next chapter Halberstam will re-visit the rigidly binary categories of Havelock Ellis and other sexologists. [Note: H describes the data discussed here as “the few examples of same-sex desire between women in the 19th century that are readily available to us.” But either “same-sex desire” or “readily available to us” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this claim. Even at the original publication date of this book, there should have been a lot more examples easily available for consideration.] Rather than seeing all 19th century examples of same-sex desire as “lesbians”, what do we gain by looking individually at tommies, tribades, female husbands, fricatrices, and inverts?

H associates the same forces that gave rise to modern masculinity with other upheavals such as the transition from affiliation marriages to romantic marriages, the development of the women’s rights movement, the social upheavals of WWI, and the rise of sexological models. [Note: but many of these have clear roots much earlier than the 19th century. So again I think the picture will be distorted by viewing that date as some sort of firewall.]

Many historians focus on the parallel development of concepts of masculinity with nations, class, or male patterns of sociality, and see female masculinity as a counter-irritant to that, rather than a contributor.

Examples are given of how “manliness” was constructed as a white middle-class ideal, responding to challenges from its opposites. H frames lesbian historians as classifying 19th and early 20th century desire as either an asexual romantic friendship or a sexual butch-femme dynamic. But there is an acknowledgement that it probably worked via many other models of same-sex desire. Contemporary lesbians, H asserts, have a hard time shedding present forms and identities to understand other modes in earlier times.

There is a focus on labels that a late 18th/early 19th century “mannish woman” who desired other women might have been called/identified as: a hermaphrodite, tribade, or female husband. A Foucaultian framing (which H points out is more relevant to men than women) asserts that “lesbian” applies only to a form of desire produced in the mid to late 20th century, within the context of feminism and homosexual identity. If so, then “lesbian” cannot be used to cover all same-sex desire through the ages. Some historians have abstracted “lesbian” as a more general label, but H argues this erases the more specific connotations of many other terms. Further, those more specific terms might encompass gender expressions that do not include desire for women.

[Note: This is a valid objection, except that the point about “gender expressions that do not include desire for women” can be applied to the term “lesbian” just as much as any other term under consideration if you go back far enough. If we exclude any word that has ever had a contradictory or more specific meaning from being used as an umbrella term, then we’re forced into inventing an umbrella term that has no pre-existing denotative meaning at all. One thing that keeps poking at me in discussions of historic terminology for gender and sexuality categories is that, given the inevitable need to use words to talk about people and practices, why do some words get scrutinized so heavily while others get a free pass? In this book, as in many similar studies, there is a great deal of scrutiny given to when, where, how, and why it is appropriate or inappropriate to use the word “lesbian”, especially on the basis that it is anachronistic when used as an umbrella term, while similarly anachronistic umbrella terms like “homosexual” or “same-sex desire” are treated as neutral? The special scrutiny on “lesbian” is even more curious when you realize it is objected to both for being too narrow in meaning and for being too general.]

“Tommy” is one such term that could include uses that did not imply same-sex desire. Tracing “tommy” from implying loose sexual behavior--women outside of the marriage economy--to becoming synonymous with inversion or lesbian shows how not all identity strands fall within a “lesbian history.”

Within these various gender identities, Halberstam focuses on two specific close readings of female masculinity rather than a general history of pre-20th century same-sex desire. These examples represent two categories of embodied female masculinity: tribade and female husband.

H discuses the dynamic of how some view historical models as being replaced/superceded with little overlap or contradiction, whereas others (referencing Sedgwick) argue for destabilizing what we think we understand homosexuality to be today. If we acknowledge multiple models of contemporary female masculinity, not all of which align with lesbianism, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that potential in the past?

Halberstam reviews the context of scholarship and theory around queer/lesbian/gender history. There are debates over the definition and usefulness of the label “lesbian”. Some historians H asserts, like Terry Castle, “seek only to find what they think they already know.” Trumbach’s “2 genders, 3 bodies” theory, downplays the sexual component of cross-gender identities. The macro-clitoral hermaphrodite was never more than a theoretical construct. And there are debates on the relevance of sexual desire within same-sex relationships. Vicinus critiques the energy spent on pitting romantic friendship against butch-femme models based on relative availability of evidence for sex. But at the same time, “proof” of sexual activity should not be dismissed as relevant when it does occur.

The masculine woman is inevitably visible while the “apparitional” lesbian (using Terry Castle’s term) is so because she can be denied. Yet the desires and sexual acts enjoyed by different categories of same-sex couples may be different, so are even sex acts really a unifying feature for a common category (that may or may not be usefully labeled “lesbian”)? One could reasonably view “lesbian” as a sexual identity and masculine woman as a gender identity, with all possible combinations thereof. Yet another gender category, the androgyne, is distinct from the masculine woman.

There is an entire history to be told of solidly heterosexual masculine women, though it’s outside the scope of this book. [Note: this is an interesting point--and interesting that H considers it outside the scope of the book. The existence of heterosexual female masculinity is, to some extent, what provides cover for the establishment of cultures of homosexual female masculinity.] As an example of heterosexual female masculinity, the “cowgirl” whose physical activities argue against conventional femininity and embrace the image of a “natural” active presentation that partakes of masculinity by contrast. There’s also the contradiction of the female athlete who draws homophobic suspicion and therefore feels pressure to perform conventional femininity to “prove” her non-deviance.

The Tribade

This section of the chapter looks specifically at the conceptual category of the “hermaphrodite tribade”--the woman who was supposed to be drawn to same-sex sexual activity and to be able to please a female partner by virtue of having a larger-than-typical clitoris. [Note: this is far from a standard definition of “tribade”. The word was used in a variety of both general and specific ways across the centuries. And the preoccupation with macro-clitoral sex emerged only in specific eras.] The act of giving sexual pleasure through rubbing vulvas was seen as masculine due to its similarity to m/f sexual positions and actions, regardless of actual anatomy.

Around the 17-18th centuries, the idea of a physiological third sex emerged to “explain” same-sex behavior. See Laqueur for the historic development of this concept. In the earlier one-sex model, a hermaphrodite is a transitional state between two ends of a single sexual continuum, whereas in the two-sex model, she is a “monstrous” woman. But in either model, the hermaphrodite’s relations with women doesn’t fit neatly into a concept of “same-sex” desire, given that the hermaphrodite stands outside the sexual category of “woman.” This model identifies the body as the site of desire for women. The “discovery” of the clitoris helped drive the two-sex model because it shifted the identification of a penis-analogue from an inverted womb to an entirely separate organ. The clitoris became identified with non-reproductive sex and raised anxieties about the ability to penetrate without an artificial instrument. As such, it became inextricably linked to same-sex desire. In linguistic origin, the tribade was a female penetrator (of either women or men) not specifically a participant in f/f sex. [Note: I’d argue against calling this “linguistic” origin, because the etymology of the word simply indicates rubbing, not penetration. I think H is referring to the context of use within the Roman sexual system, where the functional roles of penetrator/penetrated were more salient than the sex partner’s gender.]

But if the tribade is not a (modern definition) lesbian, she is part of the history of masculinizing certain female seuxal practices. It is curious that, despite its popularity among (modern) lesbians, tribadism as a sexual act has not become part of the pop culture iconography of lesbianism.

As the 19th century example of tribadism, Halberstam explores the court case of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie versus Dame Cumming-Gordon, in which two Scottish schoolteachers were accused of having a sexual relationship (involving tribadism) by a student, and sued the student’s grandmother/guardian for slander. One significant feature of the teachers’ defense boiled down to “we understand that these activities are done in less civilized cultures (the student was biracial with an Indian mother) but it is unacceptable to propose that they would be practiced by proper British women.” That is, not that it was impossible, but that it was unthinkable.

The Female Husband

The second archetype Halberstam explores via a specific biography is the “female husband” in the person of Anne Lister. [Note: I don’t see Lister as being at all typical of the category of female husband, which normally refers to someone who is consistently read as male. So I’m a bit confused by this conjunction of example and label.] Lister’s diaries show some of the diversity of sexual activity between women and how certain activities were linked to female masculinity -- that Lister did not view all forms of f/f sex as part of the same experience and identity.

Halberstam begins by challenging historians’ easy acceptance of Lister as representing lesbian identity and desire. Lister’s experience is one of unequal desire, distinct sexual and gender roles, and a rejection of sexual sameness -- in contrast to the usual image of romantic friendship. Lister’s diaries -- with the key passages written in code -- become a metaphor for the obscuring of alternative sexual identities. [Note: in several places, Halberstam seems fixated on enforcing a narrowly specific understanding of the category “lesbian” in order to set it up as not overlapping  the masculine identities under discussion.]

Lister explicitly contrasts her “natural” desire with “sapphic artifices that create distance,” by which circumlocution we are to understand the use of a dildo, as opposed to Lister’s preferred tribadism. Lister consistently framed her desire in terms of seeking a wife, understanding herself as a husband. H argues for the use of the term “female husband” despite the absence of cross-dressing, because she (Lister) thinks of herself using that word. Lister’s place as a  masculine woman gives her a woman’s access to other women without the social consequences of being a seducing man. Lister revels in performing a male sexual role better than men, as when she digitally penetrates her married lover Marianne and appears to have been the first to break her hymen, demonstrating the sexual insignificance of Marianne’s marriage. Lister sees herself, not as a substitute man, but as surpassing men in her masculine sexual prowess. Lister is regularly commented on as appearing masculine in dress and even (apparently) being mistaken for a man, despite always wearing skirts. This creates a conflict for Marianne who is embarrassed by Lister’s presentation while also being aroused by it.

Lister’s wealth and social status protected her from most of the social consequences of her obvious masculinity, but she ran into limitations on that protection and experienced snubs and insults directly related to her masculinity. Lister’s differing relationships with various women explore the variety of sexual possibilities, along with her observations on other women’s relationships. Her relationship with Isabelle Norcliffe and her interactions with another masculine woman named Miss Pickford illustrate gender roles between women. Lister rebuffs Pickford, and ultimately rejects Isabelle, due to their own masculinity. She is overtly drawn to feminine women and pursues them at length, as with Mrs. Barlow in Paris. Lister sometimes fantasizes about the convenience (or inconvenience) of a penis, but sticks to tribadism and manual stimulation in bed. She refuses to let her lovers stimulate her in turn, saying it would “womanize” her. This isn’t “same” sex activity, but two distinct sexual roles. [Note: or should we make a distinction between “same-sex” and “same-gender” activity?]

All this may shed light on how Lister understands the “sapphic regard” that she rejects. [Note: this sheds an interesting light on the perception that the term “sapphic” was viewed as an upper class marker in the 19th century (I’m failing to remember who discussed that). Was Lister’s perception of “sapphic” as meaning dildo-based  sex a general understanding? And if so, was it class based? Or is this Lister’s idiosyncratic labels? Or did the shift to a class marker happen later?]

Mrs. Barlow seems to expect f/f sex to be mutual, given her attempts to initiate reciprocal stimulation of Lister. [Note: Halberstam rejects this interpretation, suggesting that Barlow is simply naive about the understood rules and roles for f/f sex. But this strikes me as H being a bit fixated on her theory of roles. The simpler explanation--supported by other examples from the era--is that one popular experience of f/f  sex was mutual and not role-based, and that Barlow was familiar with that version and enjoyed it.]

Halberstam engages with Castle’s claim that Lister is “proof” of lesbian sexuality existing before the sexologists labeled it, but H suggests that Castle ignores the gendered aspect of Lister’s sexuality. Lister did not simply adopt masculine habits as a “make do” but from an inherent identity. In this context, H argues against the concept of an abstract “lesbian desire” apart from specific modes and roles in which it manifests.

[Note: Halberstam, in turn, discusses gender-similar relationships (romantic friendships) as assumed to be “asexual”. While I agree with H that Lister’s sexuality is clearly based on the performance of a form of masculinity, the book often seems to reject the possibility of a pre-modern non-gender-contrasting f/f sexuality existing alongside the gender-contrasting form. H proclaims, “Although turn-of-the-century sexologists would later try to classify all lesbian activity as inversion, in the early nineteenth century, it is obvious, sexual activity between women flourished in spaces where the masculine woman trespassed on male sexual privilege and created not ‘a female world of love and ritual’ [quoting Smith-Rosenberg] but an exciting sexual landscape dominated by the female husband and the tribade.” It’s hard not to read this as rejecting the possibility that there was also an exciting sexual landscape within that “female world of love and ritual” known as romantic friendship. There’s a sense of territoriality going on in this book where exploration of the specific history of f/f desire in the context of female masculinity seems to require the negation of parallel experiences of f/f desire between two feminine women.]

Time period: 
Place: 

Add new comment