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LHMP #326 Diggs 1995 Romantic Friends or a ‘Different Race of Creatures’

Full citation: 

Diggs, Marylynne. 1995. “Romantic Friends or a ‘Different Race of Creatures’? The Representation of Lesbian Pathology in Nineteenth-Century America” in Feminist Studies 21, no. 2: 1-24.

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Diggs begins with a review of recent (in 1995) work on the relationship between romantic friendship and lesbian history, especially Smith-Rosenberg 1975 and Faderman 1981. Those publications presented a view of women’s intimate friendships in the 19th century as socially acceptable and treated as “innocent.” She discusses the social context of the 1970s as it influenced the interests and motivations of academics approaching the topic of romantic friendship.

But, Diggs notes, the view of a lost innocent era of romantic friendship that gave way sharply and universally to a pathologized view of homosexuality was being contradicted by scholar such as Vicinus, who argued both that the romantic friendship model survived well into the 20th century, and that it was never as universally accepted as Faderman suggested (as well as suggesting that it was a peculiarly American interpretation of the evidence).

Interpretations of women’s same-sex relationship as pathological can be identified well before the later 19th century, and Diggs notes that despite the recency of the terms “lesbian” and “homosexual”, other vocabulary for women who desired women can be found as early as the 18th century. [Note: And, of course, the alleged “recency” of the word lesbian can be disproved.]

Domestic fiction of the early 19th century (as well as material like Anne Lister’s diaries) identify spaces in which women could construct a concept of female homosexual desire that might hide under the veneer of nonsexual romantic friendship. Diggs doesn’t contradict the theory that “homosexual identity” as we understand it arose out of a specific historic context, but she argues that threads of anxiety, distrust, and pathologizing around women’s intimate friendships in early 19th century American culture depict a more complicated and layered understanding of how romantic friendship was viewed and experienced.

Examples are drawn from Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ A Mortal Antipathy, and the genre of “advice manuals” which warmed about hazards that could be associated with female friendships. (One interesting text is quoted as recommending that “kissing and caressing of your female friends should be kept for your hours of privacy, and never indulged in before gentlemen” lest the gentlemen get the wrong idea about the girls’ level of erotic knowledge.

Women writers sometimes engaged in a more complex view of romantic friendships, acknowledging the hazards but not necessarily pathologizing those hazards. Works cited include Margaret J.M. Sweat’s Ethel’s Love-Life: A Novel in which the protagonist recounts past romantic/erotic relationships with women in a confession to her (male) fiancé, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s story “The Long Arm” in which the jealous and possessive love of one woman for another becomes a motivation for murder, without presenting the relationship as inherently pathological. These works clearly depicted women’s intimate friendships as in conflict with heterosexual marriage, not simply as a “practice” for that state.

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