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Historic Couples: Passionate Friends

Women who were known for engaging in passionate friendships with other women when the relationship was not publicly considered to be sexual. This category covers cases where there may not have been a specific partnership or where the women never lived as a couple. (See also "Historic Couples: Romantic Pair".)

LHMP entry

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.]

It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.

A number of historians have concluded that there was a major shift in attitudes toward sex in western Europe in the last decade of the 18th century. Binhammer lays out some of the underlying forces and manifestations of that shift. Although the article largely concerns English attitudes (and any unmarked references can be assumed to concern England) the shift can also be observed in France and other western European cultures.

Wiethaus addresses the problem of finding and identifying women’s same-sex relationships in history by looking at the general context of women’s same-sex friendships and especially features of those friendships that are specific to women’s experiences.

Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (commonly referred to as “Brantôme”) was a French writer of the 16th century. He was a soldier and courier and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but the most well-known (or at least, notorious) section is known as Vies des Dames Galantes (The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies) which, contrary to the rather positive title, is a scurrilous gossip-rag focusing on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of wo

The author looks at texts that can be read as homoerotic  addressed between religious women in medieval Germany. She specifically rejects the approach of treating women’s homoerotic experiences as equivalent to, or subsumed under, men’s experiences. After examining this type of literature in general, she applies that understanding to the writings of a specific woman who helped develop the concept of Christian bridal mysticism: Hadewijch of Brabant (early 13th century).

Crawford tackles the intriguing topic of women in 16-17th century England serving as secretaries--both in official and de facto positions--especially in service to other women. She particularly looks at the function of a secretary as an advisor and secret-keeper.

Leach’s biography of Charlotte Cushman takes a detailed “gossip column” type of approach, working in detail through all her travels, performances, and social interactions. He attributes motivations, emotions, and reactions both to Cushman and to those around her, dramatizing and fictionalizing the bare facts drawn from letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts. This can leave a seriously mistaken impression of what the evidence is behind his assertions.

Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.

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