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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

Ballaster uses the lens of Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, and especially its “New Cabal” as a lens for exploring knowledge of, and attitudes toward, female same-sex eroticism in 17th and 18th century England. (Manley’s book was published in 1709 and so speaks to both centuries.)

Using the springboard of theoretical discourse around feminism and sexuality around the 1980s, Binhammer uses proto-feminist literature of the later 18th century as a lens for how theories of feminism and theories of sexuality intersect and come into conflict. The focus of 1980s feminist rhetoric narrowly on (heterosexual) sexual dynamics as a source of oppression, contributed to the rise of queer theory as the more dynamic field for examining theories of sexuality.

Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love

In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]

Part II: Queer Relationships

This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.

While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling

The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.

Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”

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.]

Introduction: Sex before Sexuality

The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.

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.

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