Freedman, Esteele B., Barbara C. Gelpi, Susan L. Johnson & Kathleen M. Weston. 1985. The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-2256-26151-4
The journal <em>Signs</em> published several early studies on lesbian-like women in European legal records. A number of articles on lesbian topics were collected in a separate publication in 1985, although only a few are relevant to the Project.
This is Brown's initial discussion of the material published two years later as:
Brown, Judith, C. 1986. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-504225-5
Brown notes this as possibly the earliest detailed account of a sexual relationship between two nuns. Benedetta Carlini was brought to the convent at Pescia (Italy) in 1599 at the age of nine, having been dedicated to the convent at birth. By the time of the inquest regarding her behavior (1619-23) she had become abbess. She was highly literate, intelligent, and articulate, which explains her unusually rapid rise in the convent hierarchy. She was also prone to mystical experiences, which is what brought her to the attention of the authorities. It was during this inquest regarding her unusual mystical claims that her sexual relations with women came to light.
Although the middle ages and Renaissance see many legal cases regarding male homosexuality, or concerning heterosexual activity by nuns, there are extremely few such cases involving women that have been identified in the records. And given the nature of legal records, when cases do occur, the details may be suspect, given the motivation for witnesses to present the story that the male judges expect to hear, or the one that will minimize the testifier’s own culpability. So, for example, Benedetta’s sexual partner presents testimony in which she is an unwilling partner, either forced or bullied into cooperating, and ashamed to bring the experience to light. This may or may not be accurate (given the other nun's subordinate position) but is certainly the least risky framing for her.
Even in the absense of specific testimony, it is certainly plausible that women in convents enjoyed sexual relations with each other. Depending on the time and place, up to 10% of the adult female population might be in religious orders, for reasons unrelated to a sincere vocation. Penitential manuals recognized various sexual sins that women might commit together, and described them in varying levels of explicitness. Current historical scholarship takes the position that these activites were, for the most part, ignored. Or at least, that behaviors that could be excluded from the category of “sexual activity” were ignored. The behaviors that fell afoul of the law (whether secular or religious) tended to be those that usurped male roles, including the use of dildoes, so the record is largely silent on the question of what sexual behaviors women enjoyed with each other that were considered less transgressive. This is the topic on which Benedetta’s trial records shed useful light.
The article spends some time discussing the problem of labels, categories, and identity, particularly in a historic context where the question of sexual orientation is problematic. Labels aside, Benedetta has an identifiable preference for engaging in sexual activity with women in a context where it would have been relatively easy to have sex with men if she wanted to. However she seemed unable to frame her desires in terms of female-female attraction, and the sexual activity was channeled through a masculine persona in the form of the angel Splendidiello.
The article concludes with a transcript (in translation) of the sexually relevant parts of the legal record, describing how she would kiss her partner and “stir herself on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves” and she “put her face between the other’s breasts and kissed them” and “grabbed her companion’s hand by force and putting it under herself, she would have her put her finger in her genitals, and holding it there she stirred herself so much that she corrupted herself.” The description continues with other details of manual stimulation and kissing and fondling of the breasts. Through all this, she claimed to be acting on behalf of the angel Splendidiello.
Newton addresses the question, “Does the protagonist of Radclyffe Hall’s <i>The Well of Loneliness</i> represent an isolated literary invention or does she reflect an actual social category of the time?” The character of Stephen Gordon is, in some ways, the prototypical “mannish lesbian”: dressing in masculine styled clothing, rejecting female-coded behaviors and preferences. One might, in the current day and age--though not necessarily when Newton wrote this article--be more inclined to interpret Stephen Gordon as a trans man than as a lesbian. Newton seems to foreshadow this possibility by suggesting that characters of this type are “an embarrassment...to a political movement that swears it is the enemy of traditional gender categories and yet validates lesbianism as the ultimate form of femaleness.”
Newton’s analysis seems a bit bogged down in ‘80s sensibilities--which is hardly to be wondered at--but also suffers from gaps in familiarity with the historic record (although, again, not to be wondered at, given that much of the relevant research came later). She hinges her argument on the relative recency (at the time of the novel) of the phenomenon of women adopting masculine styles of dress, and the shifting significance attributed to this behavior. But the claim that “Public partial cross-dresing among bourgeois women was a late nineteenth-century development” overlooks the extensive social anxieties around female appropriation of masculine garments and styles beginning as early as the 16th century.
Newton is, perhaps, on stronger ground when arguing that, in addition to economic-based cross-dressing, the practice was associated with explicit feminism (e.g., George Sand and Mary Walker). But when she claims, “From the last years of the century, cross-dressing was increasingly associated with ‘sexual inversion’ by the medical profession” it is only the last qualifier (by the medical profession) that prevents the claim from being nonsensically wrong. The suggestion that “mannish” garments were an indication of homoerotic tendencies shows up both in literature and life as early as the 18th century.
But setting aside the question of when this popular association first arose, Newton considers the question of whether Radclyffe Hall adopted Stephen Gordon’s behavior from these medical models as opposed to the character reflecting examples of women from her own experience.
Newton seems unfamiliar with the cyclic nature, in history, of framings of female homoeroticism as embodying the attraction of similarity or as reflecting the complementary-opposites model of heteronormative roles. She accepts a relatively linear development from an early 19th century similarity-based non-sexual “romantic friendship” model. This model accepted the characterization of femininity as non-erotic. Only toward the end of that century did popular understanding shift to a more sexually charged, contrast-based, butch-femme dynamic. The butch-femme model, in turn, gives way in the second half of the 20th century to a movement to free lesbianism entirely from gender-coded roles while continuing to lay claim to erotic sexuality. This last model reached its apotheosis in the ‘80s lesbian feminist.
[I may be over-exagerating the proposed linear-evolution structure that Newton assumes to be a given, but my notes in the margins of the article consist of “but...but...but...no, just no”.]
Newton explores Hall’s other well-known novel, <i>The Unlit Lamp</i> to show how she repeatedly uses a masculinized presentation to signify a strong, active woman who rejects traditional gender divisions and values. To reject traditional femininity, in this context, is necessarily to embrace stereotypical masculinity. Women of Hall’s generation, whether they were romantically attracted to women or not, adopted masculine-coded dress and habits (smoking, drinking, etc.) to assert their place in the larger literary and social world.
But in parallel with this social development, the medical categorization of sexual “deviance” by the late 19th century sexologists set up the “mannish lesbian” as the mirror counterpart of the “effeminate homosexual man”, where clothing preferences are seen as an inherent symptom of the deviant personality, along with various androgynous-trending physical traits. This model ignored individuals who were gender-conforming but homoerotically inclined. [In essence, it followed the medieval model of seeing same-sex couples as embodying one "deviant" and one "normal" partner, where the "normal" partner's involvement was random or situational rather than specifically motivated.]
The theories of the sexologists, when viewed from today’s lens, set up a scale of gender conformity and performance whose further end aligns much more comfortably with a transgender framing than a lesbian one. Stephen Gordon’s frustrated desire becomes, not a struggle for the right to love a woman openly, but for the right to claim the male role, position, and privilege for which Stephen has had a life-long desire.
While Newton doesn’t lay out this dilemma in quite those terms, she ends with the question of how Hall was to signify Stephen Gordon’s orientation if not by using these motifs and tropes. If, she argues, gender presentation is inherent and “natural” then the “mannish lesbian” (or, indeed, the transgender indivdual) should not exist. But conversely, if a masculine presentation is a signifier of lesbian orientation, then it is in conflict with the notion of “lesbian” as a unified category based on the gender of the object of sexual desire.
The article concludes with an argument for the expansion of an understanding of gender presentation as broad and varied and independent of sexual orientation. [In a way, Newton's plea for this expansion feels as quaintly dated as Stephen Gordon's plea for acceptance and tolerance of her desires. The reader is inclined to think, "Well, but of course. Why all this fuss?] In this context Newton notes a number of other iconic modes of lesbian presentation from Hall’s generation that contradicted the sexologists’ masculine-identified model. But Hall’s novels fail to include these other models: the women with transgressive desires are portrayed as the only “deviant” characters in Hall's work, while the women they desire (and sometimes temporarily partner) take the passively feminine role and apparently have no qualms about ending up in heterosexual relationships when released.